Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’.
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Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of ‘The Bush Tragedy’.
With a clear majority in both houses, Republicans face a difficult choice about whether to compromise with President Barack Obama on a series of issues. Mr Obama has already made it clear that he will not wait for their decision. Instead, he will spend his final two years in office exploring the frontiers of executive power.
Last week bought two expressions of this new posture: the secretly negotiated agreement on emissions Mr Obama announced with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and a statement on net neutrality that advocated regulating internet service providers as “common carriers”. Read more
Since Barack Obama took office, the congressional wing of the Republican party has had impressive success with a simple strategy: oppose everything the president supports, blame him for every problem and make him the central issue in each election.
In 2010, this approach returned the House of Representatives to Republican control with a gain of 63 seats. In 2014, it delivered the Senate, which the GOP will now control by a majority of at least 52-48.
One might assume that the latest Democratic rout means that polarisation in Washington is about to get even worse. Read more
As recently as 2013, Turkey ranked as the world’s top jailer of journalists, ahead of even Iran and China. On a mission last week with the Committee to Protect Journalists, I was pleased to learn that the list of those imprisoned has shrunk from more than sixty to an apparent seven. On the same day that the Turkish Parliament voted to authorise military action in Syria, the president, prime minister and justice minister all made time to hear our group’s concerns about these cases and a range of other press freedom issues, from internet censorship to media ownership.
That was the good news from a long day in Ankara. The bad news is that despite a diminished risk of criminal prosecution, media freedom in Turkey has deteriorated in other respects. Journalists we met with in Istanbul described a pervasive atmosphere of fear and self-censorship; a polarised, highly partisan media environment characterised by growing government control and fewer independent voices. The overall picture was of a new style of media censorship that is less brutal, less visible – and much more effective. Read more
Faced with a choice between solving a problem and winning an issue, Barack Obama invariably opts for the former. The US president is a pragmatist who sees compromise not as a painful necessity but as a virtue. Unfortunately, he has seldom found any partners for peace on Capitol Hill. House Republicans do not lose their seats when they fail to address a challenge such as the budget or immigration. They lose them when they cast unpopular votes.
In his first term, this conflict between presidential temperament and legislative incentive was frustrating to Mr Obama’s liberal base. As the president continued to give but not receive, they came to regard him as timid and weak. Read more
Since the rise of the Tea Party, Republican incumbents in the House of Representatives have faced a basic political question. Do they represent safe districts, in which case the threat to their survival comes from rightwing populists challenging them in primaries? Or do they represent swing districts, where the graver danger comes from a moderate Democrat running against them in a general election?
In the former case, which occurs more often, the ideal stance is to be a principled and unreasonable rightwing conservative. Those subject to a Tea Party challenge must not, under any circumstances, cast a vote to raise the debt ceiling, regularise the status of undocumented immigrants or accept the legal existence of the Affordable Care Act.
For the smaller group of House members in swing districts, the situation is the reverse. Compromise, reasonableness and moderation assume their normal place as political virtues.
The problem Eric Cantor faced, and the reason for his unexpected defeat in a Virginia primary last night, is that he was unable to make this choice in either direction. This was not because of any lack of political sophistication on his part but because of his role as House majority leader. Read more
In America’s coal country – centred in Appalachia and stretches of the Mountain West – Barack Obama has come to represent federal tyranny. With this week’s announcement of new regulations intended to close eventually many or most of the nation’s 600 coal-burning power plants, those regions are sure to resent him even more.
Democrats campaigning in West Virginia and Kentucky were quickest to denounce the president’s carbon emissions plan, but this is unlikely to do many of them much good in the midterm elections later this year. The new rules increase the odds that the Republicans will win control of the Senate in November, that Congressional deadlock will get worse, and that the president’s final quarter will be marred by subpoenas and investigations. Read more
For the past 20 years, American politics has been defined by Republican revolt. The rightwing radicalism that now worries the whole world first emerged in response to Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. It is not that Republicans were never extreme before that time; their challenge to the legitimacy of federal authority traces back to proslavery attempts at nullification and segregationist assertions of states’ rights. But it was 20 years ago that the Congressional wing of the Grand Old Party, led by Newt Gingrich, adopted belligerent non-co-operation as its defining stance. Read more
It’s a funny thing about Washington: everyone complains about it, but no one ever seems to leave. Take former House leader Richard Gephardt. The Missouri Democrat twice ran for president as a voice of organised labour. Today he pockets $7m a year to lobby on behalf of corporate clients and advise them on busting unions. Or consider former journalist Jeffrey Birnbaum, who used to write exposés of the lobbying trade for The Wall Street Journal. Today he works for Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s Republican former governor who is now one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington.
