Protecting Powerful Men

Given what he had heard in his courtroom, Sir Brian Leveson, the judge appointed by British Prime Minister David Cameron to investigate misdeeds by the press, could plausibly have delivered damning judgements about the police, politicians—including Cameron and his ministers—and, especially, News Corporation and the Murdoch family who run it. Yet much of the Leveson report’s immense length is taken up by setting out the facts rather than apportioning blame.

Israel and Palestine’s leaders – and cheerleaders – have failed them | Jonathan Freedland

Those who support Israel or Palestine as if they were rival football teams do those two peoples a terrible disservice

There used to be one for each decade, an Arab-Israeli war in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. Now the eruptions into full-scale confrontation are coming more often, at four- or even three-year intervals: 2006, 2008-2009 and the eight days of November 2012.

The immediate consequence, the hardest and most numbing, is the grief of the bereaved: from this round, some 150 Palestinians and five Israelis dead. Next comes the despair, mixed with a kind of envy: why are the people of Northern Ireland – or South Africa – blessed to have their conflicts behind them, resolved more or less, while Israelis and Palestinians seem fated to keep bleeding, locked in a battle that drags on and on, perhaps till the end of time?

And through it all is the weariness: of those living – and dying – in the conflict most of all, but also of those drawn into it somehow. I feel it myself, a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides and, sometimes especially, with their cheerleaders abroad.

So yes, I'm weary of those who get so much more exercised, so much more excited, by deaths in Gaza than they do by deaths in, say, Syria. An estimated 800 died under Assad during the same eight days of what Israel called Operation Pillar of Defence. But, for some reason, the loss of those lives failed to touch the activists who so rapidly organised the demos and student sit-ins against Israel. You might have heard me make this point before, and you might be weary of it. Well, so am I. I'm tired, too, of the argument that "We hold western nations like Israel to a higher standard", because I see only a fraction of the outrage that's directed at Israel turned on the US – a western nation – for its drone war in Pakistan which has cost an estimated 3,000 lives, nearly 900 of them civilians, since 2004.

I'm tired of those who like to pretend that Israel attacked unprovoked, as if there had been no rockets fired from Gaza, as if Hamas was peacefully minding its own business, a Mediterranean Sweden, until Israel randomly lashed out. I'm tired of having to ask whether any government anywhere would really let one million of its citizens be confined to bomb shelters while missiles rained down. I'm weary of having to point out that, yes, occupied peoples do have a right to resist, but that right does not extend to taking deliberate aim at civilian targets – schools and villages – which is where all but a handful of Gaza's rockets were directed.

And I'm especially tired that so many otherwise smart, sophisticated people apparently struggle to talk about Israel-Palestine without reaching, even unwittingly, for the dog-eared lexicon of anti-Jewish cliche, casting Israeli leaders as supremacists driven by a (misunderstood) notion of Jews as "chosen people" or, hoarier still, as international puppet-masters. It pains me that too many fail to realise that while, of course, there is a clear line that separates hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews, that border is porous. Traffic moves across it both ways. Witness the Lazio thugs who bombarded Spurs fans with anti-Jewish chants – "Juden Tottenham" among them – during their match on Thursday night, but also brandished a Free Palestine banner, deployed not to declare solidarity with Gaza but to taunt a club with large Jewish support.

But when I turn in the other direction, to the actions of Israel's leaders, I feel no less exhausted. For I'm weary of an Israel that persists in believing it has a military solution to every problem, that suffers from the impaired vision so well defined by the novelist Amos Oz: "To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like nail." It makes the same mistake again and again. It bombarded Gaza four years ago to "restore deterrence", but it didn't work: the rockets resumed until Israel had to restore deterrence again. Thursday's headline in Haaretz is correct: "Ceasefire agreement almost identical to that reached in Operation Cast Lead." In which case, what was the point? Why did all those people have to die?

The two sides could have used the intervening years to do what former Mossad head Efraim Halevy and several other leading Israeli ex-security figures have long called for: to talk to Hamas. Of course the organisation is brutal, its charter peppered with vile antisemitism, but that's why it is Israel's enemy. If Hamas were the Mothers' Union, the two sides would not be at war. Israel needs to remember that most basic truth: you make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

Yet Israel's own actions constantly make peace ever harder to reach. What message has it now sent? That Hamas, which uses force, gets results – starting with the easing of the Gaza blockade – while Fatah, which practises non-violent diplomacy, gets nothing: the occupation of the West Bank endures. Pillar of Defence has left Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas looking marginalised and irrelevant in the West Bank, while Hamas is strengthened in Gaza.

Partly for that reason, Israel will have to talk to Hamas eventually. But it makes that unavoidable task harder by assassinating layer after layer of Hamas leaders. The military commander Ahmed Ja'abari was no dove, but Israel could do business with him: he was the broker of last year's prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit. And last week they killed him.

Similarly, the constant expansion of settlements renders ever more complex the eventual task of partitioning historic Palestine into two viable states, one for each people. It also undermines any faith Palestinians might have – and need to have – that two states is the destiny Israel envisages for their shared future.

I'm tired, too, of Israeli public figures who don't merely resort to violence, but seem to revel in it, whether it's the interior minister demanding Israel "send Gaza back to the Middle Ages", or the son of Ariel Sharon advocating that Gaza be flattened, following the principle that underpinned Hiroshima and Nagasaki – both talking as if, after two millennia of Jewish powerlessness, they are drunk on the thrill of wielding power at last.

