Archive | US politics RSS feed for this section

My @netflixUK must see political movies

6 Sep

I wrote this list of recommended political movies on Netflix (Ireland) for Broadsheet, it appeared online on August 16th. It was a follow up to my earlier Summer Political Reading list, which ran on Broadsheet on July 31, 2017 – see here. I will repost this book list on here shortly.

 

A few weeks back I offered you my suggested Summer political reading list, today I propose an accompanying political movie viewing list. The movies below all have the benefit of being available on the Irish Netflix service, but they can also be viewed elsewhere.

By the way, one of the authors featured in my political books list, Chris Patton, will be talking with John Bowman as part of Dublin City Council’s Dublin Festival of History on September 30th.

And now for the movies (links re to IMDb):

Best of Enemies: Buckley Vs Vidal

VidalThis is an absorbing account of the rivalry, if not visceral hatred, between US writers and commentators Gore Vidal and William F Buckley. Their stores are told through their participation in a series of televised appearance during the 1968 Democrat and Republican conventions. Rather than just show the conventions live, the US TV network CBS had elected, mainly due to costs, to invite both men, Vidal the darling of the liberal set and Buckley the arch conservative, on to debate each other and comment on that night’s convention proceedings.

We see the personal tension slowly mount between the two erudite, cultured and witty men. The movie features lots of archival material, along with selections of both men’s political prose read by Kelsey Grammer as Buckley and John Lithgow as Vidal. Even if you have no interest in politics, let alone US politics of the 60s and 70s, the story of the two men will enthrall.

American Anarchist

Sticking with the turmoil of 60s/70s America, if Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was the political handbook of the radical left in the 60s/70s then William Powell’s Anarchist’s Cookbook was the instruction manual for militant anarchists with its recipes and directions on how to make homemade munitions and ordinance.

The documentary interviews Powell today and explores his motivations in producing the book aged 19 and how he has spent most of life since regretting it. Powell reveals how he found the information in a series of US Department of Defence manuals openly available in the New York public library. The documentary explores the febrile atmosphere in America in the 60s (timely given the events of the past few days in Virginia) and how the Vietnam war and political scandal alienated many in that generation.

Get Me Roger Stone

StoneFrom Powell on the left we now turn to another product of 60s American, but this time from the right: Roger Stone. As with Rumsfeld’s Rules, or the earlier Fog of War, the makers attempt to tell the story of Stone’s career via a series of cynical rules that Stone claims has guided his career as a political operator and lobbyist. His “rules” are far from original, but it is a handy device to narrate his story and career trajectory from a minor walk-on role in Watergate, to a bi-sex scandal while advising Bob Dole’s presidential bid, to becoming a regular on the conspiracy lunacy that is Infowars.com, to serving as an adviser to Donald J Trump.

Stone comes across as a major league narcissist who was around when a lot of things happened, but was never really a mover and shaker in any of them. He is more than just a dirty tricks merchant, but not a lot more. All that said, he does offer a worthwhile perspective on the American Alt-Right and the blurring of the lines between media and politics and the documentary is entertaining and colourful.

My Way – The Rise and Fall of Berlusconi

From narcissists in America we now turn to one of Europe’s great political narcissists: Silvio Berlusconi. In this movie, the Italian Tycoon and politician tells his own story in a series of interviews with his biographer, former FT correspondent Alan Friedman. This is very much the film of the book, but offers an interesting insight into the man.

Emmanuel Macron – Behind the Rise.

MacronFrom an Italian looking backwards we move to a French man looking forwards. Behind the Rise is, as it claims, an objective look at the 200 days leading up to the final round of voting in this year’s French presidential election. The French film makers had virtually open access to the candidate and his campaign team, offering some fascinating insider footage of the campaign. The more fascinating thing is that the makers started making this movie before Macron emerged as a front runner.

The pace throughout is brisk. The production values are high. Macron emerges as a decent and driven guy who knows his own mind. We see him when he is relaxed and when he is stressed, even angry, but at all times he seems about eerily in control of himself.

