Saturday, March 26, 2011



The Saudi royal family needs no lessons in the geography of the Middle East, but as the popular revolutions in the region unfold they must certainly be spending more time looking at maps of the area with great concern. What they see are nations on or near their borders undergoing political and social changes that whatever their outcome, will no doubt represent a new form of estrangement from the ultra-conservative, Islamic Wahhabism and medieval style monarchism of the Saudi kingdom and perhaps also its pragmatic relationship of cooperation with the West, especially the United States.

Tunisia and Egypt are in modernizing transitions brought on by the overthrow of their long time autocrats; Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border is likely to soon follow. The situation in Libya seems to be devolving into civil war in spite of, or because of, Western intervention. In Jordan, on their western border, the monarchy is promising political liberalization in an effort to avoid the unrest and in Iraq on their northern border, the democratic experiment continues to unfold amid on-going sectarian violence. Syria is dealing with protests which are being harshly repressed and the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, which is just an 18 mile drive across a causeway from Saudi Arabia is also under pressure from demands for political liberalization. This particular event stimulated Saudi intervention based on their belief that it was a sectarian (Shi'ite) based and Iranian inspired uprising.

Regional experts are careful to point out that each of the nations experiencing popular dissent is unique in its own way and while commonalities exist, i.e. an energized youth; high unemployment; poverty and lack of political participation, the cultures, histories, and relationships of the populations to the rulers of the nations involved are different.

It is these differences with respect to Saudi Arabia that the Obama Administration and the rest of the industrialized West must be hoping result in the ability of the Saudi government to defer, if not avoid the spread of uncontrollable change and the instability that it brings with it.

President Obama said this with respect to the situation in Libya:

"The core principle that has to be upheld here is that when the entire international community, almost unanimously, says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can't simply stand by with empty words, that we have to take some sort of action.”

If the situation in Saudi Arabia should actually escalate into a mass popular uprising, the Saudi government has already shown through its intervention in Bahrain that it will not tolerate a revolutionary impulse in its own territory. In such a case Obama would have to confront his own words as well as a situation of enormous peril for regional stability and economic security. However, this “worst case” scenario does not appear to be developing and it will behoove both the Saudi government and the Obama Administration to adapt their policies and relationship to avoid it.

The Saudi relationship with the U.S. and the West is essentially driven by two issues, oil and Iran. Saudi Arabia possesses 25 percent of the world’s proven petroleum reserves and currently produces 9 million barrels of oil a day. It has the further capacity to produce an additional 12.5 million barrels a day if needed. Any instability in this production could cause economic chaos in the rest of the world. Recently Saudi Arabia agreed to increase production in the face of possible shortfalls resulting from disruption of Libyan oil production and they have, in the past resisted calls by more militant members of OPEC to cut production in order to drive up the world price of oil. 

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the establishment of a Shi'ite theocracy and the estrangement with the United States, Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Sunni society with a small Shiite minority has served as an important counterweight to Iran in regional politics. With the overthrow of Iran’s other traditional enemy, Saddam Hussein’s government in neighboring Iraq and its continuing sectarian strife, the role of Saudi Arabia in this respect has assumed even greater importance. Iran has established closer relationships with Syria and even with the Islamic oriented government in Turkey. It has created client relationships with Hezbollah, now the governing party in Lebanon and Hamas, the controlling party in Gaza, both violent adversaries of Israel and currently opposed by the government of Saudi Arabia. The result has been an even closer military and political relationship with the U.S., one that goes back many years to the Cold War period.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that: “According to the US Government Accountability Office, the US sold up to $37 billion in arms to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait from 2005 to 2009”. In October, 2010, the U.S. announced a $60 billion sale to Saudi Arabia alone to include 84 new F-15 fighter aircraft and upgrades to Saudi Arabia's existing fleet of 70 F-15s, as well as new helicopters and “bunker buster” bombs. The purpose of this enormous sale is clearly to enhance Saudi security vis' a vis' the growing power of Iran.