Such fables of political principles discarded, betrayed or rented by the hour fill the pages of Mark Leibovich’s alarming and amusing new book This Town . Mr Leibovich captures the Gilded Age atmosphere of a capital where influence has been commoditised and marketed as never before. It is a gallery of rogues – some charming, some merely roguish – who flourish as the capital’s fundraisers, fixers, party-givers and talking heads. Read more
Washington’s need for periodic scandal is almost biological. For legislators, it is the opportunity to strut on the national stage. For the party out of power, it is politics by other means. For the press, it is an escape from the boredom of a second term. Scandal means a break in the routine, a thrilling emergency. How else to explain the excitement with which two events – an attack on a US consulate in Libya and tax audits of conservative institutions – have been elevated into scandals? At some level, the political class loves it. Read more
Amazon has built its empire on the legitimate advantages it has over retail shopping: an endless range of products at a steep discount and stunningly good customer service. But it has also benefited from one unfair advantage over its bricks-and-mortar competitors: it does not have to charge a sales tax, which American states levy in varying amounts on consumer goods. Depending on where you live in the US, this can save you up to 12 per cent on purchases, making it foolish not to buy online when you can. Read more
To the public, the implicit message was: “If you want any of this, I’m going to need a Democratic Congress next time.” When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Bill Clinton responded with a long list of small-bore initiatives: gun safety locks, school uniforms, cell phones for citizen patrols, and so forth. Mr Clinton wanted to show that he was still relevant and that he could still accomplish something even with a divided government. Mr Obama, by contrast, has little appetite for legislative hors d’oeuvres. His programme is designed to show not what he can do with a Republican Congress, but what he can’t do with one. Read more
Mr Obama faces the problem of what to do for an encore. He takes his oath for the second time with greatly diminished personal promise, a far healthier economy and facing no special peril. After some eloquent words today, he seems likeliest to keep on governing like a Dwight Eisenhower or George H.W. Bush — a moderate, effective problem-solver with limited aspirations. The word Mr Obama has used more than any other to describe himself is “pragmatist.” By continuing in this mode for another four years, he stands to leave a legacy as a fine decision-maker and manager in troubled times. Unless he raises his sights, however, he is unlikely to live up to his promise as a transformational leader. Read more
Barack Obama’s most cherished illusion during his first term was the possibility of co-operation with Republicans. Time and again, the president came to Congress bearing pre-emptive concessions – on his original economic stimulus package, his healthcare plan, and the 2011 debt ceiling fight – only to have the door slammed in his face by an obstructionist Republican party that viewed politics as a zero-sum game. Because Mr Obama has long seen himself as a conciliator, he was unwilling to let go his faith that if he only hewed to the path of moderation, his opponents would eventually have to meet him there. Read more
Last Friday 20 children and six adults were shot dead at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The same day a group of schoolchildren was attacked in China’s Henan province. There, the assailant wielded a knife and the result was injuries to 23 children and an adult but no deaths. This follows an established pattern. Like the US, China has experienced a spate of attacks on schoolchildren. But without easy access to guns, Chinese attackers seldom succeed in killing. Read more
What ought to pain Republicans most about Barack Obama’s victory is that 2012 was entirely winnable for them. In European elections over the past few years, voters have thrown out leaders who were in charge during the worst of the financial crisis, whether those leaders deserved the blame or not.
Macroeconomic indicators in the United States, where an unemployment rate of 8 per cent is highly correlated with defeat for the incumbent party, pointed in the same direction. Mr Obama himself had proven a disappointment to many of his former supporters, going from a beloved symbol of generational and social change in 2008 to a detached and remote figure, with limited ability to touch an emotional chord in the electorate.
That Mitt Romney lost nonetheless is in part a tribute to his own weaknesses as a candidate. The Obama campaign put Mr Romney on the defensive early about his work at Bain Capital, and left him there. The Republican nominee made any number of horrendous gaffes. He ran a disastrous Republican convention. He never found a way to talk about himself or his agenda that middle-class voters could relate to. Read more
The President has seldom been a risk taker; he has operated within the boundaries of the possible, avoiding postures that yield no results. But he and his campaign have cleverly recognised that Mr Romney’s slow-footedness and lack of imagination presents an opportunity for them to shine in contrast. They have reversed the usual dynamic of reelection campaigns, highlighting the challenger’s stodginess while making Mr Obama’s into a nimble incumbent. Read more
Credit Rick Santorum with accepting the obvious: he lost. Despite winning 11 primaries, Mr Santorum was always more of an irritant than a plausible contender for the Republican nomination. He surrenders the field having done a meaningful, though not enormous amount of harm to his side.
Mr Romney is none of those things, however, and with Mr Santorum out of the way, he now can get on with the business of challenging Barack Obama. With the primaries unofficially over, the shape of the fall race is fast emerging. Simply stated, Mr Romney is going to run against the Obama economy while Mr Obama runs against Mr Romney himself. Read more
Republicans are doing something strange at the moment – choosing a candidate whom hardly any of them actually likes. Though Mitt Romney won the Florida primary handily yesterday, the Republican nomination is not so much being won as it is defaulting to him for lack of a compelling alternative.
Advocates of Mr Romney’s electability elaborate such qualities as his lack of obvious mental defect, the non-extremity of his views, and his superior financial and organisational resources. Seldom do they evince any affection or enthusiasm for the man himself.
