Sunday, November 05, 2006

US Mid-Term Elections 2006 in Prospect

‘I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I’m not satisfied either. And that’s why we’re taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting tactics across the country to meet the changing threat.’ George Bush, 25th October 2006.

“In America when faced with difficulties, they tend to say ‘the situation is serious but not hopeless’ while we tend to say, ‘the situation is hopeless but not serious’”. Ian Hislop, BBC, Radio 4, 28th October, 2006.

On Saturday morning, 28th October, the former ambassador to USA, Sir Christopher Meyer, presented a radio 4 programme based on the West Wing, asking why such a reverential and optimistic series would be unlikely to be made in UK; just as Yes Prime Minister and The Thick of It could not realistically be made in the US. Ian Hislop made a shrewd point when he said that USA is a country created by idealists a few centuries ago while we are an older, much more cynical system, hardened to the realities of politics and politicians. He did think we are the more realistic though.

Hislop sees Americans- who would never accept the aggressive style of a Paxman- clinging on to a (misplaced) ideal of their public life- the kind of ideals on which West Wing was based- through long periods of hope and respect for their presidents and then having their hopes shattered disastrously. We can see that with Nixon and with Clinton; once their fallibility was exposed a strong negative reaction set in. But maybe, now, we are seeing something similar happening with the administration of George W Bush. We’ll soon find out.

On 7th November American voters turn out to elect all 435 members of the House of Representatives 33 Senate seats plus 36 state governorships.
House of RepresentativesCurrently there are 230 Republicans, 201 Democrats and 1 Independent voting with Democrats. The republicans have commanded a majority since 1995. The Democrats need to win 15 seats to win control. The Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan election analysis newsletter, has listed 85 seats - 66 currently held by Republicans and 19 by Democrats - as being potentially in play.
SenateSenators are elected for six year terms with one third retiring every second year. Those elected in 2000 will be reetiring or seeking re-election on 7th November. The Republican have held a majority since 2003, with 55 seats; the Democrats have 44 and there is one Independent voting with the Democrats. To win control the democrats require to win 6 seats. The Republicans can survive with 50 as the Vice President can vote to break any impasse.

Why Republicans are Facing defeat in the Mid-Terms
Pollster Stan Greenberg predicts an ‘earthquake’ in the coming elections. There are many reasons why Bush is in retreat but they can be summed upp under three simple headings: Iraq, money and sex.
Iraq: The last month has seeb a big turnaround in attitudes towards the war. Prior to that many Americans were prepared to believe that the death toll was justified as long as progress was being made towsards a peaceful and democratic country. However, the recent attempt by US troops to quell the warring militias has been seen to be failure and the death toll among US troops has continued to rise. In addition two reports made that vision unsupportable.
1. Senator David Warner, chair of the armed saervices committee, retuned from a visit to the conflict insisting that there had to be a ‘change of course.’
2. James Baker, republican grandee and family friend and fixer for the Bushes, headed up a Congressional Iraq Study Group the trerms of which were pretty much based on Warner’s above conclusion.
3. Bob Woodward’s account of how decisions are made in the White House-State of Denial- has been hitting the best seller heights, reinforcing the image of a national C in C who wilfully ignored what he did not want to see.
Playing the security card –‘trust Bush to beat terrorism’- no longer seems to work now that a majority feel Iraq is getting worse and that going in was a mistake in the first place. On top of this is the fact that Bush’s foreign policy seems to lie in tatters in other respects: he pledged that North Korea would not ba allowed to develpp nuclear weapons- they have- and the best US can respond is that China should do something about it. The additional worry is that that other part of the ‘axis of evil’, Iran, will see the case of Kim Jong-il as a precedent it can safely follow. Americans can scarcely be blamed for feeling that trillions of dollars spent on military hardware and its usage not to mention the blood of America’s young men has all been for nought.
But the disengagement with Iraq will be done with subtlety to avoid too much blame being loaded onto the Republicans.
‘It’s a polite rebellion by moderates and miltary minded Republicans. Any walkaway from the Bush line is going to be covered with a lot of cosmetics to make sure it’s not really a big change.’ Steve Clemons, Washington Political Analyst.
Sex: The Republicans have always tried to be the ‘moral’ party, as opposed to the decadent goings on of the Democrats. In 2004 Karl Rove, Bush’s personal Machiavelli, carefully cultivated the religious right and won huge tranches of new votes by exploiting and radicalising the broad group of US regular churchgoers. Surprisingly perhaps, support was found not just among traditional protestant voters but among Catholics and Jews who felt that as the country was in a state of moral decline, at least the Republicans would introduce the fear of God into White House decision-making. So moral probity, opposition to abortion and stem cell research not to mention gays and the suggestion they should be allowed to marry became the emblems of the Republican appeal to the religious right.
Religious enthusiasts for Bush did much to bring the vote out in the last three days of the campaign back in 2004 but the likelihood of that happening on 7th November has been lessened by the Mark Foley scandal. This is a Congressman, married with children, who proved to be gay and with a predatory attitude towards the young ‘pages’ who carry messages on capital Hill. His revealing email messages to a page who informed his father, were made shamingly public as the attempt of an older gay man to ‘groom’ a young boy. All this was bad enough but even worse was the well founded accusation that the Republican high command in Congress failed to act on the complaint and did its best to hush it up.
The party’s image as God fearingly devout was not helped by Lyn Westmoreland, running for re-election in Georgia, whose sole legislative initiative has been to preess for a bill that the Ten Commandments be displayed in the Capital Hill buildings. However, when asked he could not name them all-in fact he could only name three.