And I'm weary of the two sides' followers, waving the flags of Israel and Palestine as if these were rival football teams: black v white; my team all good, their team all bad: my team the perennial David, the pure, unblemished victim; their team a permanent Goliath, capable only of wickedness and immune to pain. Those who feel anything at all for these peoples, or even just for one of them, need to end this wearying, deadening obsession with scoring points and winning righteous vindication and focus on the only question that matters: how might these two peoples live?

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The battle between Israel and Gaza solves nothing | Jonathan Freedland

All the violence in Gaza and Israel will do is sow hatred in the hearts of yet another generation

This is a horror movie we've seen before. In the days following a US presidential contest, an Israeli government, about to face an election of its own, decides it can tolerate Hamas rocket-fire no longer. It hits back hard, determined to show the Israeli public that it is not sitting idle as a million of its citizens huddle in bomb shelters, their children unable to go to school, but that it is tough, ready to do whatever it takes to "restore deterrence". It will bring quiet to its southern towns by forcing Hamas to fear its wrath once more.

As it was after Barack Obama's election in 2008, so it is after his re-election in 2012. Four years ago, Operation Cast Lead was meant to root out "the infrastructure of terror" from Gaza, eradicating the Hamas threat. It did nothing of the sort, of course. Hamas was left in control, its threat merely postponed.

The evidence came in the last three months as missiles landed in Israel in greater numbers – 130 in the last few days alone. So once again, Israel decided to fight fire with fire, assassinating Hamas's senior military commander, Ahmed Ja'abari.

To understand how we got here, why tension turned into confrontation, and why at this moment, we need answers to two questions. First, why did Hamas allow Gaza once again to become a rocket launchpad, given that it has successfully imposed quiet during various periods since 2009? And why did Israel choose to get tough now, given that it has been willing to respond more mildly to such provocations in the past?

Start with Hamas. One reading assumes that Hamas was punished for its weakness, that it had proved itself no longer capable of reining in the more bellicose groups – Islamic Jihad and others – which operate on the territory it rules. The Haaretz editor, Aluf Benn, put that view starkly when he wrote that far from being a feared enemy, Israel's Osama bin Laden, Ja'abari was Israel's "subcontractor" in Gaza, charged with enforcing the de facto truce. When he stopped doing his job, he had to be removed: "The message was simple and clear: You failed – you're dead," wrote Benn, quoting a favourite saying of defence minister Ehud Barak: "In the Middle East there is no second chance for the weak."

But it's equally possible that this was no accidental escalation by Hamas, born of incompetence, but rather an act of strength by the Islamist movement. A senior Israeli official told me that Israel had long been aware of Hamas's burgeoning military capacity, its hoard of rockets growing – before Wednesday – to some 11,000, closing on the 15,000-strong arsenal amassed by Hezbollah on the eve of 2006's Lebanon war. Much of this arms supply had come from newly lawless Libya – a "goldmine" says the official – the rest from Iran, before relations between Tehran and Hamas cooled. (Iran was angered when Gaza's rulers broke from Tehran's number one ally, the Assad regime.) Hamas's arm is now more muscled and with a longer reach, as it graphically demonstrated last night, when rockets landed perilously close to Israel's central city, Tel Aviv – the first missiles to do so since the Gulf war of 1991.

But Hamas's new strength is diplomatic, as well as military. The Arab revolutions have redrawn the regional map, much of it in Hamas's favour. Once a pariah, Hamas now sees its own movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, ruling Egypt. Where Hosni Mubarak played broker between Israel and Gaza, often seeking to stay Hamas's hand, Cairo's new rulers feel a grassroots pressure to stand as the ally of Hamas. Witness the Egyptian president's swift despatch of his prime minister to visit Gaza on Friday.

What's more, the Gaza-based leadership has been engaged in a power struggle with the Hamas politburo outside the Strip. Taking the fight to Israel, becoming "the tip of the spear," as analyst Hussein Ibish puts it, is Gaza-based Hamas's way of asserting its pre-eminence.

What, though, of that second question: why did Israel hit back now? The Hebrew press immediately assumed the key date was political, not military: 22 January, when Israelis go to the polls. There are plenty of precedents for outgoing governments taking military action, hoping to create a wave of national unity that will carry them to victory: Cast Lead itself fits that pattern. Binyamin Netanyahu may well have wanted to push aside his Labor rival and prevent his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, making a planned comeback – forcing both to fall into line as patriotic cheerleaders. Similarly, Barak found a way to remind voters of his supposed indispensability.

Israeli officials deny any such thing, arguing that Netanyahu is too seasoned a pro to take such a high risk. He knows military adventures can backfire, and when they do, voters turn on the men who gave the orders. If Tel Aviv remains under attack, he will be in severe danger.

The risks go far beyond the small matter of Netanyahu's career. If Cairo translates its solidarity with Hamas into concrete action, Israel's post-1979 peace with Egypt will be imperilled. Since no one else is about to take over in Gaza, Hamas will remain in charge, very possibly strengthened – all the more so if the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is seen to fail in its nonviolent attempt to win quasi-statehood at the UN general assembly.

Above all, the pain and anguish inflicted by yet another round of civilian deaths and injury will sow hatred in the hearts of another generation, who will grow up bent on revenge and yet more bloodshed. This keeps happening, decade after decade, for one simple reason: there can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides will say the action they have taken is necessary. But it will solve nothing.