Keep Quiet

KeepWith the recent Nazi protest in Charlottesville in mind, ever wonder how an anti-Semite would feel if they discovered that they are in fact, Jewish? Wonder no more. This absorbing and intriguing movie tells the story of a young ultra-far-right Hungarian politician, Csanad Szeged, who discovers via an even more anti-Semitic rival that he is, in fact, Jewish. At first his Jobbik colleagues advise him to keep quiet, but that proves impossible. The movie chronicles his journey from that point onwards and invites you to wonder if he is sincere or just an ambitious man looking for a cause, any cause.

Democrats

MugabeFinally, moving away from US and European politics, this remarkable film about Zimbabwean politics tells the stories of the two lead negotiators from Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition MDC-T as they struggle to work together to write a new constitution for the divided country. While it focusses on these co-chairs of the constitutional committee CoPac, the real main character is President Mugabe, who has only agreed to a new constitution under duress and now fights to cling to office threatening and intimidating opposition leaders. Watch Mugabe’s practised disdain as he launches the consultative process for a new constitution.

As an antidote to the politics overload suggested above I suggest the following series on Netflix for some binge viewing: First is the hilarious Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It follows the increasingly manic adventures of the “gang” who own and ostensibly run a dive bar in South Philly, which never seems to have any customers.

The other is Rake, the story of a self-destructive Aussie barrister with w criminal practice – he likes cocaine – and the price of his habit is outstripping his earnings. There is an American remake, which is a bit sanitised, but enjoyable nonetheless.

ENDS.

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…? My Broadsheet.ie column from Aug 8

12 Sep

Here is my “Mooney on Monday” Broadsheet column from August 8th last:  www.broadsheet.ie/three-cheers-for-the-system/

Three cheers for the system. Hip hip…. No? Nothing…?

blog_tag1This comes as no surprise. After the tumult and turmoil of the past few years it would require a hopefulness that bordered on the foolhardy to expect to hear anything even vaguely complimentary said about the system.

At so many levels, it failed us. The institutional accountability and oversight that we thought would prevent bank and financial crashes proved inadequate at best, and downright mendacious at worst.

It is a failure that reaches beyond the crash and extends right up to the present day with so many people seeing the present recovery as something that is happening in communities and areas other than theirs.

This feeling that is not unique to Ireland. We see echoes of it in the Brexit result in the U.K. with the high numbers of people in the former industrial heartlands of the midlands and the north of England voting to leave the EU.

We see it too in the support for Trump among blue collar workers in the “rust belt” states of the U.S. and in the support for Marine Le Pen’s Front National last December, particularly in the formerly industrialised areas of the North of France.

These were the parts most badly hit, not just by the crash, but by the advent of technology and globalisation before it. They have seen factories closed and jobs moved overseas. Not only that but it has all happened so fast, without time to adjust.

So, the lesson is straight forward: those most badly hit by the changing world and global financial crash are understandably those most likely to have lost most faith in the political and economic system.

So far, so logical. But there is a school of thought that suggests that the system – by which I mean economic and political systems – has not failed us as much as we might think.

Step forward political scientist and expert in international relations Prof Daniel Drezner. In his book: “The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression” Drezner maintains that the Global system worked, albeit inelegantly. He says that the efforts of central bankers and other policymakers within the G-20 IMF, WTO and other global institutions prevented the international crash becoming a full-fledged depression, like the 1930s Great Depression.

Indeed, he argues that while the global economy remains fragile (his book was written in 2014), that these global institutions survived the “stress test” of the crisis, and may have even become more resilient and valuable in the process.

This is not much comfort when you have lost your job and are struggling to find another. Knowing that the global system stopped the crisis toppling into a depression doesn’t make it easier to accept a big reduction in a living standard that was not all that high to start with.

Nonetheless, Drezner has a point. He reminds us how close we all came to falling into the abyss of another great global depression. His comparisons with the 1930s crash, and how we narrowly avoided it, are important as that economic and social collapse contributed to the collapse of trust and confidence in the systems of government then and the consequent rise of fascism in Europe.

So, just as we came close to another great depression, have we – or are we – coming perilously close to a similar political drift?

