Trumped: America in a Time of Corona

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 1

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 outbreak of the coronavirus has revealed a near-total disconnect between the federal government in Washington, and the individual state administrations, run by the governors of each individual state. Life has taken on the guise of a civics lesson, played out in real time as the President squares off against individual governors for reasons that have less to do with the virus and more to do with raw political power and the small matter of the 2020 election cycle that we are technically in the middle of, but which everyone seems to have totally forgot about. 

The initial weeks saw a pretty consistent position being adopted by Republican and Democratic governors across the nation, realizing the importance of trying to clamp down on the virus as soon as possible. States began issuing lockdowns, effectively placing a curfew on citizens, except for going out for exercise and to get necessary items. This resulted in the effective closure of American civil society in the hope that the virus may dissipate in a matter of months if not weeks. This had been expected for several weeks here in Boston before it was eventually announced, with friends sending alerts suggesting its imposition was imminent. Clearly, the state administration here in Massachusetts was hesitant to impose such a draconian measure, but when faced with the fact that it had been already been implemented in neighboring states, its enactment became a foregone conclusion.

The decision to do so by a growing number of governors across the nation placed them at odds with the White House, which has routinely provided a very different message. From the start of this crisis, Donald Trump has called for markets and supplies to be re-opened, a remarkable stance to adopt at a time when states across the nation began tightening their grip and closing down, exacerbating a clash between the federal and state governments. A schism has also been evident within the administration, between individuals working at the White House at an advisory level who seem to understand the importance of containing the virus, and others around the president who are seeing his political fortunes collapsing. The president is clearly trying to put a spin on the situation, having touted the success of the American economy since the morning of his election. To see those gains wiped out in space of two weeks must be terrifying as he looks ahead to the November election. 

There is a great deal at stake here, not least of which is the concept of continuity of government: The president and vice president are routinely in meetings together, placing both men in jeopardy, and endangering the continuity of government in the United States. Vice President Pence is theoretically in charge of the coronavirus task force, but right now he doesn’t appear to be in charge of very much at all. Both he and the president have taken test that have come up negative, but they have had contact with members of Congress and key White House advisers who have subsequently come down with the virus. It seems clear that the virus will eventually penetrate the White House; there are reports that Secret Service agents have come down with the virus. It seems clear that from the president down, there is a lack of seriousness being adopted at the White House with regard to the potential to transmit this from person to person due to physical proximity. This is most evident at the White House press briefings. The White House is a very small building, and the West Wing complex within which the most senior members of the administration work or meet, is remarkably small. The press briefing room used to be the White House swimming pool. If you were devising a modern press advisory area from scratch, you wouldn’t use the space because it is simply not up to the standard or dimensions required in the modern era. Yet the administration is routinely cramming very important people with very important decisions to make into this very tight space. When it subsequently emerges that these people have come into contact with people who have developed the virus, it seems all the more remarkable that there has not been a greater attempt to separate these people.

The politics of the virus are remarkable to consider. A consideration of its geography is revealing: if you look at a map of where the virus was initially impacting the United States, its focus was in Blue, heavily Democratic states. Those areas most affected are dominated by major cities that are home to large numbers of solid, Democrat voters, large urban areas on the northeastern seaboard corridor, between Washington and Boston, and on the West coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco. If you were a Trump supporter in the Midwest, or anywhere between the Appalachians and the Rockies, you might have looked at this and thought, what virus? Initially, at least, the virus found focus in California and here on the northeastern seaboard, so it will be interesting to see the extent to which Donald Trump’s supporters view this as something that is happening to ‘The Other America.’ 

The geographical focus of the virus will also present a challenge to the administration in terms of its financial response. Not all areas of the country appear to have been impacted, or to be in equal economic need of a bailout. The government is planning to distribute money directly to all American citizens below a certain economic level. That’s a fascinating development, considering that great swathes of the nation appear to be an untouched directly by the coronavirus. Yet the virus has seen the government force organizations to effectively close down, force the closure of cafeterias, and restaurants, causing a knock-on effect. While the coronavirus is affecting parts of the nation directly, a further indirect impact is affecting businesses and livelihoods. The great fear, just as with the Great Depression, is that while most Americans don’t own stocks, a collapse in the American stock market will impact all business, leading to permeant closures and declining business confidence, impacting 401K pension funds and causing long-lasting detrimental impact to the American economy and American Society. 

