Chris Matthews and Andrew Sullivan were not the only people to be scared witless by Obama’s disappointing performance, and Romney’s incisive one, in the first presidential debate. Over in Western Europe, according to Reuters, entire governments are currently imitating the famous painting The Scream by Munch. (Or, as Barry Humphries asked, Was it The Munch by Scream? In this case, the scream would be coming from the munchers on the European gravy train.)
Luke Baker’s Reuters report of October 4 tells us that the debate “provoked uneasiness in European capitals, where hopes are mostly, if unofficially, pinned on [Obama’s] securing a second term.” There was “particular consternation” at Romney’s singling out Spain as “a poorly administered economy,” especially since Obama had praised the country in 2008 for its “renewable-energy policies.” “Spain has never been mentioned in a presidential debate as a symbol of failure,” Reuters quoted the newspaper El País as lamenting. “What happened last night makes history. And not in a good way.”
Apparently, history is made very easily these days. Otherwise, the report is an accurate one. But how surprising or unusual is it? The answer comes in two parts.
Part One is that European governments, going back many decades, almost always want an incumbent president to win the election. It makes life easier. They have already reached their compromises and agreements with him, and they don’t want to start all over again. The sole exception that I can recall to this rule is Jimmy Carter, in whose case Europe was opposed to both candidates, Reagan as a danger, Carter as a disaster.
A contributory reason to this rule is that governments are usually underinformed about the challenger because their embassies also want the incumbent to win. It makes their lives easier, etc., etc. Thus, even potentially friendly governments will sometimes dismiss a challenger’s prospects. The British embassy, for instance, told Mrs. Thatcher that Carter would beat Reagan. As one British diplomat put it to me over lunch — I paraphrase — “the American people simply won’t be able to push the button for Reagan when it really comes to it.” It was the start of a career that ended in a knighthood.
But here is Part Two of the reply: The bias against Romney is far more exaggerated and unreasonable than in most earlier cases. A glance at Romney’s record both as a businessman and as Massachusetts governor shows that he is a sensible, able, pragmatic, and intelligent political leader. I hesitate to use the word “moderate,” because that word has become ideologically infected; but in the usual meaning of the word, Romney is a moderate man, open to argument and compromise. But the international media (which, incidentally, are also excruciatingly embarrassed by the debate performances) have put across such a false view of the Republican (and of his party) as hopelessly stumbling and extreme that everyone in Europe is suddenly amazed that he can speak without a text and reply intelligently to unexpected points — indeed, that he outperforms the incumbent in both those respects. This kind of biased coverage has seriously misled readers, including governments, and there should be a post-mortem on it, whoever wins on November 6.
But there is a deeper bias here, one that underpins the uncritical willingness of people to believe such implausible coverage: Nomenklaturas like nomenklaturas. The European Union and most of its Western European member-states are governed by a nomenklatura under challenge on a range of issues from popular sovereignty to immigration to the euro. The EU’s response to these challenges has been to demonize its opponents and their causes as “populist” or “extremist” or even “fascist.” And despite the fact that opinion polls show strong popular hostility to these policies, the nomenklatura has been surprisingly successful in repressing or evading opposition to them. Even today, when the case for the euro is in tatters, to call for its restructuring is to make oneself unrespectable in many countries. Spain is one of those countries, even though adherence to the euro is costing it an almost 60 percent youth-unemployment rate.
On many of these issues, however, the embattled European nomenklatura feels it has an ally in the Obama administration. And it is prepared to be an ally in return. As the Reuters report quoted above also said: “In the run-up to a G8 meeting at Camp David in May, White House officials firmly pressed their European counterparts to rally behind Obama’s policy initiatives, according to those involved. ‘It was like all of the G8 apart from Russia and Japan were expected to be part of the Obama reelection campaign,’ the chief of staff of one European leader told Reuters at the time.”