Many commentators see it in the global rise of populism. They see that Brexit vote in the UK, Putin’s reign in Russia, Le Pen’s progress in France and, most significantly, the rise of Donald Trump as evidence that populism is on the march, and a goose stepping march, at that. They see it in the demagoguery, the inflated rhetoric and – above all – the rejection of facts, evidence and expertise shown by Trump, Putin, Le Pen et al.

Doubtless, as we have come terrifyingly close to global depression, we may indeed be coming close to the return of some 21st century form of fascism, but just as we avoided one, I suspect we are also about to narrowly avoid the other, but only if the centre ground of politics holds and is not complacent.

While Marine Le Pen will almost certainly make it through the first round of voting in the French Presidential election next year, she is likely to be well beaten in the second round, a head to head contest between the top two candidates, especially if she is pitted against Alain Juppé.

As for the U.S., as the Trump gaffes and buffoonery of the past few weeks have shown, Donald Trump is less Benito A. Mussolini and more Rufus T. Firefly. (Firefly was Groucho Marx’s fictional leader of Freedonia in the 1933 movie Duck Soup).

This is not to say that Trump is a joke – far from it. But just as he is no joke, neither is he the Devil incarnate. Comparisons between Trump and Hitler are not just over the top, they miss the important point that his rise represents: a deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment among a large swathe of blue collar voters with the prevailing system. This is something I explored here in early June: Trump is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

In France, in the U.S., indeed just about everywhere, the political centre ground is being tested and it must come up with solutions that are not just a return to business as usual. As Michéal Martin T.D. observed in his John Hume Lecture at the recent MacGill Summer School:

“…for us to rebuild levels of political trust and engagement with the public, the path of a more reflective, expert and centre-ground politics is the only credible way forward”.

Maybe then, as E M Foster remarked in the introduction to his 1950 collection of political essays: Two Cheers for Democracy,

“We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two.”

Ehh.. #SocialMedia alone not to blame for coarsening of political debates

27 Jun

JoCoxFlowersThis is my Broadsheet opinion piece from June 20th, written in the aftermath of the horrific murder of labour MP, Jo Cox. broadsheet.ie/ad-hominemphobia/


As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.

Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.

There wasn’t.

Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.

Incensed by Fine Gael claims that he was too supportive of Chinese representation at the U.N. and that he had chosen to attend a U.N. meeting instead of the funeral of Pope Pius XII, Aiken, who was Foreign Minister at the time, fumed:

He [Deputy McGilligan] is a low type who would climb on the body of a dead Pope to have a crack at Fianna Fáil.

Can you imagine the memes if someone said that today? But blaming Social Media alone for the eroding of civility in public discourse, as some have done in recent days, is to miss a bigger point.

Of course there are armies of irresponsible anonymous online warriors out there ready to pour a stream of bile and abuse on anyone who disagrees with them or points out that their heroes have feet of clay.

They are on both the left and right. Indeed, some of the most illiberal vitriol can come from those styling themselves as liberal, but whose social media output is anything but.

There are lone wolves and there are organised hoards. Our own domestic example of the hoard are the Shinner-bots, a virtual battalion of anonymous trolls (with the emphasis on ‘anonymous’).

Within minutes of Gerry Adams being criticised online for his disgraceful ‘Django’ tweet, the Shinner-bots were insulting and lambasting anyone who dared to question the actions of the dear leader. Their goal: smother the critics by saying and posting anything necessary o shut down the discussion and drive their opponents offline.

Sadly, politicians and journalists, particularly female, come in for equally appalling treatment on social media. The attacks on journalists are probably more pernicious, as the aim is to influence their reporting not by weight of facts and debate, but by simple bullying.

But the point to remember is that the vast majority of people do not post or talk about politics on social media. Just in the same way as the majority of the people who vote for an individual TD do not contact them by email, letter or phone.

Most people are part of what Richard Nixon (OK, not the first name to leap to mind when talking about open dialogue) termed: “The Silent Majority”, the people who are following events, but who are not protesting, speaking out or expressing their political opinions beyond the ballot box or the odd discussion at home or in the pub.

Blaming the coarsening of debate on social media alone is akin to attributing the rise of Hitler to the invention of valve radio. It is a factor, particularly the facility for anonymous posting which certainly has helped the erosion of mutual respect in discussion, but there are other significant ones, including the dumbing down of political debate.