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Now Republicans face the five stages of political grief | Jonathan Freedland

Every defeated party has to travel from denial to acceptance. At least in Mitt Romney's case the loss was unequivocal

My election night was spent among the grieving. Most didn't know they were going to a wake when they headed to the grand ballroom of the Boston Convention Centre on Tuesday night. On the contrary, they were dressed for a victory party. Before the first results trickled in, some even managed to smile. But within an hour or two, once the electoral map had turned Democratic blue where it was meant to go Republican red, the atmosphere turned funereal. A band struck up a tune or two, but no one felt like dancing.

What began that night for the Republican party is a process familiar to all who have observed an electoral defeat. Think of it as the political equivalent of the five stages of grief. The ones that trigger the deepest anguish are the serial defeats and the beatings you didn't expect. That's why 1992 was a double trauma for Labour: the Tories had defeated them four times in a row and they had done it on a night Labour felt destined to win.

Whether personal or political, the first stage is denial. That emotion will forever be embodied by the electrifying sight of former Bush guru turned Fox pundit Karl Rove scolding Fox's own number-crunchers for calling the election for Barack Obama, desperately pretending two plus two did not, in fact, equal four. Who knows, perhaps that slice of TV gold will be remembered as the moment when the American right finally gave up its war against maths, science and the reality-based community and realised that even the most zealous ideology must defer eventually to the facts. Perhaps not. Either way, such denial is not unique to today's Republican party. In 1983 Tony Benn famously refused to see Labour's pummelling as a disaster, celebrating instead that 8 million people had voted for socialism.

Next comes anger, often manifested in lashing out and blaming others. There was plenty of that in the ballroom in Boston, turned initially against what both the right and hostile left call "the mainstream media". When Candy Crowley – the CNN anchor who had moderated the second TV debate, arbitrating at one crucial point in Obama's favour – appeared on the giant TV screens, the Republicans in their suits and evening dresses began booing loudly. "It's your fault!" they howled, echoing the Labour faithful in 1992 who blamed Rupert Murdoch for their woes, taking as truth the claim that it was "the Sun wot won it".

Since then, Republican fingers have pointed in a dozen other directions. At Obama for practising what Charles Krauthammer calls "the darker arts of public persuasion" (a phrase that suggests the president hypnotised the US electorate into voting for him, perhaps via a secret, Kenyan strain of black magic); at the Mitt Romney campaign team, for promising a wave of "organic enthusiasm" among voters that failed to materialise; and at the candidate himself, for being too stiff, too north-eastern, too moderate under that fake conservative veneer.

This is the familiar lament of just-defeated parties: that they did not suffer because they were too extreme, but because they were not extreme enough. See those Tories who demanded a return to uncompromising core principle after the defeats of 1997, 2001 and 2005, as well as the Bennite push after 1979 and Militant in the 1980s. It's tempting and comforting, but almost always wrong.

The third stage of grief is said to be bargaining, accepting that something has to change but seeking to delay or dilute what needs to be done. In politics, it's the half-hearted attempt at reform, often preceded by a party embarking on a "listening tour" of the country that has rejected them. But it rarely goes the whole way. William Hague's "fresh start" still ended with him campaigning in a Keep the Pound truck. In the current Republican case, you can hear it in the time-honoured admission that "we didn't get our message across" or "there is a perception problem". The party agrees to tweak appearances, but remains unwilling to undertake deep reform.

After depression – common after a string of losses, such as the five defeats in the popular vote the Republicans have suffered in the last six presidential elections – comes acceptance. In politics, that usually means a recognition that the country you seek to lead has changed and that, therefore, you have to change with it, no matter how painful that process will be.

These shifts usually fall into two broad categories, though there is much overlap between them. The first is a change in attitudes: the party realises it has grown out of touch with what people think. Successive defeats in the 1980s demanded such a move on the centre-left in both Britain and the US, as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton moved to reassure mainstream voters their parties could, for example, be tough on crime.

Sometimes, however, the required shift is demographic, as a party has to catch up with a changing population: it has grown out of touch with who people are. Most often, this is the burden on conservatives. It fell on the Tories after three defeats at the hands of Blair, – realising that, for example, younger Britons did not share their hostility to gay rights – and is the urgent task for today's Republicans. Reliant on a shrinking base of older white voters, Romney was trounced among black, Latino and Asian Americans just as all those groups form an ever-expanding share of the US electorate. As former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd puts it, the Republicans are "a Mad Men party in a Modern Family America".

Some think the remedy is cosmetic, that the problem will be solved by a mere change of personnel: David Cameron's A-list after 2005 is matched by today's Republican drumbeat for the Florida senator Marco Rubio to lead the party to salvation in 2016. But this goes deeper than a more diverse public face, though that certainly helps. (The only African American I spotted at the Romney victory party – and I looked hard – was the singer in the band.) It is also about speaking to those new, rising groups with respect – understanding, for example, that Hispanic or Asian Americans don't share the visceral loathing of government that grips many white Republicans.

The curious problem for Britain's political parties is that the 2010 election left no clear winner and therefore no crushed loser. Labour lost, but it did not absorb into its marrow the pain of defeat. That left Ed Miliband uncertain whether he needed to make wholesale change or simply rely on one more heave – and denied him the emotional mandate for the former option even if he chose it. Paradoxically, given that they lead the government, the last election left the Tories in a similar limbo.

Perhaps this will be small consolation to the Republicans in their grief, but at least they lost clearly and undeniably. Now they need to weep and move on.

