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Monday, January 23, 2012

WILL GINGRICH WIN THE BATTLE AND LOSE THE WAR?




The nation is angry. Registered Republicans are very angry. The far Right of the Republican Party with a heavy presence in South Carolina are the angriest. Newt Gingrich, in the last few debates became the standard bearer for this populist dissatisfaction, boldly approaching the boundaries of political correctness by attacking President Obama as the “food stamp president” and then ripping the “liberal media” and debate moderator John King for asking him about his former wife's recent charge that he wanted an “open marriage” so he could pursue his affair with his current wife.
Mitt Romney, throughout the caucus/primary season has been unable to show the same kind of passion necessary to harness this anger of conservative voters but with the conservative vote divided until now, he did better than expected in Iowa and was successful as a quasi “favorite son” in New Hampshire. Now, with Bachmann, Cain and Perry gone and Santorum assuming “also ran” status, Gingrich has established a “band wagon” type momentum reflected in his recent surge in the post South Carolina polls in Florida. 

Gingrich's new found popularity may be more style than substance however. There is no question that large numbers of Americans, especially Republicans, are fed up with what Newt describes as arrogance and seemingly endless government expansion. So it's not surprising that his pit bull campaign and debate style have created some excitement in a dispirited electorate. But it has already stimulated the inevitable response from both the Romney campaign and the liberal political media and Obama supporters. Gingrich's record as Speaker of the House is spotty in terms of both leadership and outcomes. His post congressional career as a lobbyist and his dalliance with Nancy Pelosi in support of anti-business global warming legislation, and some perceived softness on illegal immigration could create a backlash similar to the party's reevaluation of early “true conservatives” Bachmann, Cain and Perry. If that happens, the impact on the Republican prospects for defeating Obama could be serious.

Gingrich's surprise victory in South Carolina was aided by vicious negative campaigning which had all the appearance of a bar fight with a potential fratricidal outcome. Gingrich and Santorum abandoned all civility and focus on issues and solutions, and engaged in desperate and irrelevant personal attacks on front runner Mitt Romney, implying that he was either a tax cheater because he had not released his tax returns, or had made money in private business that Gingrich described as “vulture capitalism” because some investments in companies failed and businesses were forced to downsize or shut down. This surprising anti-business rant will resurface in the hands of the Obama campaign if Romney becomes the nominee. 

The madness and invective is not limited to the candidates themselves; a legion of self anointed keepers of the far right flame of ideological orthodoxy have joined the fray. Blogger John Hawkins is nearly hysterical in his opposition to Romney, offering as evidence of Romney's weaknesses that he “is the antithesis of everything the Tea Party stands for”; and strangely, that he's an example of what the Occupy Wall Street protestors hate. This makes little sense since the OWS protestors hate the Tea Party and the Tea Party hates the protestors. So far to the Right is Hawkins that he disparages former Republican nominee Bob Dole and even President Nixon. Thus in his mind, Romney is an “establishment endorsed Rockefeller Republican guilty of a list of “moderate” heresies
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The issue with the most weight is the much discussed Massachusetts health care plan that was
passed while Romney was governor. Romney has pointed out that the plan was passed in the nation's most liberal state by a legislature which was 86% controlled by Democrats. His position that he is opposed to Obama's national health care legislation which is similar in its mandated coverage, has not been convincing to conservative doubters. But Steve McCann of “American Thinker” goes further, saying that Romney is the product of the “governing class”, the same nefarious group that “gave the country George H.W. Bush”, who in his mind was another unprincipled moderate. Thus McCann arrives at the absurd conclusion that “Romney will spell the end of the Republican Party.” His choice? Libertarian isolationist and government minimalist, failed senatorial candidate (1984), failed presidential candidate (1988 and 2008), seventy six year old Congressman Ron Paul.

As a campaign tactic, the personal attacks against Romney were the last arrow in the quiver for Gingrich and Santorum since the months of debates and speeches have made it obvious that there is little difference in the conservative oriented public policy positions of any of the candidates with the exception of the libertarian fantasies of Paul. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all advocate cutting federal spending, lowering taxes, limiting reductions in military spending, and reducing the size and reach of the federal government and they would do whatever it takes to deny Iran a nuclear weapon. They all support vigorous enforcement of the border, including a fence, and tough immigration laws, and are opposed to “amnesty” policies that lead to citizenship for illegal aliens. Actually, Gingrich has take the most “liberal” position on immigration saying he would support a procedure for granting permanent residence status to illegals who have been in communities for 25 years or more. 


