By Geoffrey Garrett
Democrats court young leftists as the ALP drops the Greens and goes to the Centre
US Democrats often run to the Centre in tough times, and times in the US have rarely been tougher. But Barack Obama has responded to America's post-global financial crisis woes by moving to the Left.
He has embraced gay marriage and a path to residency for illegal immigrants. He says he will end tax cuts for the rich. He is decrying Mitt Romney for representing all the evils of Wall Street.
Labor is generally viewed as more progressive than the Democrats, and the mining boom has given the government room to flex its progressive muscle with the carbon and mining taxes.
But Labor is tacking to the Centre. The right faction is belittling the Greens as wacky radicals for taking Obama-like positions on gay marriage and asylum-seekers. The Gillard government is desperately seeking a budget surplus while Obama defends much more red ink in the US.
These moves reveal very different electoral calculations.
Obama is doing much better in the polls than Labor, but his chances of re-election are not much better than 50-50. He hopes embracing gays and Latinos and picking up the Occupy Wall Street mantle will tip the balance in his favour come November.
Labor's attack on the Greens isn't so much about winning the next election as it is a rearguard action to stave off electoral carnage. Further alienating voters in inner Sydney and Melbourne seems a price worth paying in the name of trying to hold on to suburban seats. The rush to surplus is about burnishing its economic management credentials tarnished by the carbon and mining taxes.
Chances are Obama will be more successful than Labor.
Obama's big gamble is that the GFC has shifted the centre of gravity in US politics to the Left, and he is probably right. The US is a different country today from what it was when the post-partisan Obama was catapulted into the White House in 2008 proclaiming the end of ugly partisan conflict in Washington.
While the scare campaign from the Right is that Obama is a socialist, there is no denying that the 2012 version of Obama looks like a traditional European social democrat. With unemployment stuck above 8 per cent, housing prices 30 per cent below pre-GFC levels, and 30 per cent of mortgages underwater, defending the welfare state and big deficits makes perfect sense for Obama.
If he can ensconce the burgeoning Latino population inside the Democratic tent, the Republicans' competitiveness could be harmed for a generation.
Supporting gay marriage is a good way to re-energise the youth vote, the 2008 Obama army that has been disbanding out of disappointment with their would-be messiah's feet of clay.
As Obama's failure to pass his own carbon tax shows, legislating his left agenda is still a tall order in the US. But what Obama is doing today is all about symbolism, not legislation. The US won't have a national gay marriage law or a path to legal residency any time soon. But Obama wins on the Left for saying he wants to get there, it's just the unenlightened Republicans who won't let him.
Labor's move to the Right could be justified by saying Tony Abbott is so extreme that there are potentially big Labor gains to be had among conservative moderates.
But instead of exploiting an opportunity, Labor seems more concerned about staunching the likely haemorrhaging at the next election. A sensible short-term tactic.
In the longer term, Labor will have to decide whether to try to crush the Greens or to do a long-term deal along the lines of Germany's red-green alliance.
Clearly any stable Labor-Green coalition in which the Greens focus on the inner city while Labor is more suburbia is a long way off, given today's bad blood.
It will also take a long time if Labor wants to squeeze out the Green space in the Australian electorate by taking the Obama route of supporting gay marriage and opposing offshore processing for asylum-seekers.
The simple conclusion is that the way forward for Labor is uncertain but likely very bumpy.
Obama's new-found leftism seems a good fit for post-GFC America. Entrenching the youth and Latino votes would reap long-term benefits. Defending deficit spending will remain popular unless and until the US fully recovers from its economic funk.
The US is still a more conservative country than Australia. You just wouldn't know it from the way the governments in the two countries are behaving.