It’s not logical, Jim

Sometimes things happen in politics to question one’s very sanity, the rules by which you have always thought things operate. One such moment is Donald Trump’s rise in America.

The night of president Obama’s re-election I wrote for Progress to say that surely now the Republican party would have to realise that there are not enough angry white men to win them the White House and they should probably stop hating women, gays, blacks and Latinos.

This was not exactly a stunning political insight, but one of basic maths. Now was the time for the GOP to moderate their tone on immigration, and stop getting into a core vote strategy on wedge issues such as equal marriage and abortion.

The right is normally far more ruthless about winning power than the left, so even if these were not positions they agreed with, they could at least agree the electoral benefit in moderating their tone to deliver a right wing agenda – much as David Cameron has done in the United Kingdom.

Sometimes political parties decide they want to make a point more than the traditional considerations of how to win an election such as picking a candidate with broad appeal, experience and policies to match.

Today’s Republican party has reached such a place, with the leading candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson, making, by what would be the usual rules of politics, enough gaffes to see them back at their non-political day jobs.

Instead that very lack of experience, of playing by the rules, of campaigning in the traditional way seems to be the wind beneath their wings. GOP activists seem so mad at the current crop of Washington politicians that they are willing to think the unthinkable.

The only time America has selected a president without government or elected office experience it has been a war-winning general as in the case of George Washington, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant or Dwight D Eisenhower.

Logically between now and the conclusion of the primary season Donald Trump will make one insult too many and the Republicans will call on someone like Florida senator Marco Rubio to step forward and take the fight to Hillary Clinton. But as time goes by that moment still has not come despite the Trump gaffeometer being off the scale.

This whole article could be filled with offensive statements from the billionaire property mogul and reality TV star but let’s take just a couple of the most recent ones, namely that following the Paris attacks Muslims should have special ID cards, or that he heard thousands of Muslims cheering the fall of the twin towers – a claim rubbished by both media and politicians.

Voters are picking Trump because he is not the traditional political candidate, and moderate politics is failing to meet the challenge. Trump can promise to expel 11 million illegal immigrants, and questions of cost and practicality are irrelevant to those who are voting for him.

The establishment choice to beat Trump, Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the 41st and 43rd president has certainly failed to meet the challenge. The nature of primary politics is yet again skewing the field but even that fails to excuse the failure of the moderates on the GOP side.

The Democrats also flirted with the traditional left debate of principles versus power, but they at least seem to have come down on the side that thinks winning elections is better than losing them. True, Hillary Clinton is no shoo-in. No party has held the White House for three terms since world war two, other than Bush Sr in 1988.

But deep down, Democrats know that Hillary Clinton has the best chance of keeping the Oval Office in their hands and recognise that whatever their desire for the Vermont senator to be a credible general election candidate, he just isn’t.

The primary process means that Bernie Sanders could still chalk up early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, where a combination of the process and his local appeal could provide a couple of bumps in the road for Clinton. But what this requires is for Team Hillary to hold their nerve and know that as the race goes on they will prevail.

So what if? What if the Republicans really do end up picking Donald Trump as their nominee? Surely, logic dictates he cannot win, that Hillary Clinton will be able to build a coalition of mainstream and minority interests to win the White House. But whoever said politics was logical.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

After Obama

In this article, I examine the names in the frame for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. 

November’s midterm elections in the United States generated bad headlines for the Democrats because the loss of the Senate means Barack Obama will struggle to get any legislative governing done in his last two years in post, short of wielding his veto pen on various Republican attempts to roll back his agenda thus far.

But the midterms also represented an organisational and talent setback at the state level that could make the 2016 fight a whole deal tougher for the Democrats, losing governor races in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. Indeed Democrats now only control 17 of the 50 states and none of the significant battleground states such as Iowa, Florida or Ohio.

That means fewer Democrat hands on the organisational levers of power and fewer politicians able to build a profile to be Obama’s successor.

Contrast that with the Republicans who have a bench of over a dozen governors ready to run for the White House.

The Democrat bench is much more dominated by former or current senators from Hillary Clinton herself to John Kerry, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren or Al Gore.

With Washington politics having such a low standing with the public, the ultimate insiders of the Senate are always going to find it a tougher sell with the public.

As for sitting vice-presidents, prospects do not look good either. The bad news for Joe Biden is that when George HW Bush won in 1988 he was the first incumbent to win the White House in over 160 years.

And for Clinton – or any Democrat – history also shows that in seven of the last eight presidential elections the other party won after two terms of a president, with Bush the exception there too.

Historically Americans prefer governors, from Bill Clinton to Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan to Franklin D Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson to George W Bush. Indeed no governor has lost a race this century. That is where the Democrats look weak.