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We all need to help Israel shift

You wait years for big elections that will shape the world, or at least shape a part of the world you care about, and then three come at once. This week, has seen a US presidential contest and a change at the top in China (admittedly without a single democratic vote cast). And the third? That’s coming in Israel in January.

So far, all eyes have been on Bibi Netanyahu, who seized the initiative with two bold strokes: calling elections a year ahead of schedule and merging his party with the ultra-nationalist vehicle of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The resulting entity — “Bieberman” — is projected to dominate the next Knesset and enable Netanyahu to return as Prime Minister. It also confirms the rise and rise of Lieberman. The man who believes the country’s Arabs should be stripped of their citizenship if they cannot swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state is now leader-in-waiting of the Israeli right, with a clear path to become the country’s prime minister.

I’ve been looking, though, at the other side of the political divide. I’ve been wondering if Labour’s new-ish leader, Shelly Yachimovich, might lead a dramatic revival of that party or whether fellow journalist Yair Lapid could be the man to make the breakthrough. I’ve followed the speculation that Ehud Olmert is set to make a comeback, perhaps leading a new centrist bloc that would merge Kadima, Labour and others and be a match for Bieberman.

Scanning the Israeli centre-left is a habit. I’ve done it for the best part of two decades, certainly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, 17 years ago this week. Election after election, like many of those who long for Israel to be at peace, I’ve searched for an Israeli leader with the strength and vision to do what’s needed to make a two-state deal stick. Surely Shimon Peres would be able to complete Rabin’s mission. Maybe it took the military credentials of an Amram Mitzna or Ehud Barak. Perhaps Amir Peretz could finally recruit Israel’s mizrachim to the cause of territorial compromise.

Or possibly, on the Nixon-to-China principle, it had to be a man of the right, like Ariel Sharon. Or a woman of the right, like Tzipi Livni.

Time after time, the peace camp has allowed itself to hope, me along with them. But it’s not worked out. Israel remains as stuck as ever. The prospect of Israelis and Palestinians sharing the land between the river and the sea, forming two viable, secure states has, if anything, deteriorated — thanks in part to a pattern of West Bank settlement that makes partition look ever more remote, if not impossible.

So I’m done looking for a saviour. What’s needed now is not merely a change at the top, but a deeper movement from the bottom up, among Israelis and all those who care about them. Such a shift would entail a realisation that, as Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, argues, the paramount question of Israeli security remains not Iran but the conflict with the Palestinians. It would also mean admitting that Israel remains locked on a path that can only lead to an outcome most would lament: either a binational state, in which the dream of Jewish self-determination would become a memory, or a state in which a Jewish minority with a right to vote rules over a non-Jewish majority denied that right — and we all know the name for that.

Making that shift is a task not for one individual but for the entire Jewish people. Dreaming of the Messiah may be part of our tradition. But politics lacks the patience of religion. And Israel cannot wait.

Barack Obama’s odyssey continues | Jonathan Freedland

History made as first black US president is re-elected, defying jobless rate and assaults of American right

The improbable journey goes on. What Barack Obama always regarded as the unlikeliest of political odysseys will now be allowed to run its full measure. By a clearer margin than many of his supporters had dared hope, the people of the United States voted to let their 44th president finish what he had started.

As election night brought the familiar, intense focus on this or that county in Ohio or Florida, it was easy to lose sight of the scale of Obama's achievement. Of course becoming America's first black president four years ago was an unrepeatable feat, but winning four more years made history, too. Obama is only the fourth Democrat since 1900 to win two full terms in the White House. Only Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton have matched his achievement.

And he did it in the hardest of circumstances. The experts long believed that to win re-election with unemployment at or above 8% was to defy political gravity: no one had done it since 1940. Yet that was the jobless number Obama confronted from the day he took office until two months ago. His approval ratings had struggled to break 50%. He had been on the receiving end of a four-year assault from the American right – the alternative universe embodied by Fox News, which tore itself apart on air as pundit Karl Rove refused to accept the cold, hard facts set out by Fox's own number-crunchers – which sought to "other" the US president, to paint him as Barack Hussein Obama, the Kenyan Marxist Muslim bent on destroying America. Despite all that he won and won convincingly, ahead in the popular vote and taking all but one of the nine key battleground states, with as-yet-undeclared Florida likely to be added to his tally – with no need of recounts and not a hanging chad in sight.

It was a monumental achievement, one the renewed president recognised with a magnificent speech. In Chicago before a crowd both relieved and delighted, he spoke with a force, clarity and determination that had scarcely been glimpsed in the 2012 campaign. The rhetoric was soaring – "for the United States of America the best is yet to come" – and moving but it was also rooted in the concrete. He set out the goals of his second term: "Reducing our deficit. Reforming our tax code. Fixing our immigration system. Freeing ourselves from foreign oil."

But he also spoke of a danger that had barely featured on the campaign trail, warning of "the destructive power of a warming planet". For his supporters, including those frustrated by the timidity of much of his first term – and the lethargy of his appearance in the first TV debate – this was the Obama they had been waiting for.

It brought hope flickering back to life inside Democrats who wonder if, having made history, Obama might now defy it, reversing the usual order and achieving more in his second term than in his first. His healthcare reform, which would have been repealed by a President Romney, will now be implemented, which represents a legacy in itself. If he can somehow negotiate the looming fiscal cliff, bringing tax revenues and spending into balance, that too will endear him to posterity.

