Sunday, January 31, 2016

Have we been here before? Clinton versus an insurgent

She was meant to have had a lock on the Democratic Party nomination, in a year that looked good for a Democratic presidential candidate.  Hillary Clinton had the sort of star power few could hope to emulate, and she was one half of a couple who virtually embodied the term "power couple" in a party that was firmly in hoc to their machine.  And then came Iowa, and an insurgency that proved to be her undoing.  Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and hope for change undid Hillary's hopes of breaking the glass ceiling for women in 2008.

And here she is again.  Her machine is intact, her supporters well motivated, she's captured the endorsement of one of the country's leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times; yet once again this once impregnable candidate faces a grassroots insurgency that could de-rail her second attempt at the presidency.

Of course it's not quite the same as 2008.  Hillary is a wiser person and a better candidate.  Her debate performances - under-reported at a time when everyone is obsessing over the Donald's wrecking of the Republican debates - have been far sparkier and effective than before.  Plus, she does have eight more years of hard won experience behind her, four of them as the former insurgent, Barack Obama's Secretary of State.  Bernie, meanwhile, has mobilised extraordinary support, and could certainly provide an upset in Iowa before what looks like a big win in New Hampshire (bordering his own Vermont state).  But Bernie can't match Obama's rhetoric, and he can motivate liberals but arguably not the mainstream who will there to be grabbed in the event of a very rightist Republican nomination.

It can, in fact, only be good for Clinton and the Democratic Party to have a race come much closer.  It would not have benefited Clinton at all to go through a coronation before the rough passage of the main election in autumn.  This way, she has to really hone her campaigning instincts, and she has to work out why so many Democrats and previously uncommitted voters are flocking to Bernie.  This Washington Post piece, and the turning of a sceptic noted here by Cody Gough, shows why "the Bern" is whirling up such a wind, and Hillary would be foolish to discount this.  She runs as an establishment candidate - her experience is a key selling point - at a time when many American voters seem dead set against that amorphous entity.  Capture some of the Sanders insurgency and Hillary really could have a winning formula.

This BBC report brilliantly captures the difference between the Clinton and Sanders rallies in Iowa and in so doing points up much of the distinction between these two seasoned politicians.

Hillary is no shoo-in any more.  Bernie Sanders has done the Democratic party a considerable service for that.  Whether the Senator from Vermont can provide the political weight to balance the excitement of his campaign, against a candidate who has weight aplenty, will ultimately determine who really is the most credible candidate to go against what will likely be one of the most dangerous Republicans in over a generation.  The Democrats should enjoy their primary season.  But they need to get this choice right.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tory Feuds with Osborne in firing line

Political reputations rise and fall with the ease and frequency of hot and cold winters.  George Osborne has been riding high for months now - ever since the last election really.  Forgotten were his earlier strategic errors, such as the "omni-shambles" budget with its tax on hot pasties.  In vogue were his Commons socials and the near universal expectation that he would succeed David Cameron.
Well George kindly reminded everyone that his political antenna is not always as well attuned as it should be, when he ill-advisedly tweeted about his distinctly less than overwhelming tax deal with Google at the beginning of this week.

Now the knives are back out, as this Sun piece suggests today.  They've managed to get two ministers to provide them with some juicy quotes about Osborne - he's a social cripple, "just like Gordon Brown"; he's weird "like Milliband".  Osborne must be reeling this morning.  The last two Labour leaders aren't people that Labour politicians want to be compared to, never mind a high flying Tory chancellor.

We shouldn't expect too much from this scuffle.  It's an early shot, a quick hit and run at a time when the Chancellor is particularly vulnerable.  Osborne still controls considerable patronage, and most Tory MPs won't want to be seen to oppose him while he remains the favourite to succeed Cameron.  The Westminster village, as we see time and time again, doesn't operate with the rationality of anywhere else.  That's arguably one of the real messages about today's criticisms.  They may have more than a kernel of truth - Osborne can hardly claim ordinary bloke persona, and he does make egregious strategic errors.  But if he looks like a winner in two years' time, he'll be a winner regardless of his competence.  How do you think Gordon Brown managed it?  The stories of his lethal rages, paranoid rants and social awkwardness were legion well before he was PM.

It's diverting for us when one of the political tribes descends into civil war, and we're a bit bored with it just being the Labour party at the moment.  But the Conservatives aren't exactly bringing up exciting alternatives to the wounded front runner either.  I suspect we haven't heard the name of the next Tory leader in that context yet.  After all, two years is a long time......

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Trump, Palin and not understanding America

We didn't understand America back in 1776 and we're not very good at it now.  If gun laws are clear evidence of that, the popularity of Sarah Palin is even better evidence.

The woman who did more than anyone else, apart from Barack Obama, to ruin John McCain's chances of the presidency in 2008 is back as a political cheerleader-cum-would-be-office-holder.  And for Donald Trump, possibly the nearest male equivalent to her own brand of populist, anti-establishment, celebrity-seeking, not always sense-making political showmanship.