Now, with America’s long time ally, the Mubarak regime in Egypt gone and the nature of its replacement unknown, a popular uprising against the conservative Saudi monarchy would be a disaster on its face and the possibility of either a harsh police or military repression would severely test if not threaten the U.S./Saudi relationship.

The overthrow of the monarchy, as currently unlikely as that is, would change the Middle East political and security situation in a fundamental and dangerous way. The Saudi monarchy has adopted a "carrot and stick" approach to the possibility of wider demonstrations after the initial unrest in the eastern provinces. Public demonstrations have been banned and a highly visible police presence and condemnation of popular protests by the nation's religious leaders have been combined with announcements of $36 billion in pay raises, housing subsidies and unemployment benefits followed by a second announcement of some $93 billion in social payments.

The recent protests occurred in the Eastern Shi'ite areas with young adults in the forefront. The Shi'ite minority (about 10%) claims discrimination in social and employment opportunities and was particularly outraged by the deployment of Saudi troops to Bahrain to help put down the Shi'ite based protest movement there.
While unemployment among young adults throughout the nation is high and civil liberties and political representation are highly restricted, the prospects for wider popular unrest, while a legitimate concern, still appear small. The Saudi government has used its tremendous oil wealth to create a well developed advanced welfare state. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is @ $24,200 per capita which exceeds that of Portugal.

Nonetheless, the Middle East is changing and modernist impulses are growing in this most conservative of nations as well as in the rest of the region. Young Saudis both within and outside the government bureaucracies are being educated abroad and are increasingly feeling constrained and put off by the inevitable corruption and nepotism of a family controlled government. The contradictions between a fundamentalist Islamic society which is imposed from above and the external freedoms which anyone with a cell phone or internet connection is aware, will continue to build. Reforms and liberalization of the political process will have to come for the Saudi government to avoid the widespread dissatisfaction stimulating the uprisings spreading throughout the region.

This all creates a significant problem for U.S. relationships in the area. The governments of Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and Syria have all responded recently to protests with harsh repressive action. Like Saudi Arabia, all but Syria are allied in some respects with the United States. Yemen has been cooperating in anti-terrorism policies, Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Jordan has been a western oriented friend for decades and a moderate player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and of course Saudi Arabia represents a vital oil source and an important counter to Iranian regional ambitions. The Obama Administration has felt compelled to "condemn" violent suppression of protests and call for or imply, the need for political liberalization which carried to its logical conclusion could mean regime change in these nations, an outcome which the national leaders naturally oppose.

Thus important questions arise for American policy makers.
1. How far should the American government go in siding with the protesters and rejecting support for the currently friendly governments?
2. If the non-democratic governments of the "allied" nations reject American criticism and survive through repressive tactics, how will that affect the mutual relationships and levels of cooperation in the future?
3. If some of these governments fall to the popular uprisings, what kind of relationships and security cooperation with the successor governments will evolve?
Thus the Obama Administration must balance hard nosed U.S. national security interests with its general public orientation towards broad concepts of human rights. Saudi Arabia will be watching closely and the vital American-Saudi relationship will surely be affected accordingly.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


The earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Japan have reawakened the decades old debate on the safety and practicality of nuclear energy to produce electric power. While opponents of the use of nuclear energy were still active and vocal before the Japanese incident, most of the world’s governments had moved beyond the fears and disaster scenarios that energized the anti-nuclear movements and accepted the cost-benefit analysis that made nuclear power generation a common sense alternative to other forms of energy production. The question now facing governments is whether that cost-benefit relationship has substantially changed.

There is no question that the Japanese nuclear plant disaster represents a serious cascade of failures both technological and human. This ongoing situation which seems to be growing in severity has stimulated anti-nuclear power voices world wide. In Australia, which has no nuclear power electric generation, the local Greens Party has called for phasing out nuclear power world wide, which they call a "toxic and obsolete technology.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel shut down seven older nuclear plants for three months and delayed plans to modernize another ten. Switzerland has put plans for three new reactors on hold. Even in China, which has a robust nuclear growth strategy with plans to build twenty-eight new reactors by 2020, the Japanese situation has brought a pause in these plans in order that "safety standards could be revised" and inspections carried out on all existing plants.

