Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode VI

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

Episode VI

Old-style politics is beginning to rear its head for the first time in weeks, as a variety of issues compete for headlines with the Coronavirus. There are efforts underway to pass even more financial assistance legislation, as unemployment reaches ever higher figures. However, not only are there challenges within the Senate in terms of trying to get this legislation together, both Democrats and the Republicans trying to bolt their own policy requirements onto this document. The president is talking about delaying the release of funds and one of the areas that he is focusing upon is the US Postal Service, as he seeks to make sure the Postal Service increases the cost of sending packages, suggesting that it is being taken advantage of by Amazon and other delivery services. For several weeks people have been suggesting that Donald Trump will cast some doubts over the results of the presidential election in November if he loses. One way to do so is to cast doubt over postal ballots, which would be dealt with by the US Postal Service. Therefore, the greater doubt President Trump can cast over postal voting, and by extension the Postal Service, the better for his election campaign. 

The Trump presidency moved beyond the bounds of satire this week, as the American citizenry were advised to use ultraviolet light on themselves or ingest bleach in an attempt to stem the spread of the Coronavirus. Trying to stay relevant in this age of craziness, Saturday Night Live hired Brad Pitt to play Dr Fauci, speculating upon the good doctor’s oft-rumored removal from office. Four years ago, Trump supporters insisted that the media needed to “take him seriously, but not literally,” suggesting that the media were taking him literally, but not seriously. Apparently, the media were not alone, with stories merging this week that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans have been admitted to hospital for having listened to the president and followed his advice, consuming deadly products. Having ended up in hospital, if they survive ingesting toxic fluids, they could end up being exposed to the very virus that they were trying to avoid in the first place.

There had been hopes that the daily press briefings would act as a substitute for the large-scale presidential rallies, which would have been a stable of the president’s reelection campaign. Since these have been prevented by the Coronavirus, a nightly, presidential press briefing played into Donald Trump’s image of himself as a great communicator, who can convince anybody of anything. What is notable however is how those are clearly backfired and you’re starting to see that in the polls. Following the latest backlash, this time against his suggestion that Americans, President Trump’s daily press briefings have been suspended. The White House has decided that they are apparently not worth the time or the effort, claiming that the media is misrepresenting what the president has been saying. Unfortunately for the White House, the media has been doing precisely what they wanted, which is to broadcast the president’s remarks live and un-edited, unfortunately stating things that are demonstrably untrue. Unable, therefore, to claim to have been mis-quoted, Trump is now suggesting that he was being sarcastic, insisting as much to one particular journalist, who, it was imediaely noted, had not been in the particular briefing session Trump was referring to. The president’s problem is that if you want to get someone in trouble, put them in front of a microphone and let him talk; eventually they’ll talk themselves into trouble. This has certainly happened to Donald Trump over the last week.  He has often issued incendiary statements, but they have attracted as many people as they have repelled. Now he has strayed into areas where he clearly has no clue whatsoever, taking snake oil salesmanship to a whole new level.  

This unforced error was compounded by the president’s continuing insistence on singling out female reporters out for his ire. The White House sought to move CNN’s White House correspondent, Kaitlin Collins, from her front row seat to the back of the room and sought to get the Secret Service to enforce this. Despite this attempt, it was made immediately clear that despite this being the president’s house, he has no authority to move journalists in the press briefing room, a responsible that rests with the White House Correspondence Association. The frustration that this combination of media-related setbacks had on the presidential psyche was apparent in a series of Tweets, in which Trump suggested that journalists who had won the ‘Noble Peace Prize’ were on the wrong side of history and should return their prizes. Correct side of history or not, the ‘Nobel Prize’ winning journalists can likely hold onto their awards, if for no other reason than they can at least spell, which apparently is one step ahead of the American president.

The suspension of the presidential press briefings coincides with word that Republicans across the country are getting wary. They are not necessarily ready to speak out against the president, but they are starting to run away from Donald Trump, to focus on local issues and talk about anything other than the present. As long as they are having to talk about Trump, the less they are able to talk about what is important to the American citizens in their state. This is a shift within the Republican Party, which, only a few weeks ago, was convinced it would retain the Senate, would retain the presidency, and pick up a couple of seats in the House of Representatives. None of that now seems likely. There are increasing concerns amongst the Republican Party that it might well lose control of United States Senate, lose ground in the House, and that Donald Trump’s reelection is no longer as assured as it was just four weeks ago. Donald Trump ran for office and spent three and a half years as president boasting about his ability to increase American wealth, noting that if Hillary Clinton had been elected the American economy would crashed and that unemployment would have soared. That nightmare scenario is exactly where we are with just six months to go until the next American presidential election. While it is difficult to blame Donald Trump for all of this, he was determined to take credit for three and a half years of economic prosperity, so he must now take responsibility for what happens in the last six months of his term. The Coronavirus is having as devastating impact on the president’s reelection campaign and the campaign strategies of Republicans around the country who are running for office or running for re-election in November. 