In South Carolina, Gingrich kept up a harsh drumbeat against excessive federal spending which along with his angry and self assured style, resonated with voters. Exit polls showed that 57% thought the president's highest priority should be “cutting budget deficits even if is limits job growth”. Gingrich won this cohort by 41% to 26% over Romney. But Gingrich won on every issue which leads to the question of how representative the South Carolina Republican electorate really is. South Carolina is a high unemployment state. Sixty-five percent of voters considered themselves to be evangelicals and 60% said it was important that a candidate shared their religious beliefs. Gingrich won this category of voters with 46%. Romney received 20%. Sixty-four percent of voters supported the Tea Party movement. Voters who said “electability” i.e. beating Obama, was the most important consideration picked Gingrich over Romney by 51% to 37%. 

However, the most disturbing thing about the way the Republican campaign has evolved is the attempt by Gingrich, Santorum, Paul and the now departed Rick Perry, to divide the party into a tribal like competition between so called “real conservatives” and the ill defined but absurdly demonized “moderates”.

Although Romney positions on all the important issues are the same “conservative” positions as his opponents, the charge implies that being a “moderate” and being a “conservative” are somehow mutually exclusive, and being described as a moderate is on the same level as being called a liberal, presumably with the same effect on a conservative electorate. It may indeed have had this effect in South Carolina but in fact this is ridiculous. Conservatism is a political philosophy, an ideology. There is no “moderate” political ideology. The term, as applied to politicians, is more of a characteristic of temperament and depends on the issue and the political context. It is not an across the board commitment. Both liberals and conservatives take moderate positions from time to time. The term is generally defined as one who avoids extreme positions, and common synonyms found in dictionaries are:  reasonable, temperate, judicious, just, cool, steady, and calm”; traits sadly in short supply in the current campaign. 

Whether Romney or any of the other candidates would apply these personal characteristics in the Oval Office is hard to know, but essentially, they lend themselves to the difficult job of getting things done in the currently highly partisan Washington, D.C. environment. Sacrificing the “good in pursuit of the ideologically perfect”, when the perfect is politically unattainable, manifests itself as “gridlock”. Obama was disparaged as a moderate by the far Left for his willingness to extend the “Bush tax cuts”, keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open and pursue a “surge” strategy in the Afghan war. The American public continually voices its disdain for “do nothing Congresses” as the congressional approval rate over the last year of about 13% indicates. Conservative Republicans need to vigorously oppose extremism on the Left without erecting rigid ideological barriers to progress. 

Much can change in the coming ten months but currently polls show a “generic Republican” leading Obama by 1.2%. In individual match ups as of Jan. 15th, Obama leads Romney by only 1.9%. He leads Gingrich by 11% and Santorum by 9.5%. Clearly there is a real opportunity for a Republican victory in November. However, this could be squandered by the current intra-party hostility.

The nomination battle has come down to Romney and Gingrich. Santorum chose to make himself the “values” candidate in order to win Iowa's large evangelical vote. He has not, and will not, be able to broaden his appeal as an effective leader in the economic struggle or national security areas. His thinly disguised anti-Mormon, anti-abortion endorsement by a conclave of one hundred evangelical ministers will not help. Gingrich is an intelligent, knowledgeable, effective debater with a proven, if controversial political background as Speaker of the House. He has a lot of ideas, some of which have real merit. His potential weakness is that in his zeal to destroy Romney's credibility and in his effort to be the model of structured conservatism, he has gone overboard, and outside of the conservative core which is reflected in the South Carolina electorate, he may well have created an image of mean spirited and erratic recklessness. The one third of the national electorate who are Independents will decide the 2012 election and it would behoove Gingrich, the conservative media, and Republican voters to focus on the candidates proposals to fix the economy and protect American interests in the world and set aside the labels, personal attacks, purist ideology, and the phony “character issues” which are just windows to throw mud and votes out of.

Friday, January 13, 2012

THE ARAB SPRING, IRAN AND TURKEY: A NEW POLITICAL LANDSCAPE


While the nation is focused on the Republican presidential nomination process and enters the 2012 election year, the world continues to turn and important events and changes will impose a steep learning curve on whoever the next president, including the incumbent, turns out to be. The new “Dear Leader” in North Korea still remains a virtual unknown, Russia's Vladimir Putin's new presidential ambitions are starting to show some cracks, and tensions between the civilian government and the military establishment in Pakistan could adversely effect the continuing war in Afghanistan.

