Friday 7 September 2012

Why the US elections are so dull

'Four more years' the audience chanted, and 'U.S.A.'. In a sense, these chants represent the essence of the national conventions of both political parties who are vying for votes in the upcoming presidential elections in the US. Anyone wondering what the real choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is may be puzzled and confused: no policies were articulated by either of the candidates, no plans for future investment or reforms of the education, health, transport sector. In other words: nil, zero, nada on the policy front.

Obama's greatest asset in the re-election fight - his wife Michelle

Worse however was to come for anyone who sat through the speeches of the candidates' wives. No cringe-making remark was left out, no personal comment to low to be made by the most private defenders of their characters. And while Vice-President Biden roused the faithful in support of Obama, former President Clinton once again showed why he sailed to victory at his re-election bid in 1996. His rhetorical flourishes were polished and well delivered, taking a shine off Obama's delivery which often looked wooden and flat.

But why are national conventions of both parties so deadly boring? Despite the hype in the media, neither of the candidates offered any policies or plans for reform and so much of the media talk is about personalities and character. The main reason for this may lie in the constellation of American politics: a system of checks and balances that often delivers an impotent president and an over-potent Congress with budgetary powers. Legislative proposals are hard to get passed for a president (with or) without a party political majority in Congress, so there is little point in delineating a future policy agenda for any contender to the highest office.

This contrasts considerably with UK politics, where the prime minister commands a majority in the House of Commons. With party political discipline (and a bit of luck to have few mavericks around) his voting majority for legislation in the House is assured, so he can deliver the things he proposed to do during the electoral battle. In fact, there is a singular focus in the public mind and debate of the UK on whether prime ministers and governments have in fact delivered what they have promised in their (admittedly, often vague) manifestos.

This close link between electoral strategy and policy agenda post-election also allows moments where opposition parties can upset the governmental cart. Anyone remembers George Osborne's surprise announcement at the annual party conference to lift the tax threshold for inheritance tax to £250,000? The poll numbers of the Conservatives firmed up instantly.

Of course, much of what parties and prime ministerial candidates promise is never delivered, even in the UK. But the underlying tendency is clear: public debate mainly focuses on policies for legislation and reforms rather than personalities. Despite all the admiration I have for the US, Britain may just have the edge in this matter.

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