Despite the president’s problems, Joe Biden is struggling to get any attention. In any other year he would have been out about meeting and greeting, holding rallies and raising money. This year, he is having to compete with the president from his basement, in Delaware, struggling to get the word out, or to raise funds. Joe Biden is not on the television, and the only time he is being discussed at the moment is in regard to an allegation that he may have assaulted a former congressional aide when he was a senator several decades ago. This is hardly the kind of press Joe Biden or the Democrats want at this point. One thing that Biden does have going for him, however, is that the Democratic Party is unified, with all of his former challengers for the nomination having now fallen in line. They have clearly looked back to what happened four years ago and realized that the longer they keep their hat in the ring, the more likely it was that a potential Bernie Sanders candidacy emerged from the Democratic primary season. The Democratic Party can now unite around a moderate candidate, which presents a challenge for Republicans who had expected to allege that socialists had hijacked the Democratic Party and nominated Bernie Sanders as their leader. Trump and his allies would have initiated a scorched-earth campaign, going after Sanders and the politics of the left, just as Nixon did against George McGovern in 1972. Now that the left has been effectively silenced, it becomes very difficult for Donald Trump to label Joe Biden, a relatively bland, centrist Democrat, as being a dangerous socialist. We are faced, therefore, with the prospect of two old, white men in their seventies running for the most powerful office in the world, raising doubts about their capacity to survive a four-year term in office. As a result, questions are being asked about who Biden’s vice-presidential pick might be. He has made it clear he is going to select a woman, causing several names to be mentioned as his potential running mate. Stacy Abrams of Georgia has put herself forward in a big piece in The Atlantic, detailing why she believes she should be the vice-presidential pick for Joe Biden. It is extraordinary for someone to put themselves forward in such a manner, since once upon a time, American presidents didn’t even run for election, they stood for election. Candidates agreed to allow their names to be put forward if people wished to vote for them, but they certainly didn’t actively seek the office. The idea that people are now actively campaigning to be selected as vice president is really stepping things up, and it’s likely to backfire upon her. 

With Joe Biden emerging as the presumptive nominee, it is apparent that Barack Obama’s legacy will be on the ballot in November. That legacy is very much in the balance, to an extent he can likely hardly imagine. Obama was a two term Democratic president who everybody expected to be followed by Hillary Clinton. This would have been two epoch making presidencies in succession: the first African American president, followed by the first female American president. In retrospect, however, it appears that Barack Obama simply didn’t do enough to make sure that Hillary Clinton was elected in 2016. It is possible that Obama, like many Americans, figured that Hillary couldn’t lose, and that, therefore, he didn’t have to do that much. It is also possible that Obama felt that his presidency would look all the more impressive by way of contrast if Trump were elected. It would appear even more erudite, more impressive, with a greater record of success in office, passing Obamacare, opening relations with Cuba, negotiating the Paris climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal would all look more impressive if Donald Trump floundered and ended up as a failed, one-term president.  Certainly, Obama’s presidency, in the eyes of some, now looks better, but it is also being erased from history. Donald Trump has sought to remove all traces of Obama from American history books; he has erased his deal with Cuba, withdrawn from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, is dismantling Obamacare, and has pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. It is widely considered that if Obama had cured cancer, Donald Trump would bring it back. Obama’s presidency is being erased from history by Donald Trump to such a degree that if Trump gets a second term, students of American politics may eventually ask, Obama who? 

Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode IV

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

Episode IV

The lock-down continues unabated here in the United States. Easter weekend came and went and still the United States appears no closer to getting out of this situation. This was the weekend that Donald Trump originally speculated would see the country reopened, but that hasn’t happened. There seems to be very little sign as to when, or if, the various statewide curfews are going to be lifted, and the gulf between the federal and state responses is doing very little to improve that situation. The Covid crisis is raising questions beyond issues of health that now extend into the political realm, not merely regarding the handling of the pandemic, but as to whether the disease could contribute to an effort to undermine democracy here in America.

The United States is still in the process of selecting a Democratic nominee to challenge Donald Trump in the November election, with Wisconsin being the latest state to hold a primary, albeit in a very convoluted fashion. The Democrat governor of Wisconsin tried to prevent the primary because of fears for public safety, that was challenged by the Republican controlled state legislature. Initially, it looked as though the governor was going to prevail, until the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Republican majority, ensuring that the poll went ahead. We are still in a state of flux with regards to the result, since there was a time period allowed for postal voting and for absentee ballots to come in. It is clear, however, that people are looking at the debacle in Wisconsin and the differing approach adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties, fearing it could be a harbinger for the general election in November.

Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting that Donald Trump might use this as an excuse to cancel the election, or to call into doubt question the results in November. He is already casting doubt on the concept of postal votes, despite the fact that he already has one in place for his residency in Florida. Four years ago, he was asked if he would accept the results of the presidential election if he lost, and he said, ‘wait and see,’ revealing his willingness to play fast and loose with accepted norms of American democracy 

What would transpire if Donald Trump sought to cancel the presidential election in November? Students of American politics who want to get a grasp of what’s going on here need to start with the Constitution. The timing of the election is addressed in the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which states that;  If the president shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect you have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until the President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as Present, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

This appears to mean that it would be up to Congress to decide who would be president, on the basis that neither Mike Pence nor Donald Trump would have become president. If the election is not held, their terms in office will expire at noon on January 20th.  As of today, the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and the Senate is controlled by the Republicans. We move into uncharted territory when you consider that the new Congress will take its seats on the third day of January. We could end up in a bizarre situation whereby if the presidential election is suspended, but there are still elections to the House and the Senate, Democrats could control both the House and Senate. Those Democratic majorities would take their seat on the third day of January next year, and in the absence of a presidential election, once Donald Trump’s term expires at noon on January 20th, they could very well decide who the new president will be.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden spoke this week with regards to the coronavirus and the only news appears to be a total lack of news coming out of that call. It was not a face to face meeting which you may expect at this time in an electoral process, but nobody expected that. President Trump is not going to turn around and suggest that his thinking on this subject has been changed due to any input from Joe Biden. That would not be politically viable. Neither should anybody necessarily expect any original thinking from Joe Biden, whose career to date suggests that such a development really would be quite a miraculous occurrence. What you ae seeing, therefore, is simply the continuation of politics as normal. It is surprising that the phone call took place at all,  but clearly it was an opportunity for the two men to demonstrate some degree of national unity in this time of national crisis, even if the unity is going to be relatively short lived in what is indeed a very strange election cycle. 

Perhaps the most important news to have occurred this week is the decision by Bernie Sanders to finally suspend his campaign for the presidency. This, however, is nothing more than acceptance of political reality. Bernie’s campaign this year really failed to take off in a manner which he and his supporters had anticipated after the results from the Democratic primaries four years ago. In 2016 he came second in a two-horse race with Hillary Clinton. He and his supporters felt that he was the anointed one this year, but history and the voters have decided otherwise. Instead, Joe Biden has emerged as the unity candidate for the Democratic Party, and it’s interesting to see what has happened within the party this year. 

Four years ago, when everyone was terrified that Donald Trump might emerge as the Republican Party candidate, everyone assumed it simply couldn’t happen. Nobody dropped out of the race in an attempt to coalesce support around a single unity candidate, such as Jeb Bush, and as a result Donald Trump came through to win with a pretty constant level of support that hovered around 35%, suggesting that the majority of Republican voters were overwhelmingly opposed to him. However, as long as their egos were intact, Trump’s opponents refused to bow out, guaranteeing him victory. The Democrats have attempted to learn from that this in 2020 and were mindful of Bernie Sanders becoming the Donald Trump figure for the Democratic Party. You saw about a month ago, the leading candidates after Super Tuesday bowing out and throwing their weight behind Joe Biden in a deliberate effort to block Bernie Sanders. What’s telling is the extent to which Biden has recognized that he needs to do what Hillary Clinton failed to do last time around: Bernie Sanders did not drop out until the last minute in 2016, and chased Hillary Clinton all the way to the convention, throwing his weight somewhat tepidly behind Hillary Clinton only very late in the game, ensuring that even at the convention Hillary was heckled by his supporters.  

Hillary’s defeat can be explained by many elements, not least of which was the fact that there was a 5 million decline in Democratic turnout from 2012. There was no great surge in Republican support, there was simply a dip by 5 million for the Democratic Party. Joe Biden believe this is an eminently winnable election. If the Democratic base gets out to vote, the thinking clearly is that Joe Biden can win where Hillary Clinton did not. Biden is attempting to court Bernie Sanders’ supporters, talking about the fact that his team have created a movement. Very clearly there has been the emergence over the past four years of a new-left movement in the United States, identifiable with Bernie Sanders as well as AOC in New York City, formulating around the support for the Green New Deal concept. It must be said that in many ways this is somewhat out of kilter with the mainstream United States. Bernie Sanders and this nascent movement helped drag the Democratic Party to the left four years ago, making it more difficult for Hillary Clinton to position herself at the political center where she spent much of a political career along with her husband. Joe Biden is, therefore, playing lip service to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, hoping that by doing so this early in the primary season any hard feeling will be diminished by the time of the election in November, enabling them to come out and voting for the Democratic candidate. 