The governors in the frame are: retiring Maryland governor Martin O’Malley but he could not get a Democrat elected to replace him; Colorado governor John Hickenlooper who was barely re-elected and Democrats lost the US Senate seat there; 76-year-old California governor Jerry Brown who ran and lost against Clinton back in the 1990s; or New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

The precedent of Obama in 2008 and John F Kennedy in 1960 as senators making it to the White House are not bad names to follow, but both faced challenges from GOP candidates who were even more Washington insiders – long-term senator and sitting vice-president John McCain and Richard Nixon respectively.

Although all the commentators think Hillary Clinton will win if she runs, this is to ignore not just her own loss to Obama in 2008 but the history of presumptive nominees often failing. Obama, Carter, Kennedy, McCain, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Mitt Romney were all in one cycle or another the underdog for the nomination they went on to win.

Even among Democrats who want Hillary Clinton to win there is no desire for a coronation.

And although there are various online campaigns, from New York mayor Bill de Blasio through to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, the only candidate who has formally shown their hand is Navy veteran and former Virginia senator Jim Webb who has take the first step of an ‘exploratory committee’ to decide if he is formally going to run. This follows the standard candidate stuff of a worthy book launch and tour earlier in the year to raise his profile.

There will be different motivations for those who take up the challenge. First, there will be those who will genuinely believe they can win. And they can take some encouragement from the history of presumptive nominees – not least Clinton herself in 2008.

Second, there will be those who run not to win but because they are after the vice-president spot or a senior cabinet spot themselves. Given his experience, a good run and then dropping out to endorse the winner could likely see Webb end up as the next defence secretary.

As ever with political predictions, you never know what is around the corner and the commentator consensus in 2008 was that Clinton had a lock on the nomination. It will be that thought as well as the desire to finally break that glass ceiling of American politics that will be on her mind as she decides if she is ready for another run.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

Déjà-vu all over again: Middle East talks restart amidst low expectations

Déjà-vu all over again is an old John Prescott joke, but it seemed like an appropriate headline for my latest article for Progress about the Middle East, as the Israeli and Palestinian delegations sit down to dinner this evening in the ornate splendour of the eighth floor of the State Department.

Defying high expectations to provide Palestinians with the dignity of statehood, or Israelis with security and safety, is not going to be a challenge facing this latest diplomatic effort. Indeed, simply keeping the parties talking for longer than the short few weeks that the last abortive attempt managed in September 2010 will be seen by some as success. And that was before the tumult of the Arab Spring, including the chaos in Egypt and carnage in Syria. For US secretary of state John Kerry, success will mean resolving the core paradox between the negotiating room and the facts on the ground, keeping the process secret, and managing to keep the parties talking when the inevitable bumps in the road occur.

Secretary Kerry cannot be faulted for the personal vigour with which he has pursued this issue since taking office in January, working closely with Tony Blair. From Washington to Rome to Jerusalem, the two have repeatedly debated, discussed and decided how the old challenge of matching the aspirations of the negotiating room with the reality on the ground can be matched.

So what reason is there to believe this time may be different? The millions of Israelis and Palestinians, who would be the principal beneficiaries of any deal and who remain committed to a two-state solution but have lost faith in their political leaders, will not be sitting by the television waiting for a breaking news whoosh to indicate a deal.

That is no bad thing. Low-key talks, with the different parties not testing their ideas in the media, may well frustrate the media and those from the international community not in the room, but could probably be the best way to ensure the full potential of two viable states is realised.

Today’s meeting is therefore a welcome start. Only when we see the talks happening at a leadership level between prime minister Netanyahu and President Abbas should we start to think this isn’t just another episode in a long-running serial with a plot we’re all too familiar with. But in the meantime we should neither allow the cynicism of past failed attempts nor the weight of expectation to derail what will always be a very delicate starting point.

You can read the full article for Progress here


US elections: the morning after the night before

President Obama’s emphatic second term victory makes history in many ways, but the real legacy of last night is the opportunity to embed progressive change in America.

Before you think I’ve got high on the fumes of victory or had a few too many cocktails at Obama HQ, the challenges are obviously still great. America remains a divided country, as the closeness of the popular vote shows. The House stays Republican, so therefore does the deadlock.

But anyone who saw Karl Rove’s meltdown on Fox News last night will know just how much defeating President Obama meant to the right.

Defeat would have meant 2008 could have been written off as a blip, a post George W Bush quirk that had no significance after all.

Sure, Obama would still have been the first black president, but on the substance, the notion of hope rather than fear, the politics of optimism and inclusion, would have been defeated.

