How Obama just won Ohio: moderate isolationism

In repeatedly talking about “nation building here at home,” Obama tapped into the one feeling ardently held by American voters that is unmentionable in polite company: moderate isolationism.

In 2004, John Kerry said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention,

we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.

The line got huge applause. Christopher Hitchens noted and feared this, calling it “one of the sourest and nastiest and cheapest notes to have been struck for some time.” But Kerry knew a good line when he heard it, and re-used it endlessly in his stump speech and the debates—which he won.

Kerry played Mitt Romney in Obama’s debate prep. He taught some lessons that Obama used last night. Obama’s version of the same riff was:

the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home.

…and it wasn’t an accident or a minor point: Obama used versions of the line four times, unprompted.

I haven’t seen a single commentator noting the line. But I’ll wager it played a huge role in convincing undecided voters to give Obama a huge lead, 30 points, in the CBS instapoll. Though I can’t find the article, I remember a Kerry aide from 2004 commenting, a bit uncomfortably, that swing voters, who then as now tended to be low-information voters, were particular fans of the firehouse spiel.

Washington is a city of self-styled internationalists. (It would be bad manners to say “militarists,” much less to note that the Pentagon is a huge driver of the local economy, along with lobbying.) There’s a strong institutional bias in favor of candidates who call for higher military spending, lots of military interventions, and a hair-trigger attitude towards crises. But the American people have always been much more leery of military spending and foreign wars than the political class is. Scott Rasmussen—yes, that one—noted the disjuncture last month, in explaining why Republican efforts to make higher military spending a campaign winner were destined to fail. Polls on military spending are so unfavorable to the Republican position that Obama is running ads attacking Romney for wanting to spend more on defense. Military spending hikes are favored by 58 percent of Republicans—but only 40 percent of all voters.

American isolationism has very large costs. It drives our shocking lack of policy learning—our unwillingness to learn from other countries that do anything better than we do—as well as relative indifference to global problems from hunger to climate change and beyond. But it also has its benefits: the war machine that Romney and the neocons would like to sell, the public isn’t buying.

This is a line of attack likely to fly under the radar of elites, or even offend them. But this is a democracy. And I think Obama just won Ohio.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

18 thoughts on “How Obama just won Ohio: moderate isolationism”

  1. It went unremarked in the blogosphere that yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (as an announced, public thing)
    Our kids in 5th grade had a morning history question about it, but nothing else noted, anywhere I saw.

    1. Kennedy, Krushchev, and Castro were all over public radio and public television yesterday. You weren’t looking in the right places, I guess.

      1. In my defense, I said Blogosphere.
        That very well may be the dictionary definition of ‘not the right place to find information’.

  2. I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself, claiming Obama just won Ohio. Last I heard, the election is in November.

    But, yes, I did cringe when Romney promised no cuts in military spending. I don’t mind us defending the world, if the world is willing to pay for it. But they’re not, so we shouldn’t. We can defend ourselves with a much smaller military than we have now. To apply the Romney test: Is it worth borrowing money from China to let Nato sponge off us? No.

    1. What is NATO for? An insurance policy against Russia, that’s all. Since Russia is no immediate threat – Putinism isn’t for export – the optimum insurance policy is rightly seen in most of Europe as a pretty cheap one. Britain and France have bigger defence budgets because of a desire to strut on the world stage, not in Europe. The Atlantic alliance is still very valuable; the integrated military command has had its day, and the HQs could be given to the UN whose quite large and active peacekeeping army – typically 100,000 – is woefully undermanaged.

      1. James,
        NATO is also a legitimacy shield for US adventurism that didn’t get a UN imprimatur. It is useful in that role, although the underlying wisdom of the adventurism can be questioned.

    1. Only if Romney can’t beat him with David Brooks quotes.

      (Also, please note that the phrase “insipid Thomas Friedman quotes” is redundant.)

  3. Sorry, but there’s no way Obama can win Ohio. Since, in 2004, the Republicans got away clean with stealing Ohio (through behind-the-voting-curtain vote tabulation computer manipulations,) why on earth wouldn’t they do it again? They still have the infrastructure in place, enhanced by Romney family investment money, even.

    The 2004 election fraud in Ohio WAS statistically proven beyond reasonable doubt by multiple mathematically impossible discrepancies between the registered voter rolls, the exit polls, and the results (for example: in a fair election, exit polls and results would have been slightly off in both directions in different precincts, but instead exit poll/result discrepancies were *all* in Bush’s favor, including results that matched neither the exit polls nor the numbers of registered voters in some precincts.) But since this is complex, and requires a basic understanding of probability and statistics, it’s beyond the understanding of most people, including election officials, reporters, and prosecutors. Since there’s no paper trail or even electronic verification of voting machine results, there’s no accountability nor recounts possible.

    I laugh at the Republican “voter ID” campaigns against non-existent in person voter fraud, when they know they already have a lock on managing the results through Republican-controlled election commissions and voting machine results tabulation manipulations. I guess some Republican operatives don’t get the big picture, either, or maybe it’s an attempt to distract Democrats from noticing the real threat, like fighter planes throwing out chaff to confuse incoming missiles.

    Here’s an article in Forbes:

    1. So how/why did they screw up then in 2008? Vast conspiracies are like aircraft carriers, you cant turn them on a dime.

