Lessons from the US campaign trail

Written by Politicians’ taxes on 19 April 2012 in News
UK politicians would do well to learn from the US when it comes to publishing tax returns, campaign funding and avoiding the Beltway bubble

Latest polls show a significant convergence in public opinion between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, making the outcome of November’s US presidential election difficult to predict. The campaign is only in its infancy, yet already it has served up a few lessons for political types here in Britain.

What happened: Mitt Romney is a very rich man, and everyone in America knows it. However, the news that he has asked for an extension on the filing of his tax returns has led his opponents to question whether he wants voters to know exactly how rich. The Obama campaign have leaped on this issue to paint Romney as secretive. Given his reputation for flip-flopping and an inability to connect with the electorate, Obama’s claim that “it's important for any candidate in public office to be as transparent as possible” leaves Romney damned if he reveals all and damned if he doesn’t.

What we can learn from this: After the London mayoral candidates released their tax returns, it now seems inevitable that other prominent politicians will follow their lead. David Cameron used much of yesterday’s PMQs to attack Ken Livingstone over what he released, and Ed Miliband has made similar hay at the expense of the ‘cabinet of millionaires’. While transparency may be welcome, we should be careful to avoid an atmosphere in which politicians are labelled secretive and aloof for a reluctance to reveal their tax details, and out of touch when they do. It is not just a lose-lose situation for the politicians, but for the public as well.

Campaign funding

What happened: Campaign finance has long been a thorny topic in American politics, and this election looks set to highlight that more than ever. The Obama campaign revealed on Monday that they raised a total of $53 million in March alone. Estimates suggest he will surpass the $770m total of his 2008 campaign, while Romney will run him fairly close thanks to the support of Republican Super PACs like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. While it is notable that the majority of Obama’s money was raised thanks to small donations and the majority of Romney’s through larger contributions, where the money is headed may be more significant. Both parties look set to outdo themselves financing negative ad campaigns against their respective opponent.

What we can learn from this: Party funding here was back in the headlines after the ‘cash for Cameron’ scandal over donations to the Conservative Party. This weekend Ed Miliband called for a £5,000 cap on one-off donations, but was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. We seem trapped, tired of the depressing clichés that Labour are in thrall to the unions and the Tories to big business, but unable to convince anyone that state funding is a viable solution. However, stricter rules here make it unlikely that the public will ever be bombarded by negative ads making spurious claims, itself negating the need for nuisances like Super Pacs. While the mechanics may be different, with the US controversy over campaign finance and ours over the day-to-day funding of parties, this is one area where the lesson to be learned is that we don’t have it all that bad after all.

Beltway bubble

What happened: While the Obama team were out branding Romney secretive, the Republicans were apparently sitting at their desks reading Obama’s autobiography as opposition research. Their discovery that Obama had once eaten dog broke yesterday, much to the excitement of journalists and some politicians in Washington. This was just the latest in a long line of meaningless stories that the public struggle to care about, but which set the pulses of politico’s racing. While colour and back-story may help inform voter’s opinion of a candidates’ character, the alarming ease with which minutiae can cause consternation and controversy is significant. Romney is already seen as out of touch with ‘real’ Americans, he could do better than to reinforce the sense that politicians are so consumed by what their opponent had for lunch, they couldn’t care less whether most Americans have enough money to put any food on the table.

What we can learn from this: After Ed Miliband’s use of the term ‘omnishambles’ to describe the government’s recent performance, politicians and hacks alike enjoyed a chuckle at this instance of life imitating art imitating life. PMQs is viewed negatively enough as it is by the wider public without those in Westminster sharing a knowing glance at every oh-so-hilarious reference to The Thick of It. Witticisms are to be welcomed, but voters going to the polls in local elections next month will take from this not that David Cameron is in fact Russell Crowe, but that those in Westminster have an increasingly over-developed sense of self-worth. Unemployment was announced to be down 35,000 yesterday. Politicians remain the most important people in the country, but people care more about issues that affect them, than trivialities that excite the Beltway. The US should serve as a warning, else we’ll soon reach the dog days as well.

Tags: Barack Obama, Beltway Bubble, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Mitt Romney, Party funding, PMQs, Tax returns, US election 2012

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