It is obvious that some of these positions are based on genuine concern and common sense, given the lessons that are to be learned from the Japanese crisis. But it is also likely that there is a political component in most. Germany has a committed anti-nuclear core with the Green Party, which currently has 20% support in the country. Germany also has no majority party and the Greens have 68 of 622 seats in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house.

However, a major shift in domestic nuclear policy has also been rejected so far in a number of countries. France, Russia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Italy and Poland have rejected the German position and criticized demands for immediate shutdowns. Russia is under contract to build Turkey's first nuclear power plant and both nations have announced that they won't change their plans. Poland, with plans for its first two nuclear plants and the Czech Republic which has six operating plants, have also rejected slow downs or moratoriums. In France, the government has limited its announced policy to safety inspections. In Britain, "Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said "continental politicians" had acted hastily in shutting down power plants. "

The world's leading user of nuclear power for the production of electricity is the United States with 104 nuclear generating plants. American anti-nuclear activists are energized by the crisis and are calling for moratoriums and decertification of existing plants. Ira Helfand, past president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a bit of rhetorical overkill said "a meltdown of each reactor at Japanese plant would be the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshimas." However, there is currently little enthusiasm by members of either political party in Congress for major changes or reductions in nuclear power electrical generation.

The Obama Administration has supported further development of nuclear generation facilities and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winning physicist himself, has testified recently in Congress about the need for money ($36 billion in loan guarantees) to assist private power companies build six to eight new plants. House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) who has a nuclear power plant in his district said: "I think (the Japan crisis) is a wake-up call to look very seriously at the safety of (nuclear) reactors to make sure that they are, in fact, as secure as we can possibly make them from natural disasters, as well as manmade attacks on them."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was equally cautious:
"I don't think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad."
"There will be some activity, some hearings. I think there's nothing wrong with that as it relates to nuclear power. But I think the main issue is let's not be rambunctious. Let's take our time."
On the Republican side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) agreed;
"I just don't think we ought to, in the wake of a crisis, be making long-term decisions" about America's energy policy.

Thus, while the worst may be yet to come in Japan and anti-nuclear activists are active across the world, some facts demonstrate the practical/political difficulty of even a medium term transition away from the use of nuclear power.

First, there are currently 442 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries. These plants produce 376,313 megawatts of electricity. An additional 65 plants are in the planning or construction stage. In 19 countries, including the U.S., more than 20% of electric generation is from nuclear facilities. In France 80% of electricity comes from nuclear generation. In short, a massive dependency currently exists on nuclear power. World wide, these plants produce 14% of all electricity production in the those 31 nations.

Second, what are the realities of the dangers connected to nuclear industry?
The situation in Japan is enormously dangerous. A complete meltdown of one or more of the four reactors involved would eject large amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere and could require public evacuations on a scale not seen before. However, this is still a relatively unlikely worst case scenario.

The first commercial nuclear generation of electricity occurred in 1954 in Obinsk, Soviet Union. Since then the world's nuclear plants have a combined operating experience of over 14,000 years. (European Nuclear Society). Since 1954 there have been several incidents/accidents at nuclear plants around the world but only three, including the current crisis in Japan, are generally considered to be very serious: Three Mile Island in the U.S. (1979) in which no fatalities occurred; Chernobyl, Soviet Ukraine (1986) which caused over 50 immediate deaths and numerous long term deaths estimated in the thousands from radiation exposure after the reactor exploded and a radioactive plume traveled over much of eastern Europe. The causes of the explosion were determined to be a combination of operating errors and design flaws.

The Japanese crisis is in many ways unique. It is the direct result of a magnitude 9 earthquake just 80 miles off the coast. This was followed by a tsunami of enormous proportions. Still, to date no deaths have been directly attributed to the damage at the nuclear facility.

