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.”
Democrats and their media partners look at this embattled European establishment not merely with sympathy, but also with something like envy. They would like the same kind of permanent government in the U.S. as obtains (give or take the loss or gain of a coalition partner occasionally) in European governance. And they have learned through political correctness to make opponents and their arguments illegitimate rather than simply mistaken. Thus they shut them out from debate rather than defeat them in it. (Not a senseless strategy, in the light of the president’s debating performance.) Europe’s nomenklatura likes all this and wants to offer support — hence the talking points about the Republicans’ extremism, insanity, etc., and Europe’s complacent willingness to believe outright nonsense about the GOP.
Where do European conservatives fit into this picture? Many have made their peace with this essentially social-democratic nomenklatura and don’t want it undermined by a successful conservative performance in the U.S. British prime minister David Cameron in particular has made his preference for Obama undiplomatically clear. France’s Nicolas Sarkozy would doubtless be doing the same, if his own brand of social-democratic Gaullism had not crashed and burned first. Insurgent conservatives in Europe want a Romney victory; there is potentially a great deal of intellectual support in Europe for a Romney presidency. In effect, it would erect an obstacle to the spread and even continuation of the kind of leftist transnational establishment that currently rules a restive Europe. In short, the American election will have consequences on both sides of the Atlantic.
An important codicil must be added to this list of observations, however: None of them applies to Central and Eastern Europe. Although political leaders in the region responded like besotted bobby-soxers to what one called the president’s “rock star” charisma when he visited there in 2009, they were never fond of his policies and they gradually lost their fondness for him personally as his presidency wore on. They sensed that he thought the region unimportant, compared with both Russia and Germany, to U.S. foreign policy. They disliked the “reset button” policy towards Russia, which, they forecast shrewdly, would be pursued at their expense. They lacked Western Europe’s visceral hostility to George W. Bush, whose strong support for enlarging NATO and the EU had made him popular in the former Soviet satellites; they therefore lacked one important prop of Western Europe’s pro-Obama sentiment. And not only did they dislike the substance of the president’s decision to cancel the anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, which their governments had spent scarce political capital to endorse; but the Poles in particular also objected to his manner of telling them — at short notice, late at night, on the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Discontent with the Obama administration came to a head in July 2009, when more than 20 Eastern European leaders, including Václav Havel and Lech Walesa, sent the president an open letter expressing anxiety that U.S. policy had effectively abandoned its loyal allies in the region in order to pursue the fantasy of a close alliance with Russia. The letter’s warnings about the consequences of Washington’s neglect of the region (and of Russia’s continued neo-imperial attitude to it) were powerful. But more persuasive even than these arguments was Washington’s response. It sent Vice President Biden on a visit and assured local governments that it was still committed to their support. But the substance of policy stayed unchanged. Accordingly, the Central and Eastern European consensus today is that Washington is AWOL and more or less content for their countries to be dominated by the emerging Russo-German axis. And since they still rely on Washington more than on any European power to defend them in extremis, they have a much colder view of Obama than Western Europeans do — and a much warmer view of Romney. That was why Romney visited Poland, as well as Britain and Israel, on his recent foreign trip, and why his visit there was a (largely unreported) success. Insofar as Central and Eastern Europe has a candidate this time, it is the Republican (as it was most of the other times).
And that could be significant. British-Americans, Franco-Americans, and German-Americans vote mainly as unhyphenated Americans. They don’t check what Washington is doing to their “homeland.” Two decades after the Cold War, however, Americans from the former “captive nations” still pay some attention to such matters. This is a declining factor, but still a factor, in how they cast their votes. Moreover, these “white ethnic” voters are disproportionately represented in important swing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and (although it is not competitive this year) Illinois. The Romney campaign should take good care that these voters know about the Havel and Walesa letter and Obama’s continuing neglect of their concerns. For I have a feeling that the mainstream media won’t be headlining that particular European reaction.
Adlai Stevenson, also wildly popular in Europe, said ruefully after one of his defeats by Eisenhower that he had run for office on the wrong continent. Maybe Obama has been running for office in the wrong half of the wrong continent. We’ll soon know.