Michael KreponObama vs. Romney

U.S. presidential elections periodically offer a dramatic choice rather than an echo. This was Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan in 1964 against Lyndon Baines Johnson. Voters chose LBJ in a landslide.  Lop-sided victories are the usual outcome when two starkly different choices face U.S. voters in presidential contests.  Think of  Nixon vs. McGovern, or Hoover vs. FDR. Once every other generation, however, dramatically different presidential choices produce close shaves.  Nixon vs. Humphrey was a nail-biter.  Obama vs. Romney is another.

Back in 1968, voters were told to expect a “new” Nixon. He turned out to be many Nixons: progressive in domestic policies, occasionally brilliant in geopolitical maneuver, just awful regarding the Vietnam War, and paranoid behind closed doors, which cost him his presidency.

There are many Mitt Romneys, too: the progressive Governor of Massachusetts, the right-wing candidate in the Republican primaries, and the moderate who showed up in presidential debates with Mr. Obama. President Obama and his campaign team seemed to have had difficulty figuring out which Mitt Romney to criticize.

If the President is re-elected, we’ll have a pretty good sense of how he will try to tackle very hard problems relating to the Bomb. If Governor Romney is elected, it’s anyone’s guess, given his malleability as a political figure. Clues would be strip-mined from his choice of advisers.  Hard-liners  have kept their counsel while their candidate veered moderate.  For the moment, electoral success matters more to them than conservative orthodoxy.  If Governor Romney wins, Republican factionalism will become fierce, and Democrats will move bitterly to the left.

A tight election result usually does not bode well for the prospects of treaties long held hostage by Republicans in the Senate, whose moderate wing, like the planet’s glaciers, has vastly receded.  Then again, if Governor Romney loses, even by a slim margin in these tough economic times, Republican leaders might just see the wisdom of reconsidering small-tent positions, one of which is to oppose a treaty that confirms the twenty-year-long cessation of nuclear testing by major powers.

The presidential debates have also, in predictable fashion, made it even harder to achieve a diplomatic settlement over Iran’s nuclear program. If reelected, President Obama is likely to make a serious run at a settlement early in his second term.  If Mitt Romney becomes president, he might be capable of leveraging his hard-line position into a surprisingly useful outcome on Iran, just as with Nixon’s opening to China. On Iran, however, the challenger’s position has wavered only marginally, and is more likely to choose combustible outcomes.

Governor Romney’s opposition to New Start constitutes a toxic complement to President Putin’s attachment to ten-warhead, liquid-fueled missiles. Another potentially combustible mix.


  1. bradley laing (History)

    —I read an article where a Romney advisor refused to say where, in the military, he would cut. Obviously, he thought military voters (and sympathisers, also) would vote for Romney on the gronds that he would be less likely to cut their specific job.

    —But, the money isn’t there to keep everything, at least that seems to be the case. Furthermore, some jobs, like submarine crew, are dual use conventional and nuclear at the same time. Others, like sitting in an ICBM silo, are not.

    —Is my preception that some bases have a big red “X” on them, meaning “Republicans will close this,” and others a big red “X” plus Donkey cut-out shape meaning “Democrats will close this,” true?

    —More importantly, can we guess the composition of the nuclear forces from guessing which party wins the presidency?

  2. Rob Goldston (History)

    What do the candidates think of David Albright’s argument that the West should quietly warn Iran away from making 60% enriched U? Or does stating what they think get rid of the “quietly” part, so they should not?

  3. panterazero (History)

    I’m only tangentially an arms control person, Michael, but from a purely political perspective, thank you for a breath of clean air. I’m so tired of all the bickering.

  4. Nick Nolan (History)

    Those people who fund and man the campaigns are more important for shaping the presidency than what candidates say. Campaigin money creates access to the candidate and they can negotiate cabinet positions and get more binding promises from candidates.

    For Obama’s first run, Goldman Sachs was big donor their men had positions in the campaign and in the cabinet.

    For Romney, Sheldon Adelson and number of Evangelical Christians were major donors. They forced Romney to have fundraiser in Israel.

    I strongly suspect that Romney’s hands are tied in relation to Iran.

  5. 3.1415 (History)

    There is a wishful sentiment in the arms control circle that the United States (or Russia) can significantly decrease their nuclear posture without changing the fundamental characteristics of the country. The nukes merely epitomize the very aggressive nature of both countries. No matter who becomes the President of the United States, there will be no dramatic shift in its nuclear policy. If Romney wins, further tax cuts will make it more and more untenable to run the Empire, its nuclear programs included. It is unclear whether an economically unstable United States will seek to capitalize on its nuclear assets or try to liquidate the Empire to shore up revenues. If Obama wins, the glacial pace of economic recovery in the United States is unlikely to withstand the brutal force of “free trade”. Unfortunately, the American political system is not well designed for anything with a time horizon of more than four years; it was designed before there was K Street. The system needs a new software, not just a new update.