Much will need to be learned from the reaction to the last financial crisis in 2007/2008. Then, it was believed that while Wall Street was bailed out, Main Street was left in the lurch. A conflict is playing out in real time in halls of Congress over the financial response to adopt: the initial bailout package failed to pass due to a lack of Democratic support, since it was believed to offer too much to the banking sector, and not enough support to average citizens. There’s going to be more debate, but the Republican leadership will need to acquiesce to Democratic demands, and create a more equitable financial package, because they are nowhere near the numbers required to get this through the United States Senate. 

Throughout the history of the American presidency, the presidents that are remembered are often those who rose to the occasion during a crisis: JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. They used great rhetoric to speak to the nation: Franklin Roosevelt’s first inaugural when he made it clear that all America had to fear was fear itself; John F. Kennedy in his inaugural, and his address to the nation during the Cuban Missile Crisis, offering calming yet decisive words. Donald Trump appears to be failing this test of leadership. He has not made effective use of what Theodore Roosevelt called ‘The Bully Pulpit.’ For someone who prides himself on his communication skills and ability to connect with the American people, Trump has not used the mechanism of the White House to his advantage. At this point to is difficult to think of anything Donald Trump has said that’s been positive and beneficial. Even when he is presented with softball questions by the media that would allow him to calm the nerves of anxious Americans, he instead uses them as an opportunity to attack the medium. You have to wonder about who is advising him, and why this approach appears to be his natural inclination. He feels the need to go on the attack all the time, when this really is a tremendous opportunity for President Trump to be presidential and distinguish himself from his Democratic opponent in November.

He has great tools available at his disposal, including the ability to address the nation from the Oval Office. When he has done so, however, it has proved calamitous, as he has stumbled over his delivery, apparently unable to read from his own script speech which had been cobbled together at the last minute, without any effort to adequately weave together important ideas or concepts. His briefings from the press briefing room are not an ideal setting for a president: this is a small, cramped room that has been stripped back to let fewer members of the fourth estate in to mitigate the impact of this virus. Every time the president has spoken in recent weeks has been accompanied by a drop in the stock market and a decline in support and enthusiasm. He is surrounded by people who are trying to give him the best advice, scholars, academics, medical professions, yet he seems to be unable to get his head around the seriousness of this. Part of the American president’s job is to offer encouragement, but there is a sense that the president either doesn’t get it or is underplaying the severity of this crisis.

The longer this drags out, the more politically damaging this will be for President Trump, as people start to raise serious questions about whether more could have been done earlier. You’re starting to see a state by state recognition that there needs to be a two week clamp down on the movement of people, which see the national borders sealed in large part. We have already started to see the clamp down on movement within the largest states, but we are still to see that absolute directive come from the White House. One will have to draw conclusions as to why that is, but you can see great hesitancy on the part the president to instigate a national lockdown for fears of a political pushback and electoral blowback. Whatever happens next, one thing is for certain, the Age of Trump will now be forever defined, at least in part, by the devastating impact of the Coronavirus and his administration’s response to it.

Round One to Mitt..

Earlier this week I wrote for the Commentator, “In the coming days the world will witness whether Mitt Romney has what it takes to take on a sitting president and emerge unscathed. If he can do so, and land a punch or two, his odds for victory in November will improve considerably and motivate his legions of supporters. If he proves unable to do so, then it will finally be time for the obligatory Plump Female to begin her low, mournful torch song lamenting Romney’s beleaguered campaign.”

Well, the Fat Lady has been forced to postpone her outburst, at least for now.

After weeks of anticipation the 2012 presidential debate season began in earnest last night at the University of Denver. With both sides having sought to lower expectations to such a degree that an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time would be sufficient to declare one pleased with the result, the gloves finally came off as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney finally met on stage. It is an oft- forgotten fact that the two men at the centre of the election will only meet three times during the entire election process.

As the debate focused on domestic policy it was perhaps Mitt Romney’s best opportunity to take the fight to the incumbent. With unemployment standing stubbornly at around 8% and the national debt upwards of $16 trillion this was always going to be the one debate during which Obama may have been on the defensive. That being the case, however, few could have expected to what degree this would be the case. Not usually one to be seen as lacking in confidence, Obama appeared to be in something of a daze last night, as though he couldn’t decide which Obama to be.

Ahead in the polls and enjoying a post-convention bounce, Obama really just needed to keep calm and servive. Fundamentally he didn’t need to debate Mitt Romney. However, having been derided for his dependence on an autocue, the president’s inherent flaws were on display in front of an audience of millions. Alternating between a professorial approach that sought to lecture the American people, and an altogether more contrite and subdued performance, the impression was of a candidate uncertain of his place. One minute he was hectoring the anchor, (who, it must be said, did a poor job of moderating the event) the next he appeared servile and demure in the gaze of his opponent. He failed to raise flaws in the Romney manifesto, the issue of Romney’s apparent dismissal of 47% of the electorate or to rebut allegations made on stage. In short, the president was badly off his game.

For there can be no doubt that this was Mitt Romney’s night. Following an initial concern regarding the haltering tone of voice, Romney quickly found his stride, his tone and his message. This was an excellent performance that deliberately took the fight to the incumbent and made a valiant effort to reclaim the middle ground of American politics, where this election will be decided. Romney changed the dynamic of the race by throwing caution to the wind and chosing to take the battle to the president. He dominated the stage and the debate. By directly challenging Obama on the economy, on jobs, and on healthcare he left the president nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide.

This was not the Mitt Romney of the primary season that appeared on stage last night. This was the Mitt Romney that was Governor of Massachusetts, the Mitt Romney that introduced what became an early model for Obamacare. Conservative Republicans may not like this, but the Democratic leadership should fear it. If Romney can continue to stress the moderate message and bi-partisan track record of achievement, he may yet begin to chip away at the independent voters who will decide this election.

Debates usually favour the challenger and this has proven to be the case once again, but will Romney actually benefit? Races traditionally tighten in the last few weeks, a period we are now entering. It may be too late in the process to secure a Romney victory, especially as anything up to a third of all votes have already been cast. However, his efforts will enhance the pressure on the Obama team and increase the likelihood of mistakes. If the polls start to narrow in the coming days then Romney can take great credit for a commanding performance in Denver. This could position him well for the debate on foreign affairs, a topic the president is so eager to pivot to that he introduced it in his closing remarks.

Indeed, the closing remarks of the candidates were revealing in their own right. Obama, master of the autocue, forget to address the audience at home until the last seconds of his remarks, having focused his response directly to the moderator. As a result, he appeared distracted, unfocused and befuddled. Romney, in contrast, directed his remarks straight down the camera lens to the millions of voters whom he badly needed to connect with. He gave a direct and forthright statement and of the two candidates, was the only one to thank the voters for bothering to tune in.

It may all be too little, too late for Romney, but he appears determined to go down swinging. The odds and the polling still favour the incumbent. But as the American Ryder Cup team found out at this weekend, it ain’t over, until it’s over, and right now, this race is far from over. Indeed, last night’s debate may have blown it wide open for the first time!

Paul Ryan as Romney’s VP Running Mate

It’s always nice to be awoken with breaking news from leading broadcasters. So it was this morning when I was informed of the breaking news by my contacts at Sky. Within hours I was live on set and considering the implications of Ryan’s place on the Republican ticket.

I will be writing more on this topic later in the week but for now, enjoy my appearance on Sky News from this morning….

 

 

The Ghost of Presidents Past: Bill Clinton and the 2012 Presidential Election

Having been duly chastised for speaking his mind four years ago, Bill Clinton is now being utilised by President Obama’s re-election campaign. President Clinton is appearing in campaign commercials, lauding Obama’s prowess as Commander in Chief and hailing his ability to finish the job that Clinton himself had started in the late 1990s, the killing of Bin Laden.

In 2008 he was the staunchest supporter of Barack Obama’s archrival, Hillary Clinton. The former president was roundly and ridiculously attacked for suggesting that Obama’s candidacy was a joke and for expressing the opinion that Obama’s much vaunted opposition to the Iraq War was a fairy tale. In the process he learnt a lesson that has become apparent in Europe: “Thou Shalt Not Speak bad of Obama for fear of being misconstrued…”

It appears that in politics, if you wait long enough, you see everything and that the troubling details of reality are forgotten, with only myth surviving. In the 1992 presidential campaign both the Democrat and Republican candidates made reference to Harry Truman and attempted to cast themselves as his political standard bearer, albeit for differing reasons. In addition, wave after wave of politicians from all walks of life have attempted to benefit from the legacy of the Kennedy bothers. This election season the ghost of presidents past appears to be Bill Clinton.

Of course the link between Obama and Clinton is an interesting one. Recall that Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in 2008, only to see her one shot at the presidency usurped by Barack Obama, whose career she has sought to nurture in its early stages. The Clinton’s combined sense of unease at this is understandable and forms the basis for most of the Game Change book, as opposed to the HBO movie, that chose to ignore the Democratic infighting. Equally infuriating to the Clinton’s was the way in which their supporters chose to jump ship to Obama’s banner long before it became apparent that he was guaranteed victory. No defection was more symbolic than that of the Kennedys, whom Bill had courted assiduously during his time in office. Ultimately, Hillary and many former Clinton era officials wound up working for Obama in the White House, in a move that should put pay to the debate to the actor/agency debate in international relations theory.

However, Bill Clinton is also being touted by the presumptive Republican Mitt Romney, who is contrasting Clinton’s New Democrat approach with the seemingly Old Democrat mentality of Barack Obama. Speaking in Lansing, Michigan, Romney said of the contrast between Clinton and Obama:

“President Obama chose to apply liberal ideas of the past to a 21st century America. Liberal policies didn’t work then, they haven’t worked over the last four years, and they won’t work in the future. New Democrats had abandoned those policies, but President Obama resurrected them, with predictable results.

President Clinton said the era of big government was over. President Obama brought it back with a vengeance. Government at all levels now constitutes 38% of the economy, and if Obamacare is installed, it will reach almost 50%.”

President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we knew it. President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state to all Americans, with promises of more programs, more benefits, and more spending.”

This is the same Bill Clinton that was impeached by the Republican controlled Congress; the same Bill Clinton who couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for his first budget and the same Bill Clinton who failed to receive over 50% of the popular vote in either 1992 or 1996. Now, apparently, he is Mitt Romney’s poster boy for sensible government!

All things considered, one can see why Romney would contrast Clinton’s time in office with Obama’s. Consider the economic record of the United States during Clinton’s tenure and the fact that by the 2000 election, the debate was about what to do with the budget surplus! It really is remarkable that Obama has not sought to make more use of Clinton during his first term in his efforts to get the economy back on track.

Of course, Bill Clinton is the ex-president who never really went away. An adroit campaigner, Clinton has never strayed from the limelight and appears incapable of yielding the floor to a new generation of politicians and to be honest, why should he? Over ten years after leaving office, Clinton still remains the Democrat’s most potent campaigner in chief. Clinton’s abilities were often overlooked, or dismissed as being evidence of a Slick Willy mentality, but he was and remains a political mastermind, capable of guile and cunning and a far more able politician than the current occupant of the White House.

Much is made of Obama’s rhetorical capacity, but his stumbling syntax when faced by a malfunctioning TelePrompTer reveals a different story. Contrast this with Bill Clinton’s State of the Union Address in 1994 when he was forced to ad-lib for 20 minutes due to the wrong speech having been loaded into the TelePrompTer.

The irony in all of this is incredible. In 20912 both Republican and Democratic candidates are utilising Bill Clinton in a positive light on their campaigns. In 2000 Clinton’s own vice president, Al Gore, refused to adequately utilise Clinton or even his own record in office and ended up loosing the election by a couple of hanging chads in Florida.

It will be interesting to see how Romney’s remarks play out in Republican political circles. It is likely that they will reinforce the widely held view of Romney as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that despite Rick Santorum’s middle of the night ‘endorsement’ he remains the “worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama” in 2012.

JDB to address the Henry Jackson Society in Cambridge tonight

I am delighted to announce that I will be addressing the Henry Jackson Society members at Cambridge University this evening.

I am honoured to have been invited by Jonathan Bronitsky and Brendan Simms to discuss U.S. politics with such an august group of people.

My talk, entitled, Process, Primaries and the Presidency, will address the events so far and consider the candidacies of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, as well as Newt Gingrich. I will assess the Republican chances for success in November and the likelihood of Obama’s re-election. It is likely that foreign policy will be addressed so discussions of the forthcoming meeting between Obama and Netanyahu and the state of U.S-Israeli relations may be tabled.

The event is at 5.30 this evening at Pembroke College.

Update!

I thought it was all over for the night, but I was wrong! I will be on the BBC News Channel this evening just after 20.00 London time to discuss the Santorum Sweep.

I will also be on the Voice of Russia on Friday and chairing a session at the American embassy on Friday afternoon featuring Congressmen Rick Boucher (D-VA) and Mike Oxley (R-OH).

JDB on ITalkFM tonight

January is becoming a busy month! After several appearances on Sky News and the BBC, I’m returning to the airwaves this evening with the irrepressible Richie Allen on ITalkFM.

We’ll be discussing the State of the Union address from last night, which could, don’t forget, be Obama’s last…… No, I don’t think it will either, but you never know!

ITalk FM can be accessed on-line and I encourage you to listen live if you can: http://www.italkfm.com/

 

The Clash in the Carolinas

South Carolina saw the first shots fired in the American Civil War and whilst the latest Republican Presidential Debate wasn’t held at the famed Fort Sumter, it may as well have been for the clear divisions that it threw up within the Republican Party between a moderate and a team of rebels all seeking to lay claim to the proud conservative heritage of Ronald Reagan.
The hours heading into the debate were particularly tumultuous. A mere twelve hours beforehand former governor Mitt Romney had been cruising; the declared victor in Iowa and New Hampshire (an historical first for a non-incumbent presidential Republican candidate) and was expected to win Saturday’s South Carolina Primary and in the process finally see off any serious competition for the nomination. Sure, the primaries and caucuses would drag on until June, but realistically, a Romney victory this weekend would effectively seal the deal.
And then a series of interesting and unrelated incidents occurred…
For weeks many of us have been stating the blindingly obvious; namely that Romney has failed to gain the support of up to 70% of voters in the last two elections and that the polling in South Carolina had him similarly placed. However, with a field of other candidates remaining in the race, the Romney opposition was divided. This field thinned slightly earlier in the week with Ambassador John Huntsman’s decision to get out and back Romney. However, on Thursday afternoon, Texan governor Rick Perry followed suit, choosing instead to endorse Newt Gingrich. Suddenly, Gingrich surged.
At the same time, word leaked of a pre-recorded interview that Newt Gingrich’s second wife had conducted for ABC News in which she referred to the Speaker’s request for an open marriage that would allow him to see his then mistress and now latest wife.
Compounding this was the breaking news from Iowa, where it seems that eighteenth century voting methods no longer suffice (strangely enough). Having declared Mitt Romney the winner by a paltry 8 votes in the immediate aftermath of the caucuses, the final (?) tally was revealed to put Rick Santorum ahead by some 34 votes, raising the memory of Florida 2000.
The upshot of all this? Romney, the former man to beat, was now stripped of his win in Iowa and sinking in the polls to a resurgent Newt Gingrich, whose own reputation was being torn to shreds by a vengeful wife, whilst his latest spouse stood by his side. As the debate approached, its potential importance mounted and one wondered what would happen next?
The debates got off to an explosive start. The big question was always going to be as to when the issue of marital fidelity would be raised, and the answer was, immediately. Straight out of he box moderator John King of CNN asked Gingrich if he would like to address the allegations. “No, but I will” he responded and took the opportunity to attack John King and CNN for having the nerve to ask him such a question. It really was all about Newt for much of the debate from then on.
Interestingly, the expected fireworks between Newt and Romney failed to develop, instead Rick Santorum, after a VERY shaky start, attempted to take the opportunity to seal the deal with conservative voters and attacked Gingrich whenever possible, going after his record as Speaker in particular, suggesting that ‘grandiosity has never been a problem’ for Gingrich. At times he spoke through clenched teeth and appeared desperate to remember his script and adhere to his message. Fundamentally, Santorum did himself no favours when he acknowledged that being in he last four was an achievement, a statement that spoke to the heart of his dilemma: He’s not a winner. He also had a complete inability to look his opponents in the eye when attacking them, making him look weak, feeble and cowardly. He must surely be the next candidate to drop out and leave the floor for a straight square-off between Romney and Gingrich.
The bias against Ron Paul in terms of coverage continued unabated, which the candidate noted at one point. When he could get a word in edgeways Paul remained as committed as ever to delivering his thoughts and perspectives in his own unique manner, something he admitted could do with some fine-tuning.
With all of the focus, it really was Gingrich’s night and he didn’t disappoint. More a showman than a politician, one expected to start seeing rabbits come from up his sleeves as he pulled one set of figures and historical facts out after another, referencing his books and time in office and work with the mighty Ronald Reagan.  It was clear that Gingrich had a full mastery of the issues and a calm presentation style that would be a benefit in a general election. His weakness of course, is self-embellishment, something Romney highlighted in reference to his virtual exclusion from the Reagan diaries. He also failed to convince in terms of immigration when he suggested establishing citizen’s panels to screen illegal immigrants to decide who could stay and who should be expelled.

The big loser was Mitt Romney who appeared smug and glib and time and again was forced to pivot to prepared answers in response to tough questions. On more than one occasion he appeared to indicate his fatigue, not physically, but with the annoying matter of having to go through the motions of these tiresome debates with candidates he believes he should defeat without trying. The debate was balanced and smart at times, and certainly did not descend into the sort of name-calling and adherence to talking points that occur so often in US politics. It was well moderated and well conducted, reflecting well on all concerned. Surprisingly, perhaps, there was no single knock out punch landed. If anything, there appeared to be more animosity between Gingrich and King than between the candidates, following the heated opening exchange. It is almost certainly  the opening exchange for which the debate will be remembered, which is a shame as the Speaker’s private life really had very little impact beyond this.

What was missing? Only little things like foreign policy, Iran, national security, financial policy…
Did the debate tell us anything? It confirmed Ron Paul’s tenacity and determination to adhere to his core beliefs and Libertarian sentiments; Santorum had a faltering start, took the fight to Gingrich but appeared to falter under the gaze of Mitt Romney; Gingrich appeared large, but smart and a master of the issues and gave a very focused closing statement; Romney came across as smug and lacking in the depth required for the job he is once again seeking and singularly failed to ask for the voters to turn out and support him on Saturday. You know what they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…. Saturday will be fascinating.

Don’t Dream It’s Over…but it is for John Huntsman

So in the aftermath of the New Hampshire Primary, a candidate has finally realised that they are NOT going to be President of the United States and appears set to throw in the towel. Who is this wise sage you may ask? Newt Gingrich? Rick Santorum? Ron Paul? (The list could go on and on and on…)

No, the answer is John Huntsman, someone who has struggled to gain traction, votes, or even name recognition in some regions and who is all set to withdraw and endorse his fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.

Huntsman had been championed in some quarters as a serious candidate this year, but things went wrong from the start. His great unveiling ceremony, designed to replicate a similar address by Ronald Reagan so many decades ago, was ruined by unsightly boats in the background that blocked the view of the Statue of Liberty. Republicans remained suspicious of a candidate who until recently had worked for the enemy, sorry, the President of the United States, as ambassador to China (and who could therefore also speak a foreign language, admittedly, not French, something else that was a clear negative). Finally, he was a Mormon, which Mitt Romney has discovered, is hardly something to engender ‘raptures’ amongst the Christian Evangelicals that Republicans will need to woo in vast numbers if they are to reclaim the White House this year.

Huntsman had elected not to campaign in the Iowa Caucuses, remarking that ‘they pick corm in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Alas his extensive efforts to woo the voters of the Granite state came to nothing, as he polled just 16.9% and came in third behind Romney and Paul. Seriously, whoever advised his campaign that betting huge in Romney’s neighbouring state was the way to win the nomination should never work in politics again. Indeed, this campaign season has been beset by terrible political decisions; Sarah Palin’s dithering; Romney’s shoe shine antics and various utterances regarding firing people; Rick Perry’s ENTIRE campaign and Huntsman’s all or nothing focus on New Hampshire. Considering that Perry has made a similar effort to focus on South Carolina (where he is currently polling just 6%), his continued viability must surely come into question.

Huntsman’s expected departure will doubtless be the first of several such decisions, as candidates look at the vast costs involved in running primary campaigns in both South Carolina and Florida, the latter of which in particular requires huge advertising budgets just to stay in the game. As the inevitable begins to set in, expect to see similar announcements between now and the end of the month. Such a move will help to solidify the conservative opposition to Romney, as this vote will no longer be splintered between the various candidates who are NOT Mitt Romney. This development has, however, come a little late in the game to be truly effective although it may allow Newt Gingrich to remain in the race, if he is able to muster their support.

Ron Paul is likely to be unaffected by this decision since his core supporters appear utterly unimpressed by the Republican mainstream candidates and would, in all honesty, be advised to form a third party Libertarian movement. They won’t for many reasons. Not least of which is that to do so would simply split the vote on the right and hand the election to the Democrats. Their best bet is to wage a Pat Buchanan-esque rearguard action and to ensure a prime time speaking slot at the convention and a say in defining the platform for the fall. Of course, in 1992 Pat Buchanan ensured that his voice was heard loud and clear and it was his remarks, rather than the candidate’s (a chap named Bush) that resonated in the ears and minds of American voters that fall…. as they queued to elect Bill Clinton. Such is life!

Barack Obama: Cutter in Chief

If there is one simple rule that all Democrats need to abide by in an election year it is this: Thou shalt not appear weak on national security. It was a shock therefore, when President Obama announced cuts of $487 billion over ten years to the US defence budget, just eleven months before polling day.

Now, Obama doesn’t need to seek re-nomination and he can stand back and smile as the Republican go through the motions of 50 primaries to eventually select the one guy who has been the front-runner all along. However, it seems very strange for a Democrat to cut defence expenditure in election year and thereby open himself up to the easy accusation of being soft on defence and anti-military, especially when he has never served in any capacity.

The president has made references to fiscal prudence to cut federal expenditure and the national debt, currently running at eye watering levels. But this money will not be saved or used to pay of the debt; instead it will almost certainly be redistributed and spent on domestic programmes. The cuts announced so far amount to a 10-15% cut in the Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the basis that people and their families are expensive. Rather than investing in manpower, 80,000 troops will be cut over ten years, along with what is being referred to as ‘outdated air systems.’ The growth area will be in non-manned technology. That’s drones for the uninitiated.

There are international implications for all of this, since the UK is awaiting delivery of US fighter jets to launch from our as yet un-built aircraft carrier(s). If these get axed as part of the cuts, then the already laughable series of events surrounding the deployment of the UK’s carrier will only continue, as it will be an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to deploy, making it rather more difficult for Britannia to lay any claim to rule the waves.

It is vital to place these cuts in context. The US is not packing up its many tents and withdrawing to a fortress America. This is not Ron Paul’s wildest dream come true, after all. In ten years, after these cuts, the US defence budget will still be larger than that inherited by President Obama and will still be larger than the next ten largest defence spending nations combined. Thankfully (!?) the budget will increase with inflation. So that’s ok!

What is likely to be particularly contentious is the new focus of US foreign policy. Since he arrived in the White House, there has been speculation that Obama was seeking to focus on Asia and the Pacific. In the past three years we have seen his efforts to do so bear little fruit, with what appeared to be a decision to recognise the inevitable and to continue the Special Relationships America enjoys in Europe. However, this announcement makes it clear that the United States intends to refocus its efforts on the Pacific and on the challenges it faces in that region.

It is easy to forget here in Europe that the US is a Pacific power not just an Atlantic power and that it is equally clear that current threat predictions stem from the east, not the west. But this heavy-handed declaration of intent is tantamount to sabre rattling. One wonders when American leaders will wake up to the way in which they un-necessarily provoke negative reactions in other nations and their respective leaders?

There is no doubt that after a decade’s worth of increased defence expenditure caused by the attacks of September 11 a reversion to peacetime expenditure was inevitable and logical, but the timing of this announcement raises a serious question as to whether this is driven by defence needs or budgetary necessity? Also, announcing cuts whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Iran and China and presumably North Korea appears to be contradictory, and risks inflaming the situation. Targeting the Asia-Pacific region and cyber warfare is a red flag in Beijing and a direct challenge to the developing Chinese navy and their anti-ship weaponry.

The cuts also end the Pentagon’s much vaunted ‘two war concept,’ which was being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the switch to the Pacific and away from Europe, we had better hope that this is the right decision and that no historic powers decide to rearm in the face of growing austerity at home. The decision to reduce manpower is also intriguing considering the clearly stated focus on the emerging threat from China. Figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reveal that in 2010 Chinese had 2,285,00 active service personnel, 800,000 reservists and 1,500,000 paramilitary, making a total Chinese military capacity of 4,585,000. The same figures for the United States reveal 1,468,363 active servicemen, 1,458,500 reservists and 11,035 paramilitary, making a total of 2,937,899. Go do the math. The US better hope that when it comes time for a conflict in the Pacific, its much vaunted unmanned aerial technology is able to prevent China from deploying its army of over 4 and a half million.

Of course, history reveals that such cuts will be reversed if hostilities were to break out, with a massive ramp up in defence expenditure. The risk is that this would be a reflexive action that could be too little too late. The president announced the cuts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon, the first time that this has happened, whilst surrounded by his top brass. Obama is clearly determined to put his stamp in the announcement and demonstrate the support he has in the chain of command. Only time will tell if those who are saluting him today will be voting for Mitt Romney in November.