      Sometimes the most important statistics aren’t at all hard to understand.

      1. doretta, one thing that was different in 2008 was that Ken “Republican Operative” Blackwell was no longer Ohio’s Secretary of State. We had Democrat in that post overseeing the election. Jennifer Brunner. And wasn’t 2008 a lot less close? Fewer votes to fudge.

        2004 was the election were many polling places didn’t have nearly enough voting machines and surprise, surprise, they were all in heavily Democratic areas. People had to wait in line for hours and hours and some people gave up and went home without casting a ballot. We can’t know what influence that had.

        Brunner’s gone and we’re back to having a very Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted. He’s been working pretty hard to limit early voting which again, hurts Obama. Seems there are a lot of ways to give a close election a push in the direction you’d like.

        To be clear, it depends on the day of the week if I think 2004 was really stolen or not in my state, and to what extent. I remember keeping a friend who lived in Warren County company as she ran errands a few weeks after the 2004 election.

        We drove past a local government building she said, “That’s where they took the ballots,” referring to the very odd story that’d been in the papers, that the Republican city fathers had taken a bunch of local ballots to um, recount just to make sure? Put rubber bands around and neaten ’em up? — don’t remember what their excuse was for this highly unorthodox side trip for the ballots — before submitting them. We made a few jokes about future historical markers and drove on.

        Point being, those of us in Ohio who have been paying attention don’t share your certitude.

        1. Good of you to raise the under-rated risk of electronic election fraud. Unlike the alleged but mythical voter impersonation, it can actually change results. And as you say very, very hard to prove, and impossible to correct. Memo to self: blog on this.

      2. I don’t know why they didn’t rig 2008 (if they didn’t,) but I theorize that: they didn’t because it would not have mattered in 2008 (Obama had too much of an electoral lead and did not need Ohio to win,) and, as Ohio Mom said, the Ohio election commission personnel were not Republican in 2008.

        I don’t think it was a “vast conspiracy,” either. I think it was a small conspiracy of a few Diebold (voting machine) executives and a few Ohio (and TN) election personnel. I don’t believe Bush and most of his advisors even knew about it, though some (Rove) did. (I agree with you about Vast Conspiracies – I think they’re extremely rare if any exist at all – they would require too much cooperation, highly skilled competence and secrecy in execution, for human beings to pull off.)

        But how do you explain the clear and consistent mismatches between exit polls, voter registration lists, and the results in Ohio in 2004 in any other way? The results in Ohio in 2004 were too outside the margin of error in comparison to the exit polls for it to be anything but vote rigging. I don’t understand how that data can be dismissed. You will definitely know something is wrong again this year if the Exit Polls are way off as they were in 2004.

  4. As to this — our “relative indifference to global problems from hunger to climate change and beyond,” I’ll give you the climate change, but just who else is so much better than we are on global hunger? I’m just curious. Are you talking percentage of GDP? Funding of the UN? What?

    And given the way we do agriculture here, it might be better for the world if we left them alone more on food anyway. They don’t need our diabetes and pollution.

    1. The U.S. is a pretty generous donor to the world food program, narrowly speaking. But the very fact that we still insist on sending food to hungry countries—precisely out of deference to agricultural interests—when of course (as any reader of Amartya Sen knows) we should send famine-prone areas money instead for them to buy food locally, shows that we’re relatively indifferent to the real problem. And of course the U.S. ranks at the bottom of advanced democracies when it comes to percentage of GDP (public and private combined) devoted to non-military foreign aid.

      I’m not sure what the diabetes reference is supposed to mean. Sure, there are lots of countries where obesity is a problem–but also lots where hunger is a much bigger problem. Nobody is proposing sending food aid to Germany, and I’m not proposing sending food as such to any country in any case.

      But my point was simpler: not that our government’s policy was flawed—though it is—but that the average citizen really doesn’t care whether it’s flawed or not, has very little appetite (no pun intended) for news or policy discussion regarding anything outside our shores. That makes our public debate regrettably narrow. It’s bad for Americans, who don’t understand the benefits of learning from other countries’ experiences, and bad for other countries: the world cringes when it hears a foreign policy debate almost completely focused on military threats to the United States and its allies, when our economic, environmental, and trade policies affect the well-being of the entire world.

  5. Andrew: “American isolationism has very large costs. It drives our shocking lack of policy learning—our unwillingness to learn from other countries that do anything better than we do—as well as relative indifference to global problems from hunger to climate change and beyond. But it also has its benefits: the war machine that Romney and the neocons would like to sell, the public isn’t buying.”

    Andrew, ‘isolationism’ and ‘not being a warmonger” are are not the same thing.

  6. “American isolationism has very large costs.”

    This is a funny thing. On the one hand, most Americans are in fact indifferent to what happens in most other countries of the world (indeed, to what happens in most other states of the nation), even as people in most other countries have at least some opinion on America. On the other hand, is it reasonable to expect the average American to have a view (nuanced or otherwise) about practically every other country in the world?

    But once you start thinking about which other countries Americans should have views about, you reach the other other hand pretty quickly, which is that for any given country, America probably holds the deepest bench of experts outside of that country itself. Through ties of descent, kinship and interest, some set of Americans knows a vast amount about any particular country.

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