A descent into caricature

Last night’s third and final presidential debate cemented Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner status in an encounter that was depressing to watch for what it said about today’s politics and the likes of Donald Trump.

The headlines in America have focused on his answer refusing to commit to accepting the result. Having lived through Brexit, seen the triumph of the ‘we’ve had enough of experts’ school of campaigning, and the rise of a social media debate on both left and right that has no problem saying black is white, the Republican nominee reached for all the same conspiracy theories, attacks on supposed media bias and the smears of opponents that we are well familiar with.

Clinton had two very strong moments last night. The first was contrasting her thirty years in public service with the last three decades of Trump’s life, pointing out that while she was in the situation room as Osama Bin Laden was killed, he was presenting Celebrity Apprentice.

And the second was precisely getting to him crying foul on whenever he does not get his way, down to his Twitter rants when that very same show did not win an Emmy due to bias in the judges. Now, given Angela Lansbury has been nominated 18 times and never received a single award, I might be willing to accept the last one.

But, of course, the broader conspiracy theory stuff is designed to achieve two things: show that despite being a billionaire property developer from New York, he is not part of the establishment. Second, and more worryingly, it is about motivating some of the more extreme elements of society to get behind his campaign, unleashing forces most campaigns would reject.

There is no doubt Trump has improved across the three debates but he has ultimately been exposed across the 270 minutes of prime time television to the extent that, despite a strong first couple of segments last night, by the end he had almost merged into Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live caricature.

But while Paddy Power may already be paying out on a Clinton victory, her Brooklyn-based campaign team will be determined to ensure there is no complacency and for good reason. Clinton is now in the carrying-a-glass-vase-across-a-polished-floor phase of the campaign. One slip could be fatal. Although Clinton’s poll leads in the battle ground states are consistent, they are often in polls that have a margin of error of as much as four points.

Turnout, as ever, will be crucial. Expect to see repeated messages about how just a few dozen voters not turning out in a bunch of precincts could make all the difference.

Clinton’s campaign team will keep a tight discipline on where the money, surrogates and troops are deployed to ensure she crosses that winning post of 270 electoral votes, hopefully picking up a couple of additional states like Arizona and North Carolina from Obama’s 2012 result.

The advantage for the Democrats is that there are more possible routes to that victory line. For Trump, he has a few must-win states like Florida or Ohio that if he is not picking those up, there is no viable path to the White House.

Optimistically, this is where the lack of ground game from the Trump and his reliance on a Republican machine that is in reality more set up to defend the House and Senate will let him down

Pessimistically, we know that he has no trouble controlling the media megaphone – despite his claims of bias – and the one message he did get the better of Clinton on during the debate was the section on open borders and immigration. His hope is keeping the 2012 Romney voters and adding on those traditional post-industrial states with exactly the same sort of messaging that saw the Leave campaign win over Labour voters in their millions.

One thing last night’s debate confirmed is that he does not really know how to talk to anyone other than angry white men. From his answers on a women’s right to choose and the supreme court through to his only use of Spanish being to say there are a lot of ‘bad hombres’ in the country, Trump is unable to grow his voter pool enough.

In less than three weeks, this will all be over. Voting has already started in many states. Hopefully the result will be one Trump does not like but has to accept. Until then, we have to hope that the political unpredictability of the last two years has not made it all the way to determining the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

Eyes on the prize

The Democrats understand the power of the bully pulpit

—Hillary Clinton entered the Democratic presidential nomination race as the presumptive nominee, with huge poll leads, only to see a combination of attacks on her record, some campaign missteps and a rival senator able to mobilise the grassroots to take it all away from her.

That was 2008. And, despite the wobbles of recent months, it seems difficult to see how Clinton will not be her party’s candidate for next November’s election.

Clinton’s inevitability has been her strength and weakness. Last time it left the space for Barack Obama to be the insurgent. Her liberal rival, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has tried to make Clinton’s Iraq war vote the wedge issue that Obama did in 2008, but it does not have the same resonance now as before.

This time she has managed to find a more compelling argument for her candidacy, combined with strong debate performances, getting the better of the Republicans at the Benghazi hearings, and showing humour playing Val the bartender on Saturday Night Live to calm nerves and put herself in pole position.

