Man walks into a column, no.49: Newt

As news – hardly news – filters through that (whisper it) there’s a new frontrunner in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee I couldn’t resist offering my own personal perspective on why the likely voters in the Grand Old Party primaries seem so eager to leap onto Anyone Who Isn’t Mitt Romney.

The latest NonRom is someone deeply, uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has been following US politics over the last couple of decades: ex-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. New NBC/Wall Street Journal poll results (covered in the FT here) suggest that Newt has opened up a double digit lead over Mitt – first choice of 40 per cent of Republican primary voters compared to 23 per cent for Romney – but would be likely to struggle against Obama in the presidential election itself, if it were held today.

The race is far from over and Gingrich’s thirty odd years in politics (not to mention ‘colourful’ – i.e. sex and filthy lucre filled – personal life) could well mean he comes a cropper before too long – as Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod commented yesterday ‘the higher a monkey climbs … the more you can see his butt’. But with the first primaries only a couple of weeks away it could well be that the Republicans have found someone who they can comfortably, enthusiastically get behind.

Coverage of Gingrich’s sudden front-runner status often focuses by way of explanation on why Newt is a clearly ‘committed member of the tribe’ or why Romney is an untrustworthy flip-flopper (see for example this Washington Post piece which makes both points). But that doesn’t quite explain the speed with which successive NonRom candidates have been latched upon, including most recently a man who referred to himself in the third person and was, well, clearly an idiot.

I think the problem with Romney is this: he sells himself as a tactical choice to beat Obama and in so doing highlights the fact that as a person he is actually quite a lot like Obama. And if there’s one thing that Republicans hate – even more than married gay immigrant tree-hugging neo-commies – it’s Obama.

What really brought the Obama similarities home to me was this profile of Romney published on Sunday by veteran Washington Post writer (and Laura Bush biographer!) Ann Gerhart. That Romney is a rational, intelligent, wonky type is one thing. The problem is he is too good a person. Mitt’s record speaks for itself: married to his high school sweetheart for 42 years, donates 10 per cent of his considerable funds to church, earned his law degree and MBA at the same time. From Harvard. Before he was 30. When he already had a young family. You get the picture: hardly presidential material.

I say that but actually Republican voters – all voters in fact – have seen ample evidence in recent years that even a man with such prodigious talents as Obama is unable to achieve all that much in the face of the momentous pressures affecting the US in the early 21st Century. Everything from Congressional gridlock, global recession and the rise of new world powers conspires against.

It’s in this context that the stormtroopers of the GOP want someone who can fight their corner, who they can feel good about and who can make them feel good: ugly, imperfect, blinkered and angry as they are. That person is not Mitt, but it might well be Newt.

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Man walks into a column, no.45: Obamacare

Yesterday, the 2012 US presidential election, already resting precariously on the sharpest of knife edges, became even more unpredictable, when the Supreme Court decided to review President Obama’s 2010 healthcare law. The ruling will come next March, smack bang in the middle of the election campaign.

But what’s arguably most interesting about this momentous decision is that howevermuch the ruling will change the election, it might have very little impact on healthcare itself, whichever way the judges come down. Just as in England, where a political vacuum is leaving local health services to make up their own minds, so in the US, people across the country are just getting on with implementing legislation that, whilst passed, could quite possibly be ruled unconstitutional.

In agreeing to review the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so typically American: even its title is a political statement) the Supreme Court is responding to the only appeals court to have ruled that the Act is unconstitutional: most have said it isn’t. Even courts featuring conservative jurists have refused to strike it down: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia being the latest example.

This fact – along with the substantive reasons behind the mostly favourable rulings – may give Team Obama hope. The author of the District of Columbia decision, Reagan-appointed Justice Laurence Silberman, said the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty (needless to say the most controversial bit) was necessary ‘because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.’

For Republicans, the Obamacare legislation – in particular its perceived infringement on individual liberty – has acted as an incredibly strong galvanising force. And GOP attacks on the reforms have certainly swayed public mood: the bill has a bad image. Most people like individual elements of the reforms, up to and including the individual mandate, but don’t like the act overall (see the Washington Post for an overview of the polling data).

