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US presidential election, 6 November - The Romneys: like father, unlike son

Teachers use Obama's story to enliven US history, but the tale of George and Mitt is just as revealing, writes Ed Dorrell

Teachers use Obama's story to enliven US history, but the tale of George and Mitt is just as revealing, writes Ed Dorrell

European journalists, including the British, have long been obsessed with Barack Obama. He is, after all, a hugely charismatic figure; a politician whose 2008 victory in the US presidential election ensured him a significant position in any history of America. And the compelling story of the first African-American president already seems certain to dominate coverage of the 6 November election.

But, counter-intuitively, there is a strong argument that Obama's uncharismatic challenger, Mitt Romney, is an even more useful subject for scholars and teachers of recent US history.

In his awkward way, Romney is every bit as fascinating as Obama. He is the first follower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism) to be nominated by one of the US's two major political parties for president. And the fact that he has brought a previously marginalised religion - one regarded by many even in his own Republican Party as a cult - into the Establishment is a considerable achievement in its own right.

His family history is even more remarkable: the Romneys have played a part in many of the most significant domestic developments in the US since the Second World War. Understanding their story is a way not only to fathom Mitt Romney - and his hugely pragmatic approach to policy U-turns - but the state of modern America as well.

Mitt Romney's father, George, an autodidact and self-made millionaire in Detroit's vast motor industry, was a liberal Republican, a combination that today is so rare as to be almost extinct. Indeed, there can be very little doubt that George, who tried and failed to win his party's nomination in 1968, would be chased out of the Republican Party if he were alive today.

Born in 1907 in a Mormon colony in Mexico, where his family had fled because of the federal government's opposition to polygamy, George climbed out of childhood poverty in Salt Lake City by moving to Detroit in the 1930s. By the early 1960s he was very wealthy and had entered state-level politics, becoming governor of the state of Michigan in 1962. But he stood by his principles with such doggedness that it undermined his political future; a move that his son, however uncomfortable he might be with many modern Republicans, seems determined not to emulate.

George made national headlines during his governorship, going out on a significant limb by marching with Martin Luther King. He rethought much social policy in Michigan to reflect his support for the civil rights movement and was an outspoken advocate of reforming housing policy to end neighbourhood segregation. At the same time, he introduced social welfare policies and backed the introduction of income taxes.

Admittedly, he was not so progressive on family issues: he had huge faith in the all-American nuclear family (he famously gave his wife a rose every morning of their 61-year marriage). But on issues of race, finance, welfare and taxes, George would not be at home with today's Republicans. Indeed, there were times when he really didn't fit into his own party even in the 1960s. The Republicans had their roots in the patrician New England upper classes, but the party was being taken over by a distinctly conservative movement best personified by Barry Goldwater. In 1964, George dramatically walked away from the Republican convention, refusing to back Goldwater for president.

Yet despite his somewhat fractious relationship with his party, he made a bid for the presidential nomination in 1968, starting out as favourite owing to a recent landslide re-election as governor of Michigan. He refused, however, to set aside his more liberal principles and soon lost ground to the more pragmatic Richard Nixon, who eventually won the election.

The defining moment of George's campaign came when he made a public U-turn over Vietnam and called for US troops to be withdrawn. To huge controversy, he declared that on a trip to the war zone two years earlier he had been "brainwashed" by the army's top brass into supporting their ongoing campaign. At the time, the US's deep involvement in Southeast Asia was a Rubicon of an issue for the Republican Party as it drifted to the Right. To cross it was seen as political suicide. But cross it George did, effectively killing his political aspirations in the process.

Whether or not Mitt's willingness to accept policy U-turns (known in US political circles as "flip-flops") is a reflection of what he saw happen to his father is anyone's guess. But there is almost no issue on which Mitt has not flip-flopped - and sometimes flipped again. Perhaps it is an act of pragmatism over morality, for Mitt also began his political career as a liberal Republican governor. Ironically, his healthcare reforms in Massachusetts in the early 2000s were used as a template - amid much controversy - by Obama when he became president in 2008, and became law in 2010. However, when running for the nomination earlier this year, Mitt was scathing in his criticism of Obama's changes, promising to "repeal them on day one".

Likewise, the presidential wannabe has dropped previous liberal convictions on abortion, gun control, gay rights and immigration, signing up to more conservative positions to play to the right-wing Tea Party movement, which has taken control of the Republican base - just as Goldwater and his acolytes did 50 years earlier. One US political commentator described Mitt in recent years as "undergoing ideological plastic surgery on a Michael Jackson scale".

For hardened Republicans this might seem like sensible realpolitik from their nominee; many on the conservative side of the culture wars would approve of just about anything that would see Obama evicted from the White House. What an irony then that Obama campaigns on many policies that Romney's own father would most likely have supported. As might Mitt in his previous incarnation as a liberal Republican.


Key stage 1: Flying the flag

Help pupils to draw the US flag using lbrowne's templates. bit.lyclassflags

Key stage 2: Made in America

Design dollars and dress up as astronauts with the help of bethyevans' resources. bit.lyAmericaday

Key stage 3: Exploring the US

Pupils write political speeches and create a Facebook profile for an important American in sghorn's creative geography unit. bit.lyUSAsow

Key stage 4: Romney or Obama?

Bring election fever to your school and give pupils the chance to vote in motgnel's mock presidential election. bit.lyMockelections

Key stage 5: Red and blue

See how the balance between Democrat and Republican voters has changed since the 1980s with Caprica5's PowerPoint. bit.lyredblueUSA.

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