But the president cannot do that alone. Action on the deficit will require a "grand bargain" with Congress and that means the Republican party, which retained control of the House of Representatives, though Democrats remain in charge in the Senate. The risk for Obama is that, for all his renewed talk of bipartisan co-operation, he might be thwarted by all too familiar gridlock.

Yet the night marked more than just the extension of the Obama presidency: it also confirmed the arrival of the Obama nation. For underpinning the president's success was a shift in the very nature of the US electorate, with white voters accounting for a smaller share than ever before. Now 28% of American voters are non-white, a threefold increase over the past four decades. And these rising groups that make up the new America vote Democrat.

That much was clear in what analyst John Heilemann called Obama's "coalition of the ascendant". The president could trail Romney among white men because, exit polls showed, he could rely on 93% support among black Americans, 71% of Latinos, 60% of the under-30s and 55% of women. The lift in the Latino vote may well account for Obama's wins in Nevada, Colorado and Florida. And this is no one-off: 50,000 Latinos turn 18 and become eligible to vote every month. That translates into 2.4m new Latino voters able to take part in the election of 2016.

The US pundit class is fond of hailing every presidential election as the birth of a new, permanent Democratic or Republican majority. Such verdicts should be handled with care. After all, Romney came within two percentage points of Obama in the popular vote. Nevertheless, the political complexion of the American people is changing. Striking was the passage in three states of measures authorising equal marriage for gay couples. Wisconsin elected the first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin. The Obama campaign understood this new electorate and turned out its vote brilliantly.

The Republicans are in the reverse position. They lost because they relied on a white vote that is shrinking. What will surely follow is a battle for the soul of the Republican party, realists pitted against purists. The realists will argue Republicans – who have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections – must expand their appeal if they are not to be doomed to perennial defeat. Romney won fewer Latino voters than John McCain, who won fewer than George W Bush. That was partly because, in order to survive the Republican primaries, Romney had to adopt a hard line on immigration, calling on migrants to "self-deport". In that move, the Latino commentator Ana Navarro told CNN: "He self-deported from the White House."

Others will add that Republicans have to change the way they speak to women, after two candidates who suggested that women should be forced by law to bear the children of their rapists lost winnable Senate seats.

The purists will brook no such change, insisting Republicans must stay true to their small government, socially conservative message. The people will come around eventually, they believe, especially if the party can find an attractive, ideally non-white messenger – say, senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

The consequence could well be a Republican civil war, or period of "reflection and recalibration" as Texas senator John Cornyn politely called it. But a change is overdue. Without it, Republicans will surely endure more nights like the one they suffered on Tuesday, when they gathered in a Boston ballroom for what was meant to be a victory party – a glum, all-white group staring at a giant screen, watching TV pictures from Chicago of a crowd of beaming Democrats, young and old, black and white, celebrating a victory that tasted even sweeter the second time around. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

How Mitt Romney’s missteps kept Obama in the presidential race

That the election seemed to be a cakewalk for the president until the first TV debate attests to the Republican's flawed candidacy

The 2012 campaign began before the campaign of 2008 had finished. In February of that year, while Barack Obama was still locked in an epic struggle for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney summoned his closest allies to a Boston office to work out why his effort to be the Republicans' standard-bearer of 2008 had failed so badly. He handed out a memo he had written about himself, detailing his strengths and weaknesses, assessing his own defeated candidacy as if it were one of the businesses he once assessed as a hotshot management consultant. This was no mere exercise in navel-gazing. Romney was determined to learn the lessons of defeat in 2008 in order to win in 2012.

Thus began a long march that ended today. The visible miles came last winter, when Romney trudged through the pig farms of Iowa and the snows of New Hampshire in his search for the Republican nomination. But that followed an invisible primary, an endless round of closed-door fundraisers to fill up a war-chest he hoped would scare off the most fearsome potential rivals.

Whether money was the explanation or not, Romney was indeed rewarded by the decision of several big-beast Republicans not to challenge him for the nomination. The New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Indiana's Mitch Daniels and others, including Sarah Palin, skipped the race, leaving the path open for Romney.

When ambitious politicians duck a presidential contest, that's usually because they suspect the incumbent will be too hard to dislodge. In the summer of 2011, that looked like the smart decision. For Obama had just done what George W Bush had failed to do: he had removed – killed – Osama bin Laden. Many Republicans concluded that, given the US economy was bound to at least slightly improve by November 2012, the scalp of Bin Laden made the president tough to beat.

The course for Romney ran anything but smooth. Instead of warming to the former Massachusetts governor as the obvious choice – a successful businessman who looked like Hollywood's idea of a president – Republican primary voters seemed ready to fall in love with almost anyone but him. The field of rivals included outlandish characters who seemed absurd to outsiders: pizza magnate Herman Cain, evolution-denying congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Texas governor Rick Perry, who could not remember which three government departments he planned to shut down. Former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt said: "The Republican primary resembled a reality-TV show. All these guys might as well have been living in a tree house with Simon Cowell."

And yet each of those candidates enjoyed a moment in the sun, a surge in support that made them – rather than Romney – the frontrunner. It was as if Republicans were desperate to find someone else to nominate. Accordingly, former senator Rick Santorum and the former House speaker Newt Gingrich won enough states between them to ensure the primary race dragged on.

That long, bruising primary battle cost Romney dear, and not just financially (it forced him to spend money defeating his fellow Republicans rather than saving it for the fight against Obama). The greater cost was political.