So which way will the Supreme Court go? Andrew Cohen, legal analyst at CBS News, has a fun guide to the betting odds on the possible decisions of individual judges and the overall outcome, which smuggles in some useful stuff about precedent and ways for the Court to fudge the issue if it so chooses. It’s probably too early to say what impact the decision will have on the election, not least because, for example, it’s plausible that a strike-down ruling could energise the Democratic base, just as a vote in favour could.

Here’s the really fascinating bit, though: all of the above may come too late, because healthcare reform along the lines of the act is already happening. The New York Times has this overview of how, at local level, health providers are already preparing for reform, with many state legislatures implementing their own versions. Hospitals are already hiring clinicians on mass to cope with predicted influx of new patients. State regulators are keeping a closer watch on insurance premiums, saving citizens money in the process.

If the Supreme Court does decide to rule the healthcare act unconstitutional, there could be real problems caused by the ending of federal funding, but as the NYT piece shows, funding problems are acute already. So the Court’s decision is both momentous and a sideshow: the potential for a really significant impact on the election, and very little impact on what happens on the ground.

Man walks into a column, no.39: Polar

True story: I have been stealing another man’s magazine subscription, for the last five years. The man: Charlie Diggle, the magazine: TIME. Mr Diggle (apparently his real name) was the previous owner of the flat we now call our home – a landlord, specifically – and each week, without fail, a new cellophane-wrapped parcel plops on the doormat.

One can only imagine Charlie was given the subscription as a gift from a friendly but remote aunt or uncle and that as far as they’re concerned their nephew is still very grateful. Or perhaps the $30 annual subscription is simply beneath Mr Diggle’s banking radar. In any case: I am the sole beneficiary of Uncle Diggle’s largesse/Charlie’s louche lifestyle.

TIME is, I feel, rather overlooked on this side of the pond. The first weekly news magazine in the US, and still the most widely read – in the western world at least – the quality of the writing is consistently high, and the coverage of US politics in particular is often just as insightful as anything you’ll find in the Washington Post or the New York Times.

And yet TIME seems to only be cited in the British media (mainstream and social alike) when there’s someone interesting on the cover. Mark Zuckerberg, say (Person of the Year 2010), or Jonathan Franzen (Great American Novelist). Perhaps it’s latent anti-Americanism, or at least anti-populist-Americanism: if 20 million yanks read it, it must be beneath us.

As evidence to counter this glib cultural imperialism, I offer two interesting insights from the latest slim red-rimmed volume to wing its way to me. (As if to emphasise the magnitude of my crime, I’m afraid to say neither of these pieces are openly online – they seem to move into ‘subscriber only’ territory after a week.)

First, the ever-excellent Joe Klein – he of Primary Colours fame – currently on a road trip through the states likely to form the chief battleground for the 2012 presidential election. Klein contrasts the vitriol of a typical Tea Party caller to a radio talkshow (‘I would vote for Charles Manson before [Obama]’) with the ‘non-stop civility’ our correspondent has encountered from all points on the political spectrum during the three weeks of his trip to date.

The polarisation of political debate is leaving the moderate middle appalled, Klein suggests. As evidence he quotes a moderate Republican – typical in his views, we’re told – who says:

It seems to me the President is trying to do the right thing on a lot of these issues, but his hands are tied by Congress. And I guess the most disturbing thing is that people like us aren’t speaking up. We’re letting the extremists do the yakking.

Klein thinks the vast majority are ‘sick to death’ of politicians who ‘play to the rant’, but that leaders of both main US parties have no choice because of the need to finance expensive campaigns (the logical extension, one would assume, being that the most giving are likely to be more extreme).

Which brings me onto the second of my TIME morsels: an article by Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The big question, Sachs thinks, is whether the scale of the ongoing financial crisis will have a similar effect as the Great Depression, in jolting the US out of a period of eye-wateringly high inequality. For the first time since 1929 the top one per cent of households in the States take almost a quarter of all household income.

In the twenties this inequality was caused by a combination of the Wall Street financial boom creating wealth at the top, and mass immigration keeping the bottom very low indeed. The more recent slide towards inequality is, in Sachs’ analysis, down to the skills of US workers failing to keep pace with the need to add value (in an industrial sense) to match the wages demanded, meaning companies cannot compete against cheap foreign labour.