Thus, the basic question that is important for the future of nuclear power is: are the lessons learned and to be learned from this and previous crises adequate to protect against similar events in the future?
Soviet reactor design is not part of the modern industrialized world nuclear industry. Training and safety regulations have been significantly upgraded everywhere. Clearly, the construction of nuclear plants in areas of seismic activity require special designs and should probably be avoided entirely. In the Japanese case, the current problem is the lack of electricity to power the pumps necessary to provide water to cool both the reactors and the pools containing spent (partially radioactive) fuel rods. On site emergency generators would seem to be an obvious and easy to do, safety precaution.

Another important question for policy makers who might be tempted to follow the anti-nuclear activists calls to end nuclear electricity generation is: "How do you replace the generation currently produced and how quickly could it be done?

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration , "renewables", biomass, geothermal, wind and solar sources, provide only 4% of current U.S. electricity production. Coal is the largest source of electricity production at 45% with natural gas second at 23%. Replacing the nuclear 20% of production would be a huge and long term project. The current impetus is to replace, over time, the use of coal because of the large scale emissions of carbon dioxide which is associated with it and which has been the focus of the global warming threat. To replace both coal and nuclear sources of electricity would mean replacing 65% of total generation facilities. The current favorites of anti-nuclear and environmental activists are solar and wind. Both of these sources require geographically huge arrays to contribute in any meaningful way to commercial power supplies. They also face the problem of reliability. Electric power suppliers must have a constant level of supply and reserve supply to accommodate average use and peak use, which varies by weather patterns. Wind and solar sources cause supply to vary because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

Transitions in any direction will be slow because of America’s abundant coal reserves. Barring technological breakthroughs which would make the burning of coal cleaner the common sense change would be to convert more production to natural gas which the U.S. also has in abundance. This source is hampered by distribution problems (pipe lines) which limit use in high power consumption areas of the northeast.. Nuclear generation, while expensive to construct, is inexpensive to operate and produces no atmospheric pollution. For nations lacking large supplies of fossil fuels i.e. natural gas and coal, and for whom the enormous land requirements and practical inefficiencies of solar and wind generation are impractical, like Japan, nuclear generation provides the best choice.

 Safety issues will always remain and logistic issues relating to disposal of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel rods will have to be addressed. There is a role to play for wind and solar energy as supplements to the more abundant and reliable sources but the enormity of the nuclear investment world wide and the dependency that has been created by current use, make abandonment of nuclear sources of electricity impractical, if not impossible.


Monday, March 14, 2011


March Madness, the annual NCAA basketball tournament has been described as the best athletic event(s) in the year long array of college and NFL football, the NBA tournament and of course the major league baseball playoffs culminating in the World Series. But this year's basketball tournament is also a welcome relief from the alternate version of "march madness" currently playing out in Madison, Wisconsin and in Washington D.C.

A profound and disturbing change to the way the legislative process is employed to carry out the people's business in under way. In Wisconsin, the fourteen Democrat state senators who fled the capitol and the state to deny the Senate a quorum and thus the ability to vote on legislation with financial content, have returned to adoring crowds of organized labor activists. Declared heroes for avoiding their legislative duties and effectively shutting down the Wisconsin Senate for weeks, they arrived to chants of "This is how democracy works" from demonstrators who apparently feel democracy no longer is based on majority rule. In fact the democratic process which distinguishes the U.S. from those nations now in the throes of revolutions in the Middle East, and from authoritarian governments world wide, was the victim in this lamentable process.

But the "madness" in Wisconsin is unabated. The losers in the "battle" which was nothing more than a vote in both houses of the state legislature, are taking their assault on the democratic procedures of government one step further by organizing recall efforts for those Republican senators that dared to vote their consciences and the preferences of their constituents. The message is simple and clear: if you vote against the wishes of an organized interest group or opposing political party you are no longer fit to serve and should be subject to another campaign and election.