However, it is in the Middle East where the “Arab Spring” revolutions have precipitated fundamental changes that are still in an evolutionary process, that the future is most unclear and the stakes the highest. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and in all probability, Syria, the downfall of authoritarian regimes has, or will soon, produce representative institutions and elected leaders. The process will be difficult and is unlikely to produce Western style liberal democracies. Tribal loyalties, religious identification and intolerance, the continued presence of privileged militaries, and the absence of any cultural experience with fundamental democratic concepts such as the role of the “loyal opposition”, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, protection of minorities, a free press, equality for women, and the creation of viable broad based political parties, will all present substantial challenges to transitional leaders. Thus the prospects for stable governance in these nations in the near future is problematic. The implications for regional stability and foreign relations among both regional states, and the major outside nations with important interests in the area are profound.

Three issues are currently of most concern and are likely to be affected by the uncertainty of the domestic political outcomes in the newly evolving goveRnments. These are the security of Israel which the U.S. has pledged to protect, and the stalemated Palestinian statehood issue; the on-going Iranian nuclear weapons program; and the stability dependent access to a significant portion of the world's oil supplies.

Prior to the “Arab Spring”, the Israeli-Palestinian problem was going nowhere but despite sporadic terrorism attacks, Israel was secure from large scale conflicts with Arab states because of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The looming security threat to Israel has become the nuclear weapons program and the related regional dominance ambitions of Iran. Syria, which shares a border with Israel has remained an intransigent foe and Iranian ally but by itself represented no direct threat. However, Iran has been determined to continue it's nuclear program in spite of a long term, slowly escalating process of economic sanctions led by the United States and Western Europe. The former authoritarian regimes in the region actually provided some stability as dictators pursued policies of self interest, which in the all important case of the then dominant power, Egypt, was supported by good relations with the U.S. and and an average over the last decade of $1.8 billion in annual aid, mostly military, under the terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords and subsequent peace treaty.

Now everything has changed. The new government in Egypt is going to be dominated by the two Islamist parties, the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salifi Nour Party representing the fundamentalist Salafi sect. In early public opinion polls, a majority of Egyptians were in favor of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel. A political struggle with the Egyptian military which is already underway, will no doubt continue as these parties are charged with drawing up a new constitution which will delineate the respective powers of the legislature, the military and the new president whose election is coming up. The constitution will also determine the extent that Islamic sharia law is part of the legal and cultural reality for Egyptian citizens. It is worthy of note that the more secular, liberal parties who played a significant role in the Tahir Square uprisings will be left out of this process by virtue of their poor showing in the legislative election. The settling of these issues will be a long term process and impose a significant level of uncertainty onto both domestic and regional politics.

Thus a regional power vacuum of sorts has developed with the new government in Iraq facing a difficult and violent sectarian divide, Iran finding itself under international pressure and increasing isolation, Syria in the throes of its own domestic uprising, Libya descending into tribal conflict, Yemen on the verge of its own internal struggle for political control, and Egypt distracted from regional affairs by its domestic divisions and power struggles.

There is much evidence that Turkey, under the guidance of its popular president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will attempt to step into the regional leadership void. Turkey in relative terms, is well positioned to seek such a leadership role. Although smaller than both Egypt and Iran geographically, its population is roughly the same as both (78-81 million) and the Turkish economy (GDP) is over three times the size of Egypt's which is currently struggling in the aftermath of the revolution. Turkey's economy is also more than one and a half the size of Iran's oil based economy and experiencing remarkable growth in the 8.5-9% range.

Such an initiative however contains several contradictions with respect to the interests of the West as well as the regional states. On the positive side, Turkey has long been regarded as a “Eurasian state” with borders on several southeastern European nations as well Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Thus, although it is an Islamic nation, it has a constitutional mandate that requires a secular government and an identity that does not fall completely into either the Middle East or Western categories. From the Western point of view, Turkey's membership in NATO and its expressed desire to join the European Union also draw a clear distinction with the more tribal and/or Islamic fundamentalist states in the region.

However, Turkey under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has adopted a more Islamic character while at the same time cracking down on political dissent, notably arresting numerous members of the press and recently, the former Chief of Staff of the military. This trend is part of an effort to achieve more credibility among the Islamic states in terms of foreign policy. The Erdogan government also supported the attempt by a Turkish ship with pro-Palestinian activists on board to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. This attempt resulted in a battle between the activists and Israeli commandos who boarded the vessel and led to several deaths among the activists. Turkey demanded an apology from the Netanyahu government in Israel which was rejected and which has resulted in a break of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

On the new issue of the anti-government uprising in Syria, Turkey has changed its position of backing the Assad regime and now supports the Arab League's demand for observers in Syria and an end of the government's harsh repressive measures against the protestors. This change of position is no doubt part of an assessment that the Assad regime will eventually fall, and also part of the effort to identify with the pro-democracy dynamic of the region while at the same time supporting the positions of the remaining autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who are members of the Arab League.

