No easy answers for the United States before or after the presidential election


The United States will likely see a “fertile period of policy experimentation” under the new administration that takes office after the November presidential election, says Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution who is an expert on U.S. election campaigns.

Although key elements of the conservative movement that began in the 1980s have lost credibility, it will not mean a new liberal regime is taking over, Mann said at a Feb. 25 seminar on the U.S. presidential election, organized by the Keizai Koho Center in Tokyo.

Even if the Democrats take control of the White House and possibly expand their majority in Congress, there would be no easy answers to the tough diplomatic, economic and domestic policy challenges confronting the country, said Mann.

Mann noted that the 2008 campaign is taking place at a time when the nation is going through a “state of despondency about the state of American public life.” Opinion polls show three-quarters of Americans believe the country is “seriously off on the wrong track,” and there has been a great deal of economic anxiety in recent years, he said.

“We’ve been in the midst of a very unpopular war for a long time. . . . We have very low levels of public trust in government and record-low approval ratings” for President George W. Bush, he said.

Congress also suffers from sluggish approval ratings, and Mann said this partly reflects an “intense ideological polarization” between Democrats and Republicans. But Mann also noted that the Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate — after their midterm election victories in 2006 — “have struggled to try to deliver on their promises to change the course in Iraq.”

Still, Mann pointed to a marked shift in the traditional, roughly 50-50 balance between the two major parties in U.S. politics to a “clear Democratic advantage.” Democrats now claim a 14 to 15 percentage point lead over Republicans in opinion polls on party affiliations as well as in questions as to which party would handle issues better, which should have the majority in Congress, and whether voters would like to see a Democratic or Republican president in office, he said.

Support for Democrats is conspicuous among younger-generation voters as well as Hispanic voters, the fastest growing segment of the population, Mann said. Democrats have made substantial headway with a growing population of single-parent households and single voters, and upscale professionals in major cities. High-tech areas are “disproportionately identifying with the Democrats,” he said.

On March 4, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas, keeping alive her bid for the party’s nomination. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain swept the Republican contests to clinch his party’s nomination.

Mann said a possible contest between Sen. Barack Obama, who still leads Clinton in the Democratic race in the number of delegates, and McCain would not be a race between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican.

Despite the Democrats’ lead over Republicans in opinion polls, the 71-year-old McCain’s character as a man of courage, his extraordinary background as a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and his appeal among independents “could make a difference” against the youthful and relatively inexperienced Obama, Mann noted.

On the other hand, Mann said he did not think race would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle for Obama as the first serious African-American contender in a U.S. presidential election.

In recent decades, many prominent African-American officials running for governor lost elections even though they had claimed a lead in pre-vote polls, and it was often attributed to the “hidden racist votes” of people too embarrassed to tell pollsters who they would actually vote for, Mann said.

But Obama’s records in the primaries point to a different story because in most states he performed better than he had been forecast in the polls, he said.

Given the current political environment that strongly favors the Democrats, there is the possibility of a “substantial” Democratic victory in the presidential election plus some gains in the party’s congressional majority, Mann noted.

“Does that mean they would dominate politics and pass their policy agenda easily? Of course not,” he said, given the mountain of problems facing the U.S. today, including energy security, climate change, health care, fiscal imbalances and national security.

What appears certain, Mann said, is that the influential conservative movement in the U.S. — which began in the 1970s, took form when Ronald Reagan was first elected in 1980 and was carried over under Bush’s eight-year administration — no longer provides the answers to these problems. People have lost faith in the three pillars of the movement — tax cuts and smaller government, moral traditionalism and assertive nationalism in foreign policy, he argued.

“The era of tax cutting is over, and we have to begin to face the consequences of basically cutting taxes while increasing government spending” under the Bush administration, Mann said. Assertive nationalism — which has come to be associated with the “neocon” members of the Bush team — has lost its credibility over the war in Iraq, he added.

“Does that mean a new liberal regime moving into power? Not guaranteed by any means. It’s up for grabs,” he said. Even a Democratic administration with a solidified congressional majority would have no easy answers to the multitude of questions facing the country, and the coming years in U.S. politics “will be a fertile period of policy experimentation” to deal with the challenges, Mann said.