A bi-partisan look at the US elections

GIVEN what many see as the increasingly hostile nature of the political discourse in the US, it might seem unusual for a Republican and a Democrat to calmly engage in a civil political dialog without throwing insults or punches. But those who attended the Face 2 Face discussion organised by the US Embassy to Slovakia could witness former congressmen Larry LaRocco and Scott Klug constructively discussing their opposing views of the US election system and the current presidential race like old sparring partners.

Scott Klug (l) and Larry LaRocco (r) Scott Klug (l) and Larry LaRocco (r) (Source: Igor Schneeweiss)

GIVEN what many see as the increasingly hostile nature of the political discourse in the US, it might seem unusual for a Republican and a Democrat to calmly engage in a civil political dialog without throwing insults or punches. But those who attended the Face 2 Face discussion organised by the US Embassy to Slovakia could witness former congressmen Larry LaRocco and Scott Klug constructively discussing their opposing views of the US election system and the current presidential race like old sparring partners.

The former congressmen were invited to Central Europe as part of the US State Department’s International Information Program to talk to audiences in Prague, Brno and Bratislava about the presidential elections and the whole election cycle in the US. Both LaRocco and Klug stress that they have approached this not as a debate or a lecture, but as a discussion and an opportunity to respond to people’s questions.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with LaRocco and Klug, a Democrat and Republican respectively, shortly after the first, October 3 presidential debate, about the importance of the debates in the US presidential election and the issues that might determine the outcome of the election.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How do you assess the debate you participated in on October 11 and the response from the people who attended?
Scott Klug (SK):
If you looked at the multiple presentations we did in the Czech Republic and here [in Slovakia], for the most part the questions have been similar and fairly predictive. People want to know about the US perception of the eurozone and the instability that could drag the US into it. People want to know about our historic ties. Mostly we got questions about the presidential election because from a distance everybody thought President Obama was going to skate through and all of a sudden in the last week it’s changed pretty dramatically.

Larry LaRocco (LL): The specific question on how things went last night, they went very well and I was impressed with the questions, I was impressed with the attendance and the fact that people want to know, saw new faces. It was staged very well with the cut-outs of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, sort of bringing the presidential election here to Bratislava. We have two surrogates for both sides who get along well, but disagree on various points of view. We brought a bi-partisan perspective to the debate.

SK: People have been surprised that you can actually have a Republican and a Democrat talk and nobody throws a fist. I think there’s this perception that in the American political system there is no sense of middle ground, good will, common sense or anything. The best way to demonstrate to people is to send a Republican and a Democrat who can actually have a civil conversation.

LL: It was a free flow of information, where we weren’t interrupting, angry, disagreeable, trying to score points on each other, and being nasty. People were just surprised; it’s not the way things have been portrayed.

TSS: How do you assess the first debate between presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney?
I think it went very well!

LL: I would have a different opinion. The whole debate was substantive if you look at some of the issues, but these things are judged by everybody in terms of small things, nuances, body language, reactions and non-verbal movements, and what’s said. I wanted the president to defend aggressively his four years. I wanted him really to do better than Bill Clinton did at the convention. [Clinton] did a good job at the convention. He framed what the situation was, went to the numbers and was critical where he needed to be with the Romney plan. So I was a little surprised, actually, at the closing statement the president made. I thought it was weak, and I thought he was a bit listless. I don’t think he knew how to handle a challenger that came ready to do battle. But I do recognise he is in a tough position because he didn’t want to be condescending, he didn’t want to be ugly; he went in, I’m sure, with a goal of do no harm. But Romney went in as a reincarnation in some ways, and with certain things. He wasn’t specific on a lot of things, and he wasn’t asked to be. And so his feelings could overcome the lack of specificity. He needed to be liked because he had been somewhat vilified. He was prepared with a game plan and the bar was set very high. And he exceeded expectations. And people noticed, and it showed in the polls.