Perhaps the most difficult relationship for a regional leadership seeking Turkey will be the one with Iran. Turkey and Iran have a long history of cooperation, especially in trade. And until recently Turkey appeared to distance itself from the West in this respect. In the early stages of Iran's nuclear development efforts, while the U.S. and Europe started an escalating policy of economic sanctions over Iran's refusal to allow UN (IAEA) inspection of it's nuclear facilities, Turkey sided with Iran. As tensions grew, Turkey and Brazil negotiated a nuclear fuel swap program with Iran intended to keep high grade fissionable material out of Iran's control but provide them with the type of fuel necessary for electrical production. When this deal fell through, the West pushed enhanced economic sanctions.

Turkey is now essentially a competitor with Iran for regional influence. By turning against the Assad regime in Syria, which is Iran's main Arab ally and a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to its client, the anti-Israeli Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, Erdogan has taken an important step in changing the perception by the U.S. and European governments that he had focused his foreign policy away from the West and towards the Islamic nations of the Middle East. He has further alienated Iran by agreeing to the construction in Turkey of early-warning systems which are intended to defend Europe from Iranian medium range missiles. Iran claims that these sites are intended to warn Israel of a retaliatory strike should Israel bomb Iran's nuclear facilities and has threatened to attack them if Israel launches such an attack.

Thus, Turkey is engaged in a delicate balancing act in its pursuit of a more aggressive leadership position in the Middle East. To do this it seeks to reemphasize its Islamic identity while protecting its secular image with the West and its institutional ties with NATO and the European Union. The result has been a calculation based on strategic and economic reasoning to tilt away from its rival for influence, Iran, which is experiencing virtual political and economic isolation, and fill the political void left by the changes in “Arab Spring” governments. Turkey may well become one of the most important players on the Middle East stage with which the U.S. should seek to develop a closer diplomatic and strategic relationship.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

IOWA AND THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN STRATEGY


It's over! But it's just begun. There must be multitudes of weary citizens who thought the Iowa caucus race would never end. What does the outcome mean? Not very much. Certainly not the electoral equivalent of the millions of dollars spent and millions of words written and spoken in over analysis. So just a very few more words. Essentially who wins or does relatively well is less important than who loses or does poorly.

Past winners were “uncommitted” ('72 &'76), Tom Harkin, Richard Gephardt, Robert Dole ('88), and Mike Huckabee. These candidates won the caucuses but failed to win their party's nomination. However, no candidate who came in last or second from last except Michael Dukakis ('88, 3rd of 4) has gone on to win their parties nomination since 1972. So doing poorly tends to narrow the field and often severely diminishes the prospects for those at the bottom. In this years caucuses, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry have fallen into this category. Bachmann has dropped out and Perry is in all probability next. He is currently polling 2.3% in New Hampshire and has focused his energy and money on South Carolina where he currently polling 5.7%.


So while co-winner in Iowa, Rick Santorum, should get a bounce in New Hampshire from Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry voters who will be swayed by the results in Iowa, he still is a long shot in both the next two primaries, New Hampshire and in South Carolina whose Republican Tea Party supported Governor, Nikki Haley has endorsed Mitt Romney. Perhaps not in South Carolina but soon, Santorum will have to broaden his appeal from his anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage message that won evangelical votes in Iowa.

Meanwhile, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are gearing up for the national election. It has been the “conventional wisdom” that the Obama 2012 campaign strategy will have two main characteristics. This of course could change as circumstances change, but for now the pundits have generally agreed that Obama cannot campaign on his record although liberals give Obama credit for things he didn't actually do; things he did that were flawed; and things he did of which the nation as a whole disapproves. These would include “leading from behind” in the NATO role in the Libyan revolution which was led by a Canadian general and with most air support coming from the British and French; the 700 billion dollar stimulus which was supposed to create “shovel ready”jobs and thus stimulate consumption, but which did neither because it was turned over to the Congress which used the funds for parochial interests which were mostly out in the future in terms of job creation; and the passage of the national health care bill commonly known as “Obamacare” which currently 53% % of Americans want repealed and only 39% support and twenty-six states have sued to overturn.

However, in general it is Obama's overall record on the economy that is his biggest political weakness. In his 2008 campaign he made significant promises which provide a stark contrast to reality. Unemployment remains at just under 9% and federal deficits and debt have reached historic and unsustainable levels.
This has produced a political climate that Obama will not wish to dwell on. In fact, seventy-one percent of the nation believes “the country is on the wrong track”.

This leads to the second predicted emphasis for Obama's campaign which is that he will focus on attacking the Republican controlled House of Representatives for allegedly blocking initiatives that would have energized an economic recovery, as well as personal attacks on Mitt Romney who the Obama campaign assumes will be the Republican nominee.