Biden’s apparent grip on the nomination has raised questions about whom he might name as his vice-presidential running mate. He has made clear that he intends to name a woman to the position. Some people are suggesting this is a historic first, but  this is not the case; We have seen Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket four years ago, Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee  in 1984, and  who can forget Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2012? The idea that Biden is going to select a woman is significant, so that narrows down the field of potential candidates. The most important factor to consider is that Joe Biden needs to choose someone who can help him win the presidency. To do so, he needs 270 Electoral College votes. He needs, therefore, to choose someone as a running mate who can guarantee to bring along their own state; the more populous the state, the more delegates it brings for the Electoral College. Therefore, Biden needs to choose someone who is very popular in a state with a large population. Who might Biden be thinking about? Some people have suggested Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from of New York, although her media presence has been diminished, and no one is really talking about her.  There are certain states which are all but guaranteed to vote for the Democratic Party in November, and New York would certainly be one of them,  so it doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense to choose Senator Gillibrand because New York will be in the Democratic tally, and if it isn’t then Joe Bryant has a lot bigger things to worry about!

A similar challenge faces Kamala Harris, whom a lot of people have talked about as a potential Democratic vice-presidential running mate. Yet the last thing Joe Biden needs is any more votes from California! The Democrats won that state by 2 million votes four years ago, and desperately need to spread their support among the neighboring states, so bringing Kamala Harris on board fails to contribute an awful lot to Joe Biden’s ground game. Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota is a serious possibility, coming from the Midwest which is part of the country the Democrats desperately need to bring into their tally. It is part of the country which was seen to back away from Hillary Clinton four years ago, so she could very well be a possibility. Someone who has a lot of light on them  is Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, but again the great problem with naming her is the fact that Massachusetts is going to vote Democrat come what may, and therefore, naming her would not necessarily galvanizes an awful lot of excitement, or pick up local support beyond where it already is. An interesting candidate is Governor Whitmer from Michigan, an individual who may lack a great deal of experience, but who would be able to help deliver Michigan, a state which Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and which Donald Trump desperately needs to hold onto it he wants to be re-elected. She’s a candidate who could help bring the Midwest along and would, therefore, be an all too obvious candidate for Joe Biden’s presidential running mate. 

We are in uncertain times. In the 1930s and 1940s, once the Great Depression was ending, and America’s involvement in the Second World war was becoming increasingly inevitable, Franklin Roosevelt presented himself as being vital to the national interests of the United States. It was claimed that ‘Dr. New Deal was going to become Dr. Win the War,’ suggesting that the United States would be unable to prevail without FDR in the White House. That turned the elections of 1940 and 1944 into unprecedented situations whereby a sitting president remained in office seeking election for a third and a fourth time. The Constitution was changed subsequently to prevent this from happening again, but when FDR did it there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, only precedent stood in his way. What Donald Trump is going do in November is anybody’s guess. At this point, he is required to run for reelection in the November election. There is no example in American history of a presidential election not being held. Even during the Civil War an election was held. During the Spanish Flu epidemic elections were held. During World War Two, elections were held, so there really is no historical precedent for Donald Trump to look back upon to use in an attempt to potentially undermine American democracy in November. His opponents would doubtless suggest that would not be an impediment for Donald Trump should he seek to thwart democracy, for we are in the most uncertain of times here in the United States. 

Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode III

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

Episode III

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

The stay at home order has now lasted two-weeks here in Boston, and there is no end in sight. When Governor Baker announced it, the hope was that Massachusetts would be safe and sound very soon. Very clearly, that is no longer the case. Recommendations from the CDC, as well as from the governor’s office here in Boston, regarding what people should be doing in regard to public health have mounted in recent days. There remains, however, a real disconnect between the directives coming from the federal level, and from a state level by individual governors. President Trump has made statements regarding the use of face masks. His advisors are suggesting that the nation should start wearing face masks, although the president says that he won’t be doing so. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, took his aircraft and flew around the world to pick up millions of masks from China, to be distributed here in Boston and in New York City. Here in Boston there is a move towards getting people to start wearing face masks. The challenge, however, is getting hold of them. There are several weeks’ delay for these things on Amazon, so it’s all well and good saying people need to start wearing these things, but  no one is telling you where to get them, how to secure them, or what particular type you are meant to get. People are walking around wearing scarves, some are wearing what appear to be decorating masks. There is a complete lack of direction being provided at a national or local as to what the ramifications or benefits are of wearing these masks. In the initial days there were suggestions that we shouldn’t be doing so, now there are suggestions that we should be doing so. The government appears to be making things up as it goes along, so we will have to wait and see what transpires with regard to directives and the use of face masks. 