SK: Here is my perspective on this. It’s amazing that the president’s in a close election given the state of the US economy. I think by any objective measure he should be in serious trouble. The fact is that most incumbent presidents get re-elected pretty easily. Certainly Ronald Regan did it in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, even George Bush, who wasn’t popular in 2004, still won by a much wider margin than when he beat Al Gore. So here we have the president with all the advantage of the incumbency, but an unemployment rate that has essentially been stuck at 8 percent for more than four years. I understand Larry’s perspective that he had a tough hand dealt to him, but at some point, when do you take responsibility for turning things around - two years, three years, four years? And I think the president has a major challenge ahead of him because he has to explain how the next four years are going to be different from the last four years. And Mitt Romney just has to look at the audience and say, what’s his plan to have things better four years from now. One of the telling signs for me in the debate is that President Obama never mentioned the private sector, he never talked about entrepreneurs. All he did was talk about the government. I don’t think that’s where the heart of the American public is.

TSS: What sort of influence do you think presidential debates have on voters?
Usually I don’t think very much. But this time the evidence is different. Larry had pointed out correctly that oftentimes in the first debate the incumbent doesn’t do very well and as time goes by it swings to the incumbent. But in this case again, what Romney has been able to do is to rattle people’s evaluation of Obama. He was essentially able to say in so many words, ‘has this guy delivered on his promises, especially in regards to the economy?’ So 25 million more Americans tuned in than they did four years ago and that’ll tell you the level of interest. And if you looked at the shift in the polls, it has been dramatic.

LL: I am big believer in momentum. I mean, you can feel it, almost touch it. And prior to the debates, Romney had a couple of bad weeks, there were some missteps, the 47 percent came out, Obama took advantage of it with a pretty tough ad. You could just feel things slipping away. The polls are moving away from Romney in Obama’s favour at all levels, he is picking up men in the polls and doing well with Hispanics. You could feel the momentum for Obama before the debate. So Romney had a really big challenge. He had to come and had to blunt that momentum, stop it. And he came in and he blunted the momentum, almost to the point to where it was like reverse momentum. So he could change the game with the independents and start moving numbers themselves. My big fear was how fast were those numbers going? Is it game over already?

I stayed up last night to watch the [vice presidential] debate because I do believe in the momentum and I think Joe Biden had to put a halt to it and go in for another round of the debate and give the president an opportunity. If Biden had blown it last night and [Paul] Ryan had really come across as being presidential and having command of the facts, it could have been game over. This was a high-stakes debate. It is basically about survival and trying to move things and do no harm. And Biden essentially did that last night and he bought some time for Obama. There’s a shift going on and the soft voters will move around a little bit at this moment. Scott and I both made the point separately that if you’re the incumbent and you’re not over 50 percent, that’s bad, because the undecided votes generally go to the challenger.

SK: In any states where Obama has less than 47 percent he’s in real trouble. The one thing I’ve noticed is that I have three boys who are in their 20s, and of the three, my youngest guy is the save the world, vegetarian, democratic-leaning child, but even among his [age] group there’s not the same sense of rock star concert there was when Obama ran four years ago. So in a race where the margins are going to be thin, with college kids instead of turning out at 58 percent, turn out at 53 percent, and if seniors tilt towards Romney, which they seem to be doing now, you take that microcosm by microcosm and it creates a lot of problems for the president. Two weeks ago we all would’ve said Obama’s going to win 55 percent. Who knows? It could shift dramatically in the next three weeks.

TSS: Most people would argue that the economy is the most important issue in this election, and that economic policy will determine the election's outcome. Do you agree with this assumption? Which candidate's economic policies do you think are more likely to resonate with voters?
Yes, it’s the factor; it usually is in most elections. It’s almost always pocketbook issues. And people feel very unsettled and nervous. I have friends who suddenly in their 50s are looking for jobs. I’ve got friends who are at any moment a moment away from a foreclosure on their house because they’re over their heads in debt. My kids are in their 20s, and boy it’s a hard time to find a job. My middle guy just moved back to Minneapolis, and he’s looking for a couple of part time jobs because, as a musician, he wants some flexibility. He applied for a job at a coffee shop for 20 hours a week and there were 189 applicants. So, that will give you a sense of how the economy is. All the rest of the stuff, gun rights, abortion rights, that’s on the edge. There’s a small percentage of people who are going to make their decision on single issues, but for most people it’s the economy, and it’s almost always the economy. It’s usually true that the incumbent holds many of the advantages in a re-election, except when the economy is in bad shape. And it’s just in bad shape right now.