Trump's campaign is still largely focussed on outmanouevring his closest and most sinister rival for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, a man hated equally by everyone who he works with, whether left or right.  And he's done it again.  Trump's original anti-Muslim comment was designed to outflank Cruz, and receiving the endorsement of Palin is another humdinger that must be rankling with the Texas senator.  (In fact, we know it does because a Cruz staffer had a go at Palin hours before her much anticipated endorsement of Trump, causing a minor twitterstorm generated by Bristol Palin who attacked Cruz back. It's all fun and games and mutual love in the Christian vote-seeking Republican camp).

Palin is still a crowd-puller amongst Tea Party conservatives and the fundamentalist Christian base which Cruz appeals to so much, as the Telegraph's David Lawlor shows in his rolling pieces on the Iowa meeting.  It speaks volumes about Republican grassroots' political sensibilities that she is.  After torpedoing the McCain bid in 2008 she promptly left elective politics, resigning as Governor of Alaska (from where you can see Russia, as she memorably reminded everyone when asked to give evidence of her foreign policy expertise) to pursue a more lucrative career as a media celebrity.  She must still rank as one of the most proudly stupid and ignorant people to ever seek elective office, and her rambling endorsement of Trump was filled again with her own string of bizarre and meaningless catch-phrases ("We're not gonna chill, we're gonna drill, baby, drill"; they're replacing the safety nets with hammocks"; and lots of "Doggone....").

But Palin has energised the Trump campaign as the Iowa vote approaches on Feb 1st., and if her endorsement swings enough of that mid-western state's conservative base towards the Donald such that he beats the hitherto-favourite Cruz, well then his bid for the eventual Republican nomination is looking stronger than anyone - including probably Donald himself - might have ever believed.

I love the Republican race.  I just don't want any of them to be president.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

MPs forget how uninterested America is in Britain

Bless them.  MPs gathered in numbers not usually seen for debates to discuss the pressing issue of whether Donald Trump, who hasn't got any immediate plans to visit Britain, should be banned just in case he ever does.  As they earnestly debated the ins and outs of an essentially trivial petition, you almost felt that they believed America was watching and listening.  The full range of faux outrage was on display, with one MP dramatically declaring that Donald Trump had insulted her personally.

Oh dear.  Never mind the fact that this debate effectively took Trump at his own valuation.  Never mind that MPs were debating something they themselves couldn't actually affect (the power to ban is the Home Secretary's).  Never mind that there must have been 101 other ways for MPs to spend their time that might actually have had an impact on their constituents.  The key thing about this debate was the continued suffering British politicians have that somehow, in a mind somewhere across the Atlantic, Britain actually matters.

She doesn't, and hasn't since 1812 when British troops burned down the executive mansion in a sort of last hurrah.  The Americans repainted it and had a place they could now call the White House, which was nice.  But the feeling in Britain, ever since America started becoming the No 1 Nation, has long been that somehow we are tied together in a uniquely special relationship.  Alas, reality shows us a rather different picture, as a quick historical gander through the distinctly unspecial relationship will show.  Here are its principal lowlights, which I set out some time ago, when David Cameron was in the first throes of his infatuation with Barack Obama.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hillary's Debating Win

Attention in the US presidential primaries is focusing more on the Republican race than the Democratic one, not least because there actually is a Republican race, whereas whatever the enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders' supporters, no-one is yet thinking in terms of Hillary not winning the Democratic nomination.

Republican debates are offering some great moments as they fight lack rats in a sack, but it is worth turning to look at Hillary in the more measured Democrat debates too.  Sanders has at least offered some useful challenge to Clinton, absorbing the zeitgeist of the liberal left in her party and forcing her to recognise and deal with it.  And, the debates are a measure of what Hillary might be able to offer in the main presidential run-off after summer.

The evidence from the latest Democratic debate - at least according to Slate - is that she is one classy and effective debater; a better debater than campaigner says Isaac Chotiner.  And that means whoever wins the Republican race, they are going to have their wacky political offerings put under a sharp, forensic and public spotlight.  Which could well see them melt as the vast army of mid-term non-voters turns out to ensure the White House stays centrist.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Republican bitching

It says a lot about the Republican party that it looks as if it will spend the next few months deciding whether Donald Trump or Ted Cruz should be the standard bearer for all of its hopes and aspirations in November's presidential elections.

Of course much can change - and probably will - by then, but in the meantime we have weeks' worth of hard-right posturing on the part of those two lead candidates to get through.  And it's taken some doing, but Ted Cruz is managing to make Trump look like a decent, compassionate, upstanding and moderate man of great political wisdom.  Cruz is an unprincipled flip-flopper (see this detailed take-down of his various immigration positions) whose pronouncements and rallies carry the deep whiff of sulphur, but the recent Republican debate exchange at least showed him being verbally out-manouevred by the Donald.