It exposed the future Republican nominee to sustained attack from his own side. The notion of Romney as a ruthless plutocrat, coldly laying off American workers, did not come from the Democrat attack machine. Romney was not seen as embodying the 1% because of the Occupy movement. Rather, that portrait was drawn by Gingrich, who aired an extended commercial, "When Mitt Romney came to Town", that tore apart Romney's tenure at the helm of the private equity firm Bain & Co. It depicted him as a corporate raider, willing to shutter factories and shatter working lives if it made him richer. That critique lingered all year, eagerly picked up and advanced by the Democrats. But it originated with the Republicans.

Still, the damage of the primaries went deeper. To push aside Santorum, Bachmann and the others, Romney was obliged to adopt positions that would endear him to the Republican faithful – but which stored up trouble for later. So Romney reversed his previous support for abortion rights and gun control, called on undocumented migrants to "self-deport" and rebranded himself from a Massachusetts moderate, who as governor had passed healthcare reform, into the "severe conservative" who now promised to repeal "Obamacare".

Those reverses left him doubly wounded. For one thing, he could now be slammed as a serial flip-flopper, just another politician who believed in nothing and would say whatever it took to be elected. For another, he had been boxed into a series of positions bound to alienate core blocs of the electorate that had long been tough for Republicans to reach – the young, Latinos and suburban women among them.

Sure enough, through the summer months he was on the receiving end of an air assault from Obama, in the form of saturation TV ads in key states, which portrayed Romney as part boardroom vulture, part unprincipled phoney. Obama, who had faced no primary challenge of his own, had the money to do it – defining Romney before he had a chance to define himself.

Yet Romney could not just blame Obama. Much of his trouble was of his own making. He helped colour in the cartoon of himself as an out-of-touch one percenter when he boasted that his wife had "a couple of Cadillacs" or when his tax returns – showing that he paid a meagre 14% – had to be dragged out of him. In July, he botched an overseas tour meant to boost his credentials as a potential world leader by offending America's most easily pleased ally, Britain, when he suggested the London Olympics could be a flop and by travelling to Jerusalem to offer his view that cultural inferiority might be the cause of Palestinian suffering.

What should have been a moment to relaunch his candidacy and make Americans look at him anew – his party convention in Tampa in August – also had little effect. His speech was overshadowed by a moment of Dadaist theatre, as Clint Eastwood harangued an empty chair standing in for an imaginary Obama. Romney was on his way to becoming a joke figure.

In September, he went from being ridiculed to being hated. A leaked video showed him addressing fellow millionaires at a fundraising event in May, where an unplugged Romney candidly wrote off 47% of the electorate as parasites, non-taxpaying dependents who would never vote Republican because they would not "take responsibility for their own lives". Even many on his own side believed it was an act of self-destruction so complete that no candidate could possibly survive it.

But Romney had one more chance. The first TV debate in Denver on 3 October was, for many Americans, the first time they had paid close attention to the election. What they saw was an incumbent president who looked exhausted, listless and disengaged. With his head down, his answers sluggish, it seemed he either was too tired to be president or no longer really wanted the job.

Romney, by contrast, was spirited and energetic. Above all, he came across as a human being rather than the caricature of Obama propaganda: all he had to do was not seem like a rapacious capitalist bloodsucker and, in an instant, he had broken the core message of the Obama campaign. The immediate bounce that Romney enjoyed in the polls suggested that a small chunk of the electorate, disenchanted with the president, had been waiting to see if the Republican was a plausible replacement. In Denver Romney crossed that threshold.

That change revealed what had always been the structural reality of this race. By rights, it should always have been close. Here was an incumbent president who had struggled to lift his approval rating above 50%, who had seen the number of Americans saying the US was on the "wrong track" become a majority and, most crucially, had watched as the unemployment rate had remained stuck at 8% for almost his entire presidency, shifting below that figure only a matter of weeks ago. The last president to be re-elected with a jobless percentage that high was Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, in what were rather different circumstances.

So the election should never have been a cakewalk for Obama. That it had seemed that way, until Denver, attested to the deeply flawed candidacy of Romney. By raising his game at that first debate, he restored politics to something like normal service.

Obama conceded that he had messed up, joked that he had been napping in the first encounter and sharpened up for the next two, where he remained clear, focused and unafraid to confront his opponent: in Denver he had failed even to mention Romney's 47% remark. Now he made it his closing argument.

But October was a tough month for the president. He was hobbled by accusations that he had bungled or even deceived the public over the September killing of four US diplomats in Benghazi, an issue unlikely to go away. Still the end of the month brought some unlikely and helpful allies.

The first was a former nemesis, Bill Clinton, who in 2008 had dismissed Obama's presidential bid as a "fairytale". In the campaign's closing days, Obama let the man they call the big dog run – as the country's most beloved Democrat grew hoarse making the case for his successor. Obama didn't just exploit Clinton's ability to connect to the white, male blue-collar Americans who remain beyond the current president's reach – he all but ran on Clinton's record, arguing that "We know my plan works because we've tried it," referring to Clinton's success in the 1990s.

The second ally was a genuine surprise. Some pollsters doubt that Superstorm Sandy really made a big difference for Obama, noting that Romney's surge, "Mittmentum", had already stalled before the weather changed. But few deny that Obama benefited from the chance to be seen doing the job of president, while Romney was sidelined, and profited especially from the bearhug he received from the Republicans' rising star, Chris Christie. His gushing praise for Obama, and refusal to campaign at Romney's side in Pennsylvania, was precious validation for the president – and it came at just the right time.