This dumbing down is practised by politicians and journalists alike.

In the 1968 U.S. presidential election the average candidate sound bite used on the TV evening news was 42 seconds. By the 2000 election, that had shrunk to about 7 seconds.

The trend was not limited to broadcast media. During the same period the average quote from a candidate appearing on the front page of the New York Times went from 14 lines to about 6.

We now do politics as if it was a skills test on a reality show: Your task is to set out how you will sort out Irish healthcare in 30 seconds… explain the rational for the UK remaining the EU in 140 characters.

Couple this rush to simplification with the urge for immediate commentary and analysis and you have a dangerous mix. In the days before social media, talk radio and rolling 24-hour news, politicians and journalists alike had the time to consider their responses and the space to expand on them.

Political analysis and political responses are now expected be immediate, hurried and brief. But what is the virtue of the immediate short response, be it in a radio interview or online?

If expecting a Minister to give their immediate gut response to a particular issue is now the norm, then how can we slam others for doing the same online, when they do it under their own name?

 

 

Shameful… @realdonaldtrump’s dog whistle politics

27 Jun
pulse-nightclub

Pulse Nightclub, Orlanda

This piece first appeared two weeks ago on Broadsheet.ie in the aftermath of the appalling events in Pulse nightcub in Orlando, Florida- link: broadsheet.ie/2016/06/13


When faced with a massive tragedy the natural inclination of most democratic political leaders, from across the spectrum, is to put partisan politics aside for a time and stand together in solidarity and grief.

Campaigns are put on hiatus, genuine political differences are temporarily put aside while the country mourns and tries to cope with the enormity of what has befallen it.

It is what happened in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and in Belgium and countless times in the USA in the aftermath of yet another mass slaying of innocent victims.

Yet, last night, even before the names and details of the 50 men and women callously slaughtered in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlanda had been released, the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate for the U.S. Presidency chose to take the other route, going was online to whip up anger and score political points off the worst instance of US domestic terrorism.

Within minutes of the news emerging, Trump took to Twitter to express his commiserations and grief saying: Horrific incident in FL. Praying for all the victims & their families. When will this stop?. He was expressing a sentiment shared by countless millions learning the news of the horrific homophobic attack.

But Trump could not leave it there. Within the hour he was back to acknowledge the messages he had received from his supporters. Now his focus was not on the yet unidentified Orlando victims and their families: he was shifting it back on him.

His tweet began: Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism…”. One hour out of the spotlight was too much for him to handle. Donald the Ego was back. His descent deep into the quagmire continued, actually it worsened, shortly after President Obama went on TV to express the grief and outrage of the American people.

Where President Obama sought to be measured calm and reassuring, Trump was reaching for the dog whistle both on twitter and in an intemperate statement calling for Obama’s resignation.

On Twitter he said: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban…” I responded to him on Twitter pointing out that a ban on Muslim immigrants would not have stopped the Orlando attack as the perpetrator was a US citizen, born in New York city.

Within minutes Trump’s online supporters were attacking me from all sides. Apart from their collective abhorrence of the prospect of more gun control, their arguments and rebuttals flatly contradicted each other.

Some said that I was missing the point and that an immigration ban would have stopped the killer’s parents from immigrating (though they were somewhat sketchy on how a ban imposed in 2017 could be backdated to prevent them entering 30+ years ago).

Others, the more hard-line ones, said that Trump would not just introduce a temporary ban on Islamic immigrants, but that he was in favour of banning Muslims – full stop. Some of these talked about how they could set up internment camps like (according to one deluded sole) those set up in WW2 or perhaps, even, deport them.

Another smaller set of Trump supporters, identifying themselves as immigrants for Trump, harangued me saying that it was me who was implying that all Islamic immigrants were terrorists and that Mr Trump had never said that.

It was hard not to be struck by the glaring inconsistencies and absolute contradictions between these most steadfast and passionate of Trump advocates and to reflect on how it is not the detail of what Trump says, but its vagueness and hollowness that attracts them.

He presents them with a blank platform upon which they can unload their own prejudices, grievances and bigotry without reference to what their fellow Trump supporters say or think.

