Archive for the ‘Mid terms 2014’ Category

“Republicans can’t govern”

21/03/2015

Markos Moulitas says the problems of the GOP are self inflicted. He opens, “We’re only a few months into this congressional session, and it’s clear Republicans can’t govern. And it’s not Democrats or liberals making that observation — it’s Republicans. “We really don’t have 218 votes to determine a bathroom break over here on our side,” said Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent. “So how are we going to get 218 votes on transportation or trade or whatever the issue?” That’s the polite way to put it. The less polite way? “Bad tactics yield bad outcomes,” he added, noting that Republican leadership had engaged in “tactical malpractice.” Also not polite? “There’s an element within our party, a wing within the Congress, which is absolutely irresponsible,” said Republican New York Rep. Pete King. “They have no concept of reality.” Harsh, but true. “I’ve had it with this self-righteous delusional wing of the party that leads us over the cliff,” he added”.

He adds “The American public certainly doesn’t have a problem with President Obama’s immigration orders prohibiting immigrant parents from being torn away from their American citizen children, but it does have a problem with jeopardizing national security thanks to the Republicans’ silly tantrum. So yeah, the GOP needs to work on that “popularity” thing a bit more. Still, with Republicans bitterly divided, their leadership has to now convince the nation it knows what it’s doing”.

He ends “As we’ve found out time and time again, “some way” really comes down to Democrats taking over the process and leading the way, just like they did with the clean funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security. No one should be surprised that the party hostile to government is terrible at running the government. It’s just nice seeing Republicans admit that fact”.

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“His sixth State of the Union”

21/01/2015

President Obama, last night, delivered the State of the Union. Much of the speech was on the financial crisis with smaller amounts on foreign policy and then education.

A piece from the Washington Post notes that, “President Obama, who took office six years ago amid a historic recession and two U.S. wars, declared unequivocally Tuesday that the nation had clawed its way out of those dire straits, praising Americans for their resilience but also pointedly taking credit for leading the way. ‘America, for all that we’ve endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed,’ Obama said in his sixth State of the Union address to the nation and a joint session of Congress in the House chamber. After years of fighting with Republicans over where to take the country, Obama delivered an hour-long defense of his policies that at times sounded like a victory lap. He asserted that the brightening economic picture — including accelerating job growth, more people with health insurance and lower gas prices — had proved that he was right, and his adversaries misguided, all along”.

The report goes on to make the point that “The president had been cautious over the past two years not to gloat over news of fitful economic growth, mindful that the economy remained tenuous and public confidence uneasy. But with the jobless rate well below 6 percent, the stock market nearing record highs and his job-approval ratings rebounding, Obama on Tuesday night dropped his veneer of reserve and appeared to delight in having proved his critics wrong”.

The piece adds that “Obama chided Republicans to help improve Washington’s political discourse. He harked back to the themes of national unity that helped him get elected in the first place in 2008 and called for more bipartisan cooperation on key issues. But in doing so, Obama also served to remind the GOP of the reasons their relationship is so fraught — pausing at one point from his prepared text to deliver a spontaneous, and quite partisan, barb. When Republicans jokingly applauded after Obama noted that he had run his last campaign, the president quipped: “I know because I won both of them.” Obama took the spotlight in front of Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) intent on proving that he would remain relevant in the final quarter of his presidency as the race to replace him next year begins”.

This is one of the key problems not just with the GOP. The paper is quite right to point out the desire of Obama to be bipartisan. However, it was the GOP that gave President Obama the opportunity to make his immature comment. If they had not applauded the remark would probably not have been said. Instead, the GOP look childish and partisan as does Obama for stooping to their level. Both need to grow up.

The article goes on to mention that “Just two months after Democrats suffered a severe blow in the midterm elections, when voters handed control of both chambers to the GOP for the first time during his tenure, Obama’s speech came amid warnings from Republicans to avoid divisive rhetoric and policies. ‘Tonight isn’t about the president’s legacy. It’s about the people’s priorities,’ Boehner said in a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday. ‘Making the government bigger isn’t going to help the middle class. More growth and more opportunity will help the middle class, and those are the Republican priorities.’ But Obama had told allies that he would not kowtow to GOP demands despite the party’s new majorities. The president announced early in his speech that he would focus less on the usual laundry list of new proposals — the White House had revealed most of them ahead of time — and instead focus on the ‘values at stake’ for the American people moving forward”.

The piece notes that “Obama laid out proposals to revamp the tax code by raising taxes and fees on the wealthiest Americans and largest financial institutions — and using the money to pay for free tuition for two years of community college and for a $500 tax credit for married couples in which both spouses have jobs. Though the White House knew the ideas have a slim chance of being approved by lawmakers, the point was to start a debate on Obama’s terms. And the president and his advisers were determined to begin to frame his legacy as having delivered on his promise to improve the lives of ordinary Americans”.

Naturally none of these will be passed, which is a great pity, but it is as much legacy building as setting the ground for his successor, most likely Clinton in 2016.

The report adds that “On foreign policy, Obama sought to build on the idea, first enunciated during a lengthy speech at West Point last spring, of a ‘smarter kind of American leadership’ in which the United States balances military intervention with diplomacy and coalition-building. Obama has made the case in recent weeks, as he marked the end of U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan, that the nation is safer after more than a decade of combat abroad — even though he authorized renewed U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria to combat the Islamic State militant group. American leadership ‘is stopping ISIL’s advance,’ Obama said, using an acronym for the group. But such a declaration seemed premature, set against images Tuesday of two orange-clad Japanese hostages kneeling in the desert before a black-robed militant”.

This is where reality and President Obama diverge. His desire for a smarter leadership is commendable but it is increasingly looking like a half baked isolationism, at least when it comes to the Middle East. This means that it is the worst of both worlds. Obama neither has the satisfaction of ignoring the problem, yet nor has he the courage of giving it his full attention. It is true that the advance of ISIS has been stopped but they still hold territory and the airstrikes have not been successful in rolling back their gains.

The article continued, “Obama was determined to project an optimistic view of the nation’s future, and he maintained faith that the country could rise above its divisions. He alluded to his own diverse upbringing in Hawaii and Chicago and cited his keynote address as an Illinois state senator at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which launched him on the national political radar as a bright young prospect for higher office. ‘A better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine,’ Obama said Tuesday. ‘A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.’ The president acknowledged that he had heard the political pundits declare since he took office six years ago that he had failed to make good on his vision at a time when ‘our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naive.’ To the contrary, Obama insisted, as he pledged to keep working to change Washington, even as he was, in many ways, declaring victory over his rivals”.
In a related article the confidence of Obama is noted, “Seventy seven days ago, Barack Obama’s party lost control of Congress — largely due to his unpopularity nationwide. You’d have never known it watching the president deliver his sixth State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. From start to finish, Obama was supremely confident, challenging — and mocking — Republicans at every turn. Touting the turnaround of the economy, Obama turned to Republicans, who, in classic State of the Union symbolism, had refused to deliver a standing ovation, and joked “That’s good news, people.” On Cuba, Obama challenged those who disagreed with his Administration policies; “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” he said”.

It goes on to mention “more than the words on the page, it was Obama’s tone and overall demeanor that absolutely oozed confidence. He winked. He laughed at his own jokes. And he ad-libbed. Repeating his “I’ve run my last campaign” line, Obama was clearly irked by the sarcastic applause from Republicans in the audience. “I know because I won both of them,” he added, in a rare moment of candour”.

It adds “Obama is quite clearly feeling a renewed sense of purpose and mission — bolstered by the strengthening economy and poll numbers that reflect that growing confidence from the American public. This was the same Obama on display in his end-of-the-year press conference. Supremely confident in his own views, largely dismissive of his Republican critics”.

Speaker Boehner, just

11/01/2015

John Boehner narrowly won a third term as House of Representatives Speaker on Tuesday, surviving a stiff challenge from 25 conservative Republicans that may signal a growing split in the party as it takes full control of Congress. Boehner received 216 of 408 votes cast in a tense vote, with a growing faction of dissident House Republicans opposing him because they said he had done too little to cut spending and fight President Barack Obama’s immigration and healthcare policies. The last time that more than 25 House members voted against a Speaker candidate from their own party came in 1859, according to congressional historians. The number of Republican defectors was more than twice the dozen who withheld their support from him in an election two years ago, evidence of the stark party divisions that could make it hard to pass legislation, including bills to keep government agencies operating without interruption”.

Israel, pulling the GOP strings

11/01/2015

An article from Foreign Affairs discusses the Iran talks and the GOP victory in the midterms.

It opens, “The Republicans’ Senate victory offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu new hope for outmaneuvering President Barack Obama on Iran; in the coming weeks, he could use a Republican-led Congress to sabotage negotiations with the Islamic Republic on its nuclear program. But the victory would be short lived. By scuttling the talks, Netanyahu could empower Iran’s hardliners. By now, it is clear that Israel’s current Iran strategy—bluffing war to push the world to ratchet up the economic siege on Iran—is no longer working. “Chickenshit-gate,” revelations that a senior Obama administration official had privately stated that Netanyahu does not have what it takes to take on Iran, leaves little doubt about that. To be sure, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s strategy has accomplished nothing. For one, it was Israel that, in 1992–3, first turned the world’s focus toward Iran and its nuclear program. Under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel launched a campaign to depict Iran as a global threat because of its ideology and its nuclear program. At the time, the New York Times described the campaign as “perplexing,” since it had been Rabin and Peres who, during Iran-Contra only a few years earlier, had pushed the United States to talk to Iran, ignore Tehran’s venomous anti-Israeli rhetoric, and sell arms to the country”.

Indeed this point shows just how far Israel will go to get what it wants. Reports have had Israel selling weapons to Iran. Sadly America seems to think Israel’s interests and its interests are one and the same. This is obiously not the case.

The article goes on to state, “Israel’s apparent aim was to sound alarm bells about Iran’s nuclear program and convince the world that the country was a global problem—not just an Israeli one. The ultimate goal was to either put Iran under permanent economic sanctions that would cripple its economy and undermine it as a regional player or to compel the United States to take military action against Iran. Or both. Ultimately, Israel partially succeeded. The United States intensified its focus on Iran, placed numerous crippling sanctions on the country, and threatened Tehran with military attack. If one accepts Israel’s assumptions about Iran—that the regime in Tehran is incapable of reforming, that moderate elements (if they even exist) wield no power, and that Iran’s ideological tenets preclude any accommodation between Iran and Israel—then Israel’s policy makes sense. According to this line of thought, a diplomatic agreement over the nuclear program would legitimise Iran as a threshold state and reduce U.S.-Iranian tensions without resolving the problems between Iran and Israel. In effect, the Jewish state would be “abandoned” to face Tehran alone”.

The result is that “To prevent such an outcome, Israel has tried to hinder diplomatic efforts by pushing for unrealistic demands during negotiations, threatening military action whenever the United States hints at a compromise, and helping to impose next-to-irreversible sanctions on Iran. Over the last year, the cost of that strategy has grown as the Obama White House has become more frustrated with its ally. They have nevertheless remained quite limited. With Republicans now in control of Congress, Israel’s concerns will fall on more receptive ears. But that could spell more trouble than Israel expects. If the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by the November 24 deadline, any continued effort to oppose the agreement would no longer be just toughness on Iran. It would also be directly against the United States”.

If the GOP take the bait, as they probably will, they will not only be putting Israel before the United States but they will be willing pawns in a game by the Israelis to discredit the ongoing talks before they even finish. Even for the GOP this is low.

The piece ends “The international consensus against Iran that the Obama administration painstakingly built would, at best, fall apart and, at worst, turn into a consensus against the United States. The international community—Israel and Saudi Arabia notwithstanding—overwhelmingly want a nuclear deal. Sanctions have been difficult for Iran, but they have also imposed significant costs on the sanctioning countries. (The United States alone has lost between $135–175 billion in export revenues as a result of sanctions.) Consequently, if Congress rejects sanctions relief, the sanctions regime against Iran would start to crumble. Nothing would make hardliners in Iran happier. The Hassan Rouhani government would look bad for negotiating a failed compromise, Tehran would find itself no longer bound by the constraints imposed on its nuclear program through the scuttled deal, and the international sanctions regime would collapse—all without Iran having made any nuclear concessions. Israel may dislike Obama’s negotiations with Iran. But once a deal has been struck, there will come a tipping point at which the cost of opposing it will outweigh the cost the deal itself imposes on Israel. Despite Netanyahu’s likely excitement over the Republican Senate victory, it’s time to take a time out on Iran and on the showdown with the Obama administration”.

A death sentence extension?

04/12/2014

An interesting piece argues that the extention to the nuclear talks is a “death sentance” and will doom the talks.

The article opens “You’ve no doubt already heard that Iran and the so-called E3/EU+3 have agreed to a seven-month extension of the increasingly poorly named “interim” agreement to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran and the E3+3 initially agreed to the six-month Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November 2013, extending it once previously, this past summer. After an entire year of negotiation, the two parties were unable to even announce a “framework” measure that might have put the broad outlines of a deal in place while providing for an additional period to work out the complex details. The current extension provides four months to reach a framework agreement, followed by another three months to iron out any technical disagreements. One wonders what the parties are thinking”.

Such negativity is dangerous. There is no doubt that there are obvious disagreements, or else there would not be talks at all, yet to say that the are doomed is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it risks “dooming” the talks. If the teams in the talks think they are going to fail then that mental attitude will prevail. Secondly it also ensures that positions harden to the point of the talks failing. Then they will be doomed, but only because the wrong mental attitude was there at the beginning.

Of course mental attitude is only one of the factors. Pushing a boulder up a hill with the right mental attitude does not mean that such a task will succeed. However, it is true that having the right frame of mind will ensure that it will not happen.

He goes on to note “Is there any reason to believe that this problem will be easier to solve in four months’ time? Is there any reason to think that, in fact, the parties have four months? Allow me to be the bearer of two items of bad news. First, the 114th Congress will pass new sanctions legislation. This year, the White House held off the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill in the Senate by the narrowest of margins. (The House passing sanctions is a formality at this point.) Proponents had the votes — 60 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats — but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to let it come to the floor. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t be so accommodating. I now count 64 votes in favor of the inevitable Menendez-Kirk II bill, with four new Republican Senators replacing Democratic “no” votes: Shelley Moore Capito, Cory Gardner, Mike Rounds, and the crazy hog-castration lady from Iowa. Presuming the two Republican “no” votes — Jeff Flake and Rand Paul — come home, we’re one Democratic vote away from a veto-proof majority in the Senate. Gary Peters already sounds like a good candidate for that vote”.

He goes on to mention “Second, Iran is continuing research and development on a new generation of centrifuges. A few weeks ago, there was a minor kerfuffle when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was test-feeding a new centrifuge under development called the IR-5. The issue was that Iran had not previously fed uranium hexafluoride into that type of machine. The Iranians denied this was a violation. (The definitive answer depends on “technical understandings” in the implementation agreement that the EU will not make public.) While I don’t think Iran violated the terms of the JPOA, which unfortunately imposes almost no limits on Iran’s research and development activities, it certainly didn’t contribute to an atmosphere of goodwill and conciliation”.

Interestingly he makes the point “the administration asked the Iranians to knock it off for the moment, and they agreed. With another extension, though, Iran is free to continue its R&D work on new generations of centrifuges — including resuming testing of the IR-5 and eventually the IR-8. Oh, yes, the IR-8. The IR-5 is a prelude to this much bigger problem. Iran has declared a new centrifuge model called the IR-8 to the IAEA. (One of these bad boys is sitting at the “pilot” enrichment facility, saying, “Feed me, Seymour.”) The IR-8 is about 16 times more capable than the existing centrifuge types installed at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant”.

Indeed this shows that the Iranians are willing to give some ground. To then therefore say that the talks are then doomed because of a extension seems unusual to say the least.

He goes on to mention “There is nothing in the JPOA, as I read it, that prohibits Iran from testing this new centrifuge with uranium — as long as it does not alter its current practice of mixing any enriched uranium produced with the waste product to avoid “accumulating” any enriched uranium as a result of testing. Others may disagree with my reading, but the Iranians believe they are entitled to do so. So, what happens when Iran is ready to start feeding hex into the IR-8? And don’t think they won’t. Let me quote Mr. Rouhani on this one: “So in the context of nuclear technology, particularly of research and development and peaceful nuclear technology, we will not accept any limitations.” You can bet that will be a fun news cycle for Marie Harf. The time to act is now. It is simply not possible to keep rolling the JPOA over and over, as if we have all the time in the world. The negotiators for both sides need to understand that they do not have another four months to negotiate a framework agreement. The new Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3, 2015. It will almost immediately impose new requirements on any agreement, backed by the threat of more sanctions if Iran violates the JPOA or does any number of other things that Congress does not like. Iran, too, is very likely to take steps that it believes are just hunky-dory, but will cause outrage on Capitol Hill”.