And so the two men duelled to the very last, Romney making two campaign convention-breaking stops on election day itself. The campaign had finished, but the politics is anything but over. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

US elections: after the campaign, the hush of polling day descends

The question of who will emerge victorious depends on whether you ask the priests or the mathematicians

At long last, the candidates will fall silent, the pollsters will put away their clipboards and the hush of election day will descend on America. In their tens of millions, watched anxiously by billions more around the world, Americans will finally end a long and bitter campaign, cast their votes and choose a president.

In a frenzied closing day, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney crammed in final visits to key battleground states – the president ending what, win or lose, will be his last campaign in the place where his "improbable journey" began nearly five years ago, in rural, midwestern Iowa. There is little more they can do.

Their fates lie now with the machines they have built on the ground, the efficiency of their get-out-the-vote operations and, of course, with the voters themselves.

The president acknowledged as much when he addressed a rally in the frigid night air of Bristow, Virginia, late on Saturday. "I'm sort of a prop in the campaign," Obama said, conceding that at this late stage organisation is king.

As to who is the more confident of victory, there the battle is less between Obama and Romney than between two political tribes: the priests and the mathematicians.

Those of a scientific bent, who crunch the numbers and regard the uber-analyst and blogger Nate Silver as a secular deity, believe the contest is all but in the bag for the Democrat.

Yes, the national polls may be locked in a statistical tie, but in the decisive states – chief among them Ohio, where Romney will make one more, tradition-defying visit on Tuesday – Obama has held a narrow but consistent lead, one that firmed up during the final weekend.

Experience suggests election eve polls tend to be borne out on the day itself. The mathematicians say Romney's path to 270 electoral college votes has become so convoluted as to be near-impossible.

To win, they argue, he would need to be comfortably ahead in the likes of Virginia and Colorado and he is not. They cite 2004, when incumbent George W Bush was similarly deadlocked in national polls only to beat John Kerry.

They confidently expect Obama to repeat the trick, while one bookmaker, Paddy Power, has already paid out £400,000 to punters who backed the president. Silver gives Obama an 86.3% chance of victory.

The priests however – a fraternity that currently includes many Republicans – insist such certainty is impossible. An election is a human event, with too many variables. They note the polling that says independent voters are breaking for Romney in Ohio, which would usually point to success. They argue that the electorate is not the same as it was in 2008, that there will be fewer young and African-American voters and that that will hurt Obama. They point to specific counties where early voting indicates Democratic turnout down and Republican turnout substantially up.

That's hardly a surprise, say many Democrats, considering what they call "voter suppression" efforts by Republican state officials, closing polling stations and cutting short early voting in heavily Democratic areas. Tellingly, the Obama campaign has 2,500 lawyers on standby in Ohio alone, just in case things get close and ugly.

Most unexpectedly, Republicans have seized on Pennsylvania, which their party has not won since 1988 but where a poll showed Obama's earlier lead wiped out, the two men on 47% each. If Pennsylvania is genuinely wobbling, that would spell disaster for the president.

Publicly, the Obama camp dismissed the poll as rogue and politically tainted. But they took it seriously enough to deploy their biggest gun, sending a hoarse Bill Clinton to do four events in the state on Monday.

Above all, the priesthood points to those intangibles they say the data-analysts miss. Romney is addressing large, enthused rallies which, they believe, do not suggest a candidate heading to defeat. On Friday, the Republican brought out between 20,000 and 30,000 to West Chester, Ohio. This same weekend, an Obama event saw only around 2,000 Ohioans fill a high school gym in Cleveland.

Still, Democrats can cite intangibles of their own. On Saturday night, some 25,000 braved icy temperatures to attend that late night rally in Virginia.

They whooped their delight at seeing two presidents, Clinton and Obama, high-five and hug, memories of the 2008 battle between them safely buried. The eyes of supporters may not have shone with hope and expectation the way they did when Obama addressed an election eve crowd of more than 80,000 in the state four years ago. "But now there's real strong determination to let him finish his work," volunteer Richard Russey, 60, told me. Next to him, Sharon Jenkins, 54, said she was part of a "veritable army" of Obama activists that was bigger than in 2008.

What's intriguing is the absence on both sides of what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls the "aura of defeat", defined as a losing campaign's tendency to go negative, hyping up trivial issues to motivate core supporters and seizing on minor slip-ups by the other side. A fortnight ago, Douthat detected that aura around Obama.

But in the final days, there was little sign of it. In Bristow, Obama's closing argument focused firmly on the big picture, even extending to some Martin Luther King style rhetoric. "It's up to you," he told them. "You've got the power. That's why I need you, Virginia. Don't get tired, don't get weary."

Romney too exudes confidence. On Monday he addressed an energetic, flag-waving indoor crowd in Fairfax, Virginia who cheered every time he spoke of "when I'm president," urging them to make the "one final push" that would bring "a new tomorrow."

But there is the odd lurch into that losing mode of behaviour. On Monday Romney was still attacking Obama for suggesting voters should get their "revenge" at the ballot box, a remark Fox News and the Republicans interpreted as a coded call for class war. In fact it was nothing of the sort, but that didn't stop Romney piously insisting that voters be motivated not by revenge, but "love of country".

More important, there have been the first signs of Republicans turning on each other, getting their retaliation in early. Chief among these "precriminations" is the view that Romney failed to reach beyond white America, that their party is too concentrated in the deep south and the great plains.