While ugliness and confusion of these yelped Twitter responses can possibly be explained by the anger, ignorance and frustration of those involved, no such excuse can be applied to the man who lets loose this anger by, in the guise of leadership, blowing the dog whistle on this tragedy.

One of the reasons political leaders come together in the face of crisis or attack, be it internal or external, is that there know that there is strength in unity. They know the importance of being strong in the face of attack and signalling that there is more that unites us, than divides us.

Trump took the opposite course last night. In comments that might have been viewed, in days gone by, as treasonous and unpatriotic, Trump went well beyond usual partisan politics and dismissed America’s leadership as weak and ineffectual. He as good as said that the terrorists are winning.

How can you ever hope to make “America great again” by publicly talking it down in the wake of an attack?

Prof Simon Schama’s Tweet in the midst of the anger and turmoil last night summed it up best: “…we have a cultural civil war now in USA”. 

 

.@RealDonaldTrump is Riding A Zeitgeist Didn’t Create But Others Have Missed

20 Jun

donald-trump CNNHere is my Broadsheet column from June 7th 2016. Published online here:  http://www.broadsheet.ie/riding-a-zeitgeist 

——————————–

“Donald Trump looks as if he was playing a President in a porn movie.”  This was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s scathing put down of the Donald on BBC radio four’s News Quiz last Friday.

Maybe it is something to do with the Donald’s addiction to calling everything ‘huge’ (or as he says it: huuuuuge ) and lauding his own achievements with outlandish superlatives but Boyle’s taunt perfectly captures Trump’s OTT and hammy public appearances.

Trump’s emergence as a real contender for the White House has surprised most pundits including – if one of his former publicists is to be believed – himself.

How could this gauche, egotistical, property dealing demagogue tear up the US presidential campaign playbook and beat a string of long established Republican hopefuls?

Hard though we may find it to comprehend from this side of the Atlantic; but part of the Trump phenomenon is that he has teed-up this US presidential election to be a fight between the Washington insider: Hillary Clinton and the outsider: Trump.

Though we may find it difficult to conjure up the image of Trump as an outsider, but in the contest of Clinton Vs Trump, that is what he is.

The term “outsider” is a relative one, not an absolute. It is nothing to do with his history, background or experience, it is about the attitude and outlook he conveys.

Trump does not embody the outsider spirt, but he speaks to it – bluntly – to rally many millions of ordinary middle Americans who, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are now outsiders.

Since the 1970s the American middle class has shrunk from 61% of the population to 50%, while the American dream has become an increasingly distant prospect for the majority.

Many voters believe that America has lost its way and believe Washington is to blame. So, Trump paints the former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State and member of the newest US political dynasty as a member of the Washington elite and a part of their problem.

It is hardly a new tactic. First you paint your opponent, particularly if [s]he is an incumbent, as out of touch and elitist and then contrast yourselves with [s]he while reciting your voters complaints back at them.

But what Trump has done is a few steps beyond that. He is riding a zeitgeist that he didn’t create, but that others have missed.

Many of his potential voters are not blind to the fact that the few solutions he offers are unworkable or that he has no grasp of foreign policy. They almost embrace these failings.

They are using Trump as much as he is using them.

He is the battering ram with which they can break what they perceive as a broken and corrupt political system. It is why (and how) you can have the seeming incongruity of some Sanders supporters telling pollsters that they are willing to back Trump now that Hillary has beaten Sanders.

Though the analysis and solutions on offer from Senator Sanders differ huuugely from those hinted at by Trump, the core message is the same – America cannot tolerate more of the same.

Things have to change.

The insider versus the outsider analysis also applies in Ireland, particularly an Ireland still coming to terms with the economic upheavals of the last decade.

It explains, in part, the last election results and the massive losses suffered by Labour and Fine Gael.

The Irish Labour Party’s problem is that it has too many insiders and is now led by the arch insider. Though its one “token” ministerial outsider, Alan Kelly tried hard to portray himself as an outsider, but as I mentioned in a Broadsheet piece a few weeks ago, his fast-tracked “rise without trace” to the top makes him an insider.