 

A deal slips away?

02/12/2014

David Sanger, Michael Gordon and Peter Baker write in the New York Times that the deal between Iran and others is proving elusive and may have, they argue, already slipped away, “By the time Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart checked into a luxury hotel near the famous beaches of Oman earlier this month, a long-sought deal that has eluded the last two American presidents to roll back Tehran’s nuclear program seemed to be slipping out of reach. With a deadline approaching, Mr. Kerry thought the opportunity could be lost unless the Iranians finally offered a breakthrough compromise. But Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, came with little new. Frustrated, Mr. Kerry said there was no way the United States would accept a deal that did not curb Iran’s ability to produce enough fuel for a bomb within a year”.

They go on to write that “The conversation grew heated. The two men, patricians in their own cultures and unaccustomed to shouting, found themselves in the kind of confrontation they had avoided during multiple negotiating sessions over the past year. “This was the first time there were raised voices and some unpleasant exchanges,” said an American official, who like others requested anonymity to describe secret diplomacy. On Monday, as the deadline finally arrived, Mr. Kerry left another negotiating table in Vienna, having failed to bridge the divide. The last-minute offers he expected never arrived. And yet the two diplomats agreed that they may yet agree, and so they settled for a seven-month extension of the deadline in hopes that a new approach might enable them to find the middle ground that has escaped them”.

Interestingly that argue that “If the deal had been left to Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif, and to their respective teams, it probably would have happened. The two men have developed a strong working relationship, and the flare-up in Oman a couple weeks ago underscored how much each wanted to get to a deal but could not. In the end, both were constrained by hard-line politics at home. Mr. Zarif, while friendly, outgoing and Westernised, had pushed to the very limits of his brief; he often warned that the final decision would be in the hands of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And Ayatollah Khamenei, American intelligence officials had told President Obama and Mr. Kerry, was heavily influenced by the Revolutionary Guard Corps and his own distrust of the Americans”.

Needless to say as if the deal was not already complicated enough “Kerry’s position was complicated by the Republican midterm election victory and the fear of feeding the narrative that Mr. Obama was a weakened president. The bipartisan talk in Congress about new sanctions hung over the American negotiating team. And so did Israel’s constant warnings that Mr. Obama was at risk of being duped. If Israel condemned any outcome as a bad deal, the label could stick in Congress”.

By way of context that note that “Obama began reaching out shortly after taking office in 2009, writing the first of what would be four letters to Ayatollah Khamenei. It was not until last year’s election of Hassan Rouhani, followed by his choice of Mr. Zarif, that doors really began to open and Mr. Obama authorized a secret channel to the two men through Oman. His envoys, William Burns and Jake Sullivan, both then top administration officials, traveled with little or no entourage, slipping into the back doors of hotels. Israel was kept in the dark for months, as were the French”.

Interestingly they make mention that “The talks moved to New York in September 2013 under the cover of the United Nations’ annual meeting. Mr. Zarif met Mr. Kerry in a closet-size room near the Security Council chamber, and the two exchanged private telephone numbers and email addresses, a channel they have used more than either has publicly admitted. Mr. Zarif helped engineer a telephone call between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, the first direct contact between American and Iranian leaders since the 1979 revolution. “It cost us when we got home,” Mr. Zarif later noted”.

Of course the Iranians didn’t make the talks any easier, “Iran threw several curveballs. Ayatollah Khamenei said in a speech that Iran would ultimately increase its capacity to produce enriched uranium tenfold, rather than decrease it. “Zarif all but told us he didn’t see that coming,” an American official said. Mr. Zarif then surprised Mr. Kerry in July by proposing in an interview with The New York Times that Iran would simply continue the temporary freeze for seven years or so but dismantle nothing”.

The authors go on to note that “Kerry agreed to meet Mr. Zarif in Muscat, Oman, where the secret diplomacy had started. The Americans arrived in mid-November armed with a confidential eight-page paper outlining American ideas for closing the remaining gaps in many areas, which the Iranians were given to read but not to keep. The Americans had initially proposed to limit the number of operational centrifuges Iran would be allowed to retain to 1,500, down from the 10,000 spinning today. But with a side deal developing for Iran to ship much of its fuel to Russia, where it would be turned into fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear plant, Iran’s only operating commercial reactor, that number could rise to as many as 4,500 centrifuges”.

They end “As the clock wound down, the pace intensified. The French foreign minister returned to the talks. Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, flew in, as did Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. But there was no breakthrough, just a set of “new ideas” for future discussions. On Monday evening, Mr. Zarif sounded preternaturally optimistic. He suggested the differences could be bridged in a few months. “The major problem is a compounded mistrust,” he said, suggesting that had been gradually chipped away over the past year, though more among the negotiators, he seemed to say, than among their colleagues back in Washington and Tehran. But he added a warning: No one should treat this like a Cold War game”.

Not Hagel’s fault

29/11/2014

Rosa Brooks writes about the depature of Chuck Hagel.

She begins “Goodbye, Chuck Hagel: We hardly knew ye! Perhaps there wasn’t much to know. Or perhaps you contain hidden depths. Who can say? For almost two years, you seemed barely there, an irascible half-presence in the Pentagon’s E ring. Soon you won’t be there at all, and no one will much notice. For what it’s worth, Chuck, I think you got a bum rap. President Obama nominated you to be secretary of defense because he wanted a policy nonentity, and that’s exactly what he got. He wanted doormat, and you gave him doormat”.

She adds that “true, U.S. ‘national security policy … has too often been incoherent and shifting,’ as the New York Times‘ editorial board put it this week, but that’s not your fault either. U.S. national security policy was incoherent long before you first passed through the Pentagon’s River Entrance. Your sole claim to fame beyond your Vietnam War service was your opposition to the war in Iraq, which made you unpopular with your fellow Republicans and something of a hero to Democrats tired of wandering in the national security wilderness”.

She goes on to make the point that “When you were first nominated in 2012, many in the press convinced themselves that you were some sort of heroic closet Democrat, a virtual left-wing pacifist who just happened to have accidentally dressed in wolf’s clothing. They were wrong. Your Iraq War opposition aside, you were basically a standard-issue Republican for most of your political career. You tossed out a few anti-gay slurs; you backed prayer in public schools; you opposed abortion and gun control; you favoured George W. Bush’s tax cuts”.

Interestingly she interupts the partisan narrative noting that he “didn’t pretend to be anyone but who you were. If some Democrats had stars in their eyes when they looked at you, you weren’t the one who put them there. On the contrary. You made no claims to policy genius and you made it clear you were no threat to anyone, and this went down well with a White House that doesn’t care for those who step out of line. So you became secretary of defense, and for nearly two years you bumbled along, doing no harm and letting others — mainly Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — take the lead in meetings, congressional hearings, and policy debates”.

She posits the theory that “not being there” could have allowed Obama to cut Hagel off but “Maybe when you finally decided to make some helpful noise, you were a little too noisy. The Islamic State was an ‘imminent threat to every interest we have … beyond anything that we’ve seen,’ you insisted at an August press briefing at the Pentagon. Whoops. Wrong thing to say when everyone else was trying to sound all measured and statesman-like. General Dempsey must have shot you a dampening look”.

She continues, “The truth is, you just couldn’t win. When you stayed in the shadows and let Dempsey do the talking, you were accused of being overly deferential to the military. White House staff wanted you to be their doormat, not the military’s. But when you stepped out on your own — when the internal contradictions in the administration’s national security policy became too much even for you, and you penned a snappy internal critique of the administration’s Syria policy — everyone got mad at you. In the end, though, you did the nation a service. If nothing else, your impending departure highlights once and for all the fact that there’s just no pleasing this White House”.

Fairly she writes that the White House is now the Goldilocks of defence secretaries, “Gates? Too strong. Panetta? Not serious enough. Hagel? Too weak. Even Goldilocks eventually found some porridge she was willing to swallow. Not so with this White House. No surprise that two of the top contenders to fill your soon-to-be empty post, former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy and Sen. Jack Reed, took only hours to declare firmly that they had no desire to become the replacement doormat — or the next sacrificial lamb”.

She ends “If President Obama still had the good sense he displayed on the campaign trail in 2008, he’d see this as an occasion to take a hard look in the mirror. House Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon got it right when he quipped, “The Obama administration is now in the market for their fourth secretary of defense. When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?'” Chuck Hagel, go in peace”.

 

“Another seven months to negotiate”

25/11/2014

Yesterday brought news of the extension of the Iran talks between the Islamic Republic and the P5 + 1.

An article by Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky argues that there are four reasons why the deal did not happen.

They open “So what went wrong? How come the champagne corks aren’t popping in Vienna? After all the hype, drama, and suspense, why is it that all we have to show is a close-but-no-cigar seven-month extension? All is not lost. With a deadline pushed until next summer, the negotiations are already set to resume in December. And though critics of the deal will shout from the rooftops that this extension will only give Iran more leverage, it’s still possible that a way could be found to reach a comprehensive agreement. But why wasn’t it possible by Nov. 24? As John Kerry suggested today, more time will not make matters easier. Sure, the gaps were wide, the suspicions deep, the politics constraining. All of this was known in advance. It’s not as if the U.S. negotiators realized at the eleventh hour that a comprehensive deal was a long shot”.

They go on to ask “was this a doomed enterprise from the start? Or was it just that more time was required to make a deal? Or was there something wrong with the structure of the trade-off: Iranian concessions on substance upfront for gradual removal of sanctions?”

They go on to describe four assumptions that people saw as being the reason why a deal was possible. The first they argue is that Dr Hassan Rouhani and Dr Mohammad Javad Zarif have the ability to do a deal, “The president and foreign minister of Iran may be moderates, but they are not free agents and don’t work for the United States. Iran is an authoritarian state — and yet one with a real political life, complete with tense divisions at the top, bottom, and center. But amid all the tea leaf reading and studying the entrails of goats, one thing is stunningly obvious even to the interminably obtuse: At the apex of this pyramid sits an aging theocracy at whose center is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — the final arbiter on all matters of state. Rouhani came to office promising ‘prudence and hope,’ and even penned an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled ‘Time to Engage.’ But these overtures all came with the blessing of the establishment: Khamenei gave the president the necessary breathing room to secure a comprehensive accord. For instance, in September 2013, as Rouhani was preparing to make his maiden voyage to New York, the supreme leader called for ‘heroic leniency‘ on the nuclear file, stressing that he was not opposed to ‘correct diplomacy.’ It has been Khamenei calling the shots throughout this entire process — setting clear red lines that were never to be crossed. Zarif said as much this September”.

Of course this is a valid point. The deal between Iran and the US and EU will be decided by Khamenei. Yet he is ill and while not dead and depending on how capable Rouhani is this could be used to his advantage. However, Rouhani would have to be clever and subtle at this. If his mentor Khatami could become Supreme Leader it would make a deal much more likely.

The end the section “Let’s also remember that it was Rouhani who resigned as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator after clashes with the newly elected hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad back in 2005; reports indicate that the Supreme Leader actively supported Ahmadinejad’s candidacy. With reformists and moderates out of fashion, Rouhani quickly lost his mandate. So Rouhani and Zarif — just like their predecessors — are on a retractable leash”.

The second point of their argument is that Iran might not desire a deal as badly as the United States. This was pointed out recently in what Iran’s strategy was based on. They write “In any negotiation, cutting a deal requires not just urgency but that both sides have clocks that are in sync or closely coordinated. The American sense of time is measured in four- and eight-year increments, driven by elections and politics; the Iranian clock is much more open-ended. Part of that flexibility has to do with the fact that however pressed those who want a deal may feel, Iran has demonstrated remarkable capacity to resist economic pressure and to adjust to the imposition of sanctions and declining oil prices. The sanctions may have brought the mullahs to the table, but that doesn’t mean that they can force a deal”.

They add evidence to their argument “The New York Times in August reported that the Islamic Republic found a way around the sanctions in exporting petroleum products to China and other Asian countries. According to ‘Iranian customs data, the country in recent months has exported 525,000 barrels a day of the ultralight oil, known as condensates, over two times more than it did a year ago. In the last three months, the sales have generated as much as $1.5 billion in extra trade — a rate of about $6 billion a year — based on Iranian trade figures and market prices.’ Not bad for a country under sanction. And later that month, Tehran and Moscow also inked a framework for a $20 billion oil-for-goods deal”.

They add in the third section that interests are important pride is a key factor as well, “The supreme leader has consistently coupled the nuclear file with the Islamic Republic’s perennial quest for dignity. And it’s personal for Khamenei. An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program”.

They note that the honour and dignity attached to the nuclear programme has “trickled down to the Iranian street. When Gallup asked ordinary citizens whether it was worth continuing to develop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear power program back in early 2013, almost two-thirds — or 63 percent — said yes. This narrative explains why Tehran has chosen to suffer under the punishing weight of economic sanctions. According to an estimate by the Carnegie Endowment in 2013, the mullahs’ nuclear program has cost the country more than $100 billion in lost oil revenue and foreign investment alone. To put that in perspective: Before the most recent round of oil-export restrictions in 2012, the Congressional Research Service estimated that oil revenue ‘generated about 20% of Iran’s GDP, about 80% of its foreign exchange earnings, and about 50% of its government revenue.'”

They end the piece noting that Iran will hold out for what it wants “We can’t end Iran’s nuclear capacity, so we are working to constrain it through buying time. Iran is trying to preserve as much of that capacity as possible while easing and eliminating economic pressure. And Iran is also playing with and for time. There’s really no end state, either on the nuclear issue or sanctions relief. And thus any comprehensive agreement is, by definition, interim at best. That just doesn’t add up in today’s highly charged and suspicion-laden political environment, no matter how moderate and well-intentioned the negotiators themselves may be. The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem”.

In a related article John Hudson argues that the extension leaves the deal open to be blocked by those who oppose it. He writes “The failure of Barack Obama’s administration to secure a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program by Monday’s self-imposed deadline hands a significant gift to hard-liners in both countries: a seven-month window to criticise, and potentially sabotage, a final deal between Iran and the West. On Monday, Nov. 24, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iran and six world powers are giving themselves another seven months to negotiate, with the interim goal of finalising a framework by March. ‘In these last days in Vienna, we have made real and substantial progress,’ Kerry said. ‘That is why we are jointly … extending these talks.’ However, many members of Congress who opposed the talks from the beginning want to implement a new round of economic sanctions against Tehran, which would expressly violate the terms of the interim agreement between Iran and Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States”.

Hudson adds that “After trouncing Democrats in the midterm elections this month, Republicans will dominate Congress through the talks’ final stages. Democrats with close ties to pro-Israel lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are likely to rankle President Obama on the sanctions score through the waning days of his presidency. For instance, Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for another month, has long made his distaste for a prolonged diplomatic effort known”.

He goes on to mention that “many congressional Democrats have recently shown an unusual willingness to defy the White House, a handful of key liberal senators support the extension, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, Virginia’s Tim Kaine, and Connecticut’s Chris Murphy. ‘I would really hope that we support the administration in their requests for extended negotiating time,’ Murphy told Foreign Policy on Monday. ‘It would be incredibly counterproductive to have the Congress passing legislation that undermines our negotiations.’ Iran has its own hard-liner problem, but it’s not so much the country’s chorus of ultra-conservative clerics who pose a barrier as it is a single man: Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”.

He closes “Whether Khamenei will make concessions in the next seven months and Congress can be persuaded against issuing new sanctions is anyone’s guess, but the longer a deal twists in the wind, the longer opponents have to undermine and unravel it”.

Public opinion, getting a deal?

23/11/2014

An optimistic article in Foreign Policy seems to indicate that Iran may be more willing to do a nuclear deal than was previously thought.

It opens “For the first time in more than a decade, the United States and Iran are both pushing hard to resolve their long-standing disagreements about Tehran’s nuclear program. Making that investment in nuclear diplomacy pay off requires bold leadership — and an understanding of public opinion in both countries. Shortly after President Hassan Rouhani took office, negotiators from Iran and six world powers (the P5+1) agreed on the elements of a solution ‘to ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful,’ as the Joint Plan of Action states. But as the Nov. 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal approaches, large gaps remain between the parties on the scope, timing, and duration of an agreement. We can’t ignore the role of public opinion in bridging those gaps: Both President Barack Obama and Rouhani will be more likely to take political risks to reach an agreement if they think that the terms would have broad public support”.