The sense of the government making things up is exacerbated by President Trump, who has suggested that he really didn’t like the idea of sitting behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and wearing one of these things. If this is all about appearances, then that seems to be rather a poor excuse not to do something. Either these masks are going to serve a purpose and will protect the spread of disease, or they won’t, and if there is a challenge for all Americans it is understanding what it is that these masks are meant to do. Are they meant to prevent the spread of the disease if you have it to other people, or are they designed to prevent you from receiving an infection from other people who may have it? At this point there seems to be a lack of appreciation as to the viability of these masks. The only people who may be benefiting are manufacturers of these things, who have seen a spike in demand and who were no doubt able to increase their prices as a result.

The debate surrounding the wearing of masks has highlighted inter-state tensions. There is, at this point, no national lockdown in place. Those that have been instigated have been issued by state governors. The lack of a national response has undermined the process due to states which are refusing to implement a lock down. Citizens can move freely from state to state, and even around the states, causing a disconnect  between the severity of the health crisis which is being addressed in many of the states, coming up against the idea that it’s somehow un-American and potentially unconstitutional to restrict the movement of people around the nation. Some organizations are seeking to ensure that their rights are not affected at this time. One of the remarkable situations we find ourselves in is that at a time when most businesses are closed, in some states certain organizations have been deemed ‘essential to the public good.’ This includes liquor stores and gun shops, so it’s entirely possible to go out, get drunk, buy a gun and shoot someone in this time of national emergency. The National Rifle Association is ensuring that America’s rights to do just that are not being enringed at this time. It is a remarkable scenario we find ourselves in that at this time, when we’re seeing millions of people being laid off, becoming unemployed, liquor stores and gun shops are experiencing a boom in sales, as people race out to make sure that they stayed liquored up and armed to the teeth.  

All of these decisions, regarding lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, the wearing of masks, and the movement of people, comes whilst the United States is, technically at least, in the midst of a presidential campaign. At any other time that would have dominated to the exclusion of everything else. Instead, the news continues to focus on the national emergency in which the nation finds itself. Bernie Sanders remains in the campaign, still desperately seeking the Democratic Party nomination, refusing to throw the towel in, although members of his team are recognizing that it really is time to do so. Nobody in the party wants a repeat of 2016, when his continued candidacy drove the party further to the left, making it difficult for Hillary Clinton to unify the party at its convention, contributing to her defeat in the general election against Donald Trump. The conventions are going to be very interesting this year because at this point it is impossible to say for certain that they will occur. The Democrats have chosen to delay their own convention, but at this point there is no way of telling if they will be able to go ahead at all, or if they need to be virtual. It seems unlikely that we will see the kind of conventions we’re used to seeing every four years, with the accompanying razzmatazz, as the parties gather to nominate two candidates whose names are already known.  

The coronavirus has caused a further breakdown in political dialogue here in the United States. The machinations behind the scenes, and the political maneuvering that is occurring, are central to how this national crisis is being addressed. You are seeing the extent to which this crisis is revealing great schisms between the two parties. We’ve seen the Republicans, eager to try to get this over and done with, to get Americans back to work, and lift these stay-at-home orders as quickly as possible, and provide a bail out to businesses. Meanwhile, the Democrats are more willing to extend the lock down for fear of exacerbating the situation, are looking to get bailout money directly to the American people and are seeking to attach longstanding party aspirations to any related legislation. There is an expectation of more money being made available and more legislation being prepared to increase public expenditure and salvage the situation, in addition to the eye watering amounts being spent in an attempt to reinforce the national economy. There is talk about infrastructure legislation going forward, which should be a key area that Democrats and the White House could agree upon, but this is Washington DC so at this point anybody knows what will happen next. 

The political uncertainty is exacerbated by the president, who continues to speak from the White House on the state of the virus, while engaging in a war of words with high-profile governors, particularly those in New York, Michigan, and California. These are all Democrat governors, and Trump seems happy to continue his war of attrition against his political opponents. There has been talk of an attempt to instigate a unified response to the crisis by Trump and Biden and that maybe the two men will speak in regard to this. There is, however, very little in Donald Trump’s history to suggest that he will give any attention to the views of his opponents, much less give them any credence. The track record of Donald Trump’s career to date shows he has a  propensity to put his finger in the air and get a sense of where the political winds are blowing and to follow that route, to make gut decisions, rather than make decisions based on the advice of experts and certainly not his political opponents. 

