Presidential campaign rhetoric: the view from overseas

10/11/2012
BY KENDALL F. DOWNS
BLADE COLUMNIST

Salmiya, Kuwait — U.S. embassies do a lot more than help American tourists who have lost their passports or gotten in trouble with the local constabulary. One of their more important functions is to support activities designed to increase cross-cultural understanding.

I recently attended a discussion arranged by the U.S. Embassy here and the American University of Kuwait about the American presidential campaign. The audience didn't hear much about the candidates that they didn't know already. But the discussion was educational in several ways.

Representing Democrats was Jay Footlik, founder of Global Policy Initiatives and a former member of the Clinton administration. Rick Smotkin stood in for the Republicans. He's a lobbyist for Comcast, was a member of the New Jersey and Delaware state GOP committees, and was technology adviser to former Sen. John Ashcroft (R., Mo.). They did not speak for President Obama or Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Some of the discussion focused on process, especially about what topics dominate election politics and why. The rest of the time, they engaged in good-natured partisan rhetoric, reiterated talking points audiences back home could recite in their sleep, and acted as apologists for their favored candidate's mistakes.

Mr. Smotkin said Mr. Romney's focus until Nov. 6 should be “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

“Most Americans are much more concerned with what's happening in the Middle West than in the Middle East,” Mr. Footlik said, “because it impacts them more directly.”

But the audience — mostly students, faculty, and members of the community, nearly all from the Middle East, Africa, or the subcontinent — was more interested in foreign policy, especially the future of American policy toward the Middle East.

They asked 13 questions. Nine of them addressed the Middle East. Three touched on the Palestinian problem. Three referred to Israel's relationship with the United States. The war on terror, Syria, Iran, and the rise of Islamist political parties also were mentioned.

“Out of curiosity or fear, I would like to know: How will Middle East policy change with Romney?” one student asked.

“How hard will Obama negotiate with Iran?” asked another.

A third insisted that Iran is afraid that if Mr. Romney becomes president, there will be an alliance with Israel to attack Iran. "We could be plunged into a war before we know it," he said.

“Would you say Romney doesn't support a two-state solution [between Israel and the Palestinians]?” a fourth wanted to know.

Underlying these questions were important truths. People around the world pay attention to American politics. CNN International, BBC World News, Bloomberg News, and other cable stations give people from Tehran to Timbuktu access to American politics. And most important, they often believe what they hear American politicians say.

All politics may be local, as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D., Mass.) famously said. But technology has made the audience international. So, when a politician says outrageous things to a local constituency, they're likely to be heard around the world. And that has implications.

Mr. Footlik and Mr. Smotkin were listening. They reassured questioners that U.S. policy toward the Middle East won't change significantly no matter who wins the election. Their response was instructive for American voters, as well as foreign observers, for another reason.

“You have got to make a distinction between rhetoric and reality, between campaigning and governing,” Mr. Footlik said to the man who said people in Iran believe American campaign speeches.

“Whatever is said over the last six months, eight months of a campaign, you have to just throw it out,” Mr. Smotkin told a local reporter. “You have to judge him on what he does when he's president of the United States, not when he's a candidate for president.”

The discerning foreign observer might ask how Americans can decide who to vote for if everything candidates say has to be thrown out. Americans might ask the same question.

People here study American elections to get a glimpse of how U.S. policy might threaten their world. Americans study the candidates to figure out who will lead the country in what they hope will be a positive direction. And they do it in an environment in which they have to throw out everything the candidates say.

That's not much of a recommendation for democracy, and no way to run an election.

Kendall F. Downs, a former associate editor of The Blade, lives and works in Kuwait.

Contact him at: kdowns@theblade.com