What America needs, says Sachs, and it’s hard to argue, is a grown-up conversation about how to fund future competitiveness, rather than the current mud-slinging. The problem is, of course, how such a conversation can be even conceived of when US politics is as polarised as its society.

Man walks into a column, no.37: Schism

In the week since starting arbitrary constant‘s >ahem< ‘coverage’ of the United States 2012 presidential election, I’ve come across three fascinating pieces of evidence confirming how this race is both entirely predictable – in its ideological flavour – and completely unpredictable, when seen in an historical context. How lovely.

And how stressful. As a wannabe Yank (a Wank?) I feel the ups and downs of Obama’s Presidency as keenly as the peaks and troughs of the season my beloved Italian Robins are having (already). After the fleeting boost afforded by the President’s majestic if predictably ignored jobs speech (a boost for me, that is, I don’t think it had any real impact on Swindon Town FC), a sense of deep hopelessness has set in once more.

This mood was captured rather well in this first piece: an article in the Washington Post describing how within a matter of weeks the ‘brief, transcendent commonality of purpose’ post-9/11 had evaporated as the political parties set to arguing afresh. What were they arguing about? In an echo of today: how best to stimulate a fragile economy. By the time five years had passed a ‘deep political schism was evolving’ (can a schism really evolve? Anyway).

What I found really interesting about this review, though, were the comparisons with key moments in history which notably failed to bring about any lasting political unity. Less than a year after Pearl Harbor, for example, FDR’s Democrats almost lost the Senate, and Wilson’s lot did lose it, a week before Armistice Day in 1918. So much for national unity.

What is different though, this time around, is the extent of the division between the Republican and Democrat parties. A study by political scientists concluded that they haven’t been this far apart – ideologically speaking – since the 1890s. Crucially, this means that Washington can’t get anything done – it’s gridlocked – which pisses the electorate right off, and so voters are volatile, chucking politicians out much more easily. Which has, in the words of the Post’s scribe, ‘reinforced the impulse for short-term political gain at the expense of anything that would lead toward co-operation and consensus’. This is why we’re already seeing talk of bipartisanship over jobs evaporating away as quickly as the morning mist over the Potomac River.

It’s hard to imagine a more striking and strikingly gruesome example of the gulf in American political ideology than the Republican audience’s reactions during the second televised debate between the Party’s presidential candidates. When the moderator of the debate noted that during his tenure as Governor of Texas, frontrunner Rick Perry had allowed more than two hundred people to be executed, the audience cheered.

Think this couldn’t be sicker? Well: know that the latest man to be executed was thus sentenced on the basis that he was more likely to commit further violent acts because he was black. If it wasn’t so horrendous it would be comical. (Since then the Supreme Court has asked for the sentence to be reconsidered, not that it will necessarily be overturned.)

So the prospect of a Republican presidency – a Leader of the Free World who has never been troubled by loss of sleep over the thought of so many dead men – is both inevitable and terrifying. Unemployment has not been this stubbornly high in the run-up to an election since the 1940s. It’s all over bar the shouting, isn’t it?

But, as so often, history can give us hope as well. This piece in the Economist offers a glimmer:

There is no clear correlation between unemployment rates and election results, for example. Franklin Roosevelt got himself re-elected under even grimmer circumstances; Richard Nixon won a second term despite a sharp rise in unemployment, and so on.

The counter examples continue. North Dakota has the strongest job market in the country, yet has seen the biggest fall in the President’s approval rating. The first of the Bush presidents failed to secure a second term despite surfing a wave of prosperity. Truman won during an even bigger economic slump than the one Obama finds himself in.

Because elections are complex, after all, and ultimately unpredictable. Remember how the wind fell out of the sails of the McCain campaign after his misjudged handling of the financial crisis? Latest polls show that whilst a generic ‘Republican candidate’ would beat Obama, it’s too close to call against either of the current frontrunners. So I’m hoping that Perry gets the nod and that more voters get to see more of a man steeped in a certain brand of Texan justice.