One of the great challenges which the Trump administration is brought to Washington DC is that it is made political bipartisanship far more complicated and difficult. Politicians have long had caustic comments for their opponents, but they tend to be forgotten once only behind closed doors. If you have not been involved with politics, run for office, or held office, and seen the political machinations that go on behind the scenes, it’s understandable why politicians might appear to be at one another’s throats all day, every day. However, relationships between politicians of different political parties is often very different than they may appear on camera. Politics is about theater, ensuring that when most politicians go before TV cameras, they draw sharp distinctions between themselves and their political opponents in order to present themselves in as good a light as possible. Once the TV cameras are switched off, however, they have to deal with their opponents, or nothing gets done. Cross-party friendships have emerged in the past which have ensured that legislation has been able to get passed. Individuals like John McCain and Edward Kennedy were able to reach across the aisle and make political deals.  It’s notable that neither of those senators are with us anymore.

Donald Trump has taken political rivalry and name calling to a new low, making it much more complicated for politicians to forgive and forget behind closed doors. He is not unique in terms of making bipartisan agreement difficult. President Obama foolishly engaged in megaphone diplomacy, speaking harshly about his political opponents with whom he needed to work to pass his legislative agenda. It was notable that when strides were taken during the Obama administration, it was all often because of the work of the vice president, Joe Biden, who worked behind the scenes to make sure that deals were struck. Politicians can talk, and shout, and scream, and stomp their feet, but if they are not prepared to recognize that politics is the art of compromise, that to get they must also give, then nothing will ever pass. Over the course of the last decade, however, there has been a growing sense by groups on the left and the right of American politics, including the Tea Party movement and radical left, that in compromise is a dirty word. Both extremes have adopted a sense of indignation and of political purity, making life very difficult in DC. To govern you need to gather in the center, since legislation needs to have general agreement. The passage of legislation, depending upon what it involves, requires either a straight majority, or in many cases a supermajority. Trying to get a supermajority in United States Senate is a difficult prospect, and you need to have a common ground approach to politics. What is need ed is what might be thought of as old school politicians who can recognize that while politics involved  rough and tumble, there is the reality of politics which takes place behind closed doors in which people can find common ground and common purpose; no side will emerge totally victorious, and that compromise may well be a dirty word in some circles, it is also a lubricant which allows for politics to move forward. Without it, as we’ve seen in recent years, nothing gets done. As long as nothing gets done the American people will continue to look aghast at Washington DC in a time of national crisis, scratch their heads, and wonder what is that these politicians are doing in their name.

Special Deal on Hillary Rising

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The Tweet That Will Be Heard Around The World

Later today, the worst kept secret in US politics will be unveiled: Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady, former Senator, former Secretary of State, will once more seek the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President of the United States.

She has been here before, of course. In 2007 she was most peoples’ expected nominee and therefore, choice to be president. Who had ever heard of this upstart from Chicago? Barack who? Never heard of him….

Some 7 years later and things are looking interesting once more for the former Goldwater Girl. She stands at a tantalizing place in her own life and in the history of her country. Unlike 7 years ago, this is undeniably her last roll of the dice. At 67, and now a grandmother, there are no more roles to play, no more election cycles to wait out in the hope of another crack at the golden ring. This is it, which is why when I have been asked repeatedly over the last 4 years, ‘Will Hillary run?’ my response has been: ‘She is already running, and why wouldn’t she? She has no where else to go, and no time to waste.’

Hillary’s opportunity in 2015 is to present the 2016 election as an opportunity to do for gender politics what Obama did for racial politics in 2008. She must make this about an opportunity to elect the first women president, not the third Bush president. In doing so, it will be fascinating to see how Hillary presents herself to the electorate. In previous campaigns she has sought to outdo her male colleagues in terms of appearance and posture: All pantsuits and policy. There are signs this may be changing. Her appearance has altered in recent weeks, and her family are currently gracing the covers of Elle and Town and Country. This is no coincidence. If Hillary campaigns as a woman, not as a politician, it will be fascinating to see if this makes her more accessible to the electorate, which was always her biggest challenge. She has the brains, but her husband has all the charm. She needs to channel as much of this as possible over the next 18 months.

