aybe Republicans are right in the wrong way: Europe is a political model — an unhappy one for them.
The easy consolation they can take from the past week's elections there is that Nicolas Sarkozy has just become the latest incumbent leader in the advanced nations, the eleventh in Europe, to lose office since the onset of the financial crisis. Doesn't Obama have to follow Sarkozy and the rest as night follows day?
The lessons actually point in the opposite direction.
Sarkozy is only the second president of the Fifth Republic to be denied a second term — because voters repudiated an austerity regime that hasn't restored prosperity, but renewed recession. That regime also happens to be the Romney/Ryan prescription for America. It's been tried and failed economically across Europe — and across Europe it has proved politically toxic in recent days.
In Britain's midterm local elections, the Conservatives and their misnamed coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, were ravaged on May 3. The Tories lost more than 400 council seats and the Lib-Dems 300 — leaving them at the lowest level in their history. Prime Minister David Cameron accurately blamed the state of the economy, but blithely lied about it, too. The fault, he said, was "in the broken economy we inherited." In fact, when the coalition took power in the spring of 2010, Britain had weathered the storm better than most — and far better than the U.S. The economy was not only growing, but growth was on an upward slope because the Labor government had taken the Keynesian path of stimulating demand.
The course of instant, persistent, untempered austerity is increasingly untenable, in the European economy or at the ballot box.
The British coalition then cut fast and deep, turning recovery into a double-dip downturn. Unemployment "will rise from its current 8.3 percent to almost 9 percent by the end of the year," according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
George Osborne, the high Tory schoolboy posing as a fiscal expert in his capacity as the government's Chancellor of the Exchequer, rushed onto Sunday television to reassure the public: "We will not be distracted from the economy." The British people may wish they were distracted: The coalition has already done quite enough to ruin the economy. But the Conservatives may insist on slashing even more to satisfy their right wing. And they won't stop there. While Mitt Romney may share their fiscal myopia — the mythology of deficit reduction as an inherent public good — they're moving toward him on social policy and the protection of privilege. Osborne announced that same-sex marriage and reform of the House of Lords, both promised by the coalition, would be consigned to the back burner — as if either the pursuit of equality or the widening of democracy would interfere with creating jobs or spurring growth. Instead, the government focuses on reviled and discredited austerity budgets that slam the middle class and lavish tax cuts on those at the top.
Sound familiar? So did Sarkozy's appeals in the runoff — to "Christian values" and to an intolerance and immigrant-bashing which is anything but Christian. The frantic incumbent opposed marriage equality and gays adopting children. He had traded in his wife for a supermodel, but during the campaign he made sure to be photographed at a chapel. Sarkozy was a kind of Monsieur Gingrich: He might have won the South Carolina Republican primary, but he couldn't hold onto the presidency of France.
Francois Hollande is the first Socialist elected to the Elysee Palace in 17 years. Note to the Tea Party: He's not the Marxist menace you may conjure up, but a center-left politician who has promised to renegotiate the fiscal straightjacket Germany has fastened on Europe. Britain did so entirely on its own — and then, when the coalition appeased Tory eurosceptics by disdaining a role in the continent's response to the euro crisis, surrendered the central objective of British foreign policy for two centuries — to prevent German domination of Europe.
The famously stubborn German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and her ideologically blinkered colleagues, were insisting until Sunday that they would not budge, except maybe a little cosmetically. But as Sarkozy was going down, so were the two long-dominant parties in Greece that supported a counterproductive austerity plan which had left that country endlessly chasing its fiscal tail, cutting spending, depressing the economy, and defeating rather than securing deficit reduction. The consensus could not hold: The anti-austerity left soared in Greece, but the neo-Fascist right also captured a tenth of the seats in Parliament.
The course of instant, persistent, untempered austerity is increasingly untenable, in the European economy or at the ballot box. That's true in Germany too; on the same voting Sunday, Merkel's Conservative party suffered its worst election performance since 1950 in the state of Schleswig-Holstein. As former German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder argues, there has to be a shift toward growth: A modified approach that promotes recovery — along with structural reforms in areas like pensions and labor markets — and makes possible and palatable medium and longer term reductions in deficit and debt. This is the rational way forward. France will now bargain for it; Greece will demand it; and more and more, so will European voters — at times, if they are not heeded, with extremist choices that threaten the post-war order of democracy and human rights on the continent.