She has also talked more about being the first woman president, which she seemed oddly reluctant to do at the start of her 2008 run.

What is clear from the Democrats is that having Barack Obama in the White House has reminded them winning does make a difference. It has provided the ability to shape the national conversation, and they want to keep hold of the microphone a little longer.

There is one thing for Democrats to reflect on and that is the lack of depth of their bench going into this election. We can debate their merits or otherwise, but the Republicans have more than a dozen candidates who think they are able to compete for the White House. The Democrats are already down to three before the first vote is cast next February.

It is true that Clinton’s candidacy has scared a lot of people off. No doubt Joe Biden as the incumbent vice-president would have had the best claim had she not run.

Indeed, the former Delaware senator and most famous Amtrak passenger, making the daily commute back to his own state, must feel personally aggrieved that he was never really spoken of as a successor to Obama, despite Biden serving his boss loyally and, on some issues, such as equal marriage, providing a welcome nudge to the commander-in-chief.

Had he jumped in during Clinton’s email-dominated summer then his candidacy might have had some traction this time. But, having run unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008, a third shot with a less than clear route to victory was best avoided.

This lack of depth is also partly because the Democrats have struggled to win enough governor’s mansions in recent years. One is the third Democrat still in the race, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, but the point of his candidacy remains unclear.

O’Malley won high praise as a modernising mayor and governor, was a key figure in the third way Democratic Leadership Council group, but he is not even carrying that flag in this race and it is difficult to see him lasting much beyond February.

None of this means that Clinton is able to take her victory lap just yet. The primary process means that Sanders could still chalk up early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, due to a combination of the process and his local appeal.

Deep down, however, Democrats know that Clinton has the best chance of keeping the Oval Office and recognise that, whatever their desire for America to be a country that will elect a self-defined socialist senator from Vermont the president, they know that just ain’t so.

The Democrats at least look like they have kept their focus on winning a general election, not just picking a candidate to make them feel good – something parties forget at their peril.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

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.

Book Review: Hard Choices

How do you write a memoir that you want to be both a bestseller and yet not have any political hostages to fortune? ‘Relatively easily’ would seem to be the answer if you are Hillary Rodham Clinton whose new tome, Hard Choices, pulls the curtain back on her time as America’s top diplomat, even if some of the self-censorship leaves the reader wanting more.

This book does not reprise all her personal story; that task fell to her first volume of autobiography, Living History. Instead, this is more a foreign policy textbook full of facts and analysis of over 100 countries visited and nearly one million miles flown. It opens with the clandestine discussions that led to the former presidential primary candidate serving in the administration of her erstwhile foe. Although the challenges of the primary season are hinted at, they are not discussed in detail, in keeping with much of the memoir that seems to conclude that much is best not said at this time.

Clinton writes passionately about the rebuilding of America’s reputation overseas, the pivot to Asia, her personal pride in opening up Burma and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as her determination to use the bully pulpit of the post to promote women’s rights. There is enough policy detail and colour on how government works as well as anecdotes on everything from life on the road to pantsuits and scrunchies to keep the reader engaged.

However, while Living History did not give us any really new insight into her personal relationship with Bill Clinton, Hard Choices does not reveal much about her political one with Barack Obama. The line about them meeting to talk about her becoming secretary of state as being ‘like two teenagers on an awkward first date’ either does not speak highly of her adolescent years or glosses over the real nature of their relationship as victor and vanquished. Loyalty, not just to the 44th president but to his staff, is one of the hallmarks of the book. There are moments when disagreements are hinted at, but this volume is certainly a long way from the settling of scores or career-rebuttal of recent memoirs such as that by the former defence secretary, Robert Gates.

And that is the basic problem with this book. This is essentially the second volume of an expected trilogy. It is a well-written account of her time as secretary of state and a very impressive application to be president. But it does not have the whodunnit reveal at the end. You just know the story is not over, and the way the book is written makes you think that the author does not believe it is either.

Whether this bothers you will partly depend on your enthusiasm for Clinton to have another tilt at the presidency, and determine whether the gaps in the story are an understandable necessity or a frustrating example of political caution.

So, while there is much to commend in Hard Choices, we will just have to wait for the concluding volume, ‘Madam President’, to give us those candid insights you just wish there were a few of in this volume.


This article originally appeared on Progress Online.

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.

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