    • Cthippo (History)

      Nukes are cheap for what they do. The reason Russia is holding on to so many of their tactical ones is that the small warheads help to qualitatively offset the US advantage in terms of strength and technology. A nuclear deterrent is much cheaper to maintain then a modern, well equipped, standing army.

  6. Cthippo (History)

    I have to disagree that our choices for president this time around can be described as “dramatically different”. especially in the foreign policy realm. which arms control would be considered a part of. There really doesn’t seem to be much difference between their stated positions, and on Iran, for example, when presented with the same list of options I doubt they will select vastly different ones. If anything, this campaign is probably notable for how similar the positions of the two candidates are on most issues, despite how divided the electorate is.

  7. Denis O'Brien (History)

    Today the Guardian caught me completely off guard [sic] with a report that Israel and Iran sat down together — pleasantly (OMG!) — at a conference in Brussels today [Nov05] and started moving toward a Helsinki Conference on a nuke free Middle East, maybe as early as December. This is probably old news to you folks, but I dumbstruck, and I am flabbergasted that Obama/Clinton/Dempsey have been able to pull this off and there are no US headlines screaming across the NYT, or at least the HuffPo.

    Is this the October surprise we’ve been waiting for that never materialized, or have I just been writing too many patents lately to notice what’s going on?

    Given Israel’s intransigence, getting them and Iran together at a non-proliferation conference would be Obama’s greatest victory, bar none, including schlepping OBL’s corpse over the gunnels of the USS Whatever.

    Is it possible that Israel realizes that the window has closed, as Jeffrey has suggested, that Iran is well beyond the Acme bomb red line, and it’s time to play nice?

  8. Scott Monje (History)

    I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that the Republicans would cut anything at all from the defense budget, at least not until forced to by circumstances. The pattern for the past 30 years has been for Republicans to talk austerity while out of power and then to cut taxes and let the deficit go where it may when in power. (In percentage terms, the debt grew more under Reagan and G W Bush than it did under Obama.) If any cuts are made, they will be to programs that Democrats like. Cantor has suggested that the sequestration cuts would be acceptable to him if the military cuts could only be reassigned to the nonmilitary budget. Yet, if the past pattern holds, spending cuts won’t be anywhere near comparable to the tax cuts.

  9. HL (History)

    While the nuclear realm will demand attention regardless of who becomes president, what are the prospects of outer space cooperation between China, Russia, and the United States during the next four years if Obama or Romney get elected?

    Romney the hawk supports increasing military spending by trillions of dollars, argues that Russia is our greatest geopolitical foe, and has approached US-China relations with some ambivalence. Will he spearhead the effort to weaponize space or attempt to forge an international agreement regulating and restricting activities in space?

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    Now that we know the answer, any predictions?

    Obviously, China and Russia are not The Enemy again, any moreso than they might want to be (very little, and not much respectively, I think).

    Anything bold such as unilateral force reductions, Comprehensive Test Ban ratification, a new arms treaty?

    • Cthippo (History)

      Well, now the Iran negotiations can resume, which will provide Jeffery with article fodder!

      In the short term, probably nothing significant since Obama needs to spend his time dealing with the “economic cliff” / “sequestration” / debt ceiling manufactured crises before he can do anything internationally. Immigration is getting a lot of play right now since the Latino voters are demanding action and the republicans are admitting that, yeah, something needs to be done. Barring something unexpected coming up, I thing the president is going to be pretty focused on domestic issues for the foreseeable future.

      Looking at the state of the world right now, things are pretty calm. China and Russia are focused on making money, Kim Jong Un has enough problems to keep him busy, plus a hot new wife(this is how you can tell I’m not a professional blogger), Syria is a mess, but a contained one, Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. I expect the “government” we’ve installed in Afghanistan will fall in 2015 to a popular “Taliban 2.0” sort of arrangement, but unless we’re willing to stay there forever, this is just a matter of timing.

      Iran is the biggest question on the plate, but the situation there is essentially stable with enrichment continuing under IAEA supervision. Negotiation and smack talking will continue, but unless Iran or Isreal does something blatantly aggressive, and I mean stuff going boom, not just words, this can go on essentially forever. What can’t continue forever is international support for the sanctions, and as we saw with Iraq, these have a natural half life. If Iran just keeps chugging along producing LEU it’s going to be harder and harder for foreign governments, especially European ones, to justify the sanctions.

      One area where I see a possible US diplomatic effort is on climate change, which is another area where Obama has been getting pressure from his supporters for inaction.

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