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They who seek answers usually win

Charles Moore

Published: November 6 2012 - 3:00AM

Most commentators thought President Barack Obama won the final US presidential television debate. Attention focused on the President's put-down of his rival, Mitt Romney, when they debated defence. Romney complained the US Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1917. Obama intervened: America probably has ''fewer horses and bayonets'' too - the world is changing and so is the technology of defence. ''This is not a game of Battleship,'' he added.

Since I am a member of that widely disliked class, the ''commentariat'', my immediate, instinctive reaction was, the President had scored a palpable hit. He had done what we columnists try to do: he had been funny, and made his opponent look stupid. We - and he - pride ourselves on being clever, so regard stupidity as the ultimate vice.

On second thoughts, I wonder if US voters feel the same way. Obama may have been making a reasonable point about modern warfare, but if I were serving in the US Navy, or related to someone working in any industry or service involving defence, security or risk to life, I would not have enjoyed that comparison with horses and bayonets. This was a piece of condescension, not from a columnist but from the Commander-in-Chief.

One reason, over the past four years, Obama has lost his heroic status is that people see beyond the wonderful fact a black man can be elected president. Martin Luther King famously had a dream about the time his own children would be judged not ''by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character''. In the case of President Obama, this time has come.

His character is not that of a man who has emerged from nowhere to challenge the powerful few on behalf of the wretched of the earth. It is that of a media-savvy professor of an Ivy League university - comfortable with irony, more than comfortable with the sound of his own voice, confident he knows more than most. One of the striking features of the lives of such professors is their terms of employment. They have ''tenure'': no one can get them out.

Obama entered the contest believing he, too, had tenure. The White House was his. The election, like those bogus selection processes for top public sector jobs when the winner has been pre-decided, was little more than a tiresome formality.

In the first debate, when Romney attacked him and proposed himself as a man with interesting answers, Obama looked shocked at the challenger's effrontery. Since then, he has had to wake up and fight back. He has performed better. But he still speaks as if he thinks his main qualification for the job is that he has it. In this time of economic difficulty, incumbency should have few rights. You have to listen carefully to get an idea of what the President proposes to do with the four more years to which he feels entitled.

In Britain and, even more, in continental Europe, the people who bring their citizens the news do not see this. To them, Obama's combination of historically persecuted ethnicity and posh seminar tone is perfect. It satisfies their mildly left-wing consciences and fits their cultural assumptions. The chief of these is that the excesses of the West, especially of America, are the biggest problem in the world. Obama comes as near to saying this as anyone trying to win American votes ever could. His ''apology tour'' to the Middle East early in his presidency remains, for the European elites, the best thing he has ever done. He is the anti-Americans' American.

Romney is not. Although he is a moderate Republican, it is fascinating how profoundly he clashes culturally with Obama, and, a fortiori, with the European media and political classes.

Early in this campaign, Romney seemed rather boringly technocratic. You still hear traces of this: in that final debate, Romney, son of Detroit, kept talking up ''managed bankruptcy'' in the automobile industry. No doubt this makes sense in business language, but his words must have struck fear into large parts of his audience. Yet whenever Romney has made what the media call his ''gaffes'', I noticed that almost all of them contained kernels of truth. Whether he is talking of the 47 per cent (his figure) of Americans who are suppliants of the state or about the threat from Russia, he is raising real problems, very much the sort of questions that Obama would rather not discuss.

His decisively interesting ''gaffe'' was the one in Israel in July. He praised the Israelis for the ''cultural elements'' in their success, the qualities that made the actual, economic and political desert bloom.

''Culture makes all the difference,'' he said. Of course this brought condemnation upon his head as it was taken as a criticism of Palestinian culture. But his point goes to the heart of the West's problem. Does it still, as it did, contain within itself the capacity for renewal, adventure and enterprise? Is its prized freedom a principle of activity for each individual or merely the right to moan about everything and tell the government to put it right?

Romney is a Mormon, and Mormons often get bad press. They feature, some as criminals, in Arthur Conan Doyle's very first Sherlock Holmes story, ''A Study in Scarlet''. But Conan Doyle also says this in that story, about the great journey of immigrant Mormon believers seeking the promised land in Utah ''with a constancy almost unparalleled in history'': ''The savage man, and the savage beast, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and disease - every impediment which Nature could place in the way - had all been overcome with Anglo-Saxon tenacity.'' This sense of a people defeating appalling obstacles, through their own efforts and the hand of providence, is as old as Moses. As Conan Doyle implies, it is central to the story of the English-speaking peoples. Even today, it is what makes America new in each generation. Obama does not believe in it. Romney does.

What the media see as a ''gaffe'' is often, in reality, a challenge to the dominant orthodoxy. In the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher made the gaffe of questioning the motives of the Soviet Union when everyone else was mad about detente. She made the gaffe of questioning income policies when most people said they were the only way of stopping inflation. After a while, she piled up enough gaffes to make sure that she won the general election of 1979. In the US in 1980, Ronald Reagan made those sorts of gaffes, too.

Then, as now, our entire economic system was in question. It was so serious that it put the West's global predominance in question as well. The prize went to the candidate who raised the questions, and tried boldly to answer them, not to the one who tried to suppress them. I hope the same proves true in the US this week.

London Daily Telegraph

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