Hillary’s challenge will be to overcome the mistakes of her last campaign. She was caught flat-footed by Obama’s early candidacy and by his reputation for generating a fortune from grassroots supporters (notwithstanding the far larger fortune he quietly secured from corporate America). She is clearly seeking to get out the traps early and hit the ground running in Iowa, where she will file her papers shortly. However, she must not rely upon last cycle’s technology to win next year’s election. The suggestion that she will announce her candidacy on-line, in a tweet and perhaps a video plays into the hands of those who portray her as aloof, removed from the electorate and far too much of a presumptive nominee. Retail politics is king in the primaries. If she is perceived as being the electronic candidate she will struggle and provide an opportunity for a home-grown, done-to-earth, flesh and blood candidate to emerge and inflict grave damage on her campaign. A little like happened in 1992 with a smooth, charming, ah-shucks governor from Arkansas. Who’d have thought it?

Indeed the contrast with her husband’s run in 1992 is striking. As I detail in Clinton’s Grand Strategy, Bill Clinton didn’t announce his campaign until October 1991, only a matter of months before the first votes were cast in Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, his wife is announcing her candidacy in the sun and the spring of 2015, 10 months before the polls open in the snow and ice of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Hillary’s announcement, the Tweet that Will be Heard Around The World, is her last, best shot at securing a real place in history in her own right. Not as her husbands’ wife, not as a junior senator from New York, not as Obama’s Secretary of State, but as the first Woman President of the United States. That must surely be her place in the lexicon of American politics and the journey to that auspicious place in history begins anew today….

JDB on Marco Rubio at Chatham House

Senator Marco Rubio spoke at Chatham House on December 3, firmly establishing the think tank as the destination of choice for visiting American politicians eager to establish an international reputation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Following hot on the heels of former Secretary of State, former senator, former First Lady of the United States (and Arkansas for that matter) Hillary (sometimes Rodham) Clinton, the visit of Senator Rubio marks London as the new epicentre of an emerging International Primary, designed to raise their profiles ahead of Ohio and New Hampshire.

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In a 30-minute address, Senator Rubio provided a wide-ranging vision of the future direction that US foreign policy should take, addressing the Special Relationship and Washington’s dealings with a variety of nations, leaders and locations. In a solid, workman like address, Rubio discussed Iran, Russia, China, the UK and the development of EU-US trade ties. The defence and advocacy of Liberty was at the heart of the talk and was returned to time and again as Rubio threaded a narrative of US commitments and responsibilities through a series of locals, events, and personalities.

Rubio was steadfast in his positions in regard to Iran and Russia. As a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he forecast that bi-partisan legislation would be presented as early as next week that would increase pressure on Iran, at the same time that the Obama administration is seeking a rapprochement with Tehran. Rubio remains convinced that Iran is merely using the discussions as a delaying tactic to enable it to achieve an enrichment capacity and that a nuclear empowered Iran would begin a regional arms race. Putin’s Russia also came in for heavy, repeated criticism, as the senator took issue with the manner in which it was seeking to use energy supplies to exert influence over Central and Eastern Europe, and the manner in which Ukraine was being weakened as a result.

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In response to a series of questions, coordinated with the usual grace by Chatham House Director Robin Niblett, Senator Rubio was adamant that while he believes in the concept of Medicare and Medicaid, the mandated spending programs as presently constructed are financially unsustainable. Addressing these issues, however, will require more than charm and youthful vigour, for they remain the third rail in American domestic politics. Rubio advocated the reductions in trade tariffs that would accompany the potential TTIP framework, while acknowledging that the US would struggle to accept much of the EU regulatory frameworks on international trade and commerce. Rubio declared that the United States needs a strong European Union but that it must respect the UK’s decision with regard to its continued membership.

Returning to foreign policy, Rubio was quick to dismiss talk of ‘hawks and doves’ as being an outdated division in the 21st century. He advocated the use of diplomacy, foreign aid and soft power in US foreign activities and stressed that for Americans, foreign policy was domestic policy. While stressing that he did not believe that the president was required to seek Congressional approval for a course of action, Rubio presented a concise explanation for his lack of support for Obama over Syria. As he had mentioned previously Rubio had sought US involvement for 2 years, during which he had advocated allying with moderate opposition forces that now appear to have dissipated; he opposed the limited engagement that the president had called for; and he found the plans lacking in direction. Worryingly, however, he made reference to ‘the forces of darkness and evil’, language that is all too reminiscent of a recent president whose lack of nuance was portrayed as mere naivety. This is one area where progress needs to be made in the coming months.

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This was then was a sold delivery, though not without the occasional misstep; a speech that was read, rather than delivered. It was a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, designed in part to tell an audience what they wanted to hear; a speech that quoted both Reagan and Thatcher and even made reference to One Direction.