He suggests that the problems of Iranian public opinion complicate things, “Iranians do not support the much tighter limitations on nuclear capabilities that some U.S. experts consider necessary to ensure that Iran could not “break out” of an agreement and amass a bomb’s worth of fissile material in less than a year — one metric that U.S. officials have used to quantify whether a deal would be acceptable. The University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion and the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,037 Iranians this summer to get a sense of just how far the Iranian public was willing to go to seal a deal. Depending on the rest of the agreement, large majorities of respondents were willing to accept a pledge never to produce nuclear weapons (79 percent), the continuation of current international oversight and inspections (76 percent), additional transparency measures (62 percent), and not enriching uranium above 5 percent for the duration of the agreement. But comparably large majorities staunchly oppose dismantling half of the centrifuges that Iran is currently operating (70 percent) and accepting limits on Iran’s nuclear research activities (75 percent) — concessions that correspond to demands often advanced by former Obama administration officials who remain close to the negotiations”.

On the other side of the table he goes on to posit the theory that “If Rouhani does not have public support for accepting certain demands, would Obama have domestic support for compromises that move toward the Iranian position? Conventional wisdom says he would be hard-pressed to get congressional approval to lift sanctions against Iran even if the breakout criteria were met, especially after the Republican Party won control of the Senate in the recent midterm elections. Although the White House could initially suspend some sanctions by executive order and delay asking Congress to remove legislative sanctions until Iran had complied fully with the next stage of the process, Congress has threatened to impose new sanctions if Iran does not dismantle its nuclear program”.

Unconventionally he writes that “In July, the Center for International and Security Studies and the Program for Public Consultation ran a decision-making simulation in which 748 randomly selected Americans were given a carefully vetted background briefing about the negotiations with Iran. They were then handed arguments drawn from congressional debates presenting them with two options: Respondents could decide to continue seeking a deal that places partial limits on Iran’s nuclear program and increases transparency in return for some sanctions relief, or they could decide to end negotiations and impose more sanctions in a renewed effort to stop Iranian enrichment altogether. Large majorities of participants found all arguments for and against both options to be at least somewhat persuasive. But when asked which option they would recommend, 61 percent (including 62 percent of the Republicans) chose the compromise deal, while only 35 percent wanted to end negotiations and impose new sanctions by pressuring other countries to cut their economic relations with Iran, in hope of finally persuading Tehran to completely stop all uranium enrichment”.

The problem with this is manifold. Firstly the low sample size. Secondly, the public are generally either misinformed or uninformed about international affairs, if they have an opinion it would be optimistic to expect people across America to pressure Congress to agree the specific deal that the White House lays before it. Thirdly, even if the first two are ignored, there is little chance that Congress would actually be receptive to the general public on this issue when there are much more powerful and wealthy lobby groups that would have a vested interest in it failing, who will work over members of Congress in a far more subtle and nefarious way then the US electorate.

The writer adds “Would a Republican-controlled Congress really want responsibility for scuttling a deal that placed limits on and increased the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program? The GOP’s alternative would be to convince other countries that supported the compromise deal to punish Iran, and bet that imposing yet another round of sanctions would coerce Tehran into giving up its enrichment program altogether. That’s a risky gamble: Iran responded to previous rounds of sanctions by increasing its nuclear activity. The prospects for agreement on such a compromise deal would be substantially improved if the P5+1 slightly altered its criteria for success. U.S. officials usually explain that they are trying to make it physically impossible for Iran to accumulate enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon before an enrichment or reprocessing capability could be destroyed”.

He nuances this, writing “Sometimes, though, U.S. officials describe their objective slightly differently. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, for example, said the goal is to make any effort by Iran to use its nuclear program for non-peaceful purposes ‘so visible and time-consuming that the attempt would have no chance of success.’ This standard suggests that the most viable way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful is to give the international community a mechanism to ensure rapid warning if Iran ever started down a pathway to building a nuclear bomb. The difference is subtle but important. As the U.S. intelligence community has acknowledged, there is no plausible way to be completely certain Iran has been denied the technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon, if Iranian leaders have made a political decision to do so. Short of including access for international inspectors anytime and anywhere — an extreme form of transparency that no country has ever been willing to provide — any agreement would not be enough to convince critics that Iran could not possibly have a covert route to a bomb. A better way to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful is to focus on Iran’s political choices as much as its technical capabilities”.

He argues that using the Sherman objectives are more realistic, “For example, only a small minority of Iranians are unconditionally ready to accept limits on Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium (15 percent) and the quantity and quality of its centrifuges (19 and 16 percent, respectively) for an agreed period of time. But those responses change dramatically when the issues are framed as compliance with a comprehensive deal: A plurality of Iranians say that limits on stockpiles and centrifuge numbers could be acceptable depending on the rest of the deal (49 and 46 percent, respectively), and a comparable percentage (49 percent) would support a deal in which Iran reduced its enrichment activities and allowed extensive inspections for 10 years, in return for sanctions relief. Iran, in other words, may not be able to compromise on its stated desire for a large enrichment program — but it could agree to a very intrusive and intensive IAEA monitoring program to ensure that nuclear material wasn’t being diverted to build a nuclear weapon”.

Sadly these very bodies have been doubting Iran’s honesty on this key issue.

He ends “As Iran and the P5+1 approach their deadline, our research contains reasons for optimism that public opinion can sustain an agreement. Both the Iranian and American publics appear ready to support a comprehensive deal that extends the restraints Iran voluntarily implemented during the first stage of the agreement, with additional transparency and confidence-building measures. If negotiators can reach a deal on these terms, hard-liners would be hard-pressed to convince everyone else that the world would be better off without such a deal than with one”.

 

Shutdown 2015?

21/11/2014

A high-ranking Senate GOP leader on Sunday left the door open to a government shutdown if President Obama moves forward with unilateral action on immigration reform. Asked by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace if Republicans would “take the bait” and shut down the government, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said “it doesn’t solve the problem, Chris, but look, we’re having those discussions.” Thune noted that House and Senate leaders “are having discussions” on how to react if Obama takes action on the lightning-rod issue as soon as this week. But the Senate Republican Conference chairman charged that Obama would be “choosing friction and partisanship … instead of cooperation (which) would make it difficult” for a GOP-controlled Congress to do immigration reform “or anything” over the next two years  Asked if Obama should wait until after Congress has passed a must-pass government-funding bill when it expires on December 11th, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) responded that the “timing” could be “negotiable.” Whitehouse blamed the current impasse on immigration reform on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who refused to consider the Senate-passed measure on comprehensive immigration reform”.

Inequality as national security problem

19/11/2014

David Rothkopf, in an unusual article lessens the risks of ISIS but rightly warns of the dangers of inequality. Taken with the problems in American democracy, if not corrected in the long term, American decline will occur.

He begins “the Islamic State is also an example of a threat that, if not overstated, has been largely misconstrued. It is, after all, only an organization of perhaps 20,000 to 35,000 fighters. It has very limited resources. Its hold on the cities it has claimed is tenuous and to a large degree desperate, depending more on threats than on the active support of the majority of local populations. It is not a major threat to the residents of the United States and certainly not anything like the existential threats Americans faced in the last century. We, however, have applied the transitive property of terrorism to elevate its status: We have come to see the Islamic State as the new al Qaeda, and al Qaeda, despite being a relatively small organization with limited capabilities, had previously been elevated to the role of America’s new Enemy No. 1, occupying a position once held by a real existential threat, the Soviet Union, which had inherited its root-of-all-evil mantle from the Nazis”.

He rightly conceded that ISIS is a threat “Yes, of course, a serious one. But it’s not as much of a threat at least for now to Americans and their way of life as it is to American interests and America’s allies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Were the Islamic State to establish a permanent radical state in the Middle East, that could be destabilizing for years. Further, such a state could serve as a petri dish for global mayhem, a place where the other real risk associated with the group — that of its growing army of foreign fighterscould be cultivated, made more dangerous, and released on different corners of the region or the world”.

He goes on to expand on a section on the future geolpolitical threats, including Pakistan and Russia, climate change, cyber threats but rightly taking an expansive view he argues “those associated with another global economic crunch or the growing risk of cyberconflicts, the consequences of which we barely understand and are ill-prepared to grapple with. In each case, these threats are simmering like that proverbial frog sitting in a pot of increasingly hot water. They may reach a boiling point before we know it and can jump out to save ourselves”.

He adds to an argument that has been noted before but that there are threats in the United States that will undermine the long term power of the country and, if not addressed, will lead to American decline, “They have to do with the fact that despite steady job growth rivaling the gains of the Clinton years, and despite a booming stock market and a rising GDP outstripping those of the world’s other major developed economies, wages are not rising and the quality of the jobs being created is disturbingly low. We are, in fact, seeing America’s first major post-recession recovery that has bypassed its middle class. Ninety percent of the gains have gone to the top 10 percent of the population. Something is broken.Something is badly wrong”.

He goes on to bloster his point “The most grotesque element of this existential threat to the American dream, to America’s sense of itself and to its fundamental social cohesion, is growing inequality. In fact, it is inequality at historic levels. Asreportedin the most recent issue of the Economist, the top one-tenth of 1 percent of America’s population is about to achieve a level of wealth equivalent to that of the bottom 90 percent. That’s just over 300,000 people with holdings equal to that of some 280 million. Those wealthy few will control 22 percent of the wealth. The bottom 90 percent, everybody essentially, will also have 22 percent. This in turn means that the top 10 percent of the U.S. population will control 78 percent of America’s wealth. Almost eight out of every 10 dollars of net worth”.

He strikes a note of balance noting that “This is not a uniquely American problem. The World Economic Forum, having conducted a survey of almost 2,000 global leaders, reports that they view rising inequality as the most threatening trend facing the globe in 2015. In all 44 countries polledby the Pew Research Center, majorities believe that inequality is a major problem in their countries, and in most of those countries (28 of them), they consider it a very big concern. The global numbers are pretty gut-wrenching too: Just 0.7 percent of the population controls 41 percent of the wealth. Roughly 70 percent have just 3 percent of the wealth. But the American case is special no matter how you slice it. It is because, for example, wage disparities between average workers and CEOs are greater in the United States than in any other place in the world — by a lot, more than five times than in the next-worse nation (Venezuela). While U.S. workers, according to a recent articlein the Harvard Business Review that analyzes a new study appearing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, think the difference between average wages and those of the boss should be about seven times, in fact it is 354 times. An analysis by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers puts the situation in further relief”.

Rothkopf argues that the level of inequality is becoming so bad that it will be a large part of the next presidential election, “Inequality is creeping steadily upward. In fact, the situation has become so bad that the American political party that has in recent years been seen as the champion of Wall Street and fat cats, the Republican Party, scored many of its 2014 election victories by emphasizing the gaps in the flawed economic recovery (which the Republicans, of course, blamed on President Barack Obama.) According to a Slate articleby William Saletan, “Republicans won big in the 2014 elections…. But they didn’t do it by running to the right. They did it, to a surprising extent, by embracing ideas and standards that came from the left…. I’m talking about the core of the liberal agenda: economic equality.” This is a harbinger of things to come”.

Crucially he argues “For candidate Hillary Clinton (who will certainly be the most well-versed and competent of any in the field in terms of national security and foreign-policy issues by virtue of her tenure as secretary of state), there will be a special challenge. She will have to offer an economic approach that is seen as something new, focused more on these issues of inclusion, opportunity- and quality job creation, rather than the message of growth and placating Wall Street that marked her husband’s tenure as president. (Note: I served as a senior economic official in Bill Clinton’s administration.) She will need a new team because those associated with her husband and Obama are too closely associated with Wall Street and bailouts and policies favouring the few, even if that is, to a large degree, an unfair oversimplification. Indeed, her biggest challenge over the next year will be convening a group of new faces with new ideas to tackle this greatest of all threats to the United States”.

He closes “Her competition will likely focus on the same issues — whether that competition consists of centrists like Jeb Bush or relative renegades like Rand Paul. Because at the end of the day, despite the din of media alerts and the flashing lights of government terrorism warnings, the real insecurity that haunts Americans late at night as they contemplate their futures involves not terrorists or rogue nations, but political and financial institutions at home that have been captured by the self-interested few and that are seeking to squeeze the hope out of Americans as no terrorist could do”.

 

Extended again?

19/11/2014

A report from the Wall Street Journal mentions the possibility of extending talks with Iran.

It opens, “Global powers and Iran signaled they will extend their diplomacy beyond a Nov. 24 deadline if necessary, as three days of talks aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear program failed to win any major breakthroughs. Senior U.S., Iranian and European diplomats stressed Tuesday that their negotiations in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, which included direct meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, solely focused on forging a comprehensive nuclear deal by late November. But diplomats involved in the Muscat talks also acknowledged that the limited advancements made here could lead the negotiators to extend their talks beyond Nov. 24″.

The report goes on to mention “Many said the negative fallout from a diplomatic failure could be too great for a region already facing rising instability in countries ranging from Syria to Yemen. The talks involved Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, a diplomatic bloc knows as the P5+1”.

The article goes on to quote “Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Dr Abbas Araghchi, stressed his government was working around the clock to reach a deal by the deadline, but indicated their wasn’t enough time. ‘We are not still in the position to say we made progress,’ Mr. Araghchi told Iranian state media in Muscat. ‘We are hopeful we will make it, though it will be very difficult.’ The U.S. suspects Iran has a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran has denied. U.S. officials have said privately in recent days that an extension may be sought. But publicly, top aides to President Barack Obama said that Nov. 24 was still the focus of their diplomacy, which will move to Vienna, Austria, on Nov. 18 for a week of talks up to the deadline”.

Naturally any extension would “pose numerous political and diplomatic challenges, diplomats involved in the talks said. Reaching an agreement on balancing freezes in Iran’s nuclear program with economic incentives during the additional diplomacy could prove nearly as complicated as forging a final deal, they said. Also, the capturing of the U.S. Senate by the Republican Party last week could limit the White House’s diplomatic flexibility. Republican leaders have already said they are preparing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran if an agreement isn’t reached this month—a step that might kill further diplomacy. And these lawmakers said they will seek to ensure the talks don’t run on indefinitely”.

The report goes on to mention that Iranian officials brought up the midterms and asked if they would effect the ratificiation of any potential deal, “‘You chat when you’re in the lunch table or milling around. Obviously, issues in the news come up,’ the senior U.S. official said of the election talk. ‘But I wouldn’t overemphasize that in terms of being part of the negotiations.’ Some participants said they believed to reach agreement on an extension, the parties will need to establish at least the broad parameters of an agreement to get political support at home”.

The piece ends “The main sticking points in the talks, according to U.S. and European officials, are the future scope of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the speed at which the Western sanctions would be removed. The Obama administration has sought to significantly limit Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel through the enrichment of uranium. U.S. officials have said Iran should only be allowed to maintain a few thousand centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium, while Iranian leaders have said they would eventually need hundreds of thousands. Other issues that remain in dispute are the future of an Iranian heavy water reactor that will be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium when it goes on line. The U.S. and its diplomatic allies are also seeking to drastically reduce Iran’s stockpile of nuclear materials”.

It closes “Moscow announced it had expanded a nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran that will see it enlarge a reactor complex Russia built in the coastal city of Bushehr. U.S. officials didn’t voice alarm about the deal, noting that it had long been in the works. But Russians have said they’re seeking to significantly increase their energy dealings with Tehran”.

“Expressing hope that they could reach deals”

17/11/2014

After years of clashes and a grudging truce, fiscal and economic policy was brought back to center stage by the wave of Republican electoral victories on Tuesday, with President Obama and the new congressional leadership expressing hope that they could reach deals to simplify the tax code, promote trade and eliminate the budget deficit. The president and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the presumptive next majority leader, immediately pointed to tax-code changes, international trade and budget policy as potential common ground for a divided government in Mr. Obama’s final two years in office. On Thursday, Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, listed a tax overhaul and the federal debt as the House’s top two priorities. “We have this tax code that doesn’t bring stability and certainty to the economy,” said Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Finance Committee, who will hand over his gavel to a Republican, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, in the next Congress. “Historically, Republicans have wanted efficiency. Democrats want fairness. I want both, and we’re getting neither.” Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ last vice-presidential nominee, will seek the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship to pursue a broad overhaul of the tax code. And two conservatives, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Representative Tom Price of Georgia, are expected to take over their chambers’ budget committees. Both are considering turning to a parliamentary procedure called reconciliation to cut the costs of social programs like Medicare and ease the passage of a simplified tax code”.

“Most dominant Republican Congress since 1929”

15/11/2014

Single-party control of Congress isn’t unusual. Since the Confederate states rejoined the federal government after the Civil War, one party or the other has controlled the House and Senate by itself for three out of four Congresses. (In the early days it was mostly Republican control, but the 20th century was dominated by Democrats.) On Monday, we looked at existing projections for how many seats the Republicans might pick up in the House and the Senate with the goal of figuring out how strong the party’s grip on Congress would be, from a historical perspective. One metric to gauge this is how many seats the party has in either chamber. Another, the one we chose, was the percentage of the majority in the House and Senate. After all, a century ago, the Senate only had 96 seats, making an eight-senator majority slightly more powerful than it would be today. Now that we can see how the Republicans did at a minimum and, with a few seats still to be determined, how well they could wind up doing, we can erase the uncertainty from our first post. This will be the most dominant Republican Congress since 1929, with an almost-certain 8 percent majority in the Senate and an 11.7 to 17.7 percent majority in the House. That trumps the party’s 6.3/13.3 percent majorities in the 80th Congress that began in 1947. (Even if the party loses the Senate races in Louisiana or Alaska, it only needs two of the contested House races that remain to go its way to beat 1947.)

