The right must purge itself of paranoia

If the Coalition can't rid itself of the cynical campaigning which shot the Republican Party in the foot, there's every chance Tony Abbott will 'do a Romney'.

Does the Obama victory change everything? Not quite. It defers the real decision about where US politics and governance is headed until the next mid-term election in two years' time, when either the Republican-held House of Representatives or the Democrat-dominated Senate will see a big shift in power.

It's as if US voters, acting as a proxy for global political sentiment in liberal democracies, were not yet ready to give their final verdict on what the global financial crisis (to use its Australian moniker) means for democratic rule.

Do lovers of free markets ultimately need a nanny state watching over them to pick them up when they graze their knees? Or should Nanny Keynes be banished from the garden to let a more vigorous, jungle-like vitality create a new Eden?

Voters just weren't sure. So more of the same please Mr Obama, while we make up our minds.

Things are bad in the US, with nearly one in six Americans living below the poverty line, but voters can't be sure that it wouldn't have been far, far worse without the Obama administration's stimulus packages and bailouts, particularly in the iconic auto industry.

That auto narrative ties in neatly with using Bruce Springsteen to bring back some of the male blue-collar voters who have been abandoning the Democrats in droves. Springsteen's songs drip with references to auto plants, or bars where grimy factory works unwind with a beer... before heading out to vote Obama!

Far less attention was given to the bailouts for Wall Street banks which preceded the auto rescue packages by a matter of months.

But while the US result does not give a conclusive direction to global political development, there are still clear lessons – particularly for conservatives.

Commentators across the board are pointing to the Republican Party's failure to connect with women, the young and major ethnic groups.

The trick there is trying to 'connect' with people, when you should actually 'be' the people – greater representation of women and black/Asian/Hispanic voters within the party is far preferable to wondering how to 'connect' with these voting blocs on election day. As Newt Gingrich put it, "if ethnic minorities voted their economic interest, we would have a 65 per cent Republican majority".

Perhaps. That quote, along with many other Republican comments, implies that voters have somehow been duped – tricked out of what's best for them by a self-interested liberal media.

The high-water mark of this kind of thinking was the bizarre comments of former George W Bush adviser Karl Rove, who refused to concede that the pivotal state of Ohio had been lost, despite every fibre of his political being no doubt telling him that it was.

Rove clung to the fact that Obama's lead in that state was only "991 votes", when all pundits around him agreed that the early count was skewed towards Republicans, and the the later count would deliver the state to the Democrats. Rove slammed the TV anchors he was debating on air for "intruding on the process".

What makes that last statement so risible is that Rove, a right-wing commentator, was having the debate on Fox News, the notoriously right-leaning news network.

When even Fox News is agitating to return Obama, the liberal media elite must really be in control.

This kind of thinking is stain on conservative politics, and one that offers lessons even for Australia.

Political rhetoric from our own conservative quarters has been dominated by two themes that echo Rove's paranoia – firstly that the Gillard government tricked its way into power through a calculated lie about the carbon tax; and secondly, that Labor's gross incompetence has been masked by China's demand for our mineral resources.

Both of these themes rely on the same implication – if voters only knew the truth, they'd sweep Gillard away for good. If only that liberal elite controlling our media would tell the truth!

If the Coalition cannot rid itself of these paranoid tendencies, there's every chance Abbott will 'do a Romney'. Because as long as those themes infect the thinking of National and Liberal Party MPs, the next election looks set to be fought on the flawed notion that 'the economy might be outperforming all other OECD nations, but it's actually a disaster'.

The danger to the Coalition is not that it pumps out such rhetoric, but that far too many on the conservative side actually believe it.

There are opportunities to make the Australian economy more productive, equitable and robust, but given Labor's current set of numbers, they are relatively small – inflation is low, unemployment is low, private sector investment is still relatively good, growth is not too far off trend and so on. Oh, and we're the richest people on earth.

But that is not stopping the Coalition arguing that there's room to make things radically better.

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey told a Sydney Institute audience yesterday that if Obama lost, it would be due to his over-promising and under-delivering. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes him as saying "you cannot over-promise in politics anywhere, it leaves an air of disappointment".

Quite right. But day after day the Coalition has been telling voters the sky is falling due to the carbon tax and mining tax, two policies that one very well informed parliamentary Liberal source last week told me had "no material impact on the economy".

So to turn Hockey's logic on its head, if the Gillard government survives the next election it will be because they delivered something quite good, while the Coalition promised something extravagantly better.

Like Americans, Australians will need some convincing to take a gamble on the latter, when the former is quite comfortable. Better the devil you know and all that.

Obama's win was not just a trick played on the US people by some imagined liberal media elite. Likewise, Labor's economic record is more that just a trick. However, if the Coalition can't wrest power from the Gillard government at the next election, it will be because too many on that side of politics thought it was.