LL: This recession has been a gut-wrenching experience for Americans. I don’t see how there are any families, except for the top 1 percent of course, who are unaffected by what’s happened. In my own family there are two who lost their homes, another person has been looking for work for a year. The unemployment rate has affected people, the housing market crash has affected people because it’s put their retirement on hold. You’ve got 10,000 Americans on a daily basis who are turning 65 who are now headed into Medicare but also retirement. Most of those people, who are baby boomers, as we say, are not adequately prepared for retirement. A recession impacts people just as the [Great] Depression did. It changes their behaviour and their outlook. So the person who’s going to say that they have a plan to bring us out of this, or in Obama’s case, if he can convince people that he tried as hard as he could to bring people out of that gut-wrenching experience, and that he has a plan to move forward with that to build upon these four years, that person wins. This isn’t going to be decided by immigration law or climate change, it’s going to be about economic policies.

TSS: How do Obama and Romney differ on foreign policy, and whose approach is most likely to sway voters?
I think both candidates will try to argue that they’re tougher on China because, rightly or wrongly, there’s a perception that jobs have moved to China, and that’s cost American manufacturing and destabilised the American middle class. But if you know anything about it, China is actually losing manufacturing jobs to Vietnam, which is cheaper than China, so it’s a pretty complicated question. I think Syria and Libya will be huge issues. Syria because I think there’s a sense from many of us that the administration’s not being as aggressive as it could be. That doesn’t mean American troops, but it means more visible support for the rebels, whether it’s America supplying weapons, or whether it’s American allies in the Middle East supplying weapons. And with the situation in Libya, I think this administration’s got itself tied in knots, and it’s always the classic story, it wasn’t necessarily what they said, but they just keep changing the story and you can’t figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. So I think that goes to the credibility of the administration more so than the act itself.

LL: The Republicans and Romney are trying to put some themes out that have no substance, or they play to the right wing with statements that the president has gone on an apology tour, that somehow he’s weak. They haven’t looked at the successes of Libya. The president has built coalitions, which is totally different than the actions in Iraq. They [Republicans] want to be muddy about coming out of Afghanistan, and lay it out that Obama is weak in protecting our troops there. And that by him having a tight deadline that somehow he’s weak, and so they have sort of a fantasy world about the president having a foreign policy in shambles, but they have nothing to back it up. You just can’t use the example in Benghazi, which is very complicated, and say that the handling of that means your foreign policy is in shambles and totally ignore … all of the diplomatic efforts that have gone into building coalitions, and getting the world community behind us. He said we’d come out of Iraq; we’re out of Iraq. He has a timetable for coming out of Afghanistan, and we’re going to come out of Afghanistan. The assistance to Syria … he’ll be able to respond to that.

I don’t think [Romney] did so well on Libya when he came out [with his response to the situation] so early…. It’s like reading the wire and putting out a press release before you find out the facts about what’s going on. But that’s the way campaigns are run, and the president has to defend his record, and I think he’ll do a marvellous job.

TSS: What are your predictions for voter turnout this year?

SK: High, but not as high as last time. If you look over time, turnout in presidential elections is pretty predictable. But the numbers were nothing like they were four years ago for Obama. I would suspect the youth will drop some, that turnout among African Americans in the south [in the 2008 election] was the same thing, it was a complete aberration. If you look at the polling there is some indication that Republicans are more enthused than Democrats are enthused, so just a drop of 2 percent here or 3 percent there will make a difference.

LL: I think this is like the polling; you can look at a poll, and it’d be a national poll, and say, Romney’s up a little bit in the polls in some key battleground states, so it’s the turnout in the key battleground states that’s really going to matter, and who gets out the vote. It does matter how stealthily or quietly they’ve been working to get the Hispanic vote and the black vote.

SK: And if you look at the absentee numbers for Republicans verses Democrats, there’s a 3 or 4 percent gap for the Republicans, and I think that’s encouraging. But I don’t think we know who’s going to win and what the turnout’s going to be. I just think it’s far too fluid. It’s 15 minutes left in the soccer match, and it’s tied 1-1, and who knows whether it goes to penalty kicks, but that’s just where we are at this precise moment. Probably using a hockey match in Slovakia would be better!

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