Meanwhile, Labour’s former BFF, Fine Gael, is also replete with insiders, both generational and aspirational – by aspirational, I mean those whose career paths has followed the line: college – YFG – FG research office – TD’s parliamentary assistant – Ministerial Sp/Ad – TD – minister, without any stop offs in the real world.

With his capacity for kicking against the traces, Leo Varadkar is possibly the closest thing that FG has had to an outsider since John Deasy.

On the other end of the spectrum, Sinn Féin and the various alphabet left alliances are, on the surface at least, full of political outsiders. Though, in the case of SF, it is hard to portray yourself as a complete outsider when your leader predates the electrification of the Howth/Bray rail-line and shares Trump’s penchant for the outrageous tweets.

Traditionally, in Irish Politics, the Independent TDs have been the outsiders. In particular, people like Neil T. Blaney or Jim Kemmy, who broke away from their parties or Tony Gregory who described party politics as strangling.

Which of today’s much larger crop of Independents from the Healy-Raes to the McGraths to Ross, Halligan and Zappone will still be regarded as outsiders in two or three years time will be interesting to see.

Which brings us to Fianna Fáil: Ireland’s outsider insiders.

For most of its history, there has been something of the outsider edge to Fianna Fáil, indeed the party has been at its most successful when led by outsiders, such as Ahern and Lemass.

Even Haughey, for his love of horses, fine dining and hand tailoring had a bit of the outsider/arrivisté about him – especially when contrasted with Garret Fitzgerald’s professorial, relic of aul’ deceny.

As I said earlier, in the context of Trump’s positioning of himself, being the outsider is a relative position, not an absolute one. It is how Michéal Martin’s Fianna Fáil has repositioned itself on the political spectrum.

Compared to Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael and Joan Burton’s Labour, Martin is – despite his long experience around the cabinet table – more of an outsider.

Not only has he has learned the lessons of the crash, he demonstrated over the course of the last election and in the weeks since that he has grasped that we need to change the way we do politics and that what kind of worked in the 90s will not work today.

ENDS

LBJ’s great rule of life: “Don’t tell a man to go to Hell unless you can send him there.”

25 Feb
LBJ pulling yet another beagle's ears (His own dog was named Little Beagle Johnson (LBJ)

LBJ pulling yet another beagle’s ears.  His own dog was named Little Beagle Johnson (LBJ)

While surfing the internet tonight I dam across this little nugget, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Rules of Life”. The ebullient LBJ was a larger than life character who contemporaries descibed as highly driven, ambitious and devoid of any interests or past-times outside politics.

Though mainly remembered now as the President who even further embroiled the US in the Viet Nam war (a policy he inherited from JFK) too many forget his personal campaign for massive social reform, entitled: The Great Society. You can find the text of LBJ’s first Great Society speech here

While some of these rules encapsulate his own very earthy style, not to mention his cynical approach to the apparatus of government and office, others – especially number 7 – are worth noting by anyone considering a life in politics.

1. “Never trust a man whose eyes are too close to his nose.”

2. “Always be sure to have 25% cotton in your undershirts; otherwise your titties will itch.”

3. “Remember the CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn’t let them into the family brokerage business.”

4. “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.”

5. “When you are handshaking on the campaign trail, never let the other fellow grab your hand first—grab his hand and elbow and throw him past.”

6. “Before getting into a motorcade, always go to the bathroom and pee.”

7. “Don’t tell a man to go to Hell unless you can send him there.”

8. “When things haven’t gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention.”

Obama – one year on from his second victory

12 Nov

My column for The Herald from Washington DC on my “coffee shop” poll one year on from President Barack Obama’s second term win.

My "in Washington" Herald column

My “in Washington” Herald column

“The worse I do, the more popular I become”. So said the late President Kennedy trying to understand his higher poll ratings after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Almost exactly 50 years after Kennedy’s assasssination the words could just as easily sum up Barack Obama’s past year. Sitting here, looking out from my Washington DC hotel bedroom towards the Dome of the Capitol building; it is hard to believe it is over a year since I was writing about the 2012 Presidential debates. Though his lack lustre performancein the first debate hurt his poll ratings in the opening weeks, I had no doubt he would be re-elected.