Rubio was adamant that in a season of doubt, the United States remained vigilant and ready to lead. He noted the 6 decades of declinist talk and of the various world powers that had been predicted to assume the mantle of global leadership, all of whom had failed to rise to the occasion. With the revolution in US energy production and forecasts of its future as an energy exporter, Rubio was certain that the future was indeed a bright one.

As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a fascinating narrative and is well positioned to take full advantage of his heritage, youth, and position as senator for the key state of Florida heading into 2016. Accordingly, this visit was all about establishing international credibility and elevating the senator in the eyes of potential kingmakers in the GOP. Senior parliamentarians with whom he met were understood to have been impressed, although those who had not met with him were heard to mutter in the corridors of power ‘Isn’t he a bit of a nutter?’ Well, the simple answer is, no, he isn’t, and it is concerning that such a view was being aired so openly. Whilst the depth of the senator’s grasp of the issues was never tested, his breadth of knowledge and the span of the talk were more than sufficient.

Cuba was mentioned just once, clearly signalling that Rubio is seeking to position himself not as the Cuban candidate, but simply as a candidate who happens to be of Cuban extraction. He will, doubtless, reap an electoral windfall from the huge influx of Latino voters who are expected to form a huge voting bloc in 2016. One wonders in what capacity London will next welcome Marco Rubio to these shores?

CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY INTERVIEW WITH VOICE OF RUSSIA ON THE SPEECH

 

Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.

Overcooked Rice

So, after weeks of speculation it now appears certain that the next Secretary of State will…. Not be Susan Rice. In a surprise move the current US Ambassador to the United Nations has written to President Obama, asking that her name be removed from consideration for the position. Note that she has not been withdrawn from the nomination, as she had yet to be nominated for anything. For weeks she has been in a political twilight zone; a presumptive nominee, if you will. This is, therefore, a pre-emptive withdrawal in certain expectation of a disastrous Senate confirmation hearing that promised to pitch the White House against the forces of Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who is set to join the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee ahead of the nomination process. One wonders if this news was a tipping point for the White House and for Rice’s prospects.

This nomination process has been presented in some quarters as political posturing run amok, but it is vital to recall that the United States Senate has the constitutional authority and responsibility to approve presidential appointments of this nature and it is clear that Rice has serious questions to answer in key areas, not least of which is the debacle that occurred in Benghazi, for which she may well become the administration’s unwitting fall-girl.

Beyond this, however, profound doubts have been raised about Rice’s temperament. For someone on the apparent cusp of being appointed American’s chief diplomat to be thought of as ‘ un-diplomatic, aggressive and brusque’, as was recently mentioned on The Daily Beast, is far from complementary. Her decision to ‘give the finger’ to Richard Holbrooke has clearly not been forgotten, and even if the former ambassador is not around to remind anyone of this incident, in Washington, DC, memories linger of such incidents.

Rice’s letter to Obama this evening does not mean that she will not serve in a second term. She remains the US Ambassador to the UN and could remain in this position, or possibly be named National Security Adviser, a post that does not require Senate confirmation.

With Rice now no longer in the running for the State Department, the question remains as to who will fill Hillary Clinton’s pumps. The delay in naming a foreign policy team has been remarkable and it appears clear now that this was due to the refusal of key Republicans to countenance the thought of Susan Rice as Secretary of State. Second terms often get second-rate teams, and this could be the case again. Instead, it now appears likely that a white male could return to the role for the first time since Warren Christopher (remember him? No, I didn’t think so) stood down at the end of Clinton’s first term.

The smart money is on Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. The problem with this is that it would necessitate a Special election to replace him until the midterms of 2014 and whilst the state is heavily Democratic, Scott Brown’s upset victory following the death of Edward Kennedy demonstrates that the Democrats can take nothing for granted (unless they can find another Kennedy to run, perhaps?)

So, the shadow of Benghazi has now crept over Obama’s second term, before it has had time to begin. The scandal did not appear to influence the election result, but it has already claimed its first victim. It is worth noting that presidential scandals have traditionally occurred in the much sought after second term, and have been caused by an event in the later stages of the first term. If alarm bells are not yet ringing in the West Wing of the White House, then they should be. The second term is about to begin…It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting folks!

A Second Rate Team for Obama’s Second Term?

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term. If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s over sea’s endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shake up in personnel, and this is to be expected. What is less expected is the time that is being taken to make any such announcements.

The sudden departure of General Petraeus will present the President with an un-necessary headache as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon. The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The Key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings. The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is likely to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Where this to occur, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Where this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; The NSC is a possibility.

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed a Republican to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to chose from. Where he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

Were Obama to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity. For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

Whoever gets the nod to these top positions, however, in Obama’s second term, and with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.