Soft power, hard power, election power

by Robert S. Becker

If he wins, risk-averse, calculating Mitt Romney won’t name a firebrand V.P. Not noxious Newt, who’s way too grandiose to play second fiddle to anyone. Thus, short of a Black Swan event, we can expect two safe national tickets, thus reversing the election pyrotechnics the last time around, with its high drama and gaseous eruptions.

Too bad for media frenzy, late-night comics, or pundits amused by theatrics — who all relish barking-mad, headline-grabbing mavericks. On pre-emptive invasions alone, will the two top dogs compete with the bellicose tirades spewing from Bush, Cheney or McCain, let alone Perry or Bachmann? Not likely, what with two, miserably failed wars slogging to a finish, reminiscent of old soldiers who never really die, just slowly fade away. How many war-fatigued voters will hoot and holler for much more than a missile strike that dissuades Iran from more rogue rhetoric?   

Even the breakthrough symbolism of 2012 suffers: no whiter-than-white Romney as first Mormon president compares with the first minority winner, especially having vanquished our most famous woman politician, then a cranky war-monger with loudmouth sidekick. If Mitt picks a running mate no more pugnacious than Joe Biden, the result would be four candidates much less likely to bare their teeth than defeated GOP zealots. In that sense, Romney’s survival is good news — if only a break from maniacal neo-con insolence. Not believing in much of anything, other than caution, distinguishes both Obama and Romney from fringe misfits displaying Grandiose Rhetoric Syndrome (GRS).

Obama has already returned to his soft power campaign patter. Okay, on Iran, he’s still pandering to the right, taking “nothing off the table.” But consider Obama explaining away this contradiction — we fire off our nukes (or do massive civilian bombing) just to take out half-done Iranian nukes to send a message? I suspect Obama would much prefer history to take his soaring, oratorical defenses of government as his legacy. His cheerleading so far outshines his legislative gains, and his business-as-usual, save Wall Street programs will be forgotten in 10 years. Is there any doubt four more Obama years means more compromise, co-operation and consensus — proof positive of his “devoutly non-ideological” purity?

Soft Talk, Big Sticks 

Indeed, did not Obama’s defeat of hawkish Clinton, then more hawkish McCain, signal some sort of turn from the hard power fiasco of Bush-Cheney? Obama’s soft power, charm offensive played well against eight years poisoned by wrong-headed saber-rattling, coercion against domestic enemies, rights violations and nakedly imperial power plays. Neo-con defenses of torture, plus permanent incarceration, hit squads, and secret prisons, put Bush-Cheney in the eternal Hard Power Hall of Shame. Only a second term reveals how Obama better reconciles his soft and hard power pledges.

Likewise, a Romney win shows enough Republicans favor his kind of mushy-ideological pragmatism, not the crude pugnacity of Gingrich or Santorum. Ron Paul, curiously enough, talks soft power abroad (well, defensive war-making) but domestically his hard-core, absolutist philosophy discourages soft power compromise: that “government is best which govern least.” Period, end of story, nothing soft about no civil rights laws.

Like our pragmatist-in-chief, Romney rarely met a high-sounding principle he couldn’t embrace. But doesn’t belief in human flexibility drive soft power — and would not a President Romney try to match Obama in the “compromise, co-operation and consensus” realm? In short, an Obama-Romney battle, however nasty, presents two detached, managerial, mediation types keen to “optimize the system,” engage big business stakeholders, and thrash out differences by slicing them in half, then again. With moderation the new wave, the no-compromise Tea Party’s wings will be clipped. Or evoke a winger third-party that assures an Obama win.

Romney: Sprint to the Middle

Certainly, five minutes after commandeering the GOP nomination, Romney tacks hard middle, dishing out reassuringly soft language to corral centrist white folks mightily offended by Obama’s wobbles (and background). And the president’s counter-strategy is no mystery: vote for me (I’m more likeable), the economy’s on the mend, and all we need is more collective action, along with Democratic control of the House and Senate.

Thus our national election pageant returns to relative normalcy, that is, to total obsession with personality, fundraising, management of sound bites, adjustment to surprises, and mangling foes without getting tainted. My rule of thumb: the less any election is about anything real (read: systemic change), the more star power, wedge issues, and propaganda dominate. Brace for an onslaught of expensive words, along with even more expensive, well-polished non-solutions (in long run costs). And the tiresome GOP talking points calling out Obama for what’s he done — ruined the country by squandering trillions with anti-business bias — plus what he’s not done: fueled job growth, served private enterprise, or sustained national prestige and security, respect for religion as well as the religion of American exceptionalism. Yawn.

Postpone the Fireworks

For a minute there, the transient Gingrich surge foreshadowed an election battle royal with Obama (in rhetoric, anyway), fraught with more sensational headlines than a morass of celebrity meltdowns. More’s the pity for those delighting in the absurd, still imagining Newt’s hard power pile driver up against the silver-tongued, soft power president teeming with help-your-neighbor, community togetherness. Can’t always get what you want . . .

Dispatching Gingrich means dumping the ultimate GOP mugger, congenitally prone towards shameless lying and knowing how to get in any opponent’s face. Newt doesn’t simply disagree with Romney, for example, but scorns him as “breathtakingly dishonest.” The president isn’t simply misguided, but a fraudulent, “food stamp president” whose “Kenyan anti-colonial” socialism dramatizes his otherness. What a joke: Obama the great enemy of empire building, the most capitalist-friendly “socialist” in history — and from Kenya, to boot.

But, alas, my Gingrich Gratification Grid (and subsequent Obama landslide) dissipates if the Florida primary follows polling, re-setting the GOP status quo. Perhaps the super-rich GOP can no longer cherrypick their no-tax-business champion, but they can defang unruly attack dogs, like Newt. Kudos to rightwing billionaires protecting their own, dividing and conquering “their” Tea Party just like they swiftboat Democrats. What a moment, to enjoy a return to relative electoral melodrama after the rancorous Bush turmoil.