 Recall petitions are extremely rare because traditionally they are reserved for instances of moral turpitude or egregious disservice. They are not intended as a group punishment for specific votes which result in successful legislation. In retaliation, Republicans intend to seek recall of the fourteen Democrats who fled to out of state locations. Both efforts should be dropped. However, these petitions themselves, because of a relatively low threshold of voter participation necessary for implementation will probably be successful. The new elections to determine if the Republican senators who dared to vote against the public employee unions and their Democrat supporters, will be replaced, as well as the Democrat Senators who fled, will face a much higher challenge. But the precedent will be set. The costs will be incurred. A pall of political and economic uncertainty will fall over the state of Wisconsin and the possibility of an endless series of elections, recalls and new elections will make effective governance difficult if not impossible.

Events leading up to the final vote in the Wisconsin legislature put an ugly face on what should be an orderly function of representative government. The raucous occupation of the state capitol building and the threats and intimidation should cause the state’s opinion leaders in the media to ask the citizens if mob action thinly disguised as “freedom of assembly” is really the way they want their state to be governed. The question is unlikely to be seriously addressed however and the Third World tactics employed are likely to be copied in other states.

Public protests are indeed constitutionally protected but not all protected protests are equal in terms of moral standards and social value, as the recent Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of the Westboro Church lunatics to protest at the funerals of fallen American soldiers demonstrates. The major flaw of political protests and demonstrations is their tendency to be taken over by demagogues and the willingness of participants to allow these self important individuals to do their thinking for them and to frame their concerns in simplistic and often extremist rhetoric. Thus in Wisconsin, the protestors and capitol occupiers were incited by the traveling “provocateur -in -chief” Jesse Jackson and then by the , walking, talking absurdity, Michael Moore who makes millions in the free market with his anti-capitalism films and then travels the country to spread his socialist rantings.

The issue in Wisconsin was simple: do the economic interests of the general public take precedence over the economic interests of government employees? The issue should have been peacefully debated and voted on in the state legislature. Voters who disagreed with the resulting policies could attempt to remedy the situation in the next scheduled election. That’s how a functioning democracy works.
Unfortunately the federal government in Washington, D.C. is suffering from serious dysfunction also as their version of “March madness” continues to infect the legislative process. Six months into the current fiscal year the federal government is still without a budget. Unlike Wisconsin, neither party controls both houses of the legislature. The resulting stalemate has required a series of “continuing resolutions” with two week life spans to keep government running. Since it is clear that neither side has the votes to impose their will on the budgetary process, the situation cries out for statesmanship and common sense compromise. President Obama has demonstrated little leadership preferring to watch from the sidelines. Eventually the Republicans will get cuts to current expenditures and Democrats will avoid cuts on the scale proposed by the Republicans. The time has come for such a compromise. Further budget cuts can be debated for the upcoming fiscal year which starts in October.

While protests and demonstrations have yet to develop, demagoguery has begun. From Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s lamenting the dire consequences of the loss of federal funding for Nevada’s Cowboy Poetry Festival to images of Big Bird and Cookie Monster falling victim to conservative “meanness”, the battle for the public’s emotions is underway. When the cuts come, Jesse Jackson and Michael Moore can’t be far behind.

Fortunately not all March Madness is craziness. Anticipating the Sweet Sixteen and the Elite Eight is a much more pleasant prospect.

Monday, March 7, 2011


Is it too early to start a more than cursory analysis of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination? Yes. But the nature of American presidential politics which now requires the creation of national organizations, the hiring of professional consultants, pollsters and managers and the raising of enormous sums of money says otherwise. The ever earlier primary season which is now "only" twelve months away adds to the pressure to "get out of the gate early". So, the first "early bird special" was scheduled by the Iowa based Faith and Freedom Coalition on March 7th which hosted invited speakers from the presumed Republican hopefuls.