The real question one year ago was if Obama’s second term could deliver the hope and promise which his 2008 campaign promised and his first term failed to match. One year on, it seems that his record in his second term will not be any more impressive than his record in the first.

Over the past 12 months he has presided over a budgetary crisis that effectively shut down large parts of the federal bureaucracy; the Snowden leaks and allegations of spying on friendly governments; continuing problems with his health care reforms, indecision over how to respond to the Syrian crisis and worsening relations with Russia and Putin. Add the sluggishness of the American recovery and you have a catalogue of woes that should have his political foes beside themselves with glee – but they’re not.

Just as in the 2012 election: Obama is blessed with his opponents. Over the past week the President has, as leader of the Democratic Party, witnessed three significant victories: in the Mayoral elections in Boston and New York and the Gubernatorial election in nearby Virginia where the former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a man with several relations in Dublin, won in a traditionally Republican State.

Though techically a victory for the Republic Party, the President can also add moderate Governor Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey to the Democrat column. The more conservative “tea party” republicans seem very reluctant to rejoice in Christie’s win, with the darling of the American right Newt Gingrich saying that he was more of a “personality” leader rather than the leader of a movement.

Maybe he is right. Perhaps Gov Christie is just media savvy creation and not the real deal, but his capacity to win over moderates, women and Latinos is something the Republican Party needs if it is to convince voters, post Obama, that they are worth a second look.

For decades before George W Bush presidential elections were fought on the basis of the Democrat lurching to the left to win the nomination but steering back to the centre to win the election itself and the Republican doing likewise, only to the right first,then back to the centre. Bush and his campaign stratagust Karl Rove changed that – they went right towin the nomination and then stayed there working on bring out new right of centre voters. The model worked in 2000 and 2004, but is now bust. The voters know it. The people at the top of the Republican Party know it. Only their grassroots don’t get it. Very few of the people I spoke with over the past few days here in Washington DC and in neighbouring Virginia, regret voting for Obama. They may feel let down by the President, but almost none believe that Romney was the way to go. Though hardly an exhaustive or scientic survey. To be frank it was conducted mainly in bars, coffee shops and stores. I did try to correct any imbalance in the sample due to my social habits by also talking to people attending the same business conference as me. Those interviews yielded the far from astounding conclusion that those who complain most loudly about Obama, never voted for him. Just like it is back in Dublin.

Truly talented scared off from political bearpit

24 Aug

This is my latest column on how “playing the man, not the ball” is hurting Irish politics. It appeared in today’s Herald (August 24th 2013):

Evening Herald Aug 24, 2013

Evening Herald Aug 24, 2013

With the council elections due next May local political organisations will soon make final decisions as to which of their aspiring candidates will make it on to the ballot paper.

Given the time and energy many of them have already put in to proving that they can get elected, it is tough to see willing and able people rejected, but politics is a tough business.

Unfortunately most new candidates, just like most new businesses, fail. Only a few ever make it to the national stage.

Predicting who will is more a dark art than a science. From my experience of running campaigns the key predictor of success is not passion or commitment, its obsession… and I don’t mean the fragrance.

Those most likely to succeed in modern Irish politics, even at the local level, are those who need and crave that success more than almost anything else.

This does not mean that they are not interested in leading and improving their communities: most are, but that comes a weak second to their determination to succeed.

But here is the contradiction: we risk making political life so demanding, intrusive and tough that those with ideas and initiative are frightened away leaving the obsessive, the egotistical and the power hungry.

This is nothing to do with constituency work. Most are prepared for doing clinics and handling representations. The problem is that politics’ traditional “cut and thrust” has become a lot more vicious and brutal. The old rule of “nothing personal, only politics” is giving way to the “everything is personal” one.

How many people do you know who are thinking of getting into local politics? I bet it is not many.

Political parties are finding it hard to persuade people to run. There are many community activists and leaders who are qualified to run, but not so many prepared to accept today’s levels of attention and scrutiny, not just from the media.

Politics today requires politicians as thick skinned as a T-Rex but with the purity of the Dalai Lama. Have any form of skeleton in your cupboard and you may kiss your chances of succeeding goodbye. The rule now is: one strike and you are out. How many of the great political leaders of the past century could pass that test: Churchill, Kennedy, Mitterand?