Thinking big

13/11/2014

James Traub writes that President Obama needs to go “double or nothing” on Syria. He begins “In Iraq and Syria, the president is taking the kinds of risks he usually avoids. If he can — somehow — get Iran on board, he could leave office with something to be proud of.

Traub goes on to write that Obama never wanted to be a foreign policy president but “With the drubbing the Democrats endured on Tuesday and paralysis likely to descend on Washington, it’s a reasonable guess that his only opportunity to do something really important in his second term in office will be in Iran, Iraq, and Syria”.

On Iraq, Traub argues that “The heart of the anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign is, oddly, the most straightforward and least controversial element. Iraq is an important regional ally whose territorial integrity is profoundly threatened by murderous fundamentalist jihadists. Obama rightly used the prospect of U.S. intervention as leverage to force out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in favour of the less sectarian Haider al-Abadi”.

There are some assumptions that Traub is making here that are simplistic to say the least. Firstly his point about targeting ISIS as being the least controversial element is untrue. Iraq is not the core if ISIS and never was. If it was things would be much easier with ground troops and Turkey to say the least. If its base was Iraq instead of Syria the mess Obama has created would be a slightly easier mess to clear up. Traub adds that the “coalition Obama has assembled now has a functioning, if very fragmented, government to work with, and both the Kurdish and Iraqi army on the ground — though the latter has proved utterly feckless, and largely supplanted by Shiite militias”.

On the point of Syira he writes “In its policy towards Syria over the last three years, the Obama administration has proved to be every bit as indecisive and incoherent as its critics claim. The president has never seemed so utterly at the mercy of events as when last August he prepared to bomb Syria for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons, thought better of it in the face of opposition, and allowed Vladimir Putin to rescue him from a cul-de-sac”.

Unusually Traub argues “Obama’s immediate commitments in Syria are, in fact, relatively modest and have very little to do with Syria itself. In the administration’s thinking, Iraq is the equivalent of Afghanistan and eastern Syria is the Pakistan border, where the bad guys lurk”.

All this does however is to expose the flaw in two regional policies. Worryingly Traub quotes General Martin Dempsey,  and makes the point that “To put it simply, the short-term Syria strategy is Iraq. The long-term strategy is to train 5,000 moderate rebels a year. But it’s not clear if that’s a strategy for Syria either, since the rebels are intended to challenge IS rather than the regime. The rebels, of course, yearn to overthrow Assad, while the Obama administration is resolutely opposed to regime change. In all likelihood, this effort will lead to yet more sectarian violence, as it did in Iraq”.

Traub discusses Iran “One of the reasons for Obama’s reluctance to back the rebels is that he does not want to jeopardise the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Assad’s most steadfast backer. Administration officials have long envisioned that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could lead to a broader rapprochement with Iran. In the past, this has dictated a zero-sum relationship between Iran and Syria. With the rise of IS, however, Iran has suddenly, and improbably, come to be seen as the key to unlock Syria”.

Traub mentions the letter Obama wrote to the Supreme Leader and adds “suggesting that an agreement to end nuclear proliferation could lead to cooperation against IS. American diplomats have begun talking to their Iranian counterparts about Syria, though those talks are said to be “episodic” and not yet “substantive.” Some officials note that Iran has already proposed a Syria peace plan involving a political transition, and believe that if and when a nuclear deal is concluded, the Iranians might accept a political deal in which Assad departs in favor of an Alawite regime which would preserve Iranian interests. They note that the Saudis, the most intransigent of Assad’s opponents, have begun to accept that this may be the best they can do. In the dream-realisation scenario, a consensus forms behind such a transition and Obama hits the trifecta — Iran, Iraq, and Syria, too”.

Traub makes the point that “In the realm of probability, this falls far below the prospect of containing and degrading IS. First, nothing will happen absent a nuclear deal, which remains doubtful, and is almost certain not be reached by the current Nov. 24 deadline. Obama is going to have to show a lot of grit should negotiators reach an agreement, since any terms will be fiercely attacked in Congress and in Israel”.

Traub is correct to assume a deal will not occur and work from this assumption but at the same time, Iran has much to lose with Iraq dismembered, weakened and dangerous on the border with Tehran. The division between ISIS and the nuclear talks may be neither helpful or possible.

He end “It may be possible to spin this Rubik’s Cube so that all the colours line up. But it is at least as likely that Obama would call it a day after matching up one or two sides, securing the one achievement he has sought from the outset of his tenure — removing the menace of an Iran bomb — at the cost of selling out the Syrian people. This is what the rebels fear, and what America’s Gulf allies fear. After all, eliminating the Iranian nuclear threat, like eliminating IS, is a matter of the utmost national security. Getting rid of the mass killer who rules Syria is not; as we have learned in Iraq and Libya, that could lead to yet more violence and chaos. Obama will earn the gratitude of the American people if, improbably, he removes the threat from IS and Iran. But if, in addition, he ends the plague of the barrel bomb in Syria, he will secure his reputation with posterity”.

“Sent Mr Obama a loud warning”

11/11/2014

The leader in the Economist notes the scale of the Republican victory in the recent midterms. The report begins “THE Republican Party was disciplined and united. Voters were dismayed at the state of America, made acute by collapsing public confidence in Barack Obama. As a result, the Republicans seized control of the Senate in mid-term elections on November 4th, taking up to eight seats from Democrats (see map). A ninth, in Louisiana, is likely to fall their way after a run-off election in December. That will leave Republicans with 54 seats and make Mitch McConnell (pictured with his wife, former labour secretary Elaine Chao) the new leader of the Senate. Republicans increased their majority in the House of Representatives (see article) and pulled off stunning wins in governors’ races, even in such Democratic bastions as Maryland and Massachusetts (see article). It was an unhappy, angry election”.

The author writes “Two-thirds of voters told exit polls the country was on the wrong track. Hefty majorities expressed dissatisfaction or anger at the job performance not only of Mr Obama, but also of both parties and Congress”.

He goes on to make the point that the Democrats have made excuses for “their thumping. Some of the closest Senate races involved centrist Democratic incumbents trying (and failing) to survive in deeply conservative states, such as Alaska or Arkansas. The retirement of veteran Democrats made Republican wins easy in West Virginia, Montana and South Dakota. When a president has been in the White House six years, a mid-term backlash against his party is the norm. America is a country with two electorates. One, a national electorate which appears once every four years when a president is on the ballot, leans slightly Democratic. The other, made up of those Americans who reliably turn out in mid-term and state elections, is markedly older, whiter and more conservative”.

 The writer is perhaps a little unfair. Far from being “excuses” as he puts it the trends he is describing and the electorate he sees is accurate.

However, fairly he adds “some Democratic losses are harder to explain away. In Iowa Democrats chose a gaffe-prone lawyer, Bruce Braley, to contest an open Senate seat. He was beaten by Joni Ernst, a soldier and farmer’s daughter who managed to sound both populist (hers was the famous castrating-pigs ad) and remorselessly on-message. A Democratic incumbent in Colorado, Mark Udall, lost after building his campaign around a theme that had served his party well in previous elections: accusing Republicans of being extreme on abortion. But Republicans had recruited a candidate, Cory Gardner, who eschewed harsh rhetoric on social issues, effectively blunting Democratic attacks about a “war on women”. Republicans at last learned how to blend high-tech data-mining and digital wizardry with old-fashioned pavement-pounding to turn out voters, in ways pioneered by Team Obama”.

As has been said here repeatedly, the problem is often not the candidate but those who chose him. The obsession with democracy at every level possible has lead to some appalling choices by both parties and a simple correction is to allow the state party, with vetting by the DNC/RNC to approve the candidate.

The report goes on to note “Virginia, a state which complacent Democrats had thought a safe bet thanks to demographic changes, turned out to be close. Mark Warner, the Democratic incumbent, claimed victory, but Ed Gillespie, a lobbyist and former Republican campaign chief, has demanded a recount. It was a fear-mongering, finger-pointing election. Democrats chose economic insecurity as a theme, hammering Republicans as shills for billionaires, heartlessly ignoring public demands for such policies as raising the minimum wage. Several Republicans—such as Thom Tillis, who ousted a Democratic Senate incumbent in North Carolina, or David Perdue, who beat off a challenge for an open Senate seat in Georgia—played on voter fears about national security. Ads filled the airwaves with doomy images of Ebola victims and Islamic terrorists, and accusing Democrats of doing nothing to secure America’s borders”.

He notes the GOP strategy “the Republican establishment nationalised the election. They made every race about Mr Obama, portraying even the most conservative Democrats as his lapdogs. In several states party leaders worked to block maverick Tea Party types from running under the Republican banner and harming the party’s national brand. Party leaders staged an intervention in Kansas to save Senator Pat Roberts, an unpopular 78-year-old incumbent who was in denial about his chances of being toppled by a businessman running as an independent, Greg Orman”.

The piece ends “Yet cracks in party unity could be seen even on election night, at a jubilant victory party in Louisville, Kentucky, home to the new top dog in the Senate, Mr McConnell. The senator, a canny and ruthless 30-year veteran of Congress, offered a nuanced vision of the next two years. Americans were sick of big government and bossy federal bureaucrats, Mr McConnell said”.

He concludes “Americans have sent Mr Obama a loud warning and given Republicans a governing majority in Congress. Their reward may be more gridlock”.

Isolated Obama

09/11/2014

An article in Foreign Policy argues that after the Democrat defeat in the midterms, President Obama has become more isolated. He begins “In the wake of Tuesday’s elections, U.S. President Barack Obama cuts a lonely figure. In fact, he may end his term of office as the most isolated president since Richard Nixon. If that is the case, it will largely be a plight of his own making”.

He goes on to write “The isolation starts with the fact that from the beginning, for the president and his campaign team, it was never about the Democratic Party. It was never about the rest of their team in the administration. It was never about a network of international relationships. It was always about one man who was the product, the messenger, the mission, and the raison d’être all wrapped into one. And for the next two years, it seems highly likely that any brave post-election faces they try to put on this to the contrary, Obama will reap the results of his political and policy narcissism in a way that will not only be difficult for him personally but will be bad for America and its role in the world”.

The writer correctly notes that “Setting aside individual debates about individual policy choices, the public wants America and its leaders to appear strong. Whether in Crimea or Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, in bickering with allies or being manipulated by rivals, Obama has projected anything but such an image. His perceived weakness and ineffectiveness overseas undoubtedly played into the results Tuesday. And it is therefore a reason why the next two years are likely to see an America that is like its president, increasingly ineffective internationally — as the world waits for his successor and hopes for a change in the character of U.S. leadership”.

He goes on to posit the theory that “While two term presidents like Bush 43, Clinton, and Reagan all finished stronger on foreign policy than they started that does not seem likely to be the case for Obama despite the fact that all three of his predecessors were, like Obama, weakened by domestic politics and other factors as they completed the last quarter of their presidencies. In part, this is due to the fact that Democratic losses Tuesday were so sweeping. In part, it is due to the fact that Obama (and his inner circle) are seen within his own party as the cause of those losses. Not only was Obama’s record to blame but once again, as in 2012 and 2010, his perceived lack of energetic efforts to support his own party’s candidates has bred animosity”.

Critically he argues that Obama “will be a president at odds with both houses of Congress and one who is unable to muster support. This in turn will send a message to allies and rivals alike around the world that the president will not necessarily be able to keep any promises that he or his team might make. He will not be seen therefore, as credible when he asserts plans or proposes initiatives that require Congressional funding or approval”.

He ends noting that “Add to the above the fact that things aren’t going very well for a whole host of Obama’s most important international efforts — with growing strains in Russia (keep an eye on Georgia, the Baltics, and Russia’s teetering economy thanks to plunging oil prices), in Syria and Iraq (where we still lack anything like a coherent strategy or the military commitment to get the jobs we have undertaken done), in Libya (now in flames), in Israel-Palestine (tensions rising), in Afghanistan (where no one believes recent political gains will be long-lived and where the Taliban is on the move), or elsewhere”.

The solution to this he posits is that “Taking all these factors into consideration and the outlook for the president looks very much like the famous photo from Back to the Future in which before our eyes we can see his image fading to nothing. In that movie, the only way to reverse the process was to restore history back to its original order. For Obama, the only way to do it would be to turn that formula on its head and actually undo his own history of isolating himself from those upon which all presidents must depend for international success — from political allies at home, from the members of his own team who need to be truly empowered to manage so many issues at once, and from his counterparts around the world. Otherwise over the next two years we may view the world as a shifting tableau involving many familiar actors and a blank space where once there was a president of the United States”.

 

GOP midterm victory

05/11/2014

A report from the Hill sees that the GOP have taken control in the Senate in the midterms that were held yesterday. The report starts “Republicans have clinched Senate control in an election night that saw Democrats around the country crushed by the growing unpopularity of President Obama. Democratic losses piled up throughout the night, with the GOP securing a Senate majority before midnight as Sen. Kay Hagan lost in North Carolina and Republican Joni Ernst won an open seat in Iowa. Incumbent Democrats also fell in House and gubernatorial races, adding to the scale of the party’s defeat. High-profile Democratic targets including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) prevailed, and the party failed to pick up a single Senate seat. The GOP needed to gain six seats to win the majority, and had already gained seven seats before polls even closed in Alaska. There, Republican Dan Sullivan has opened a lead over Sen. Mark Begich (D) with nearly all of the vote counted”.

The report goes on to note “Republicans won open seats held by Democrats in Montana, West Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota, and knocked off incumbents in North Carolina, Arkansas and Colorado. Their majority could grow larger — Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) will be the underdog in a runoff election in December against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was also clinging to a razor-thin lead in Virginia that appeared headed for a recount. If both Sullivan and Cassidy eventually prevail, that margin could grow to nine seats netted by the GOP by the end of the cycle. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) easily won his reelection fight, and the other wins ensure he will fulfill his long-held dream of becoming Senate majority leader. McConnell was declared the victor in his closely watched race as soon as polls closed in the Bluegrass State, defeating Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes to earn a sixth term. Democrats had early hopes for the Kentucky secretary of State’s candidacy, but her campaign couldn’t take advantage of the senator’s unpopularity in the state”.

Fundamentally, it mentions “The change in power means that Obama will spend the last two years of his presidency dealing with an emboldened all-Republican Congress that intends to challenge him on major legislation and, in the words of McConnell, take the country in a “new direction.” Hagan’s loss to state Speaker Thom Tillis was one of the most surprising results of the night, and her fall sealed the Democratic Party’s 2014 fate. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor (D) was the first incumbent to fall on Tuesday. Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton (R) handily defeated the centrist lawmaker in a state that has slipped rapidly away from Democrats in recent years. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner (R) knocked off Sen. Mark Udall (D), defying Democratic cries that their vaunted ground game would save the vulnerable incumbent. Republicans also picked up a Democrat-held open seat in West Virginia with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R) easy victory. South Dakota flipped to the GOP column after former Gov. Mike Rounds (R) won the open seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson (D). The three-way race had become a late headache for the GOP with the addition of former GOP Sen. Larry Pressler (I), but with Republican attention and help the race turned again in Republicans’ favour. Rep. Steve Daines (R) then won the open Democratic-held seat in Montana”.

It ends “Republican leaders crowed over the victory, arguing voters had sent a strong signal about which party they want in control in Washington”.

The danger however is that the GOP misinterpret this signal and overreach with the resultant swing to the Democrats in time for the 2016 election.

A related piece notes that the GOP have expanded their majority in the House, “The Republican Party has expanded its majority in the House of Representatives to its largest level since the 1940s, according to election-night projections from several networks and the Associated Press. Republicans needed to gain a net 11 seats to reach the goal of a 245-member House majority set by party leaders. By around 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Republicans had flipped 14 seats, in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, Iowa, Texas, Utah and Nevada”.