Professional pollsters and pundits are in a quandary as early polls indicate what can only be described as a “No! Not already!” attitude among voters. So the crystal ball, tea leaf, and chicken bone analysts have little to go on which leaves the speculation open mostly to early supporters of particular candidates to make rosy predictions in their favor.

In the primordial ooze where ultra-early campaigns are born, the unrecognized favorite might well be the candidate who puts together the best campaign organization behind the scenes while simple name recognition drives the early polls. Now of course, the availability of free and universal communication networks via the otherwise mind numbing but ubiquitous Twitter chatter and the “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” Face book pages, offer an opportunity for a variety of improbable candidacies. These “making a statement” candidates just clutter up the polls and eventually turn the debates into a “babble with the stars” reality format.

Early indications are that this superfluous group may include former Libertarian Party and Republican Party candidate Ron Paul. Why the seventy-five year old congressman from Texas would run again no one but Ron Paul knows. As the 1988 Libertarian candidate Paul achieved a whopping .5% of the popular vote and as a 2008 Republican candidate for the nomination he maxed out at 10% of the delegate count. Paul wants to abolish most of the functions of the federal government including the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Reserve system, ideas which appeal mostly to the Grizzly Adams survivalist vote. Still, he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Committee convention earlier last year and was one of the top two vote getters in a recent straw poll of the Tea Party Patriots in Phoenix, AZ in late February. Of course straw polls by ideological activists are only good for . . . well, not much.

The other leading Tea Party vote getter was Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather Pizza and current radio host. Cain is a smart guy with Bachelors and Masters Degrees and a successful big business career in the food industry but he was unsuccessful in his only attempt at elective office and is a bit of a rarity as a conservative black from the South. Without money and an organization, he's not likely to have much of an impact in the early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Since the Republicans don't have a "The Rent is Too Damn High" party candidate like the Democrats, they may have to rely on the novelty of potential candidate Fred Kargan for entertainment. Kargan is a sort of Republican, but dedicated gay activist from California. His issues, not surprisingly are focused on those perennial conservative Republican favorites, gay marriage and HIV-AIDS. He also wants to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds which of course would make Lady Gaga a serious contender. The religious based Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, refused to invite him to their presidential contender forum which resulted in Karger filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, always a good way to generate popular support in a conservative state.

Of course things in Iowa and New Hampshire could really get fun if the always colorful Donald Trump makes good on his possible threat to enter the race.
But leaving the entertainment aside, which of the major contenders seems likely to break out of the pack early and grab the inside track to the nomination? In spite of President Obama's lack luster popularity (currently @49%) and the Republican surge in the mid-term elections, the popularity of each of the most talked about contenders is both underwhelming and raising eyebrows among the formerly optimistic members of the Party establishment.

The nominee will probably come from this short list:

Mitt Romney
Tim Pawlenty
Mitch Daniels
Newt Gingrich

Romney has the advantage of name identification from having run for the Republican nomination in 2008. He looks and sounds "presidential" which is important in an era of television and personal campaigning. He has a successful record in the financial industry, an important plus since the focus in this election is the economy, and as a Republican, he was elected governor of Massachusetts, one of the most liberal Democrat states. The "good news" for Romney is thus that he has more appeal to the general electorate including moderates, Independents and conservative Democrats giving him a better chance at defeating Obama than some of the more doctrinaire conservative candidates. The "bad news" is that the far Right has a greater voice in the primary process than in the general election and Romney's Morman religion, Massachusetts health care bill which has similarities to "Obamacare", and lack of religious right fire breathing on social issues like abortion and gay rights, will hurt him. At this point, his main strength lies in the weakness of the other candidates.

Tim Pawlenty, a former two term governor of Minnesota is a tried and true conservative on both fiscal and social issues. Pawlenty's problem is that few people outside of Minnesota and neighboring states know anything about him. He is not a particularly dynamic speaker and in a campaign where little separates the candidates in terms of their economic message, he will have a difficult time distinguishing himself from the others which he must do to generate a following.