It is still possible that the austerity police could stand their ground — and even that the larger European project could come apart. Romney and the Republicans might welcome that result; it would be the bitter fruit of their own economics applied across the Atlantic, but all the sweeter if the knock-on effects damage American markets and destroy American jobs. They could blame Barack Obama for what their own beliefs had wrought. It's a well-practiced form of GOP mendacity: Romney constantly assails the president for the job losses inflicted by George W. Bush.
But it's now far more probable that Europe — if not Britain, at least not yet — will turn to a balanced strategy of growth combined with graduated fiscal restraint. Merkel has to see what French voters wrote of Sarkozy's Facebook wall; if continuing European economic weakness infects Germany, as it ultimately has to, she could pay the ultimate political price in her own 2013 national elections.
Romney and the GOP are losers, too, in this latest and redefining round of European politics. What just happened politically in France, Britain, and elsewhere on the continent likely won't happen here this November — and for four reasons.
First, the German foreign minister has swiftly agreed to work on a growth pact for Europe. Even modest steps back from the austerity brink would strengthen American and global economies — and Obama's prospects.
Second, and more fundamentally, the president has succeeded in passing a series of pro-growth measures here — even if they were not as big as they could have or should have been. His opponents sought to block him from the start; but he managed to push through the stimulus and the auto bailout, to bargain for the payroll tax cut and longer unemployment compensation. He even has the benefit of what he conceded — the temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts, an unfair and inefficient way to help the economy, but better than nothing.
Republicans have been rooting for recession; more and more, it looks like they won't get it. Sarkozy lost with the French unemployment above 10 percent; conceivably, Obama could see an election day rate somewhere around 7.5 or 7.7 percent — not much higher than the level when Ronald Reagan won his landslide.
Third, the president has set the larger contours of choice for 2012 — the dividing lines between the parties — and Romney's answer has just been tried and found wanting by Sarkozy. Obama in effect asks: Who fights for you — and who stands with the privileged? That was the overriding question posed by Hollande. And at Sarkozy's final massive rally in front of the Eiffel Tower, he denounced it as "class warfare." It was pure Mitt and an utter flop; and the polling suggests that on every issue of fairness here, from saving Medicare to the wealthy paying their share of taxes, Obama speaks a basic American value — that protecting and advancing the middle class can't be smeared as "class warfare."
Finally, Sarkozy's fate points to a dilemma for Romney. The about-to-be-deposed French president relentlessly, recklessly appeased the far-right during his run-off with Hollande. He decided that he had to get their ballots, at almost any cost, to have any chance. In the process, he alienated mainstream voters. The leading independent candidate in the first round was closer to Sarkozy on economic issues, but as a moderate who couldn't abide the president's panders to intolerance, he endorsed Hollande. Romney's serial pandering came in the primary. He too calculated that he had to do it; he may even believe the extremism that he uttered. Who knows? But we do know that Romney has opened up a gender chasm with women and closed off much of his appeal to Hispanic voters, who are critical to any GOP reach for the White House. The fallout here could be worse for Romney than for Sarkozy, whose targets represented a far smaller percentage of the French electorate.
In his victory speech, Hollande said that "finally austerity is not fatal" — that his mission was "growth...and a dream of the future." And the outcome there says something about the future here. Romneynomics and the reactionary social policies that ride with it sidesaddle were defeated across the Atlantic. Next up: November in America.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How my boyfriend and I learned to live on one income
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- Why Texas Republicans may want to cool the anti-Obama land-grab talk
- Why the poor's investment of choice is so alarming
- Why China's Communist Party is headed for collapse
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to make perfect fried rice in 6 easy steps
- Why atheism doesn't have the upper hand over religion
- Why conservatives see rural America as the 'real' America
- Affirmative action is doomed. Here's what progressives should do about it.
Subscribe to the Week