The report shows the scale of the GOP win when it mentions “Democrats had only toppled one incumbent Republican by early Wednesday — Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) was defeated by attorney Gwen Graham  — though they could make it two if Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) loses. Terry was trailing state Sen. Brad Ashford (D) early Wednesday but the race had not been called. Even if Democrats flip two seats, Republicans would still have netted 12 seats. Projections of victory for Utah’s Mia Love (R), who becomes the first African-American Republican woman elected to Congress, and Republican Will Hurd over Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas), essentially ensured the GOP would meet its 245-member goal”.
Importantly the author writes that “Unlike the Senate, control of the House was not truly in play in 2014, due to a limited number of competitive seats, President Obama’s low approval ratings and an overall political environment that favored Republicans. Only seven races were considered possible Democratic pickups. But Democrats were unable to win any of the open seats they had considered potential gains in Arkansas and Iowa”.
 The bad news spread for Democarts when many of the elections for governor went red as well, “A bad night for the White House on Tuesday got worse as a number of Democratic gubernatorial candidates for whom President Obama campaigned in the final weeks of the midterm elections fell to their Republican challengers.The president, effectively sidelined in House and Senate races by candidates worried he’d prove a liability, instead spent his time on the trail trying to rally base voters in Democratic strongholds to turn out for governor’s races.“The stakes are high in these governor’s races,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week, saying the outcomes had “significant consequences for the successful implementation of policies that the president has worked very hard to pass.”But the president did not appear successful in those campaigns — even in states he handily won in his two presidential campaigns.The most stinging loss might have been in Obama’s home state of Illinois, where Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn lost to Republican challenger Bruce Rauner.The president traveled back to Illinois and voted early in the election there, and visited Quinn’s campaign headquarters to bolster volunteers. The first lady also appeared at a campaign rally and in a commercial for Quinn, and Obama phoned in to Chicago talk radio to encourage voters on Monday.In neighbouring Wisconsin, a state he twice won in presidential elections, Obama was also dealt a loss. Appearances by the president and first lady were not enough to prevent Gov. Scott Walker, a 2016 Republican presidential hopeful many Democrats hoped to knock off, from winning reelection over Democrat Mary Burke”.
As a sign of the times it mentions that “The lone bright spot for Obama among the gubernatorial races was a win for Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf, who defeated deeply unpopular Gov. Tom Corbett. For the White House, the losses could have significant policy ramifications in what should be Democratic strongholds”.
The scale of the defeat was seen when West Virginia turned red, giving the GOP their first Senate seat in the state. Mark Udall of Colorado was also defeated by the GOP candidate, in what is a state that is turning more blue over time.
Many blame President Obama for the stinging defeat, “Democrats dismayed with the loss of the Senate are pointing the finger squarely at President Obama.In race after race across the country, vulnerable Democrats were unable to shed the shadow of a deeply unpopular White House. Voters appeared eager to punish Obama after two years defined by crisis and mismanagement, and Republicans saw consistent success by labeling their opponents as potential rubber stamps for the president”.By way of context they mention “While Democrats said the map was stacked against Obama, they also blamed multiple crises for hurting the Obama and Democratic brands. Just 44 percent of voters approve of the federal government’s handling of the Ebola crisis, according to exit polls. Meanwhile, 72 percent are fearful of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil”.

Finally, a piece argues that the GOP have had to take on the policies of the Democrats in order to win, “There’s a paradox for Democrats who watch the congressional map grow increasingly red: their candidates are losing, but many of their priorities are winning. Pundits see the definitive midterm elections victory for Republicans as a resounding disapproval of President Obama, whose approval rate continues to drop. But exit polls show support for many Democratic-aligned policies, including minimum wage hikes and abortion rights protections, regardless of whether voters support the party’s candidates. Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) former chief of staff, suggested the night’s results may indicate once-partisan policy priorities are becoming “depoliticised.” He speculated that the ballot measures, which were expected to help drive Democratic voters to the polls, may have backfired in some places and allowed voters to support bipartisan policy priorities while choosing a candidate that may have opposed them”.

The report ends “Minimum wage hikes passed in two states that elected Republicans to the Senate. Senator-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) ultimately embraced the issue in the last few months of the race, but Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor had previously hammered Cotton for not supporting the measure. Nebraska voters also resoundingly supported a graduated raise to the state’s minimum wage while also voting Republican Ben Sasse into the Senate. National exit polls from North Carolina also provide a similar dynamic”.

 

A productive Congress?

03/11/2014

John Hudson writes that President Obama can use the impending GOP victory to his advantage to secure trade deals. Hudson opens, “Republicans have promised to halt President Barack Obama’s second-term agenda if they win the Senate on Tuesday, fighting key presidential appointments, environmental regulations, immigration and health care reform, and an extension on unemployment benefits. But one of the president’s top priorities may actually have a greater chance of becoming law if Republicans win big on Nov. 4: his ambitious global trade agenda, which faces deep opposition within Obama’s own Democratic Party”.

He goes on to write “The administration is currently negotiating two proposed free-trade agreements with the European Union and key nations in the Asia-Pacific region: the cumbersomely named Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Obama has been pushing for the deals for years because he says they will increase U.S. exports and create millions of jobs at home. Though scores of obstacles remain in the way of both trade deals, some of the strongest opposition has come from congressional Democrats, who’ve blocked the president’s request for “fast-track” trade authority and raised concerns about the impact of global trade on union jobs and wages”.

He goes on to make the point “If the Senate flips, pro-trade Republicans will dominate key committees that deal with trade policy and relegate more protectionist Democrats to the minority. Unlike most other issues, Republicans are increasingly signaling a willingness to work with Obama to strengthen his negotiating position with partners overseas”.

He adds “Trade promotion authority legislation, or TPA, allows the president to submit a trade agreement to Congress for a straight up or down vote without any amendments. Many experts argue that giving the president this authority is critical to wringing the most concessions from foreign governments during trade negotiations and therefore getting the best possible deal for America — the logic being that other countries won’t extend their best offer if they know Congress can later amend the deal in a thousand different ways. In 2012, the Obama administration also signaled that passage of TPA would be required to close the 12-country TPP mega-deal, which would lower tariffs and harmonize a range of regulatory and trade issues in the Asia-Pacific economic zone. But convincing Democrats to support fast-track authority has been a challenge for the White House”.

He says that with Reid no longer as majority leader, “The move took the air out of a bipartisan bill introduced in early January by then-Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) in the House Ways and Means Committee that would have granted the president trade promotion authority and established a detailed set of guidelines for trade objectives in the TPP negotiations. Now, with the prospect of a GOP-controlled Senate, Republicans say the chances to pass trade promotion authority are better than ever, which would be key to securing deals on TPP and T-TIP. However, they still can’t do it without a critical mass of Democrats, which they say only the president himself can deliver”.

Hudson goes on to mention “while Republicans are genuinely united on free trade, they’re not a monolith: A number of Tea Party groups have signaled opposition to granting trade promotion authority due to concerns about the secrecy of the talks and a broader distrust of Obama. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is not free trade. It is at best special interest and corporatist managed trade,” Judson Phillips, the founder of Tea Party Nation, wrote in January. “Does anyone really trust Barack Obama to deliver an international agreement that is good for America?” Pro-trade Republicans like Boustany, who blame the White House for a lack of engagement with Democrats on the issue, acknowledged that dissent exists within his own caucus, but vowed to do his own part in whipping up support”.

He ends the piece “The other elephant in the room is the international negotiations themselves. While many hoped that TPP negotiations could be concluded this year, few actually believe there’s any chance of a deal until 2015. The diverse 12-member trade bloc, which includes countries ranging from Canada to Japan to Brunei to Mexico to New Zealand, continues to grapple over contentious issues related to intellectual property, agriculture tariffs, and investments. Though lawmakers such as Boustany believe the key to breaking the diplomatic stalemate is the passage of TPA, others say the trade bloc is too large and cumbersome to accommodate the interests of every country”.

The GOP Congress

01/11/2014

An article in the Economist posits two scenarios should the Republicans win the Seante in the upcoming mid term elections.

It opens “MOST polls suggest that Republicans will capture a narrow majority in the Senate in November’s mid-term elections, while holding on to the House of Representatives. So America faces two more years of divided government, but with a shift in the balance of power. Until now, Barack Obama has always had a Democratic Senate to block proposals passed by the House. If that buffer disappears, he will have to sign or veto every bill that a Republican Congress sends him. The result may be political paralysis, accelerating the greying of the president’s hair and alarming allies worldwide. Or it may be that the two sides find common ground and pass some sensible measures. Pessimists sigh that the parties are too polarised to agree on anything. Plenty of Republicans think Mr Obama is a menace whom patriots must thwart and resist. Many Democrats believe there is no point in trying to cut deals with Republicans. Instead, they want Mr Obama to spend his last two years in office ignoring Congress and using executive orders and federal regulations to pursue progressive goals, such as curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, shielding illegal migrants from deportation (and even closing the Guantánamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects, if press reports are true: see Lexington). Under this scenario, no significant laws will be passed until after the presidential election in 2016″.
As has been said here before the system of checks and balances that halted an overweening executive in the 18th Century is now a cause of immense problems with gridlock the order of the day. The only way to solve this, as has been suggested, is either radical constitutional reform or a return to a more mature partisan politics that works within the system that the parties now operate in.

The report goes on to note “Optimists retort that once Republicans control both arms of Congress, they cannot just snarl from the sidelines. Unless they show they have a positive agenda, they risk a drubbing in 2016. And if Mr Obama wants a legacy, he will have to work with them. Some of the bigwigs interviewed for this article believe that several constructive, growth-friendly policies already enjoy enough bipartisan support to pass in the Senate”.

Yet this optimistic view is just that. The GOP will be riddled with time wasters trying to undo Obamacare and or worse propose impeachment and the leadership that had found its voice will once again remain timid, unwilling to put a halt to their antics.

The writer notes “Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, makes a striking claim. In private meetings with the president, he has told Mr Obama that he will find it easier to address America’s long-term fiscal woes if Democrats lose in November. “I have told the president that he is better off if the Republicans are in the majority,” Mr Corker reports, explaining that both sides would then be under pressure to act responsibly. If Republicans win the Senate, Mr Corker hopes to see progress on long-stalled areas of policy such as free trade, corporate-tax reform, deficit reduction, federal highway funding, and revising the legal basis for the war in Iraq and Syria. Other moderate Republicans agree. The most durable reforms are those that enjoy bipartisan backing, from the Civil Rights Act to the Clinton-era welfare reforms. Laws rammed through by one party enjoy less legitimacy (Republicans cite Obamacare; Democrats cite the George W. Bush tax cuts). The shortest-lived reforms rest on executive orders, of the sort being urged on Mr Obama by the Left”.

The writer goes on to make the point that “Republicans have what ought to be compelling reasons to seek compromise. Next year Congress must fund the government by extending existing spending plans and, ideally, by drawing up a formal budget. It must also raise the debt ceiling (a limit on federal borrowing) or force a catastrophic national default. Pragmatic Republicans believe that the last time their party played chicken with the budget, it disgraced itself in the eyes not just of economists but also of voters”.

Worryingly the piece goes on to mention “Some prominent Republicans, such as Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee and Mitt Romney’s running-mate in 2012, suggest a two-pronged strategy that combines governing with point-scoring. A Republican Congress could pass a few modest, incremental bills which Mr Obama might actually sign, but also send him several popular ones which he might veto. For example, they would surely ask him to approve the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to American refineries. Environmentalists hate the idea, but if Mr Obama vetoes it, Republicans will accuse him of killing jobs”.

The fact that Ryan is willing to openly play politics with issues rather than work with the executive shows have far the GOP have gone from becoming a serious party to one of immature children.

Thankfully, realism prevails when the author argues “Many Democrats think compromise is unlikely, too. If Republican pragmatists in the Senate think a new era of bipartisanship is nigh, they “really need to talk to some of their House colleagues, because I see no evidence that they have changed,” says Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a senior House Democrat. He does not accept that the Republicans will win the Senate, but if they do, he predicts that they will over-reach and create a “huge public backlash”. The Ryan budget plan “absolutely devastates” spending on education, scientific research and infrastructure, while cutting the top rate of personal income tax, Mr Van Hollen charges. If Republicans want to pass Mr Ryan’s plan, “Go for it,” he urges. Whatever happens in November, Mr Obama will remain in overall control of foreign policy and defence, and enjoy considerable discretion over how government agencies implement regulations. But a Republican Congress would hold the purse strings, and new federal appointees such as judges and central bankers would have to be approved by a Republican Senate”.

Unsurprisingly the piece mentions “Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has set out how a new majority might be used. In a speech to donors that was leaked, he said: “We own the budget.” Republicans would use riders on spending bills to restrict the federal bureaucracy, he explained. “No money can be spent to do this or that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board,” he said. Yet making such constraints bite will be complicated. It would take 60 votes to attach riders to run-of-the-mill spending bills, meaning that Democratic support would be needed. The game is to attach so many popular spending plans to a bill that some Democrats will back it, explains Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator. However, reconciliation must follow strict rules (to simplify, it must be agreed that a policy’s main impact is on the federal budget, and it must not increase the long-term deficit). “Reconciliation is a very difficult vehicle to work with,” says Mr Gregg. It could perhaps be used to rein in environmental regulations. But it is a poor way to pursue tax reform, since tax cuts are usually assumed to increase the deficit. Obamacare itself was partly passed via reconciliation, and in 2012 the team planning a Romney presidency researched how much of the health law could be unpicked in the same way”.

The author argues that the GOP will try and find areas where they can work with the Democrats on areas like energy production and tax reform, “On energy, Congress could press federal regulators to grant export licences for natural gas, and make it easier to drill for oil on federal lands or offshore. On trade, Congress could grant the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate with foreign governments, so that lawmakers cannot unpick deals after they have been agreed on. Mr Corker thinks this is possible; Mr Van Hollen suspects that some in Congress may insist on seeing details of proposed trade pacts before agreeing to fast-track. On taxes, Republican leaders think a bipartisan deal could address the problem of American firms hoarding profits overseas. Recent headlines about firms quitting the country for tax reasons mean that both sides understand the harm caused by Uncle Sam’s insistence on taxing American firms’ profits even if they are earned abroad, says Mr Corker”.
The realist side wins again when detail is added to the GOP desire for “reform”, “A broader tax reform may be possible, but House Republicans have always resisted considering corporate taxes in isolation, says Mr Van Hollen. Democrats close to the White House sound a bit more optimistic. In a recent article, Gene Sperling, a former economic adviser to Mr Obama, insisted that the two parties’ leaders are not far apart on corporate-tax reform, suggesting both sides could agree to cut headline rates while imposing a minimum tax on foreign earnings. Alas, the prospects for a grand bargain on taxes and spending do not look good. Democrats suggest that Republican senators underestimate how allergic House Republicans are to anything that sounds like a tax increase. Many Republicans will demand a show vote to repeal Obamacare, which Mr Obama would obviously veto. Smaller tweaks to the health law may pass, however. Some Democrats support Republican calls to repeal a tax on medical devices; others may agree to loosen the rules for when a firm is deemed large enough to be obliged to offer its staff health insurance”.

Then there is the perinnal issue of immigration reform “a broad debate on immigration looms after November’s elections, because Mr Obama is expected to announce an executive order to shield more migrants from deportation, building on an order of 2012 to stop deporting many youngsters brought to America as children (a group known as Dreamers). Hispanic activists want millions more to be covered. Mr Obama may compromise, perhaps with a rule protecting Dreamers’ parents. Mr Chen, the former Romney adviser, hopes that Republicans in Congress will put together a “reasonable” alternative to that presidential order and send it to Mr Obama, forcing him to choose between a modest immigration reform now, or progressive perfection some day. Mr Chen fears, however, that after the announcement of an Obama amnesty some on the right will simply “go nuts”, drowning out serious debate with histrionics”.

He ends the piece “The battle between pragmatists and partisans in both parties is far from resolved. If Republicans control both halves of Congress, “They have to show they can govern or they will suffer huge losses in 2016,” says Mr Gregg. But other Republicans would rather deny Mr Obama any successes in his final two years. For one thing, they sincerely distrust him. For another, they want to hammer home the idea that Democrats are incompetent and big government always fails. For their part, lefty ideologues want to stir Republicans into such a fury that they repel voters in 2016. That is why some hope for the largest possible immigration amnesty (precisely to provoke the Right), and for a flurry of executive power-grabs”.

GOP, resorting to fear

20/10/2014

A piece from the New York Times discusses the Republican strategy for the upcoming midterms and that it is based largely on fear. Not only does this hurt the public discourse in the long run but it also harms Congress and the presidency itself, thus making the disapproval of democracy even worse.

It begins, “Republicans have made questions of how safe we are — from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous — central in their attacks against Democrats. Their message is decidedly grim: President Obama and the Democratic Party run a government that is so fundamentally broken it cannot offer its people the most basic protection from harm. Hear it on cable television and talk radio, where pundits and politicians play scientists speculating on whether Ebola will mutate into an airborne virus that kills millions. See it in the black-hooded, machine-gun-brandishing Islamic extremists appearing in campaign ads. Read about it in the unnerving accounts of the Secret Service leaving Mr. Obama and his family exposed. Republicans believe they have found the sentiment that will tie congressional races together with a single national theme”.

