Archive for the American Politics Category

What has happened to the party of Lincoln?

Posted in American Politics with tags , , on September 17, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I have at times bemoaned the duality of British party politics (I think it is looking every day even more of a duality despite a third ‘force’ arriving in the shape of the LibDems) and have wondered whether a primary system to elect party candidates for general elections would help bring fresh thinking and new blood into parliament.

Then I look at the American system and conclude we are much better off with what we’ve got. Tuesday’s primary election results demonstrate what can happen when a major political party is hijacked by one of its wings, in this case the American Tea Party movement, spearheaded by Sarah Palin.

Christine O’Donnell who beat the establishment Republican candidate in Delaware is the new poster girl for ‘Tea Party-ists’. She is a product of the Christian Right who believes the Bible should be interpreted literally and is anti-masturbation, pro-guns and pro-torture (I’m not kidding!). She is widely regarded as being unelectable in the general election when she will face a Democrat on the first Tuesday in November.

Personally, I can’t wait to read her manifesto. Presumably the American public will be told that they can sell their youngest daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7) and put to death any shop workers who defy the Sabbath and turn in for work (Exodus 35:2).

I’m being facetious, but there is a wider point here. Moderate Republicans, who are willing to reach ‘across the aisle’ and look for bi-partisan agreement in Congress on key legislation which could help lift the US economy out of recession and put people back into work, fear being branded collaborators or even worse ‘liberal’ by the Tea Party Movement who have no qualms about putting up one of their own candidates in a primary to face them.

How long will this go on for? There have been ‘movements’ in American politics before, notably the Bull Moose Party, the Progressives, the Populists and even Ross Perot. All have shone brightly for a time and then flamed out. It is likely that the Tea Party Movement will go the same way, but it could cause unbelievable damage in the meantime. It is difficult to believe at times that this Republican Party is the same party that Abraham Lincoln belonged to.

For Obama, the Tea Party movement is good news. He was looking at a whitewash in November but can now brand the Republicans as extremist. There is every chance now that the Democrats can hang onto the Senate even if they lose the House.

However, the Democrats have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory or in this case catastrophe from the jaws of a setback. As British comedian John Oliver said last night on the satirical news programme The Daily Show, he fully expects a leading Democrat to be photographed battering to death the American Eagle with a copy of the Koran any day now.

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Obama puts BP in Deepwater

Posted in American Politics with tags , , on June 16, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

My first reaction to President Obama’s slating of BP was that those in glasshouses should not throw stones.  I certainly would have liked to bring American business practices in this country to the President’s attention, particularly in relation to Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury and the leveraged buy-outs of our two most successful football clubs which leaves both now cumulatively £1.5 billion in debt.

However, while it is clear that the President is justifiably seething with BP, cold political calculation is also playing a part here.  The President faces a difficult set of mid-term elections in November in which Louisiana, and in particular Florida, are likely to play key roles.  He will be desperate to avoid the sort of backlash that hit the Clinton Administration in 1994 that ushered in Newt Gingrich and his ‘Contract with America’, which all but stopped the previous Democratic Administration in its tracks.

I also suspect that Obama sees opportunity in this crisis.  One of the major stumbling blocks to reform in the US is the Senate, which remains precariously balanced with 57 Democrats, 42 Republicans and two independents, leaving the Democrats only  a handful of seats short of avoiding a filibuster, by which a Senator can literally talk a bill to death without it ever coming to vote.  Obama may be calculating that precious climate change and clean energy legislation can be rammed through the Senate with support of Gulf State Senators who dare not vote against such a bill at this moment in time.

Almost as big a question now is what happens to BP?  Again, Obama has put them on the rack by demanding a $20 billion escrow account to compensate all those affected by the Deepwater disaster.  The problem is that the money would most likely come from the shareholder’s multi-billion pound quarterly dividend which institutional investors are expecting in the coming weeks.  The Board is therefore stuck between a seething President of the United States and very nervous, and potentially very angry, shareholders.

The smart money at the moment is that BP will muddle through in the short term before being taken out by a competitor once the furor has died down.  This is infinitely preferable to bankruptcy, but whatever happens you have to suspect that this Board and the company is all but finished.

ObamaCare highlights the gridlock in Washington

Posted in American Politics on March 23, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Much has been written already about the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives on Sunday night over healthcare in America, but I thought one statistic neatly encapsulated the problem that America has with its political system at the moment. All 178 members of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives voted against the Bill.

The American political system is much more fluid than here in the UK. The political parties are little more than loose coalitions which meet once every four years. Politics in the States has therefore always been about building coalitions across the aisle on specific pieces of legislation, which can happen when there is no whipping system as we have here in the UK. For example, it was an alliance of Northern Republicans and Western Democrats, led by Hubert Humphrey, which managed to pass the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War, which granted the vote to African Americans.

But, in America today, the Republican Party is using a form of ‘whipping’ to keep its representatives in line, namely the threat that Conservative Repulblican candidates will be put up against incumbent Republican Congressmen and Senators in primary (one party) elections. The result is that Congressmen and Senators dare not ‘cross the aisle’ to support legislation even if it is in the interest of their constituents. The result all too often is gridlock and pitched battles for votes as seen on Sunday.

The Healthcare Bill is not perfect, but approximately 30 million more Americans have access to healthcare today. Michael Moore the documentary filmmaker (his film Sicko is a hilarious ‘must see’ on this subject) said on Channel 4 News last night that this is only a partial victory, due to the dropping of the publicly funded option (the new system will still be privately administered by insurance companies) describing the Conservative Republican stance as little more than “we’re American, we’ll heal ourselves”.

