Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fuelling Cynicism

I don't know which genius apparatchik came up with the co-ordinated campaign of the government this morning to create an atmosphere of panic-buying fuel, but they deserve all the opprobrium the non-political world has to give.

Until this morning's cabinet comments - led by Francis Maude and the Prime Minister - there was no panic buying at the pumps. That's because there is no strike and the process of setting up negotiations to avoid a fuel drivers' strike are still being pursued. But this slow development was clearly frustrating the government. Hence a decision to give the whole dispute a bit of significant media air by having cabinet ministers comment on possible fuel shortages. Clearly the aim of the comments was to push the dispute to the top of the news agenda, and then ratchet up the pressure on those eternal baddies, the unions. It has worked - up to a point. The dispute is certainly top of the agenda, and the union finds it is having to defend its position in an increasingly hostile environment. Meanwhile Francis Maude and David Cameron can point to having made ever so careful statements that really, honestly, truly tried to avoid setting off any panic. Except, of course, that anyone with even a baseline knowledge of how media whispers work will have known that panic is exactly what would set in. And it suits the government that it should do, because it exposes the unions to far more severe public pressure.

Neither side comes out of this very well. Unite, in targeting the Easter break for their possible action, have certainly forfeited public support, even if they can claim - legitimately - that they are playing hard-ball to defend their members' interests. But the government? Cameron's machine has executed a piece of political spin that is breathtaking in its cynicism. It stands comparison with anything that the Blairites managed to achieve - may even outrank them.

To wilfully whisk up a cocktail of fuel panic buying to further their political agenda betrays the worst nature of the political classes. Coming so soon after the disastrous revelation of donors' influence peddling via the ludicrous figure of Peter Cruddas, this should damage the image of the Cameron government beyond repair. Yet it probably won't. Not while Labour remain mired in such a leaderless state of mediocre miasma. But in three years' time, when the clean-cut Etonian is after our votes, we might do well to remember the way he threw us into a domestic turmoil for his own ends. It's not quite up there with such callous treachery as the falsification of evidence to generate an unnecessary war; but it shows the right mind-set.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Presidents Don't Persuade

There is no “power to persuade” for a US president. That is the conclusion in Ezra Klein’s fascinating recent New Yorker article, drawing heavily upon data-heavy research by George Edwards of Texas A and M University.

It can come as a bit of a shock. You read it in all the textbooks; a key element in the arsenal of an American president is his power to persuade. He has a bully pulpit second to none, can command television audiences most candidates barely dream about and has probably come to the presidency in the first place because of his powers of oratorical persuasiveness. Every successful president from Theodore Roosevelt, through his distant cousin Franklin, via JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, to Barack Obama, have been hailed as great speakers, articulators of their vision and persuaders of the American people.

Well, not quite. Klein describes how George Edwards, no specialist in presidential rhetoric, was nonetheless suspicious at the lack of specific evidence to back up the oft repeated claim that presidents persuade. Asked to organise a symposium on the issue, he undertook some research of his won, focusing on the “Great Communicator” himself, Ronald Reagan. Using the polling data, he discovered that Reagan consistently failed to convince the public of the need for programmes he himself favoured, whilst public support for programmes he opposed in fact increased. Not much persuasion going on there then. Only after he left office did Reagan’s reputation as the great persuader start to take hold, in defiance of the evidence.

Edwards eventually extended his research, which is admirably reviewed by Klein, and saw that Reagan was not alone. Bill Clinton, his modern rival in presidential communications, fared no better in actually persuading the American public, for all his skills as a politician. And the power to persuade doesn’t just fail to produce a resonance from the American public. In Congress, too, a president’s speechifying can harden the attitudes of the opposing party, as presidents come to be seen more and more as simply party leaders who need to be opposed.

Klein takes these arguments and looks at what it means for the presidential system of government, as well as considering what it is that really effects a president’s standing. On the former, the hardening party stances in Congress seem to effectively be ensuring a more parliamentary system, but one which is inhibited from much forward motion by the checks of separately elected power sources. Whether this is a new development is one that he also considers, looking back, for example, to FDR’s difficult mid-terms. On the issue of what effects a president’s standing – well, it may not be quite “the economy, stupid”, but it is certainly the general level of well-being that can sometimes be ersonified in the image of the man governing at the time.

In the end, presidents may not be able to persuade very much, but that is surely not going to precipitate a rush to emulate the famously silent Calvin Coolidge and stop them continuing to exercise their vocal chords on their own behalf for the duration of their presidency. After all, the one thing worse than speaking is not speaking. Even if it isn’t very persuasive.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Breitbart's Passing

Most Englishmen and women won't have heard of Andrew Breitbart and the news of his death today aged 43 will mean nothing other than exemplifying the unfortunate circumstance of a relatively young man leaving his wife and four kids suddenly without their father and husband. But Breitbart's death has received substantial coverage in America, with the Republican presidential candidates lining up to praise his 'patriotism' and 'integrity', while amongst the tweeted comments are some that are undoubtedly celebratory.

A fairly recent arrival on the media scene, but a man who pushed forward the boundaries of new media, Breitbart was a controversial figure, always determined to stir things up from his place on the right. He called Ted Kennedy a 'special pile of human excrement' when news of Kennedy's death broke, fitted up a decent, black public servant in Georgia as a racist (she wasn't - he had selectively edited the video recording of a question and answer session she was involved in and released it on his blog) and used all manner of invective to engage with his many critics. If he has had any impact at all beyond the short term, it is probably in further poisoning the waters of public discourse, especially that conducted over social media. He fitted in well with the 'Fox World' of political broadcasting.

'Wired' has a sympathetic obit here, and an earlier profile gives a measure of the man, while it's left to Andrew Sullivan, no fan of Breitbart's views, to provide perspective here. It is, finally, a measure of Mitt Romney's political integrity that this candidate for whom Breitbart is likely to have held nothing but contempt (his websites regularly ran the accusation that Romney was not a 'proper conservative') still weeps crocodile twitter tears for his passing.

UPDATE: David Frum at the Daily Beast has a good piece on Breitbart, noting that it is difficult in his case to speak only good of the dead as "It’s difficult for me to assess Breitbart’s impact upon American media and American politics as anything other than poisonous."