Cruz took a swipe - as he has done previously - at what he calls "New York values".  Now "New York values" can often be used as shorthand in America for a variety of unseemly accusations.  The very first episode of the seminal political drama "West Wing" saw this sharp exchange on the subject between liberal Toby and a hard-right Christian activist:

But Cruz meant social liberal.  When he referred to "New York values" he was addressing his fundamentalist Christian base and attacking such anathema as same-sex tolerance, diversity and liberal ethics.  And he might have meant Donald Trump, whose outsize personality is certainly very definitely of New York.  Cruz' unpleasant insinuations could have been left hanging, but Trump rose to the occasion for once, and gave a great take-down.

Trump may lose out to Cruz in Iowa - due Feb 1st - while Cruz may lose out to Trump in New Hampshire.  But if they keep the top two spots as the primary season goes on, the whole Republican party is going to be the one that loses out.  Yet you get the impression that for many members losing out on the White House is an acceptable consequence of keeping the Republican brand tea-party pure.  What a party.

Writers' Woes

The world of print is over and will be overtaken and then replaced by its digital oppressor.  This has been declared for so long - a bit like Nostradamus' many and varied predictions for the end of the world - that we have probably ceased listening to it.  But the world of print is suffering, and in particular there exists a small but growing debate about the rewarding of writers.

One thing that the online world has done is to allow vast numbers of amateur writers to publish themselves and their meandering thoughts.  This blog, and this writer, is one example.  Such openness, so the argument runs, has led to a serious under-rewarding of professional writers.  With so much free stuff available, why pay?  The Huffington Post, a big online news affair, generates loads of its stuff by getting desperate people to write for it for free, and it is not alone.

I'm not sure I wholly agree that this should lead to the undermining of proper, good writers however.  Nick Cohen, an excellent, stimulating, readable journalist and author, has a great pop at the Oxford Literary Festival for refusing to pay its authorial speakers, in an online piece for the Spectator here.

Now let's be clear.  I think Cohen is a superb writer.  I willingly fork out for his books and I would buy magazines for his articles without a backward glance at my ever-decreasing bank account.  But I can also access him for free.  See above.  So why would I pay?  His perfectly just argument is a little undermined by the willingness of his employer to give so much of his stuff away.

The internet grew up with a mantra that it should all be free, but of course by "all" we really only mean the unedited commentary and news part of it.  Newspapers and magazines have done themselves no favours by hawking so much of their material for free, and it is perhaps not surprising that cheese-paring literary festivals like Oxford have followed suit and tried to extract writers to speak for free whilst paying for pretty everyone else who works at the festival.

Writers should absolutely be able to charge for their appearances.  Writers with confidence in the quality and marketability of their work should vigorously protect their right to be read on payment of an appropriate sum.   It would be a decent and affirming nod to the validity of the knowledge economy if that were the case.  Meanwhile, the rather less edified grafters on widely unread blogs should also be allowed to luxuriate in the illusion that people might also read our less elevated free offerings.  See.  The market at work.

Emoting about the EU

Tory MP Nick Herbert is leading the EU "Stay" campaign - or one of them at any rate - and not before time if a poll in the Mail is to be believed.  According to the Survation poll the "Leave" option now leads by 6%, given impetus it would seem, by concerns over terrorist attacks and a migrant influx that would clearly not exist if we weren't in the EU.

The Telegraph describes this as a "war", although quite why the preparation to debate an important referendum issue should be a "war" is puzzling in itself.  The Telegraph lost a lot of its news credibility some time ago when its cozy relationship with HSBC was revealed, but still.  A war?

Nick Herbert is effectively leading what will be the minority view within the Tory party about Europe.  Sceptics in the Tory party - up to and including the cabinet - are so plentiful that David Cameron has almost seemed besieged by his desire to secure a deal which could persuade people to vote to stay in.  As Nick Clegg - resurfacing on today's Marr show - remarked, it is going to be important to remember that the EU referendum extends rather further than the broiling civil war amongst the Tories.

Another salvo in the right-wing exchanges was fired in the Telegraph as well.  "Historians for Britain", a fantastically named group presumably suggesting that other historians are not at all committed to Britain, has dished the notion that the EU has had any role in preserving peace since the war.  And in this, I have to cautiously agree.  I think the EU has been a remarkable development in a continent which little over half a century ago was used to tearing itself to bits every few years on the battlefield, but yes I think NATO more than the EU can claim the credit for actually helping to preserve the very peace from which the EU has emerged and flourished.  The EU's forays into foreign policy have not been particularly effective - witness eastern Ukraine, a crisis begun at least in part by heavy handed EU overtures to pro-western Ukrainian politicians - and they struggle to speak with a single voice over such things as migration or the middle eastern conflict.  But still.  At least they do speak. And meet. And negotiate. And hold summits and things.  I doubt there's a person alive in the war-tortured middle east - outside the gun-toting, violence-inflicting, morally abandoned psycho loons of ISIS and their associates - who wouldn't rather have an EU type approach to inter-state affairs than the military machisma currently prevailing.

The referendum will hopefully be based on rational pro and anti arguments, but in amongst it I have to confess that there is a wholly emotive endorsement on my part of the whole EU experiment, and what it is meant to represent.