The Clintons head to Iowa

24/08/2014

Bill and Hillary Clinton are headed to the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa in September to headline retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D) annual steak fry. Hillary Clinton’s attendance at the event, sources confirmed to The Hill, marks the beginning of her fall campaign activities as she contemplates a run for the White House in 2016. Clinton is one of Democrats’ most in-demand campaign surrogates this cycle, with an unpopular President Obama persona non grata on the trail. With many in the party excited at the prospect of her potential presidential bid, her visits to the stump could pack a real punch. The steak fry appearance also marks her first return to a state that was not kind during her last run for the presidency. Clinton posted a damaging third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in 2008, a defeat she never recovered from as Obama began his march to the nomination. Other potential 2016 Democratic hopefuls have already made appearances in Iowa, including Vice President Biden, who headlined the steak fry last year, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who keynoted an Iowa Democratic dinner last month”.

 

Unfocused Democrats

31/07/2014

An interesting article has been published in the Economist, it argues that Democrats have not noticed the midterms taking place this year. It opens “Election fever grips the American Left. A mood of scrappy, let-us-at-’em impatience unites such gatherings as Netroots Nation, an annual shindig which this year drew thousands of activists, organisers, bloggers and candidates to Detroit from July 17th-19th. Unfortunately for the broader Democratic Party, the election that inspires the grassroots is the 2016 presidential race. The mid-term congressional elections, which will happen much sooner (in November this year), provoke a more muted response, even though there is a good chance that Republicans will seize the Senate and cripple the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency”.

The writer continues, “The kind of people who attend Netroots Nation are passionately and uncompromisingly left wing. Their champion is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a former professor who crusades against “big banks”, “powerful corporations” and their enablers on the Right. “The game is rigged,” thundered Ms Warren, whose demands include more generous Social Security benefits (pensions) for the old (paid for with steep tax hikes), cheaper student loans, a higher minimum wage and other forms of redistribution. Not for her the business-friendly centrism of the Clinton clan. Hillary Clinton did not attend Netroots Nation, instead giving a TV interview in which she suggested that a bit of economic growth might make it easier to curb inequality. Ms Warren’s warm-up act was Gary Peters, a local congressman who, unlike Ms Warren, is running for election this year. Mr Peters, a moderate ex-banker, is trying to win a Senate seat that Democrats desperately need to win but might not. He could use some grassroots support, but the crowd barely noticed him. They were too happy chanting “Run Liz, Run!” or waving “Elizabeth Warren for President” boater-style hats (“they’re fun, they’re old-timey,” said a hipster handing them out). Ms Warren says she is not running for the White House. No matter. Some 100 days from an election that could condemn Mr Obama to near-impotence, some progressives prefer to daydream about President Warren”.

He makes the crucial point that “The Democrats’ footsoldiers can ill afford to daydream in 2014. Even as digital technology transforms elections, recent research shows that flesh-and-blood volunteers tend to trump paid advertising. Candidates need supporters to sway their friends and neighbours. This “ground war” is most crucial, for both sides, in the half-dozen swing states where Senate races could go either way. The trouble is, these states are quite conservative. So the Democrats running for office there often have views on guns, coal or fracking that appal progressives, who are therefore reluctant to knock on doors for them”.

The author adds importantly that “Like the Republicans with their Tea Party zealots, the Left must choose between purity and pragmatism. MoveOn, a lefty campaign behemoth which claims 8m members, has endorsed only nine Senate candidates so far in this election cycle, conspicuously excluding centrists in tight races in Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana”.

He makes the valid point that “Yet Tea Party parallels are imperfect. Flinty conservatives often scoff that moderate Republicans are no better than Democrats. Progressives are different: many think that Republicans are wicked. That pushes their leaders, at least, towards pragmatism. “We may have to compromise on some things [to beat the Republicans],” says a boss at Democracy For America (DFA), a group founded by Howard Dean, a former Vermont governor and presidential hopeful who claimed to represent “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”. Take Alaska’s embattled senator. To DFA, Mr Begich has been “terrible” on oil and gas and “not good” on guns. But he is “fantastic” on inequality. In Louisiana local DFA members are holding their noses and helping a pro-oil Democrat, Senator Mary Landrieu. Ultimately, DFA vows to be “all over” any race that might decide the fate of the Senate”.

He concludes, “Despair with Mr Obama and this Congress may be part of the explanation. Progressive footsoldiers are waiting for the scrap that really interests them: a fight to drag the Democratic Party leftwards to victory in 2016. Republicans, who have plenty of problems of their own, cannot believe their luck”.

Success in November, defeat thereafter?

29/07/2014

An article from the Economist discusses the potential successes and disasters that befall the GOP. It begins, “This should be a good year for America’s Republicans. The GOP already holds a majority of the state legislatures that divide by party (27 to the Democrats’ 17, with five split between the two parties); a majority of state governorships (29 red to 21 blue); and a majority in the House of Representatives (233 to 199). It could increase all those numbers in elections this autumn, and polls suggest that it is more likely than not to take control of the Senate, too. If that happens, Republicans will control everything apart from the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue”.

 The author makes the point, “rather than planning for power, Republicans have been spending the primary season attacking each other with vim and vituperation. The June 10th defeat of Eric Cantor, the majority leader in the House of Representatives, by a previously unknown economics professor, David Brat, is far and away the most striking upset; but though Mr Cantor is the only big name to have fallen, he is not the only one to have been attacked. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, shelled out $11m to keep opponents from his own side at bay in Kentucky”.
This was seen many times before, although not in such spectacular fashion as Cantor. The obessession with democracy at every level has left both parties having to spend money on crackpots and fruitcakes simply because the most ardent turned out to vote in the primaries.

Instead of blaming the excess of democracy the writer argues that “The clearest cause of the fractiousness is the trauma wrought by George W. Bush’s presidency. The Republican Party thought it was in favour of smaller government, sound public finances and a muscular military. It found itself presiding over an increase in government spending, a near doubling of the national debt, a financial crisis and the return of thousands of body bags from wars that signally failed to deliver what the president had promised. The consequent sense of betrayal goes some way to explaining why the anger Republican activists direct at Barack Obama is accompanied by an equally deep suspicion of their own candidates”.

He goes on to note that “This distrust turns almost every primary into something like a lie-detector test. The candidates all say broadly the same things, calculated to please the base; the voters try to work out which one really means it”.

Yet the primary electorate obviously fail to realise the electioneering and governing are different things. Even in the British parliamentary system that is the most unified and has clear and strong executive power there are obvious differences within the governing party. This is in addition to a system that forces Dems and GOP to work together to accomplish anything. The result is gridlock, and the solution is, as has been mentioned before, either change the system or revert to the previous system of co-operation.

He writes that “In 2012 this approach led to the party fielding a number of Senate candidates who, though acceptably sincere in their commitment to the line the base wanted to hear, proved unelectable. This year that seems to have happened less. But if the process is promoting candidates with some prospect of success, it is doing little to prepare the party for a position of legislative power. And it cannot disguise the fact that the GOP has yet to come to terms with demographic and political changes that have left it in a much weaker state than its position in statehouses, governors’ mansions and Congress would seem to imply”.

The author brings in Kevin Phillips’ seminal work “The Emerging Republican Majority” about the rise of the GOP as a result of of white southerners who had previously voted Democratic, he adds that Reagan “showed the party how to turn the demographic advantage Mr Phillips spoke of into practical politics. His strategy depended on what he called the ‘three-legged stool’ of defence hawks, social conservatives and pro-business types. But George W. Bush’s election in 2004 looks like the last time that the stool was stable enough to sit on; today its legs are either wobbly or liable to snap off altogether”.

The writer, exxagerating somewhat argues that this stool is no longer stable, he cites the GOP’s opposition to US action in Ukraine and Syria but at the same time this should be seen in the context of the GOP’s hatred of President Obama and thus merely trying to frustate the executive rather than being against military action and the supposed ending of a leg of the stool, he adds “Just as the use of military force is more open to question, so is the appetite for spending money on it. In 2011, when the White House was trying to find an escape from a damaging debt-ceiling crisis engineered by House Republicans, its negotiators thought that threatening cuts to the Department of Defence’s budget that added up to $55 billion a year from 2013 until 2021 would force the Republicans into negotiating a deal. It didn’t. Most House Republicans no longer automatically exempt the military from their conviction that government is a problem to be cut away. The stool’s social-conservative leg is wobbling as well. Religious organisations like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention were once among the most reliable allies of the Republican Party, helping to strengthen a bond between it and working-class Americans that Democrats found hard to break. Evangelical Christians still lean right, but their churches have become more wary of political entanglements”.

Interestingly he gives the example of “Russell Moore, who speaks for the Southern Baptists, says evangelicals should not become ‘mascots for any political faction;. After the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defence of Marriage Act, which required marriage to be between a man and a woman, in June 2013, Mr Moore sent leaflets to the 45,000 churches affiliated with the Convention suggesting that Christians should ‘love your gay and lesbian neighbours’, noting that ‘they are not part of an evil conspiracy’. Focus on the Family says it has probably lost the argument on gay marriage. Opinion polls suggest it is right: public support for the idea has increased from 27% in 1996 to 54% today. Hostility to abortion still motivates evangelicals to get involved in politics, as do, to a much lesser extent, such causes as the need to fight the teaching of evolution in schools. But the culture wars have taken their toll on their churches, which are finding that young Americans are put off by too much emphasis on these issues. Evangelical Protestants are not about to move towards the Democrats en masse. But diminished numbers and a diminished appetite for party politics have drawn energy from a movement that once drove the GOP”.

He points to the third leg, the pro-business leg, as if the Democrats are anti-business, “Leg number three—that of the pro-business types—is also coming adrift. Immigration is the dominant issue. Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, a business lobby, recently said that unless the party can get its act together on immigration reform it ‘shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016’. But parts of the base are implacable on the subject; immigration was a big factor in Mr Cantor’s downfall, backed up by a feeling that he was too close to Wall Street. It is not the only issue on which big companies do not see eye to eye with a substantial fraction of the GOP. Many Republicans would like to shrink the government by any means necessary, even if that means shutting it down, and rail against corporate welfare for big companies”.

He argues that “In addition to opposing any new taxes and trying to shrink the government, the dehydrated form of conservatism espoused by the primary-swinging part of the base is characterised by a fervent opposition to immigration, a staunch defence of the rights of gun owners, a desire to restrict the reproductive rights of women, a remarkable refusal to countenance the need for any sort of climate policy, a suspicion of the Federal Reserve and an atavistic veneration of the constitution. Tea Party meetings often involve invitations to read the constitution together; Republican lawmakers are fond of flourishing pocket-sized copies when making speeches”.

As has been mentioned by others he notes the solid support of the Dems by women and hispanics, “The positions the party takes in state legislatures look unlikely to succeed in reaching out to these groups. In North Carolina, where the party won the statehouse in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, it has moved to restrict abortion and passed a law restricting the types of identification accepted at polling stations, a measure which will probably depress turnout among the poor and black. It has also passed a ban on sharia law—a brave remedy to a non-existent problem that has recently exercised a number of state legislatures. Thom Tillis, who presided over the legislative agenda, won the Republican primary to stand for the Senate in November. He spent much of the campaign defending himself against accusations that he was an establishment sell-out. This combination of often frivolous lawmaking and fractious lawmakers might not seem a winning recipe. But the GOP is riding high. Expectations of success in November depend in part on a turnout even lower than that of the 2010 mid-terms which gave Republicans control of the House. At the same time, being a vessel for discontent is not a bad strategy in a country still feeling the effects of a financial crisis”, one where median wages are stuck, workers are tumbling out of the labour market and the president’s greatest legislative achievement is an unpopular reform to health care. Pollsters once set great store by the question of whether the country is on the right or the wrong track, but this has lately lost some of its predictive power: Gallup has been finding a majority of Americans dissatisfied with the direction of travel all through the past decade”.

He ends the article, “If the party channels this dissatisfaction into a senate victory in November it will put on a triumphant face, no matter what the disarray backstage. But it will also be faced by a serious problem: what to do with the government it will be much closer to controlling? It is not that Republican government cannot provide success. Texas has had a Republican governor and a Republican legislature for more than a decade, and the party has made a success of its low tax, small government model. The shale-gas boom has helped, but so too has a friendliness to companies”.
He concludes, “the need to placate the base will not go away. And Mr Cantor’s defeat makes it more likely than ever that his colleagues will adopt a defensive crouch. This would be a mistake. It may be hard to govern while pleasing a movement that looks down on government. But the cost of not governing is high, too”.

“Pressure and incentives”

25/07/2014

A report in the New York Times notes that America and the rest of the P5+1 mentions that they still offer Iran relief and at the same time threats. It opens, “Behind President Obama’s decision on Friday to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations for four more months is a calculation that the administration has the mix of pressure and incentives just about right: That by keeping the most damaging sanctions, but giving Tehran a taste of what access to its overseas cash reserves might mean, a deal is possible. Congress, and some nuclear experts pushing for a harder line, strongly disagree. It was overwhelming sanctions, and the pressure of covert action against Iran’s nuclear program, that brought the country to the table, they argue. To get a final deal, they contend, the formula is simple: More sanctions, more pressure, and behind it all the lurking threat of military action”.

The article continues, “Iran gets slightly more relief under the negotiation extension: It will have access to $2.8 billion in assets that are held outside the United States, a small fraction of what is frozen. But in the House, more than 300 members have already signed a letter opposing a lifting of American sanctions unless an agreement curtails Iran’s missile development and stops its support for Hamas and other terror groups — issues that are not even on the table in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna. ‘There’s an astonishing, visceral opposition to any kind of deal, and it’s not just among the Republicans,’ said a key administration strategist who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.’And I’m not sure there’s a plan yet to deal with it.’ It may not be an issue. There is no guarantee that a deal will be reached in the four extra months of negotiations”.

This “visceral opposition” is borne more of fear and irrationality than any actual thoughts at what a collapse in the talks would mean.

The piece finishes, “The past week seemed like the moment. The top three American diplomats were all in Vienna simultaneously: Secretary of State John Kerry, the deputy secretary, William J. Burns, and the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, who has also been the lead negotiator. Foreign ministers from Europe flew in, briefly. So did the brother of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, who attended sessions with Mr. Kerry, then flew back to Tehran, presumably to report directly to his brother, who was elected on a platform of getting the oil, gas and other sanctions lifted. There is no question significant progress was made, as one administration official put it in a background telephone call with reporters late Friday night, on issues that “get at fundamental pathways to a nuclear weapon.” Among them is an understanding about how Iran’s soon-to-be-finished heavy water reactor near the town of Arak would be modified to reduce its output of plutonium, one of the two fuels that Iran could use for a weapon. There is discussion about turning the giant underground facility called Fordow — built under a mountain outside the holy city of Qum — into some kind of research and development facility. To the Americans, and the Israelis, that would be an improvement over its current status as Iran’s secondary location for enriching uranium, in a place so deep that the Israelis fear they could not bomb it; even some American officials wonder if their biggest bunker-busting bomb, built for the job, could penetrate the facility”.

It ends, “that leaves unresolved the central conundrum that has hung over the talks: Can Iran’s supreme leader be persuaded to give up the country’s hopes of building an industrial-scale enrichment capacity, ostensibly to produce fuel for its one working reactor and a series of future reactors for which Iran has not even broken ground? Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian military have opposed any agreement that dismantles existing facilities and does not allow Iran, in the near future, to produce as much as it wants. American officials say the rationale that Iran needs to produce its own fuel is fanciful; there is plenty on the market and ways to assure Iran of continued supply. On this point, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, says Iran cannot budge for reasons of national security and national pride. Iran, he said, has been blocked from getting fuel for its reactors for 20 years. Russia may be its supplier now, he said, but cannot be trusted to remain so. Even raw materials are hard to come by”.

It finishes, “Zarif, in an interview, argued that the sanctions Congress is so proud of have been counterproductive. Before they began in earnest, he said, Iran had 200 centrifuges installed in its facilities; now it has 22,000. More pressure, he contended, will only drive Iran’s leadership to more defiance. Some in the Obama administration agree, saying there is a “sweet spot” in sanctions where the continuing, gnawing pressure of oil, gas and financial sanctions, which they vowed Friday night to continue, would take their toll, and the prospect of relief would create political pressure in Tehran for a deal. But Gary Samore, President Obama’s former top adviser on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, took a harder line on Friday night. Now the president of United Against Nuclear Iran, an advocacy group, Mr. Samore and the organization’s chief executive, Mark D. Wallace, argued that to get the leverage the administration needs it must “make clear that Iran remains closed for business and that the uncertainty surrounding these nuclear negotiations makes the business climate in Iran far too risky” for Western capital to re-enter”.