Man walks into a column, no.36: Jobs

No, not a(nother) paean to the iPhone or iPad in memory of Apple’s departing chief exec, but the latest instalment in At Times Like This I Wish I Was American, as President Bartlett – sorry, Obama – gives a state of the nation speech to a nation in a pretty terrible state.

With Labor Day behind us (them) and the campaigning for 2012 entering the phase when (some) Americans actually pay (some) attention, consider this a starting pistol post, in the hope that we can maintain a healthy amount of gazing across the Atlantic on arbitrary constant as the election itself draws nearer.

If you haven’t already and have a half hour to spare you really could do worse than spending it watching the full thing. Not as soaring as others in the Obama Canon, maybe, but impressively direct and well-crafted and, it almost goes without saying, delivered with style. The tone and content can be well summed up with this excerpt:

The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

Throughout Obama expertly married the local and the global, the everyday and the political. Held together by the ringing refrain, repeated time and again, of ‘pass this jobs bill’. The most profound passage though, for me, was when the President addressed head-on the inherent and to many the fascinating duality at the heart of the American psyche. In response to the GOP creed that government should just ‘get out of the way’, Obama said:

Yes, we are rugged individualists. Yes, we are strong and self-reliant. And it has been the drive and initiative of our workers and entrepreneurs that has made this economy the engine and envy of the world. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.

Because when Americans say they want to be left alone to get on with it, they don’t mean really left alone, they mean ‘left to do the kind of things I want to do with my kind of people‘. I was reminded of the studies quoted in David Brooks’ The Social Animal which appear to show that in the States (especially) people choose party affiliation based on views handed down by their parents, or early in adulthood based on stereotypes of what ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ are like, and then stick with whichever camp they think is most similar to them. Policy choices barely figure.

Then, party affiliation becomes the independent variable, shaping views on key issues (survey data suggests that, for example, people become Republicans first and then place increasing value on limited government, rather than the other way around) and – crucially in the current context – shaping perceptions of reality. Whether, for instance, in the case of one study, inflation had risen or fallen.

And that’s the point: however good this speech was, its substantive effect on the minds of voters is likely to be limited, making Democrats happier and Republicans angrier. Independents will continue to wait and see whether the economy picks up. The chances of a fillip within the next twelve months or so are limited when so many households and businesses are still continuing to pay down pre-crisis debt.

Anyway, with GOP members of congress in deeply intransigent mood, Obama’s Administration has little chance of getting his proposals through, so whether they’ll work or not is largely academic. What the President achieved, though, in using any president’s most potent weapon – the bully pulpit – to good effect, was to lay down the gauntlet, allowing him to credibly place the blame at the door of Congress when things don’t get better. Risky strategy, but the only one realistically open to him at this time of US decline.

Off holiday, on the Presidency

But from the time when the heroes of the Revolution died out with Jefferson and Adams and Madison, no person except General Grant… reached the chair whose name would have been remembered had he not been President, and no President except Abraham Lincoln had displayed rare or striking qualities in the chair.

— James Bryce, The American Commonwealth

A two week holiday – both off- and online – is a wonderful thing. It’s good to be back, though.

My holiday afforded me the excellent opportunity to finally finish Team of Rivals, the quite remarkable study of Abraham Lincoln and how he managed his Cabinet during the biggest crisis the United States faced: the American Civil War.

Alongside Team of Rivals I also watched the 7-part HBO series, John Adams. A fabulous piece of film making, it tells the story of Adams and his rise and role in creating the independent America and the tale of his Presidency, him being the second President after George Washington. (This gives rise to Abigail Adams, John Adams’s wife, being the first Second Lady and the second First Lady.)

I’ll write a full reflection on both the book and the series in due course, but I can especially see now why people are so fascinated by American history and the Presidency in particular. To this end, I’ve begun The Presidents: The Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama by Stephen Graubard, to get a better handle on what that position today represents, and just how far it is from the idealised world presented in, for example, the West Wing.

The quote at the start of this post is taken from the epigraph of Graubard’s book and immediately struck me as true. It got me to wondering if this is the case purely by definition of any individual reaching the position of a national leader.

That’s a post for after I’ve finished the book; in the meantime, I commend all of the above to you.