In this respect, Mr Romney resembles two similarly unloved Democratic nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry, who lost winnable races because of their personalities – while George W. Bush was reelected, because ordinary people felt he wasn’t trying to be someone different from who he was.
Romney, Kerry and Gore are all versions of the same political type. Statuesque, handsome, impeccably credentialed, they didn’t overcome humble origins or broken families. Mr Romney’s background is alien to most Americans not because he descends from polygamists but because his father was a governor of Michigan, a chief executive and a presidential candidate.
The unloved candidate struggles to establish his plain-folks ordinariness in ways that inevitably backfire. He touts his plebian tastes – pick-up trucks, country music, trashy food – and inevitably gets it wrong, as when Mr Romney defended his claims as a sportsman by asserting that he had been hunting for rodents and varmints “more than two times.”
The public usually picks up on this gap between who the candidate really is and how he wants to be seen. Yet even more than Gore and Kerry, Mr Romney is running away from his own perfection. He must grapple with the affliction of excessive handsomeness and struggles to seem ordinary despite his riches. For the time being, he must disguise his reasonableness, his record of businesslike practicality and his ideological moderation. The number of people who can sympathise with his problems is very small indeed.
Is there anyone not frustrated by Mitt Romney’s narrow win in the Iowa caucuses? Conservatives are disappointed because they recognise that Mr Romney, who used to favour legal abortion and was for Obamacare before it was called that, is only pretending to be one of them. Seventy-five per cent of Iowa’s Republican voters wanted someone farther to the right. But because their votes were divided among a large field of weak candidates, the only moderate running in their state came out on top.
Liberals are disappointed because Mr Romney has moved closer to inevitability and is the strongest potential challenger to President Barack Obama. And journalists are most disappointed of all, because Mr Romney gliding to victory is a weak story.
Thanks to all this, there is tremendous reluctance on all sides to call the outcome before “the voters have spoken”. So expect to hear more and more about less and less likely alternatives to a Romney victory. Jon Huntsman, the only candidate yet to enjoy a moment of popular enthusiasm, could do better than expected in New Hampshire. Once Rick Perry joins Michele Bachmann in dropping out, conservative sentiment could coalesce around the unlikely survivor Rick Santorum. Given how unloved Mr Romney is, someone new could still enter the race. Anything is possible, of course. But in the end, the GOP is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Mr Romney because it is his turn and because he is the most electable candidate available. Read more
A key theme of 2012 will be freedom and control on the internet. Social media can be the most disruptive of revolutionary tools – or a potent tool for state repression. The battle between digital liberation and autocratic limitation is playing out around the globe – in Syria, Cuba, China and Russia.
In the west, the conflict revolves around a different set of issues – piracy, privacy and monopoly. It pits the giants of technology against the creators of media, who are demanding stronger protections for their intellectual property.
Facebook will continue to push the boundary of acceptable snooping against the notion of a “right to be forgotten.” In Brussels, Google faces an antitrust investigation. The broader societal question is whether we are approaching media nirvana or filtering ourselves into solipsistic oblivion.
The three chief factions in this struggle are the digital utopians, the cyber-sceptics, and the techno-peasants. The first expect the Web to cure all society’s ills. The second see it making our familiar problems even worse.
The techno-peasants watch bemusedly as technology remakes our world in ways they cannot understand.
Last week resolved the remaining questions about which Republicans are running for president. Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey, and Sarah Palin, the misspoken conservative celebrity, will not. The field is set and pointed towards a surprising outcome. In the most conservative moment in the US in decades, a party dominated by Tea Party radicalism is on course to nominate the mild and moderate Mitt Romney.
In the interminable debates that punctuate the primaries, Mr Romney stands aloft from a quarrelling chorus of patriotic anarchists. The Republican nomination is now Mr Romney’s to lose, and there is no reason why he should.
The greatest risk he faces in the primaries and as a potential nominee is becoming a Republican John Kerry. He does not suffer from Mr Kerry’s pomposity or tin ear, but courts mockery by sounding too much like the product of focus-group testing. He lacks humour and spontaneity. Few detest him, but no one outside of his equally flawless family can be said to love him. Read more
Just a few weeks ago, Barack Obama’s re-election bid was beginning to look like an easy downhill jog. The daring raid that the President ordered delivered Osama bin Laden to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Economic prospects looked brighter. Perhaps most helpfully, the Republican Party seemed to be indulging some kind of collective death-wish, putting Donald Trump first in the polls and Representative Paul Ryan’s budget cutting at the top of its legislative agenda.
Mr Obama’s spring peak came at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in late April, when he jovially deflated Mr Trump, while the Navy Seals were en route to Abbottabad. But since then, the political weather has turned less favourable. Unemployment rose to a treacherous 9.1 per cent, while the Dow fell nearly 1000 points from its peak. Most alarmingly, the Republican Party appears gradually to be going sane. Read more
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