“At risk”

05/05/2014

Democrats may be at risk in this November’s midterm elections as President Obama’s approval rating drops, a new poll suggests. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Tuesday found 41 percent approve of Obama’s job as president. That’s down from 46 percent through the first three months of this year and the lowest the polling series has recorded during his presidency. Forty-two percent approve of Obama’s job on the economy, while just over a third approve of Obama’s job handling the crisis between Ukraine and Russia”.

 

 

“Opens a new spigot”

06/04/2014

In what may prove to be a fateful decision the Supreme Court re-inforced its infamous Citizens United decision. The Washington Post reports, “An elite class of wealthy donors who have gained mounting influence in campaigns now has the ability to exert even greater sway. A Supreme Court decision Wednesday to do away with an overall limit on how much individuals can give candidates and political parties opens a new spigot for money to flow into campaigns already buffeted by huge spending from independent groups. In this year’s midterm races, outside organizations financed by very rich donors, such as the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, have significantly shaped the campaign landscape with TV ads and other expenditures totaling in the tens of millions of dollars. The ruling by a sharply split court opens the door even wider for a narrow universe of donors to expand their giving by writing single checks for as much as $3.6 million that could flow directly to candidate and party committees”.

“Battle of the billionaires”

21/03/2014

An article from the Hill discusses the upcoming midterms and their relationship with wealth. It opens, “The midterm elections are shaping up as the battle of the billionaires. In one corner are Charles and David Koch, the prominent conservative donors who made their fortunes in the fossil-fuel industry. They are pouring tens of millions of dollars into ad campaigns aimed at helping the GOP take back the Senate. In the other corner is a newcomer, Tom Steyer, who has vowed to push the issue of climate change relentlessly to the forefront of American politics — even though his allegiance to the Democrats is more equivocal than that of the Kochs to the GOP”.

The piece adds, “Steyer and the Kochs are both digging deep into their personal fortunes to try and influence the outcome of the elections, in what historians say is a political throwback to the Gilded Age. Steyer, a former hedge fund manager turned environmental activist, made waves when he announced in February that he would funnel at least $100 million to make climate change the top issue in the 2014 midterms – a sum that includes $50 million of his own money and $50 million from donors. The Koch-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has spent at least $30 million since August targeting vulnerable House and Senate Democrats up for reelection this year. AFP has not indicated how much it is willing to spend in total this cycle”.

The piece notes “Steyer is seeking to turn 2014 into an election cycle unlike all others. The battle will likely come down to a handful of crucial seats that Democrats must hold onto if they want to maintain control of the Senate. Yet Steyer is the embodiment of a new kind of outside player that Democrats cannot quite figure out. His support is simultaneously firm and adorned with caveats”.

This gives the Democrats both hope and at the same time reason to worry. Making policy according to one, or two, billionaires is first and foremost bad for the political parties. The party becomes a mirror image of the interests and priorities of their respective backers. This means that on issues that need support and attention, like the minimum wage, the Democrats will be less able to focus their time and resources over, in this case, climate change.  The same is true for the GOP.

The piece adds, “The Koch brothers have involved themselves in elections for years, writing off checks to push core conservative values and policies that drive the oil and gas industry. Their supporters argue that their influence is one reason the United States is experiencing an energy renaissance, with crude oil production surpassing imports for the first time in nearly 20 years. AFP has already run ads targeting three vulnerable Senate Democrats on carbon taxes this cycle: Mark Begich (Alaska), Mark Udall (Colo.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.)”.

Naturally the fairness of this also comes into question. The article notes, “the fairness of at least some of the ads is open to question. In recent weeks, AFP ran ads in Alaska hitting Begich again for being ‘on record supporting a carbon tax’ for the nation’s biggest polluters. The claim has been disputed both by the Begich campaign and by purportedly independent fact-checking organisations. In an interview with The Hill last summer, Begich expressed skepticism about taxing carbon emissions”.

The AFP wants very clear policies about energy but in areas where an incumbent is not supportive enough for certain measures then it obviously feels its interests are more important and tries to unseat the incumbent, as the piece mentions “Begich is a top energy Democrat, who sides with his Republican colleague from Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, more often than his party on energy issues. (His support for the Keystone XL pipeline is one example.) Still, AFP wants Begich ousted along with other vulnerable Democrats”.

The article goes on to say that Steyer is sticking his money where it shouldn’t be, to possible enormous consequences for other important Democratic legislative priorities, “the picture in Landrieu’s case is complicated. Steyer’s super-PAC, NextGen Climate Action, launched in 2013, is currently taking a poll among its online community over which lawmaker it should run a negative ad about, hitting the candidate’s ties to the “carbon-intensive” Keystone XL pipeline. Landrieu is one of five candidates who may be chosen as the target. That, in itself, is the kind of gambit that illuminates why there is some underlying confusion among Democrats over Steyer’s intentions”.

There are a slew of other issues where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and the White House need Landrieu’s support but if Steyer deems climate change the most important issue then he will target Landrieu and possibly end up with the GOP senator even more hostile to his cause. There have been similar consequences, in 2000 Ralph Nader campaigned for president and it is almost certain that his candidacy cost Al Gore the presidency. Similarly, in 1992 Ross Perot ran and assisted in the election of Bill Clinton.

It concludes, “Climate change might look unlikely to be the single dominant issue in an election where debates over healthcare will loom large. But the money being pumped in by AFP and Steyer should ensure that the environmental battle gets at least its fair share of attention within the larger war”.

The bigger and much more important point however is democracy is being corroded on the left and the right. The faster Citizens United is overturned and the state funds political parties, the better.

Relying on women

18/02/2014

“Senate Democrats’ agenda for the next few weeks will be tailor-made toward female voters — a strategy they hope will give them a boost with the crucial voting bloc.  Three of the next items on the Senate’s to-do list protect, and are meant to appeal to, women: military sexual assault legislation, a minimum wage increase and the Paycheck Fairness Act. “Women will determine the Senate, and both parties are targeting women,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist. “What Republicans are hoping to do is to minimize the Democratic vote among women, and if they can win men by more than they lose women, then they’ll win the election.” She said Democrats are hoping for a large vote among women and especially for high turnout of unmarried and young women”

 

 

No more co-operation

18/02/2014

It has been nearly three weeks since President Obama used his State of the Union Address to say 2014 should be a “year of action,” but there are already plenty of signs that the year will be much more about staking out election positions, and much less about finding compromise. Cooperation and concessions have been part of the major bills Congress has managed to move over the last year, like the debt ceiling, spending, the farm bill, student loans and others. But there seems to be little chance of generating that same momentum on the other issues that are lingering in the background. In January, House GOP leaders wrote a letter to Obama suggesting a focus on legislation in those few policy areas where they believed there was a credible chance of agreement. Republicans have boasted of passing more than 200 bills that the Senate has ignored, but in their letter they highlighted just four areas where the parties could potentially work together. Those issues are reforming federal job training programs; making it easier to build natural gas infrastructure; giving workers time off to attend to sick family members; and funding research into pediatric diseases.But the White House has not responded, more than two weeks later. A House GOP aide said White House officials have said several times that they have not had a chance to review the letter, which the aide said is a missed opportunity.

Agreeing an agenda

06/02/2014

An article from The Hill notes that Democrats are preparing strategy for the upcoming midterms. It opens, “A mood of anxiety hangs over President Obama and congressional Democrats as they conduct a series of meetings this week to coordinate their 2014 political and legislative agendas. While their outlook has improved since last fall, Democrats on Capitol Hill are worried the party is in danger of repeating its disastrous midterm performance of 2010 — and that this time, it could cost them the Senate”.

The article notes, “While the White House and congressional Democrats have sought to present a unified front on raising the minimum wage and extending federal unemployment benefits, divisions over an array of issues including trade, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and how to contain Iran have repeatedly burst to the surface. That’s made it difficult to calm tempers still hot over the bumbled rollout of ObamaCare. ‘Some people are still furious about what went down in [the fall] with healthcare and some of the NSA elements,’ said the senior Democratic aide, referring to the National Security Agency. Obama will have his work cut out for him when he meets House Democrats on Tuesday and Senate Democrats on Wednesday, other aides said”.

The obvious strategy is to ignore the differences and focus on what President Obama and the congressional Democrats agree on. This will mean all parties agreeing to not disucssing a whole range of issues such as Iran or the NSA.

The piece adds that “Democrats resent Obama’s lack of engagement with Capitol Hill and the amount of time he has spent fundraising for party committees ahead of a difficult 2014 cycle. ‘The No. 1 thing House and Senate Democrats are worried about is, ‘What are you going to do to get a majority or help keep our majority?’ ‘ said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. Democrats face a daunting task in defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats up for reelection this fall, in a cycle when the president’s party usually loses seats. Republicans need six seats to win control of the upper chamber. Democratic retirements in red states like South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana have complicated that task, and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are facing tough reelection battles”.

This is where Obama needs to work with those in Congress appearing on the stump, or not, when and where he is needed by candidates. In return for this those facing election should abide by the topics that should remain off the table until after the elections as dictated by Obama.

It goes onto to mention that “Democratic strategists and former Hill aides say that it’s natural for some divisions to show during a tough election year, especially with so much at stake for the final two years of Obama’s presidency. “It’s not unusual that you have some Democrats who are looking to show where they disagree with the president,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell. “In order to win in states that are swing or purple, you have to demonstrate you have some independence from the national party.” But Democrats are wary of engaging in the type of full-scale infighting that doomed their prospects in 2010. During that race, base voters were disillusioned by the Wall Street bailout and scandals among Democratic lawmakers, while Republicans rode an anti-ObamaCare Tea Party wave”.

It ends, “Still, the aide acknowledged that the Democrats will need to apply intense public pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and other GOP leaders if they want the Republicans to move on the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, immigration reform and other Democratic priorities this year. Leaders hope those issues won’t just motivate their base to come out during an off-year, but could woo independent voters, too. Part of that push will come from Obama using the bully pulpit — “The president’s doing a good job of that already,” the aide said — and Senate Democrats will also play a role by staging votes on unemployment insurance, the minimum wage and likely taking the lead on legislation to raise the debt ceiling this month”.

 

 

Time for Robin Hood

23/01/2014

An article in the Economist argues that Americans are increasing upset about rising inequality but the piece predicts that this may not assist Democrats politically as much as would be thought.

It beigns, “excited Democrats think a once-in-a-generation political shift is under way, driven by anger at growing inequality and social immobility. There is talk of the electoral rewards that await, if their party has the nerve to use the state’s powers to right economic wrongs. January 8th marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’, involving public health, education and welfare programmes. Conservatives say that war was lost, citing the huge rise in welfare dependency and the sharp fall (from 95% to barely 83%) in the proportion of peak-working-age men who work. Democrats retort that without the safety net, poverty would be even worse. Many want to take the fight beyond the poor of Johnson’s oratory, in their ‘sharecropper shacks’, and start helping the middle class as well. Months ahead of tough mid-term elections, Democrats yearn to use inequality as a wedge issue, capturing the ‘energy’ they sense on the left while painting Republicans as heartless”.

The piece relates the recent rows in Congress over the unemployed benefits, “The year began with rows over extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, after Congress let them lapse for 1.3m Americans. The Democrat-controlled Senate agreed on January 7th to consider restarting payments. Appearing in the White House with Americans whose benefits are in peril, Mr Obama scolded conservatives for suggesting that welfare hurts the jobless by reducing incentives to work. He said he could not recall ever meeting an American “who would rather have an unemployment cheque than the pride of having a job”. But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is reluctant to extend benefits without offsetting spending cuts or policy concessions. Many in Mr Obama’s party want him to build his state-of-the-union message, on January 28th, around such policies as a rise in the federal minimum wage. They point to polls showing two-thirds of Americans backing higher wage floors, as well as to local victories on the issue, including a November referendum in SeaTac, a small Seattle suburb with a large airport in it. The same voices cheered when New York’s new Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, took office vowing to raise taxes on those earning more than $500,000 a year, to expand education for the youngest New Yorkers. They claimed Pope Francis as an ally after he questioned whether free markets really allow wealth to ‘trickle down'”.

The article warns however, “Democrats should be cautious. Policies can be popular but not win elections. As a centre-left party in a conservative country, Democrats win nationwide only by turning out as many of their own as possible, while also persuading millions of swing voters into their camp. A new study of election data from 1972 to 2008 by two political scientists, Jan Leighley of American University and Jonathan Nagler of New York University, unearthed two striking findings about Americans and redistribution. First, those who turn out to vote are consistently more hostile to redistribution than those who do not—largely because voters earn more and are better educated, on average, than non-voters. Second, the same low-income Americans who favour government safety-nets and interventions often fail to vote because they see no real differences between the parties. The study is mixed news for Democrats. It suggests that populist appeals for more redistribution may boost turnout among the poor, by highlighting party differences. But it also found that views of government intervention are strongly held”.

This is where the common good takes over. Democrats must legislate for not only better education in the long term but more support for those who are out of work. The country will be better off in the long run and more humane policies will be enacted, not just for those who benefit from the rise and fall of stock markets. It is the duty of the government to protect those who need help, to do anything else would be a gross neglicance of their role.

The piece ends, “All in all, the evidence is not iron-clad that unhappy Americans are turning left. New York and Seattle are deeply Democratic, for one thing, and hardly representative. Nor are all forms of redistribution equal. For most voters, plans to raise the minimum wage or to tax millionaires involve taking money from far-off rich people or companies. Put another way, they are Robin Hood policies. Other forms of intervention are much less popular, starting with Obamacare. That health law—broadly—transfers money and benefits from the young and healthy to the old and sick, and from the better-off to the poor. Democrats predict that Americans will soon embrace the law, concluding that it creates more winners than losers“.

“Increase their chances of winning seats”

28/12/2013

A piece in The Hill discusses the implications of the exit of Senator Max Baucus from the Senate. It notes that “President Obama’s nomination of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) as U.S. ambassador to China is the latest shake-up in the tumultuous battle for the Senate majority. Democrats believe the nomination will increase their chances of winning seats in Montana and, potentially, in Louisiana, where vulnerable Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is in line to pick up the Energy Committee gavel thanks to Baucus’s exit. But Republicans say their chances of recapturing the majority are rising due to President Obama’s sagging poll numbers”.

The article goes on to mention that the GOP “hope to make races in New Hampshire and Michigan competitive and are looking to land a strong candidate in Virginia to put the state in play.  Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the Senate majority in 2014 and are counting on victories against Democratic incumbents in states like Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana to get them there. The GOP had also hoped for a pickup in Montana, where Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) is the favorite over Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D). But now that Baucus is headed to China, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) seems likely to nominate Walsh to the open Senate seat, potentially giving his campaign the boost of incumbency. A Senate appointment could help Walsh boost his fundraising and national profile in the same way that Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) 2011 appointment to the Senate helped his campaign. It could also undercut the primary threat from former Montana Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger (D)”.

The problem with the GOP strategy is, as has been said here before, there is too much democracy. If the GOP could control the state parties more, or at least have a veto on the candidates elected by the state party, then there would be be a more unified message instead of crackpots and cranks like Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin.

The piece goes on to note that “Baucus’s appointment might also boost the reelection hopes of Landrieu, a senator who has kept an independent streak as a vocal advocate for the oil and gas industry.
Landrieu has already been talking on the campaign trail about her work on the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, and might soon be able to drive that panel’s agenda by wielding the gavel. That could help distance her from the national Democratic Party, which is unpopular in her home state. Georgia is another bright spot for Democrats. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) became the latest Republican in the crowded primary field to stir up controversy this week by suggesting low-income school children should have to “sweep the floor of the cafeteria” in exchange for free lunches. Reps. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) and Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) have made similar missteps, and Democrats are hopeful that the internecine primary fight will yield a weak GOP nominee.  Democrats have a strong candidate in former charity head Michelle Nunn (D) and argue she has a real shot at winning the open seat in the conservative-leaning state. Republicans are feeling bullish about other races, however. Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is looking more and more like a likely candidate in New Hampshire — he recently moved to the state and has been headlining a number of events there in recent weeks. Shaheen remains fairly popular in the swing state, and it’s far from certain that Brown runs. If he does, he’ll have to navigate a GOP primary and deal with carpet-bagging charges. But Democrats admit Brown would give Shaheen a much tougher race than any of the other Republicans who are running”.

It was Shaheen who defied the White House in its attempts to curb the right to weapons. This should not have been tolerated in President Obama’s attempt to achieve the common good. The question should always be would Brown in the Senate help achieve his ends.

Reid hopes

22/12/2013

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thinks the healthcare law will ultimately help Senate Democrats in 2014 even though some incumbents fear a backlash at the polls. “I think for sure it will be a net positive,” said Reid, who expects the law to become more of a political benefit as problems are smoothed out by Election Day. “I think so by then for sure.” Reid said feedback to the Obama administration from Democratic senators has helped improve the federal enrollment site HealthCare.gov since its disastrous launch in October”.