Mitch Daniels is the "dark horse" to watch. His financial background includes the directorship of the Office of Management and Budget in the George W. Bush administration and as an effective economic manager during his one and a half terms as governor of Indiana. He is not a social issue firebrand and has urged Republicans in Congress to set those controversial issues aside and concentrate on the economy. This could hurt him in Iowa but help him in later primaries if he can develop an effective organization and raise enough money.

Newt Gingrich has plenty of name recognition, is an articulate and knowledgeable speaker and indeed was Speaker of the House during the Clinton Administration. He knows government; knows economics; knows history BUT. . .Newt is associated with several negative issues. First, he led the politically disastrous government shutdown in 1995 over a budget impasse with Democrats. Second, he was forced to resign as Speaker and from Congress over an ethics violation. Third, he is twice divorced and thrice married and admits to having had an affair with a Congressional employee, now his current wife. He has tried to overcome these latter problems by sounding more and more "devout" while addressing issues in a religious context but it has had the ring of insincerity, as has his obvious tilt towards the Tea Party's economic fundamentalism.

There are several second tier candidates who could make a surprise showing in the early primaries and thus hope to generate a band wagon effect but each has political weaknesses which make them long shots. Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi is the quintessential political insider as the former head of the Republican National Committee and head of the Republican Governor’s Association. He was widely perceived as having handled the Hurricane Katrina disaster effectively in his state, but being the governor of the nation’s most culturally “southern” and poorest state can be, fairly or not, a disadvantage. Barbour hasn’t helped this image by making some remarks that liberals have happily describes as racially insensitive.

Mike Huckabee, won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 partially on the strength of his background as a Baptist preacher, as well as being the former governor of Arkansas, but claims that he wants to “change the constitution to bring it back to God” aren’t going to be enough in the current economic situation. With the nation facing chaos abroad and terrorism and economic crisis at home, Huckabee’s “Mister Rogers” personality doesn’t inspire much confidence, nor does his recent Palinesque knowledge breakdown claiming that Obama was raised in Kenya and had an “anti-British colonial” mindset; a position not even the craziest “birthers” have adopted and one for which Huckabee had to make a weak sounding retraction.

Guess who said this:

"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."

And this:

"Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas."

"There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design."

Sarah Palin? A credible but inaccurate guess. These are the confused thoughts of Palin’s Tea Party twin, slightly better educated but equally intellectually challenged Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MI). Bachmann is making candidate type noises but may just be on a resume’ (and thus book and speaking fee) enhancing mission. She might also be fantasizing about replicating Palin’s 2008 vice presidential nomination. However like Palin, Bachmann’s support seems to be mostly among various Tea Party organizations and not wide spread among the general population of Republicans.

Then of course, there is Sarah Palin herself. She has cleverly maintained her public profile by offering teasing responses to questions about her possible candidacy. However, she has so far avoided efforts to create a campaign organization in Iowa where presumably her religious fundamentalism and simple minded anti-Obama sloganeering would be most accepted. Also, according to the Gallup poll, Palin “continues to have the highest unfavorable ratings” among the most prominent candidates. If she does want to run she will need to move fairly quickly lest Bachmann fill the limited political niche of female, religious right, Tea Party candidate.

So what does all this mean? Not very much at this stage and it should be kept in mind that Iowa, a small population, heavily religious, agricultural based state, is neither representative of Republican voters across the nation nor typical politically with its caucus system as opposed to the primary elections held in most other states. Thus the media driven “horse race” in Iowa may well be misleading as an early predictor of the nomination process. Also, with a large number of candidates with similar governing philosophies, the Iowa and other early votes could be so fragmented that and early leader will not be determined.

But, since it “doesn’t mean very much”, here’s the first early meaningless prediction about the race for the nomination: “And the nominee is. . . . Mitt Romney. And his vice presidential choice is . . .Tim Pawlenty (or Governor John Kasich of Ohio, or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida or . . . )  Stay tuned for the next year and a half.