Now Obamacare is secure. Some House Republicans will no doubt spend time attacking it, but with the Senate remaining Democrat, any such moves will continue to be futile.

But one crucial element of the presidency isn’t just the legislation you pass, it’s the tone that can be set from the bully pulpit of office. And that’s how a second term can also embed change, even if the legislative route remains challenging.

As President Obama said repeatedly on the stump, he believes ‘no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter who you love, you can pursue your own happiness and you can make it here in America if you try.’

It’s that social change where the nature of the national debate is felt. Just compare the ballot initiatives of 2012 with 2004.

Marriage equality was supported in referendums in Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland – the first time the law has been changed by a vote of the people rather than decision by the courts or state legislature. And by electing Tammy Baldwin to the Senate, Wisconsin has returned the first openly gay member of the US Senate.

New Hampshire voters were responsible for another first: the entire Congressional and Senate delegation are now women. It was also a treat to see the two Senate candidates who had made the most egregious comments about women’s rights, Todd Aikin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) both lose their races.

But, here’s the problem. Even today’s papers are speculating on who the runners and riders are going to be in 2016. Obama will be hoping now the campaigning over, he will actually be able to get to do some governing.

So, for his second term, Obama needs a defining narrative of what he wants to use the next four years for. This will be his best defence against claims of being a lame duck president as soon as he in inaugurated next January.

One that manages expectations, that acknowledges change will be incremental, but still shows leadership at home and abroad on the economy, immigration, education, equality and a foreign policy.

It’s a daunting agenda. But as we know, winning sure beats the hell out of losing.

PS My prediction for Obama’s total in the electoral college was 303 or more. Florida may provide us with the ‘or more’, but one thing is certain: fortunately it doesn’t have the significance of my first election night in the States, standing in the rain in Nashville, not knowing what on earth would happen next. Little did we know.

Not enough white men: an existential question for Republicans

Now Mitt Romney’s defeat is certain, the Republican party will have to face up to their existential problem: winning votes among Latinos and reforming their position on immigration.

With this year’s GOP platform taking a more extreme position on immigration than even the modest reforms President George W Bush tried and failed to pass when he was in office, a Republican victory will remain elusive without a fundamental policy change.
Of course, one of the Republicans who gets this – and who many outside the Tea Party see as the future for the GOP – is President Bush’s brother Jeb. Among immigration moderates there is a real hope that the Bush brand will have recovered enough for him  to run in four years’ time.But the Republicans have a deep bench, and need to take advantage of that choice to have that fundamental debate about their future they have avoided for too long.Meantime, the only logical conclusion from the 2012 election is that even if the Republican party can’t embrace immigration reform ideologically, they should do out of simple maths. Demographics have shored up states like Nevada, Colorado and Virginia as swing states. In four years, Arizona could well be in that category, and in a couple more cycles, so too could be Texas.

Unless the Republicans recognise there just aren’t enough white men to win them an election and they need to broaden their current coalition, they are doomed to further defeat.

You can read my full article for Progress here


Remembering Philip Gould, election nights and floral shirts

I’m in the United States for my fourth presidential election in a row. After disappointments Nashville and Boston, it’s back to Chicago for a second time. And although the euphoria might not be the same as four years ago, the final result will be.

But as we wait for the results, there is a poignancy to being here on Philip Gould’s anniversary. As has been said by so many, he was so much more than a pollster. He was a friend and mentor, and just such a decent person, which is all to rare in the skulduggery of politics.

He is much missed and you can read more about my many election night memories of Philip on the link below.

You can read the full article for Progress here


A fool’s game: predicting an Obama win with two weeks to go

Ever since Henry Kissinger’s announcement of a peace deal in Vietnam just before the 1972 presidential election, politicians have lived in fear of the infamous ‘October surprise’. For Democrats this year, that surprise arrived in spades with the first presidential debate in Denver, which saw a race that had been looking predictable thrown a ‘curve ball’.

In an article for Progress magazine, I’ve spoken to pollsters from both sides to throw caution to the wind and predict an Obama victory on November 6th. The reason that any doubt remains is the Barack Obama’s enigma: while he is undoubtedly the best public speaker of his generation, the president is not a natural populist. And that is a problem in a polarised nation where subtlety will struggle to win through.

The Zen-like calm he exuded in the primaries when 20 points behind Hillary Clinton freaks people out. And now, Obama’s style as president, while praised by academics as truer to the vision the founding fathers had of the office, has infuriated many on his own side with a real lack of ‘red meat’ politics.

But just as he triumphed over Hillary, Democrats will hope the October surprise has passed and, as the president is freed from the White House in the campaign’s closing days, voters will remember why they loved him the first time around and ensure that second Obama term progressives so desperately want.

You can read the full article for Progress here