Why Cuccinelli lost

09/11/2013

Politico reports that after his defeat for the election of governor of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, who only lost by 50,000 votes “said the election results were only a blip on the radar of the larger  conservative struggle as they blamed the defeat on Obamacare and a deluge of  Democratic attack ads. Some Cuccinelli backers privately steamed that the  national party did not do more to shore up Cuccinelli against Democrat Terry  McAuliffe and his enormous war chest. The Republican candidate’s surprise showing touched off a round of  recriminations among the GOP’s conservative and moderate wings — between  Republicans who say Cuccinelli’s strict profile on social issues antagonized  critical middle-of-the-road voters and those who say a good conservative  candidate was tossed overboard by his party leadership”.

It goes on to add “Still, Tuesday night’s results — the first time in more than three decades that  a candidate from the same party that won the White House the previous year — are  an unavoidable reminder that the political demography of Virginia is rapidly  changing, shifting blue and making it harder for GOP candidates to win statewide  races. But at this point, the party is divided between those who are calling for  big changes and those who insist that nothing is wrong”.

The piece ends, “Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of  Virginia, said that shift is apparent by looking at presidential election  results: George H.W. Bush won Virginia by 20 points; his son, George W. Bush,  won it by just 8 points in 2000. “Virginia, at least temporarily, has moved from purple to blue-ish,” he said. “[Republicans] have to accept reality and if they don’t they’ll continue to  lose.” Next year, when Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is up for reelection, Republicans  will again use the convention nominating system to choose their candidate — and  all signs point to Warner winning again by a big margin”.

The left wing Huffington Post writes that, “Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial race Tuesday, thanks in part to Democratic opponents who successfully portrayed Cuccinelli as a medieval anti-women, anti-gay, conservative extremist. A key element of that was Cuccinelli’s relentless fight to reinstate Virginia’s “crimes against nature” penalty. The anti-sodomy law Cuccinelli has been so devoted to reviving includes Class 6 felony punishments for any person that “carnally knows in any manner any brute animal, or carnally knows any male or female person by the anus or by or with the mouth, or voluntarily submits to such carnal knowledge…”

The piece goes onto mention “In Virginia, a swing state severely affected by October’s government shutdown, it’s clear that voters were concerned about more than Cuccinelli’s support for the arcane legislation. But ads that made uncomfortable references to it likely didn’t help. In the 2003 landmark case Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law as unconstitutional, thereby decriminalizing sodomy and same-sex sexual activity nationally.  Sparked by a case involving a 47-year-old man’s propositions of oral sex from a 17-year-old teenager, a three-judge panel for the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond this year overturned Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, or “crimes against nature” provision, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling. Cuccinelli has been fighting to reinstate the law in Virginia ever since, appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in June after the full appeals court denied his petition in April. In July, he launched a website, http://www.vachildpredators.com, that spins anti-sodomy provisions as a way to combat child predators”.

Both sides win

07/11/2013

Moderate Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has won a landslide re-election, a possible launch pad for a 2016 White House run. In the Virginia governor’s race, Terry McAuliffe, a key Hillary Clinton ally, narrowly beat a Republican in the pivotal presidential swing state. Bill de Blasio’s thumping victory in New York makes him the city’s first Democratic mayor-elect in two decades. Tuesday’s results could also influence next year’s US midterm elections. New Jersey’s straight-talking Governor Christie brushed aside his Democratic challenger, state senator Barbara Buono, by 60.5% to 38%, retaining a handy platform for a potential presidential bid. His ability to attract the support of Democrats, independents and minorities makes him a tantalising prospect for the ideologically split Republican party ahead of 2016″.

“In next year’s midterm elections”

26/10/2013

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said  the troubled rollout of ObamaCare’s enrollment website, which has frustrated  thousands trying to enter the site and bruised the administration, won’t hurt  Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. “Democrats will run on the Affordable Care Act and win,” Wasserman Schultz said. Speaking to reporters after an address to the DNC’s Women Leadership Forum on  Friday, Wasserman Schultz said the law will help the party with female voters  because of the benefits women will receive under the healthcare law”.

A comeback no one asked for

10/08/2013

Several Tea Party-backed GOP candidates who lost Senate races in the recent past are contemplating comebacks this fall. But, this time around, they could face even steeper climbs than they did in their initial quests. Ken Buck has said he is ready to try again to win a Senate seat in Colorado. Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller are also considering bids in Delaware and Alaska. Back in 2010, Buck and O’Donnell fell to Democrats Michael Bennet and Chris Coons, respectively. Miller vanquished sitting Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the primary that same year, only for her to take revenge by winning the general election as a write-in candidate”.

McConnell’s lesson

04/08/2013

An article in The Hill makes the interesting point that Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is being squeezed by his own party and a dangerous obsession with democracy.

It begins “The Kentucky Republican is taking arrows from left and right, and having to fend off primary and general election challengers to win a sixth term. His dream of becoming majority leader will happen in 2015 or never. The Senate map favours the GOP this election cycle, but not in 2016”.

However the piece also notes that “At the same time, McConnell faces challenges this fall on Capitol Hill over the debt limit and a possible government shutdown. He is under pressure to reject compromise with Democrats or face a conservative backlash in his home state of Kentucky.  The strain is taking its toll, said one of McConnell’s colleagues who watched him during this month’s partisan battle over Tom Perez, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of Labor.  When the Senate voted to end debate on Perez, McConnell was in a bind. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was threatening to trigger the nuclear option, stripping Republicans of the filibuster if they blocked Perez”.

Indeed, the problem is, as has been noted here before, too much democracy. The urgent and obvious need for America is to deal with issues such as immigration reform, a deal on the debt and deficit as well as a host of other issues. By forcing McConnell, and others in office to constantly face primary challengers who more often than not have no understanding, or worse desire, to accept the complicated nature of governing and the compromises necessary at such a delicate time means that compromise becomes all the more difficult. The obvious result of this means that America itself suffers and the clamour of declinists grows louder and more shrill.
The article mentions that “McConnell did not want to be seen to cast the 60th and decisive vote for Perez (whom Republicans accuse of unwarranted liberal activism), because that could prompt a primary challenge from the right. But the minority leader also did not want Perez to fail, which would have unleashed Reid’s wrath and killed the filibuster. So Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led negotiations with Reid and McConnell was left, figuratively, biting his nails.  ‘McConnell waited around until the end of the vote to cast his vote to see if we would get 60,” a GOP colleague said. “You could see the torment on his face.’ A GOP aide, however, disputed this interpretation of the dramatic vote: ‘There’s never been a nominee he hated more than Thomas Perez. There’s no chance he’d vote for him.’ In any event, McConnell dodged the bullet, for Perez passed 60-40 even with the minority leader voting no, but the incident laid bare his difficulties. These will grow in the months ahead. He must decide whether to side with conservatives  threatening a government shutdown unless ObamaCare is defunded”.
The piece ends, “The aide said McConnell is not paralysed by concern about next year’s primary so much as cautious about taking strong stands on issues that divide his Republican colleagues. Some Republican colleagues think McConnell is making the right move for the party. They remember the last time a standoff between congressional Republicans and a Democratic president resulted in a shutdown, it proved politically disastrous for the GOP. One Republican senator said the latest strategy to defund ObamaCare is wrong-headed: ‘ObamaCare is going to collapse of its own weight. Why do we need to give Democrats an excuse to blame us for its failure. The building is about to collapse, why do we want to stand under it?’ McCain has also dismissed Lee’s idea. The White House is expected to attack McConnell this fall and next year. His relationship with Obama  is notoriously frosty”.

DOMA overturned

26/06/2013

In a historic ruling the Supreme Court of the United States has formally overturned a 1996 law signed by President Clinton. News reports note that “The Supreme Court on Wednesday cleared the way for same-sex couples to marry in California, but avoided directly answering constitutional questions about state marriage laws. In a 5-4 decision, the court said procedural issues prevented it from reaching a ruling on the merits of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state”.

Naturally, President Obama welcomed the news, “Obama placed congratulatory phone calls to the gay rights activists who prevailed in a pair of Supreme Court cases Wednesday, telling them he was proud of their efforts and pleased that the Defense of Marriage Act and a ruling restricting gay marriage in California had been overturned”.

News articles report “The Supreme  Court dramatically expanded the rights of same-sex couples Wednesday, striking  down federal restrictions and clearing the way for gay couples to marry in  California. With a throng of advocates waiting outside in sweltering heat, the court  delivered long-awaited decisions in a pair of historic cases on marriage  rights. Taken together, the decisions held that the federal government cannot deny  benefits to legally married couples, but the justices strenuously avoided even a  narrow ruling on state marriage laws. In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court struck down a  provision of the Defence of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to  same-sex couples even in states that recognise same-sex marriage. ‘DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned  same-sex marriages; for it tells these couples, and all the world, that their  otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition,’ Kennedy  wrote”.

What is clear is that justices voted on “party” lines with, the case, United States v. Windsor, being decided by the liberal justices, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan with the conservative justices, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and Alito all voting against the case in various forms and opinions. This means either there was no attempt to bridge the gap betweeen the two camps as in the Affordable Health Care Act judgement, or more likely, there was an attempt but it could not be bridged.

The news report goes on to mention part of the reason behind the judgment as well as the second case, Hollingsworth
v. Perry
, “The court’s rulings accompany a dramatic shift in public and political  attitudes toward same-sex marriage. Polls show that increasingly large  majorities of voters support same-sex marriage rights. And, not including  California, 12 states have legalized it, including three of them since March,  when the court heard oral arguments in the marriage cases. Most legal observers believed the shift in public opinion would nudge the  justices toward narrowly expanding same-sex couples’ rights while preserving the  states’ ability to set their own laws. Tuesday’s decisions indicated that the  justices are indeed willing to let the issue continue to play out through  democratic processes in the states. In a second 5-4 decision, the court avoided even its narrowest options for  ruling on the merits of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage.  The justices said they could not rule in the case because Proposition 8’s  defenders did not have legal standing to defend the law in court. Kennedy dissented from that decision and said the court could have ruled on  Proposition 8, even though he suggested during oral arguments that the court  made a mistake by agreeing to hear the case”.

The decision was met with mixed reponses for the GOP, with some members calling for a renewed push to ban gay marriage, with the piece mentions “John Boehner (R-Ohio), who organised DOMA’s legal defence, was more  subdued. ‘While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that  we protect our system of checks and balances,’ Boehner said. ‘A robust national  debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that  states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.’ The court made a point to say its decision did not affect state laws defining  marriage but rather was limited to DOMA, a federal law the court said was  designed primarily to discriminate”.

The problem however for Boehner is that the hard right of the House GOP, in safe seats, are concerned about midterm primaries and are in no mood to see themselves outflanked by someone to their right. Yet Boehner is equally worried, or at least should be, about the GOP image for both the midterms but also 2016 where he has been struggling to shift how the public, especially the young, view the party. Calls for banning gay marriage and the lack of movement in the House for any substantial immigration reform will not help the Party in the long term.

Shortly after the ruling by the Court, it was reported that the remainder of the legislation would be overturned ,”Democrats in both chambers will introduce legislation this week to scrap the  Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in its entirety.  The move is an indication  that the lawmakers, while delighted with the Supreme Court’s Wednesday decision  to invalidate much of the 17-year-old law barring same-sex marriage, don’t think  the ruling went far enough to protect gay and lesbian couples from  discrimination. ‘We should celebrate today — it’s a great day — but our  work is not yet over,’ Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters in the  Capitol. ‘We still need to wipe DOMA in its entirety off the  books.’ Nadler, senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s subpanel on  the Constitution and Civil Justice, said he’ll introduce legislation Wednesday  afternoon that would do just that”.

The peice goes on to add detail, “In its 5-4 decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA,  which bars same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits, even in states that  recognize gay marriage, is unconstitutional. But the court did not  consider Section 2, which stipulates that states don’t have to recognize the  same-sex marriages allowed by other states”.

A different piece has noted the amount of regulations that will need to be reformed/abolished following the Windsor ruling, “The scope of the high court’s ruling goes far beyond Social Security checks  and joint tax returns. Its implications extend to everything from policies at  the Pentagon to the immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress. Within hours of the ruling, President Obama directed Attorney General Eric  Holder and other members of his Cabinet to begin poring over relevant federal  statutes and regulations that might need to be adjusted in light of the 5-4  decision to strike down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act”.

Rocco views the verdict from a Catholic viewpoint, “the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, granting full federal benefits to same-sex couples who’ve been married in states which have sanctioned the unions, while at the same time declining to rule on California’s Proposition 8, effectively upholding a lower court’s  overturn of the 2008 state referendum that banned gay marriage, yet stopping short of a national verdict on the hot-button issue. To date, some 32 states have precluded same-sex marriage either by statute or constitutional amendment, while eleven others and the District of Columbia have granted full recognition to the unions, no less than three – Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island (per capita, the US’ most densely-Catholic state) – having done so within the last six weeks. Having waged an intense fight in recent years for the defense of traditional marriage – even as a slim majority of the faithful now back full recognition for gay couples – statements from Catholic entities with official standing will be run here as they emerge”.

Ironically, Bill Clinton who signed the law welcomed the overturning of DOMA.

He goes on to mention the statement issued from the president of the USCCB, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, “Today is a tragic day for marriage and our nation. The Supreme Court has dealt a profound injustice to the American people by striking down in part the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  The Court got it wrong. The federal government ought to respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so. The preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws, federal and state, respect the truth, including the truth about marriage. It is also unfortunate that the Court did not take the opportunity to uphold California’s Proposition 8 but instead decided not to rule on the matter”.

He ends his post, “All that said, a Vatican response to the rulings is unlikely. For one, the Holy See is generally reluctant to react – especially in a negative sense – to matters of domestic policy, all the more when they’re decided in the courts”.

It is an interesting juxtaposition that Rome had more sense on this issue than Cardinal Dolan. By saying without any hint of shame that the Court made the wrong ruling Cardinal Dolan has opened himself up to criticism that he is leading the bishops in an increasingly partisan tone. Dolan goes on to wildly insuniate that “liberty and justice” are under threat as a result of this decision which is plainly laughable. Using such over the top language has little place in the civil discourse to say nothing of Dolan’s position as archbishop of New York. The Church has a right, even duty, to speak out where it sees fit, however doing so in this manner does nothing for the reputation of the Church.

Keeping the House

11/05/2013

AB Stoddard has written a piece on the 2014 midterms predicting that they will be a re-run of the 2010 midterms. She opens noting that “If the mere idea of ObamaCare fueled an historic GOP victory in 2010, just wait until reality sets in next year. That year, Democrats in swing districts were swept from office, so those who kept their jobs are running as fast and as far from the reform law as they can this year. Not only did Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who helped write the bill, recently call it a ‘train wreck,’ but Elizabeth Colbert Busch, who lost Tuesday’s special election in South Carolina to former Gov. Mark Sanford, called the law ‘extremely problematic,’ blaming it for cutting Medicare benefits and causing companies to lay off employees in anticipation of the program’s high costs”.

She goes on to argue that “a new tax on health insurance plans will cost small businesses an estimated $8 billion in 2014 and then $14.3 billion in 2018. According to a study by the National Federation of Independent Business, 262,000 jobs could be lost as a result. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted on the Senate floor Tuesday that the city of Long Beach, Calif., is keeping most of its 1,600 employees limited to 27 hours per week or less in order to avoid an estimated $2 million increase in healthcare costs that would cut jobs.  Not only are there economic consequences, but the guarantee of coverage is also at risk. Unless young, healthy people join new exchanges, costs will inevitably rise for the rest of the population. In addition, several governors are refusing to expand Medicaid, leaving millions uninsured or putting more pressure on exchanges where workers whose employers do not insure them will be seeking government-subsidized coverage”.

If governors and people are not upholding the law then the government must enforce the relevant penalties to force them to comply. It should take governors to court on the grounds that it is depriving the Federal Government of revenue and it should fine individual citizens who are not joining the new exchanges. The Affordable Care Act needs young people who are healthy to lower the cost for those who are older thus making it more appealing for the insurance companies overall. 

She goes on to make the valid point that “a good 2014 doesn’t mean a good 2016 for the GOP. Republican dreams of recapturing the White House could easily remain fantasy at the rate the party continues to divide and deteriorate. The midterm electorate will be white and old and far more conservative that the national coalition that elected President Obama in 2008 and 2012. Republicans will be handily reelected to their safe, bright red, Republican districts. A likely failure by Democrats to win the 17 seats required to flip the House will be perceived by Republicans as a resounding national rejection of Obama’s policies, who with the help of the Tea Party, will fool themselves into thinking they have turned the tide”.

Therefore the traditional patten of the incumbent administration losing the House, or even in this case seats, means that little will change in Washington with little the parties agree on. However, this is not a problem for President Obama who like most presidents on their final two years will focus on foreign policy.