It fell to a woman named Susan Katz to lob the proverbial dead cat into the middle of the American presidential debate this week. It was a stinker. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney backed away from it so fast they almost tripped over themselves. The question from the floor of the town hall-style audience was directed to Romney: ”Since both you and President Bush are Republicans, I fear a return to the policies of those years should you win this election,” said Katz. ”What is the biggest difference between you and George W. Bush, and how do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?” It was the four-letter word Romney had been dreading. Bush.
To that moment, he’d had gone to great lengths to avoid any mention of America’s 43rd president. He had been ”he whose name shall not be uttered”, as The Washington Post’s Al Kamen put it.
”He was invisible during the [Republican] primaries and through the Republican convention, which he didn’t attend (was there a scheduling conflict?)”
The Bush avoidance game had gone to the point of farce. When Bush visited Romney’s campaign headquarters in Boston, Romney made sure he was on the other side of the country, in Nevada. And when the Bush visit was reported, Romney’s campaign initially denied the former president had been there.
But now the dead cat was there, undeniably, in the middle of the room, with an estimated 65 million Americans looking on. Romney had to confront it. So he quickly found four ways he was not W: ”President Bush and I are – are different people and these are different times”. And his plan was ”so different than what he would have done”.
He would not send the US to ”the Arabs or the Venezuelans” for its oil but would make it self-sufficient in energy; he would ”crack down on China” on trade; he would balance the national budget; he’d champion small business because the Republicans had been too focused on big business.
Obama took the opportunity to emphasise that he was not Bush, either: ”We were losing 800,000 jobs a month when I started,” he said. ”But we have been digging our way out of policies that were misplaced and focused on the top doing very well and middle-class folks not doing well.
”Now, we’ve seen 30 consecutive – 31 consecutive months of job growth; 5.2 million new jobs created. And the plans that I talked about will create even more.” While distancing himself from the dead cat, he shoved Romney towards it.
He fitted Romney up as a reincarnation of Bush on economic policy. Obama knows he’s pushing on an open door here – 54 per cent of Americans say that Bush and the Republicans are more to blame for the nation’s economic misery, while 38 per cent put most blame on Obama and the Democrats, according to a CNN poll last month.
The legacy of America’s last conservative administration, in short, is toxic. But compare this with the legacy of Australia’s last conservative administration.
Here, the political leaders speak of the former conservative prime minister with respect and admiration. On both sides of politics, they use the name John Howard as a touchstone, citing him as the gold standard for personal conduct and for good policy. Sure, it’s highly selective.
But in the US election season commentators often draw parallels between American and antipodean politics. The conservatives’ legacy, however, is a stark point of difference.
”You got Kevin Rudd, who wanted to be another John Howard at the 2007 election, because Howard seemed to be the definition of political success,” says Greg Mellueish, associate professor of history and politics at Wollongong University.
Julia Gillard has named Howard as something of a role model: ”I never agreed with his world view,” she said last year, ”but I always admired some things about his personal traits and characteristics.
”I always thought he was a commendably disciplined person and enormously psychologically strong in terms of a conception of himself and a conception of what he wanted to do next and if I can replicate some of these things I would be happy with that.”
It was his manner but also some of his decisions she admired: ”As prime minister, Mr Howard had some fine moments and I believe when those moments are shown, we should celebrate them in a spirit of bipartisanship.
”I think he did a great thing in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. I think he showed a lot of leadership and compassion as the nation grieved from the Bali bombing. I think personally in terms of his characteristics he brought fortitude, determination and a lot of commonsense to the job.”
Gillard seems to be modelling herself on “the Howard mould as the slouch-hat wearing” commander of the Australian armed forces, suggested The Australian Financial Review’s Geoff Kitney last month: “Jutting out her chin and defiantly reaffirming, on the deadliest day for Australian troops since the Vietnam War, that she will never ‘cut and run’ from Afghanistan is as tough a call as a political leader is ever likely to have to make”.
In 2008 she lauded Howard in a speech in Washington as one of the “giants” of the Australia-US alliance.
It’s wider than national security. Gillard frequently cites Howard in the Parliament as the model for good policy on climate change. While Labor once mocked Howard for his antediluvian views on climate change – one Labor TV ad in 2007 pictured him asleep in bed while the globe warmed disastrously – Gillard now holds him up as a model for his support for an emissions trading scheme.
Of course, she does this to show Tony Abbott to disadvantage as an irresponsible populist in contrast to grown-up Howard.
Gillard also uses Howard as a negative model. When she wants to rally her party and its union support base, she conjures the terrifying spectre of Howard’s Work Choices. And she enjoys bracketing Abbott with Howard on Work Choices: “Mr Abbott’s in love with it; I tore it down.”
On this, Abbott doesn’t try to defend his mentor. “Let’s face it, John Howard is two prime ministers ago. John Howard is three Liberal leaders ago. That was then, this is now. There is no going back to the past.”
But as a general proposition, Abbott offers himself as Australia’s route to return to what he calls the “golden age” of Howard. One of his stock lines is to offer Australia a return to “grown-up government,” and it’s clear which grown-up he has in mind: “Sixteen members of my frontbench were ministers in the Howard government,” he brags.
“We won’t have to learn on the job because we’ve done the job before.”
And, of course, Abbott once described himself as the “political love child of John Howard and Bronwyn Bishop”.
Why the dramatic contrast between the brand values of Bush and Howard?
Partly it was a matter of the objective reality of conditions in the 11 years of the Howard era. The economy grew continuously, household wealth doubled, unemployment halved. And, at the end of it, the government had not a deficit but a surplus, thanks largely to Peter Costello’s ceaseless struggle against spending.
In the pithy summary of Tom Switzer, editor of the Spectator magazine in Australia and lecturer at the US Studies Centre, as well as a card-carrying Liberal: “Bush’s reputation is tainted by two costly wars, big spending policies and the Fed’s housing and mortgage mania, which led to soaring debt, budget deficit and the financial crisis”.
It was the worst presidency since the scandal-plagued years of Warren Harding in 1921-23, in Switzer’s opinion.
“In Australia, by contrast, Howard delivered an economic policy that delivered security and prosperity, a foreign policy that maintained close relations with both China and the US, and a reassertion of traditional Australian values based on a robust patriotism.”
Even where the two leaders joined on common ventures, Howard fared much better than Bush. The ill-conceived and badly botched invasion of Iraq, for instance, did heavy political damage to Bush but left Howard only lightly bruised.
But it was not only the conduct of the government but the people’s attitude to Howard that accounts for his status today.
“The public moved on from the Howard era in 2007 but it was not in any angry way and not with any great personal animosity,” observes his long-time chief of staff and now senator for NSW, Arthur Sinodinos.
The question for Abbott is not whether he is too much like Howard but perhaps that he is not alike enough.
Howard, in a closed-door speech in August that soon found its way out the door, critiqued Abbott on three key areas. He pointed out that Abbott’s policy of repealing the carbon tax meant that business had no certainty in making investment decisions.
He also urged more deregulation in the labour market – it is possible to have more flexibility without returning to Work Choices but this is an argument Abbott does not have the stomach to have.
Howard also called for more openness to Chinese investment. In all three areas, Howard is more pro-market and pro-business than his protege.
Where George W. Bush is a dead cat in US politics today, Howard more closely resembles a purring lion.
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