Money

Deficits

a) Overseas Debt. America has become the world’s biggest debtor with $10.5bn owed or 25% of GDP. As Rawnsley points out: ‘The richest and most powerful country on the planet is now in the strange and dangerous place of being hugely indebted to the rest of the world.’
b) Fiscal deficit. From a 2.5% of GDP surplus in 2000 Bush’s budget deficit slumped to minus 4% in 2004, thus wiping out all the gains of the late nineties and putting a number of expenditure prgrammes at risk.; spending on Medicare and Social Security is bound to increase as the US ages. Far from achieving a shrinking of government-the traditional Republican aim- Bush has presided over a bigger increase in spending than any previous Democrat administration.
c) American are also worried at petrol prices of over $3 a gallon and the threat that the housing market might collapse.

Corruption

A number of financial scandals have hit the Republicans.
i) Enron: this was a mega scandal of one of the biggest corporations in the world deliberately falsifying accounts to disguise economic failure. Kenneth Lay, former chief executive, who died before he could be sentenced for his part in the affair was a close friend of George Bush and some of the odium of the scandal was associated with the president.
ii)Tom De-Lay. This was the former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, known as ‘The Hammer’ fro his ruthless expertise in delivering majority votes in Congress. In 2005 he was indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for violations of campaign finance laws. Early in 2006 he resigned his position and did not seek re-election.
iii) Bill Frist. Former Senate Majority Leader and often spoken of as a potential presidential hipoeful. After he was accused of being deeply involved in campaign improrities, he also decided not to contest future elections.
iv) Trent Lott. Another senate Majority leader, who bnlotted his copy book badly on the occasion of veteran Congressman Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday:
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Since Thurmond had explicitly supported racial segregation in the presidential campaign to which Lott referred, this statement was widely interpreted to mean that Lott also supported racial segregation.
v) Jack Abramoff. This high level lobbyist was very close to Republican senior counsels with an unrivalled network of contacts. It turned out that he was using financial inducements to achieve political ends- bribery in any other language- as well as being involved with straightforward fraudulent fleecing of indian tribes in the midwest. In March 2006 he was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and ordered to repay $21m. Time magazine ran a story under his cover picture entitled ‘The Man Who Bought Washington’.
Other Issues in the elections include:

Immigration: illegal immigration has become a key issue in some states with possibly over 2 million illegals lost in the 300 million US citizens. Bush has been moderate on this and has suggested a halfway house whereby illegals can become legal but others favour much stricter control of the border with Mexico including a 700 mile wall.

National Security: Republicans seek to portray the democrats as soft on terror but this issue has somewhat backfired as the war in Iraq has gone pearshaped. Most Americans now think USA is less safe from terrorist attacks.

Health care: during Bush’s period in power the number of people without medical insurance has increased from 40m to 46m.
Katrina: the tardy almost careless response of the white House to the Hurricane whichn hit New Orleans underpinned the fact that the USA is deeply divided in terms of race and poverty. The episode will not help Bush win votes from African Americans.

Republicans hit Rock Bottom: As a result of all these factors a mood of change has entered US political culture which could sweep away Bush’s control of Congress and leave him a lame duck president. Bush’s ratings have slumped into the low thirties and his disapproval ratings hover in the high fifties. So bad has his position become that fellow republicans fighting for their seats are actively disuading the president from speaking in their support. This situation mirrors the problem Blair experienced in 2005. Iraq is the biggest issue in the election with 35% saying the war is going badly for USA and 58% saying it was a mistake to go in in the first place.

Of independent-non commited- voters Democrats are currently favoured by a ratio of 2-
1. Over the USA as a whole democrats lead republicans by some 15-20% but this varies enormously from state to state. But the Republicans campaigning skills should not be underestimated; they know how to come from behind.

The Final Lap of the Campaign: Reports suggest that 90% of republican funding- more generous than the Democrats- is going on attack ads in the last few days, orchestrated by Karl Rove. Studies show that negative ads have far more effect than positive ones- though perhaps British culture is less open to such approaches viz- the Tory ‘demon eyes’ campaign attack on Blair in 1997 which found no purchase. In USA Republicans have been swamping the airwaves with any smear they have been able to find like quoting sections from one candidates’ novels to suggest he is in favour of incest. Democrats have also dirtied their hands in this way but it seems that the final stages of US elections, when getting hthe vote out is so crucial, this is just par for the course.

Key Contests
House: 40 Republican seats are thought vulnerable, compared with nine Democrat. Battle grounds are in east: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Inbdiana, New York and Florida.
Senate: Of the 33 up for re-election, 15 are republican held and 17 Democrat. There are eight vulnerable republiucans in Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia Tennessee and arizona. The democrats themselves are struggling in New Jersey.
Governors: the Republicans have 28 governorships and the democrats 22; the former face defeat in New York, Ohio, Arkansa, Colorado and Massachusetts.
Democrats: They will surely expect a famous victory on 7th November but the resilience and resource of the Republicans has already been noted. Moreover, the party of FDR, Kennedy and Clinton has not yet appeared to be a coherent and organized force. America seems to be saying it does not want Bush and his party but it is not yet saying it wants the other major party either. As there is no official opposition, Democrats lack discipline to speak in a united voice and the funds to be comparable with th battery of attack ads waiting to be unleashed by Bush, Rove and company which now are believed to swing so many contests. It would be easier if they had a leader- in- waiting instead of the likely starting line-up of Hilary Clinton, John Kerry(again), John Edwards and, the most interesting newcomer, the charismatic and very able black Senator, Obama Barak.
Bill Jones 30/10/06

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