The mathematicians would say Republicans are right to have that argument now. The priests say they should wait, that elections can surprise you.

Who will win this battle of data against instinct, of head versus gut? Today will settle that – and much else besides. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

US election: whoever wins on Tuesday, the impact will be profound | Jonathan Freedland

It's totally wrong to think there's little difference between Obama and Romney. We should all remember Gore v Bush

This time next week, we'll know. I hesitate to say we'll know by Wednesday morning: any journalist who covered the Bush v Gore Florida photo-finish of 2000 knows better than to tempt fate. But, barring a repeat of that freak event, it should be clear enough soon enough.

Now is the moment the two duelling campaigns contemplate their destiny. What if Mitt Romney loses, as most of the blue-chip polling analysis says he will? It'll be a bitter personal defeat for a man who has been plotting this campaign since the moment his last one ended in failure. Seven days after he dropped out of the Republican primary race of 2008, Romney gathered his allies around a boardroom table, handing out a single-page memo he'd written about himself, detachedly laying out his own strengths and weaknesses and plotting the path to 2012.

Some will say he has been running much longer, the ambition rooted in the crushing of his father's presidential hopes in 1968. Now Mitt Romney will be twice defeated with no chance of coming back. The stellar career in high finance that beckoned four years ago will surely beckon again – and this time with no nosy reporters demanding to know how much he pays in tax. (14%, since you ask.)

But the consequences of a Romney defeat would go much wider than the job prospects of one supremely wealthy man. The Republican party would have to stare itself long and hard in the face. A loss on Tuesday would mean the party had won the popular vote only once since 1988, when George W Bush beat John Kerry in 2004. In the five other elections, the Democrats would have beaten them. That is a shocking record that lays bare a deep, structural problem.

Its base is shrinking before its eyes. The old "southern strategy" pioneered with such success by Richard Nixon, in which Republicans commandeered the white vote, often by playing on racial anxieties, worked wonders for decades. But now that white vote accounts for too small a share of the electorate: Romney is on course to win about 60% of it, but it's still not enough. As the Republican senator Lindsey Graham so memorably put it: "The demographics race we're losing badly. We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."

The problem is that Republicans have not compensated for that decline in white numbers with gains elsewhere. Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for John McCain in 2008, put it starkly when we met: "We have been horrific" towards Hispanic-Americans, he said, adding that the party needed to start speaking to that rising population with "respect". George W Bush made an effort in that direction with some results, but any progress has been reversed this time. Obama is expected to win as much as 75% of the Hispanic vote.

That problem with minorities – and one poll showed Romney's black support at a striking 0% – is both cause and effect of its shrinking base. If only "angry white guys", or Tea Partiers and evangelical Christians, are taking part in presidential primaries, that is bound to have a distorting effect. Romney is a case in point. In theory, he could have been a candidate with crossover appeal: a moderate, proven businessman who had won in Democratic Massachusetts. But to win the Republican nomination he had to change, becoming what he called a "severe conservative", dropping his previous stances in favour of abortion rights and gun control and, in order not to be outflanked on his right, telling undocumented immigrants, most Hispanic, to "self-deport".

This is the Republicans' existential problem. They have retreated ever deeper into an ideological laager, shaped by a narrow, nationally unrepresentative Christian right, until they have reached the point where anyone acceptable to them is unacceptable to the rest of the country. Romney was the only plausible candidate on offer from the freakshow they had to choose from – but competing in the freakshow turned him into someone implausible.

If Romney loses on Tuesday, Republicans will have to acknowledge that they threw away an election that, by rights, should have been theirs. They faced an incumbent with low approval ratings and weighed down by an unemployment rate hovering around 8%: no US president since Franklin Roosevelt had been re-elected with such a high jobless number. This was their election to lose. If they lose it, they will need to contemplate the most profound change.

And what if the polls in the critical swing states don't hold up and Obama loses? The brutal truth is that neither American politics nor history looks kindly on one-term presidents. They are instantly deemed failures. Jimmy Carter had to undertake a 30-year penance of good works in order to rehabilitate his reputation and absolve the grave sin of losing. Many Democrats would be similarly embarrassed by a defeated Obama, unsentimentally branding him a non-person. Many will say the party made a grave mistake and that it should have gone for Hillary in 2008, a view that will be nourished by this week's YouGov poll finding that Clinton would have beaten Romney by a comfortable six points.

The last four years will be regarded as an aberration, "a historical parenthesis, a passing interlude of overreaching hyper-liberalism, rejected by a center-right country that is 80% nonliberal," according to the ultra-conservative commentator, Charles Krauthammer. Everything Obama did – his Keynesian stimulus, his bailout of the car industry, his reform of healthcare – will be condemned as a mistake, including by many Democrats who will succumb to the right's critique and fault Obama for veering too far left. Only the killing of Osama bin Laden will earn him any credit.

Worse, and this will rarely be articulated out loud, too many Americans will see the first black presidency as a kind of failed experiment: we tried it, but it didn't work out. In a silent way, the bar for non-white candidates, already so high, will be even higher.

The world outside America is backing Obama, the polls show it, but without the fervour of four years ago. Some on the left see little difference between him and Romney, on, say, drones, civil liberties or the Middle East; the odd nuance, perhaps, but otherwise they are Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Big mistake. Some of us heard the same refrain in 2000: no difference between Gore and Bush, who cares who wins? And we all know how that worked out.

Twitter: @j_freedland © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds