Quick Thought: “Done, done, done”

Those were Ann Romney’s words to NBC news yesterday, when asked if her husband Mitt might consider a third Presidential run in 2016. The whole family, she says, is “done” with Presidential bids.

2012 Republican Presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Governor, and 2002 Winter Olympics organiser Mitt Romney.

2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The fact that her comments are headline news, not just in the United States, but in Britain as well, shows just how seriously a third Romney bid has been taken. It’s rare for a candidate to be able to make so many serious attempts. John McCain had two goes, narrowly losing to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries before securing the nomination eight years later, and of course, we’re all expecting a certain Mrs Clinton to make a second attempt. But candidates and would-be candidates who have already missed out on the nomination, or the Presidency, aren’t usually considered as seriously. The reason being, of course, that a candidate passed over once by voters isn’t likely to win on the second or third attempt. Just ask William Jennings Bryan.

There’s a certain logic to that line of thinking. Nowadays, a Presidential candidate can expect his whole life history to be dissected by the media. Unpleasant things will be blown up by opponents, and generally by the time the election rolls around, the voters know everything there is to know about the candidates. That’s why I’ve repeatedly said that Senate incumbents in the upcoming mid-terms are in serious trouble if they’re not at least close to 50% in the polls – voters already know them, and in the case of a Presidential candidate, if more than half the voters decided they weren’t qualified to be President, it’s probably safer for the party to look elsewhere.

Mrs Clinton may discover, to her campaign’s peril, that after a quarter of a century in the public eye, people have already made up their minds about her and her Presidential qualifications. It’s easy for a relatively unknown candidate to spin themselves, but far, far harder for someone who’s already been through all of that to change voters’ perceptions.

Mitt Romney would have been a great President. His economic background was just what the country needed in 2012. But voters were swayed by the empty charisma of Barack Obama, and I suspect Mitt’s chance to govern from the Oval Office has passed. However, with GOP heavyweights like Rick Perry and Chris Christie being battered by scandals, perhaps there’s still a chance. Perhaps Mitt’s not quite “done, done, done” just yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

Spoiler Alert! UKIP, the Tea Party and Electing Conservative Candidates

The incredible rise of new conservative movements, both in the USA and in the UK, should be a positive thing. Tea Party affiliated groups and the UK Independence Party have energised conservatives at every level of politics, bringing a much-needed boost to conservatism as a movement – but are their successes actually counter-productive when it comes to electing conservative candidates?

The Republican Party will have to make a net gain of six seats in the US Senate if they want to be able to effectively reign in Barack Obama after almost six years of executive overreach. But as I noted last time, they’re having to play defence in Kansas and Kentucky, as well as unseat several incumbents who, for now, still have a lead in the polls. But what if they didn’t need to make a net gain of six seats? What if they only needed to pick up four? Let’s think back to the Senate races in 2012, where two Tea Party-backed candidates managed to lose what should’ve been win-able races in Indiana and Missouri. These aren’t the only races where Tea Party-backed candidates have been accused of “spoiling” what should’ve been GOP wins, but they’re certainly the most high-profile.

What were at best ill-considered remarks about rape – always a highly contentious topic for politicians to talk about – saw Akin and Mourdock lose voters and ultimately cost the Republicans two Senate seats. The national attention their comments attracted also had an impact on the national Presidential campaign, though I don’t believe it changed the ultimate outcome of the election. But if those two seats had been won in 2012, GOP resources could be much more laser-focused this time around. They could have cherry-picked the races they wanted and thrown money and high-profile campaigners at them, instead of having to divide those same resources. A net pick-up of four Senate seats is easily do-able, and even the most rabid Democrats privately concede that they expect Republicans to make precisely such a gain. Those two extra seats would’ve also been a safety net of sorts, in case Kansas or Kentucky turns out to be a defeat on election night. But it wasn’t to be. If the Republicans find themselves one or two seats short of a majority, Akin and Mourdock will hold some responsibility.

In the United Kingdom, conservatives face a similar situation. The meteoric rise of UKIP, who placed first in elections to the European Parliament earlier this year, has left establishment conservatives facing quite a conundrum going into next May’s General Election. Just as backing Tea Party candidates in America has undoubtedly led to some Democratic Party victories, UKIP has taken away valuable votes from the Conservative Party. Despite their promises that “voting for UKIP means getting UKIP”, they run the risk of letting a Labour government in by default. Splitting the right-wing vote next year is not an option. UKIP cannot realistically expect to win more than a dozen or so seats, but as they tend to take a disproportionate number of votes from the Conservatives, the British people may find themselves with a government that they didn’t want.

Grass-roots movements are a good thing. Getting more and more people interested in politics is a good thing. Getting conservatives energised and excited is absolutely a good thing! But it has to be done in a sensible way. Targeting incumbents who aren’t “conservative enough” is silly, and if it means letting a liberal win, then it’s counter-productive. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now – the most moderate conservative is still a heck of a lot better than a liberal majority. Conservatives need to stand together when it comes to elections. There will always be disagreements, but when it comes to polling day, rallying around the best candidate with the best chance of winning is what it takes to become the governing party. That’s the ugly truth of contemporary politics.

In Britain, it’s something UKIP need to keep in mind as well. David Cameron’s Conservative Party has promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU – one of UKIP’s key issues. Instead of opposing him, they should jump on board and work with the Conservatives to make certain that it happens. By putting up candidates against Conservatives, they risk splitting the vote and letting Ed Milliband’s Labour Party in through the back door. Milliband is a horrible, conniving little man who betrayed his own brother and sold himself to trade unions in order to win the party leadership. He is no statesman, and he absolutely must not be allowed to become Prime Minister. He would be disastrous for Britain.

So there we have it. Divided we fall, as the saying goes. There is a time to stand on principle. There is a time to attack incumbents who have been more inclined to line their own pockets than represent their constituents. And there is a time to ask searching questions about where conservatism as a movement is headed. But with so much at stake, conservatives in the USA and the UK cannot afford to let petty divisions keep them from government. With elections looming, we must show a united front and rally behind candidates and leaders who can make a difference. Sacrificing a majority, losing the chance to govern because we as conservatives can’t unite would be catastrophic. All conservatives who believe in conservative values must be willing to put factional differences aside for the greater good. UKIP and the Tea Party have to understand that, but so do “establishment” conservatives. If a so-called radical wins, then the establishment has to work with them. There has to be compromise on both sides, or conservatives will never be able to govern, and people will stop trusting us to govern. Some individuals and some factions have to be aware of their role as “spoilers”, but the establishment has to be willing to compromise and work with these people.

In my opinion, both sides are guilty of failing to work together. Establishment Republicans frequently work to undermine Tea Party candidates, and Tea Party groups in turn often attack moderately conservative “establishment” figures. Both examples of in-fighting are equally bad. Both can lose elections. In Britain, UKIP and the Conservative Party attack one another, even though many of their goals are the same. In the case of next year’s General Election, they need to work together, because it should be obvious that Britain’s best chance to have that coveted referendum on the European Union is to see a Conservative government.

So here’s my proposal, to Republicans and Conservatives, UKIP and Tea Party groups. Work together. Build bridges, form alliances, make electoral pacts if you have to. Save the attacks for your real opponents, and remember that electing someone you only half-agree with is an awful lot better than seeing your opponent easily win against divided opposition. Standing together is the only way to win.

The Balance of Power in Washington

With the mid-terms little more than three weeks away, people across the political spectrum are beginning to wonder how the balance of power will shift as we move into the final two years of Barack Obama’s Presidency. The outcome is remarkably difficult to predict this time, and, as we stated last time, it may well come down to a couple of seats, or even a single seat determining which party controls Congress.

Precedent can be helpful when it comes to predicting election results, and this time, previous results indicate that the Democrats are the ones who should be worried. For all of Obama’s Presidency to date, the balance of power in DC has been, to a greater or lesser extent, in his party’s favour. Even after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the Democrats maintained a stranglehold on the Senate and were able to use the divided Congress to their own ends. Because of Obama’s unwillingness to compromise with Republicans over the past five-and-a-half years, he would find himself in an incredibly weak position if Republicans should manage to take control of the Senate. George W. Bush was called a “lame duck” in the aftermath of the 2006 mid-terms, which saw Democrats take Congress. Bush was in a similar position to Obama today – languishing below 40% in the job approval polls, and then, as now, the President’s policies and actions since taking office were very much at the forefront of voters’ minds.

Tying a candidate to Obama and his failed policies is precisely what Republicans are trying to do nationwide, because they know it’s a sure vote-winner. Conversely, Democratic candidates are running away from the President as quickly as they can. Alison Lundergan Grimes is a prime example. Running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Grimes refers to herself as a “Clinton Democrat”, and refused to say whether she even voted for Obama in 2008. For a Senate candidate to refuse to admit she voted for the man who has been the Democratic Party’s de facto leader for six years is evidence of just how far Obama has sunk in the popular imagination. The only way Democrats can hope to ride out this potentially disastrous election is to distance themselves from him as much as possible.

Even states which voted comfortably for Obama in both of his Presidential campaigns are seen as being “in play” for Republicans this time around. New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is trying to unseat Jeanne Shaheen, is a prime example. Brown is trailing by only a couple of points in most recent polls, while Shaheen has been consistently below 50% and is getting dangerously close to 45%. Incumbents who struggle to break 50% are in serious danger of losing – and it’s Shaheen’s voting record which has been crucial. Walking in lock-step with an unpopular President is costing her votes. New Hampshire elected her on Obama’s coattails in 2008, but they haven’t actually elected any other Democrat to the United States Senate since Fred H. Brown in 1932 (John A. Durkin was appointed to the Senate after a contested election in 1974, but he had actually lost by a margin of two votes).

So what does all this mean for the country? The short answer is “it depends”. If Republicans manage to make a net gain of six seats in the Senate, then everything changes. Obama becomes a lame duck, with substantially reduced power on the domestic front. The Republicans’ agenda will be able to make it through Congress to land on the President’s desk – no more will “Dirty” Harry Reid be able to stall or outright refuse to vote on legislation which has passed the House. Congress will be back to fulfilling its Constitutional role as the legislative branch of government, checking the power of the executive. Whether that means Obama will stop trying to do an end-run around the Constitution and legislate from the White House remains to be seen, but one thing is clear – if Republicans take the Senate, Obama will have no choice but to negotiate with them. Campaign-style speeches to hand-picked audiences of supporters won’t cut it when there’s work to do.

It’s possible, though, that Republicans will fall short. A defeat in Kansas or Kentucky would be a very damaging blow to their hopes of a Senate majority, and while Scott Brown is closing the gap in New Hampshire, he’s still behind in the polls. It’s already accepted by most sensible election observers that the Republicans will make gains in the Senate, but their gains still might not be enough to win a majority. Six seats may not sound like much, but it’s still no easy task. In such a case, the balance of power will remain more or less unchanged. If the Democrats hang onto the Senate – even if by a single seat – Obama will be able to continue to act in his final two years as he has been doing since the 2010 mid-terms. Nothing will change.

American politics has rarely been so bitterly divided as it is today. Divisions have always existed, but I would argue that the bitterness and the mutual dislike on both sides is the worst it’s been since the end of Reconstruction. Obama must accept some responsibility for this, but so must Congressional Republicans. Both sides have tried to use the balance of power in Washington, unchanged since 2010, to further their own agendas – often at the expense of ordinary Americans. In a way, the divisions in DC reflect the divisions in the country at large. This is a shocking legacy for a man elected on a mantra of “hope and change”. A Republican majority in the Senate won’t fix this overnight. If Obama resists, these divisions might even get worse in the short term. But one thing is clear about the balance of power in Washington – it is unsustainable. Something’s got to change.

Rumble in the Jungle (Primary)

Elections in the UK are not quite such drawn-out affairs as their American counterparts. Votes are counted on Thursday night (elections in the UK are always held on a Thursday) and usually by Friday lunchtime, a new government has been formed. The process is over with quite quickly. That’s why it always struck me as rather odd that my American friends vote in November, but the new Congress doesn’t take over until early January. The reason is, of course, because the rules governing these things were written in an age before 24-hour news and cross-country flights. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it took time for Congressmen and Senators just to get to DC. Britain, with no written set of rules governing such things, can get its new Parliament started far more quickly.

However, there are advantages to this waiting period. In 2008, the Minnesota Senate election was far too close to call, and the counting and re-counting dragged on for a good long while. And can you imagine the chaos there could’ve been in 2000, had the new President been obliged to take office the day after the election? It took weeks to recount the votes in Florida! This waiting period between the election and the start of a new Congressional term is a good thing. But after the upcoming mid-terms (which are now less than a month away), we may find an uncertainty about the country’s political future that hasn’t been seen in fourteen years.

Republicans could take back both houses of Congress. They’re all but guaranteed to hold the House, and need a net pick-up of only six Senate seats. It’s do-able, and it would see the first serious check on Obama’s runaway executive power since he came to office. But will we know about it come the morning of November 5th?

The race in Louisiana, where Democrat Mary Landrieu is facing a very tough re-election battle thanks in no small part to Obamacare, is very close. There’s a very good chance that there will be a run-off in December, and that could mean that the balance of power in the Senate, and thus the entire political direction of the country, is left undetermined for a month after polling day.

Mary Landrieu, Democratic Senator from Louisiana - but for how much longer?

Mary Landrieu, Democratic Senator from Louisiana – but for how much longer?

Both parties need to prepare for such a possibility. The Democrats know they’re going to lose out come November 4th, they’re just hoping that they can contain the losses so they don’t lose the Senate. If it comes down to the wire, that December run-off in Lousiana is going to be fascinating to watch. “Dirty” Harry Reid and co. will throw everything they have at the race to avoid defeat, but the polls are already against them. Landrieu barely breaks 40% according to the most recent polling data, and adding up the numbers for her Republican challengers sees her losing out to whoever breaks through the jungle primary. It will be a hard campaign, and it could just be the deciding factor in determining the balance of power in the Senate. For an incumbent, such bad poll numbers spell disaster. Landrieu is a known factor in Louisiana. She’s peaked. Between November 4th and December 6th (the date of the run-off) she won’t pick up many more voters. Most people have already made up their minds about her – and they don’t much care for what they see.

Given the task facing the GOP, and the threat to their incumbent in Kansas, there’s a strong chance that there could be only a single seat determining the balance of power in the Senate. In such a case, the Louisiana run-off will be vitally important. November may well be a very interesting month.

Quick Thought: India and Space Exploration

Today, India announced that its Mangalyaan probe had successfully entered orbit around the planet Mars. This achievement sees India’s space program become the fourth to send an object to the Red Planet, after Russia, Europe, and the United States. Congratulations poured in from all quarters – including from NASA – and many have praised the relatively low cost of the mission. To put the approximate $75 million cost into context, the space-themed movie Gravity cost more to make!

However, there’s a serious point which should really be addressed. Scientific achievement aside, India is not really a nation one would expect to be engaging in space exploration. A country with rampant poverty should surely have higher priorities than a space probe, and many better ways to spend $75 million. Public health in India is a nightmare, thanks to a lack of indoor plumbing across the nation. Many Indians are forced to go to the bathroom in the fields, or worse, the streets. And overcrowded cities and slums are a breeding ground for disease and bacteria.

If it were some other nation, I’d be saying it was $75 million well-spent. But India really has far more important things to do before it can worry about having a space program. It might be an emerging economy, but until the government there gets poverty, health issues and social problems under control, it will never fully “emerge”. A space program is a luxury, something for wealthy nations to pursue after working hard to eliminate poverty and other problems. Even the United States has scaled back its own space program, diverting funds elsewhere in the wake of the financial mess of 2008.

While scientific endeavours are always well-intended, one suspects a great many Indians will feel that their government should have higher priorities.

Water in Detroit

Detroit has been in the news recently for one of its “controversial” new policies. Protesters have been up in arms over the city’s decision to deny water – the most basic of human needs – to some families. When you put it like that, it sounds bad, right? But the people in question have lost their access to water for one very simple reason – they didn’t pay their bills.

We’re not talking about first offenders here. These are people who have missed multiple opportunities to pay for the water they’ve used, leaving the city with no other option. After all, the city, rather like many of the citizens it’s coming under fire for cutting off, is completely broke. I’m honestly not sure what these people expected to happen. If you don’t pay your bill, how can you possibly expect your services to continue? If I didn’t pay for my gas, electricity, water, telephone line, etc. then I know full well that the consequence of that is that I would be cut off. Personal circumstances are irrelevant. If you don’t or can’t pay, you can’t keep getting the service for free, no matter how essential.

Water may be a basic human need, but many people here in the West don’t seem to understand the first thing about the infrastructure required to pipe water into homes. As late as the 1950s, water on tap was by no means a universal thing. Until then, in communities not based around a river or lake, a well was the only way to get fresh water. Connecting every individual household in a city to a massive network of water pipes was no mean feat, but across the Western world, that’s what governments did. Sadly, this infrastructure has since been neglected, and in many places – like Detroit – it has fallen into disrepair. Fixing and replacing damaged pipes and pumps keeps the water flowing, but it’s hugely expensive. That’s why we pay for our connection. We’re not paying for the water itself, but the expense of cleaning it, filtering it, storing it and piping it to our homes. If you don’t pay, the city can’t afford to keep giving you water. Detroit is worse than broke, and for basic services like water to continue to function, everyone must continue to pay. If you can’t (or won’t), then dig a well or use a communal pump. The city has no obligation to pipe water to your home if you’re not prepared to pay for it.

There’s no way around this. The infrastructure needs to be maintained. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of those finding themselves cut off. However, everyone has to understand that these services cannot be provided free of charge. Even if you were to scrap water bills entirely, the city would simply have to take more in taxes to compensate. And if you can’t afford to pay something as basic as your water bill, I suspect that you can’t really afford a tax hike either. For some people, particularly those struggling with massive mortgage repayments, the best option (or rather, the least bad option) may be to file for bankruptcy. Many people have already been forced down this route since the financial crisis, and while it may seem like a terrible thing, ultimately those people who do so emerge from bankruptcy debt-free and ready to start over. Losing one’s home is horrible, but if you’ve got to a point where your water has been cut off, perhaps bankruptcy is the way to go to improve things in the long term. Of course, people need to make these decisions based on their individual circumstances, but given the real mess that the city of Detroit is in, don’t expect to see the water policy reversed. It may seem unfair, especially to the ordinary citizen who did nothing to contribute to the financial mess, but Detroit is a prime example of what can happen when government spending and borrowing gets out of control. Ordinary people are the ones who end up suffering the most.

The city of Detroit should consider very carefully where it makes cuts in expenditure. Minimising hurt to citizens has to be a priority, but in cases like this, there may be no alternative. Crumbling infrastructure and crippling debt make for a painful combination, and if Detroit is to survive in the long term, then very difficult decisions need to be taken. One hopes that it’s not a model the rest of the country will follow, but as the national debt approaches the $18 trillion mark, things aren’t looking good. The best way to stop citizens losing their access to basic services is to ensure that no city, state, or federal government ever again gets so out of control that it’s forced into this position. The whole nation can learn from Detroit’s mistakes, and ensure they are never repeated. Though that will be little comfort for those people who have to get bottled water from food banks and shower at the YMCA.

Rouge Polls and Over-Promising

So it’s all over. Scotland has decided, and independence has been rejected. However, the cost to the United Kingdom, and in particular to Wales, Northern Ireland, and England, will be very high.

As stated last time, the referendum has opened up divisions not just within Scotland itself, but within the whole of the UK which will take a very long time to heal. But that’s not the worst of it. The main political parties in the UK all promised that a sweeping range of new powers would be transferred to Scotland in the event of a “no” vote. Now that the voting’s over, they will have to make good on that promise, and it won’t be a smooth road.

In the early days after the Scottish National Party won in 2011, nobody knew for sure what form their promised referendum would take. Some suggested that there should be three options presented to voters: full independence, the status quo, or something referred to as”Devo Max”, meaning that the devolved Scottish parliament would receive even more powers. Of the three options, devo max was the most popular in poll after poll, but eventually the Scottish First Minister and British Prime Minister agreed that the referendum would only be about independence. If this were a ploy on the part of British PM David Cameron, it would seem to have paid off. It was only when the opinion polls narrowed a couple of weeks ago (or rather, when one poll seemed to show the “yes” campaign with a slight lead) that Cameron and others in Westminster essentially put devo max on the table. Their pledge to the Scottish electorate changed the referendum from being a choice between the status quo and full independence to a choice between devo max and full independence. This was a fight they knew they could win, because a majority of Scots favoured more powers for their devolved parliament, rather than independence.

However, the panicky reaction from Westminster to a single opinion poll highlights the dangers of these so-called “rouge polls”. In the Scottish referendum, the “no” campaign had been consistently ahead, and while their lead had narrowed in the preceding weeks, every other serious opinion poll put them ahead. And there’s another factor to consider, too. It should have been clear to anyone with a background in British politics that someone answering “don’t know” to the question of Scottish independence ten days out from the vote was unlikely to vote “yes”. These are people who were still considering Scotland’s future, but history tells us that the “don’t knows” in any referendum or election usually end up going with the safer option – in this case, a “no” vote. So the reaction from the Westminster politicians was essentially an overreaction. The strength of the “no” vote, winning by a 10% margin, shows that their promises of increased devolution may have marginally changed the scale of the victory, but not the outcome of the referendum. By panicking, they have now committed themselves and future governments to devolving more powers to Scotland, damaging the careful balance of the United Kingdom in the process.

For years, there has been a growing sense particularly in England, but also in Wales and Northern Ireland, that Scotland gets a disproportionately large share of money per capita, as well as better quality public services. This will only worsen with the promised new powers, and of course, if the new powers fail to materialise, the SNP and others will force another referendum. The British government is caught between a rock and a hard place.

A union is only sustainable when there is a perception of fairness between all members. Alex Salmond and his cohorts not only divided Scotland, but the disarray they have created is now a threat to the unity of the UK, and this threat, thanks in no small part to Westminster’s overreaction, has not abated even now that the results of the referendum are known. This morning’s result may ultimately be seen as little more than a Pyrrhic victory for the Unionists in the long term. I would not be at all surprised to see an independent Scotland within my lifetime now. Alex Salmond may have come closer to his goal than he realises – the divisions within the UK mean that the cost of keeping the union together in the long term are now increasingly unsustainable, especially for those in England.

It will be some time before we can fully assess the scale of the damage to the UK. Scotland is firmly split into two camps, and those who supported independence will continue to make their voices heard. The “no” campaign failed in its fundamental message – by saying that “the case for independence has not been made”, they may have won on the day, but they have left open the idea that the case for independence can be made. Alex Salmond will almost certainly not be the man to make the case, but it seems inevitable that someone will. Scottish independence may have been delayed, but the divisive campaign and its equally divisive aftermath seem to all but guarantee that it hasn’t been defeated. Only time will tell.