Congressional Republican bashing however, while popular with committed Democrats, will not give the American people as a whole, a reason to give Obama another four years. There is also some evidence that liberal pundits and Administration officials will try to provide more substance to the campaign message by claiming success in foreign policy. This however, will be a difficult argument and be mostly centered around the claim that Obama killed Osama bin Laden which was a military success but can hardly be called a foreign policy success.

In terms of actual foreign policy, the Administrations “outreach” to the Muslim world has produced no positive results. In a survey of seven Muslim nations (May, 2011) only 25% of those polled had a “favorable” view of the U.S. and only 29% had “confidence” in Obama.

He has provided no leadership and no results in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, and indeed has alienated both the government and population of Israel. His much advertised “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations has resulted in a cave in over the plan to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the revised plan involving radar stations in Turkey, Romania and Poland have resulted in threats by the Russians to abandon the provisions of the recently signed START II arms control treaty and to target the missile defense bases with their own missiles.

The Iranian nuclear program remains intact while the government of Iran threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz to both international oil transport and the U.S. Navy. The Iraq war has been ended in a way that threatens to devolve into a state of sectarian strife, if not civil war, while the Shiite controlled government becomes more influenced by Iran. The critical relationship with Pakistan has reached a new low which will impact anti-terrorist cooperation and the conduct of the war in Afghanistan which drags on.

The only upside of these situations and failures for the Obama campaign is that the American electorate is so focused on domestic economic issues that interest in foreign affairs is not a prominent election issue. That upside could disappear in the Fall when the inevitable presidential debate over foreign policy is staged.

With Obama's job approval hovering around 46% and with the reality of these economic and foreign policy issues providing the context for the upcoming political debate, Obama's campaign strategists have turned to an electoral college numbers approach to try and come up with a winning formula in what promises to be a very close election, with Independent voters playing a crucial role in the outcome.

The heart of the strategy, as recently described by Obama campaign officials, is to start the electoral college quest for the necessary 270 of 538 votes by winning the so called “Kerry states”. That is, the eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, won by 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in his defeat by George Bush. These states are deemed to be “solid blue,”, or reliable Democratic states no matter what the political climate. In 2004, they provided 251 electoral votes for Kerry. Thus, under the Democratic strategy, Obama would only need to pick up 19 more electoral votes from the remaining 32 states to win reelection. Die hard Democrats are optimistic given that Obama won 28 states with 365 electoral votes in 2008. However, times have changed as the poll data cited above indicate.

First, the Constitutionally required decennial census was held in 2010. The census provides the basis for the reapportionment of state representation in the House of Representatives based on population shifts over the previous ten years. This process in turn, revises the Electoral College votes of each state since that vote is based on the number of members of the House from each state plus that state's two senators. The 2010 census reflected a mostly north to south population shift and subsequent loss of one representative in each of five of the Kerry states and a loss of two in one (NY) and a gain of one in the state of Washington. Thus the 2012 Electoral College votes in the Kerry states has been reduced from 251 to 245.

Taking a look at the strategy in the face of these new numbers and changed political environment reveals some real problems for the Obama campaign.

In 2008 Obama won nine states which went for Bush in 2004. While this seems to provide a fertile field for the search for twenty-five additional electoral votes, stated differently, Bush won 13 more states than Kerry where the now much discredited Obama must search for extra electoral votes.

First, a look at the current state of Obama's support in the “Kerry states”: Simply speaking the “Kerry Strategy has some dangerous holes in it. In seven of the eighteen Kerry states, the President is “under water in terms of job approval. 

                           Poll date    Approve/ Disapprove
Minnesota 10/26/11            41%/ 59%
Wisconsin 10/20/11            44/ 51
Michigan 11/13/11              46 / 46
Pennsylvania 10/30/11        37 -
NH           11/22/11             40 / 53
RI             12/15/11             44 -
New Jersey 10/13/11          43 / 52

These states have a combined total of 81electoral votes which are presently at risk of being deducted from the Kerry total. To make matters worse the so called critical “swing states” of Florida, North Carolina and Ohio with 62 electoral votes all have Romney tied or ahead of Obama even though he is not yet the Republican nominee. Obama's job approval ratings in these states are 45%/ 50% disapprove: 45%/50% disapprove: 47%/49% disapprove: respectively.

Clearly Obama's campaign strategy is built upon a shaky foundation. Much can change in ten months but once a Republican nominee is chosen opposition to Obama will become more focused and if Romney is the candidate, an appeal to the roughly 32% of the electorate comprised of self-described Independents should be more effective.