Despite its flaws this is an extraordinary victory for Obama. It must be remembered that in one stroke he has done what great political fixers like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (the 32nd President) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (the 36th President) couldn’t.

Obama’s Surge

Posted in American Politics on December 7, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Blogging offers the chance for instant opinion, but sometimes I can’t help but think that it is better to let things percolate through the brain cells a while before hitting the keyboard. Having been confined to my sickbed for a few days last week it gave me chance to think through the wider implications of President Obama’s decision to send a further 30,000 troops into Afghanistan.

My initial reaction was that Obama was on a road very similar to that which both Nixon and Kissinger trod in the early 1970s. As in Vietnam, America is propping up a corrupt government with a well armed internal insurgency. For “building the Afghan army” read “Vietnamisation”, for “troop draw-downs” read “withdrawal timetable”. The President does not like this analogy, but as Thomas Friedman said on The Daily Show, Vietnam was the “elephant in the room” when political journalists were briefed over lunch last week.

There is a wider question now though for both American and British foreign policy which is, “can modern democracies with a free press fight open-ended commitment wars?” The reason I ask is that the reality of the matter is that UK deaths in Afghanistan, whilst tragic have been astonishingly low, particularly when you consider the closer quarter nature of much of the fighting. Circa 240 deaths for a near 10 year commitment.

However, this perspective is lost in the media reporting from Afghanisation. Each death is now covered in an extremely personal manner. We know names, details of their family lives, we see coverage of a convoy of black cars from RAF Lyneham; we even have archive television interviews with the fallen. It was Stalin who said “one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” Without clear objectives and a timetable to “bring the troops home” it certainly looks like the British public cannot take too much more tragedy and that has deep implications going forward as to how troops are used in future. Short term, police actions such as that in Kosovo in the early 90s are likely to be the order to the day from now on.

Ultimately, Kissinger devised what became privately known as the ‘Decent Interval’ strategy to end American involvement in Vietnam. He knew the war was unwinnable, but tried to extricate America with as much face as he could retain. The idea was to build up South Vietnamese forces to a point where they could take up the burden of the fight long enough for America to extricate itself and leave a ‘decent interval’ before inevitable collapse. Ultimately American troops left in 1973 and the South collapsed two years later. Nobody will admit this is the plan for Afghanistan, but I suspect this is the road we are on.

A Cronkite moment?

Posted in American Politics on November 9, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The Independent’s editorial decision yesterday to call for a British Army pull-out from Afghanistan is, to use military speak, a first ‘beachhead’ in the national press for the anti-war brigade.

At present, this does not feel like a Cronkite moment, in which public opinion is turned decisively against a conflict by a trusted authority figure. Walter Cronkite’s famous declaration about Vietnam, live on CBS News (“this war is unwinnable”) was the beginning of the end for American involvement in South East Asia and prompted President Johnson to declare, “if we’ve lost Walter, we’ve lost the American public.”

The Independent does not have that sort of authority, but this is undoubtedly a key moment with the Indy tapping into an increasing public mood of disillusionment. The major political parties now have a national newspaper actively campaigning against continued involvement which will only add to the pressure on them to outline, during the coming election campaign, a coherent strategy going forward. I suspect vague declarations of “not giving in” and “seeing this through to the end” are not going to cut it anymore.

The issue now is, who will flock to the Indy’s banner? Both Labour and the Conservatives are wed to this war for different reasons. Labour, because they got us into it in the first place, and the Conservatives because the party’s history and culture will not allow them to be seen as anything less than stoically pro-war. There is enough skepticism about Project Cameron at grass roots level already without him going all pacifist.

However, I suspect the Lib Dems will be looking at this situation as an opportunity this morning. Clegg has been positioning himself as a war skeptic for some time now and I wonder whether a set of clear objectives for Afghanistan, measurable signposts for success over a 2-3 year period and even a timetable for withdrawal, would be a vote winner at the coming election. It would also give Clegg the opportunity to put the other leaders on the hook in any televised debate.

One more thought. All of this is dependent upon the current deliberations within the Obama Administration about the future direction and support for this war. By the time we reach a General Election in April or May 2010 America might be well on the road to total withdrawal hoping only for a Kissinger-inspired modern day ‘decent interval’ before Afghanistan returns completely to its centuries old lawlessness.

In Retrospect . . . again

Posted in American Politics on July 7, 2009 by Tom Leatherbarrow


The title of yesterday’s blog was inspired by Robert S McNamara’s 1995 book in which the former American Secretary of Defense admitted, with hindsight, that he and others in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations got so many decisions “wrong, terribly wrong” in their running of the Vietnam War or, as it became known, “McNamara’s War”. It is a superb and controversial book, unsparing in its self-assessment of the author’s own failings, an apology for his role in inflicting the long nightmare of America’s involvement in South East Asia.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I got home last night and learned that McNamara had passed away that very morning. The Washington Post had immediately leapt into action and opened a discussion forum on McNamara’s life, inviting readers to post their own thoughts on his passing. Predictably, 95% of the comments were highly negative.

This is not the place, and we certainly don’t have the time, to start a discussion on American involvement in Vietnam, but I could not help thinking that, however controversial he may have been, at least McNamara had the honesty and courage to admit he was wrong, albeit thirty years later. I listened to McNamara speak at the Hay on Wye book festival many years ago and was hugely impressed by his humility and remorse. In an era of self-justificatory memoirs from politicians and those in public life, I doubt whether we will often see such courage again.

One final thought. Prior to becoming Secretary of Defense, McNamara was CEO of the Ford Motor Company and is generally credited with the introduction of the seat belt in the mid-1950s, in the process saving countless lives. Any fair assessment of his legacy will take this into account.