The irony is that this increasing pressure is not coming in the first instance from the media – it is coming from other politicians.

They are the hacks greatest sources of political tittle-tattle and gossip. They are the ones most likely to play the man not the ball.

Not that this is a new phenomenon. As George Orwell wrote over half a century ago, “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Add the power, immediacy and spread of the web and social media, texting plus the emergence of the constant campaign – where candidates are in campaign battle mode all year round – and suddenly a piece of damaging gossip that might once have had an audience of hundreds has a far wider and less forgiving audience.

It is what President Obama described some years ago as “the coarsening of our political dialogue” In an age when many voices are competing for attention and coverage he concluded “…that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention”, posing the question: “How can we make sure that civility is interesting?”

We see it here too. How often have you listened to TV or radio discussion and concluded that these two have no respect for each other? I recall one recently when a next generation politician, who I shall not identify, deftly dispensed with any discussion of facts or and focused on undermining the integrity of an opponent who was not even there.

Why would anyone who either with a successful career elsewhere offer to subject themselves to that?

Image

Mitt Romney heading to White House… but just to visit

29 Nov

Mitt Romney heading to White house

I snapped this pic of Mitt Romney on my Nokia phone just outside The Warner Theatre on Pennsylvania Ave, DC. He was on his way to the nearby White House for lunch with President Obama.

As soon as Florida became too close to call, it was all over

7 Nov

My take on the US Presidential election results from tonight’s Evening Herald

My Evening Herald column on the Obama victory night

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!” If this is how Henry Ford felt about his cash you can only imagine how the campaign treasurers in both American parties feel about 90% of theirs.

Last January polls showed Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat within a point or two of each other. Ten months and some €4.7billion of campaign spending later and the two parties appeared to have hardly budged an inch.

Watching the early results in the Presidential and Congressional come in this morning you had to wonder did either candidate or party get value for its money.

On Monday I said that I though Obama would win and that he would win the majority of the so called battleground States. While I was fully confident of that view when I penned it last Monday, I did have one brief  moment of doubt last night.

It came by way of a stern but firm Facebook message from an old friend in New York. He said he thought that Romney might just shade it. His comments came as a bit of a shock as my mate is no political novice and is usually a good judge of these things.

The first key result I was waiting for was Virginia. While Obama could win the election without winning in Virginia it would be a good early indicator of how the election was going.

According to the US TV networks they would be ready to make a prediction, based on exit polls, about 30 minutes after midnight Irish time.

The final pre election polls had Obama set to win it by around 2%, but that was inside the margin of error.  The exit polls would tell all. My heart sank a little when the Networks declared Virginia too close to call at the appointed time.

Could my mate be right? Could it be that Romney had managed to claw back enough to reverse Obama’s small lead? Virginia was not essential or critical to an Obama win, but it might be an indication of other problems.

The uncertainty lasted about thirty minutes. Soon reports started to emerge that Florida was too close to call. On Monday I had predicted it would go to Romney. Almost every polling company had been calling it for Romney for weeks, yet the reports coming out from precincts and districts across the State were saying that it was neck and neck.

Latino, women and young voters were coming out for Obama in bigger numbers and by wider margin than predicted. Obama had been expected to get about 66% of the latino voter, but the exit polls were not putting it at 71%..

Florida was the third easiest State for Romney to win from Obama, yet it was going to Obama, though only just. Of the swing sates only two: Indiana and North Carolina went to Romney, the rest stuck with the President.

In each case the margin was tight, but in America’s first past the post system, the winner takes it all.

By a little after 3.00am is was virtually all over. While there were several races still too close to call, all were favouring the President. Obama had not won the magic 270 electoral college votes but it looks now that there was almost no mathematical possibility of Romney reaching it.

While he was not losing them by large margins the States were being stacked up against Romney.  By 4am it was all over once Ohio was called for Obama. With that Romney’s last remaining hope was quashed. While a few diehard Republicans refused to accept the prediction it was over and so Election 2012 ended with a stronger Electoral College victory for Obama, 332 to 206, than even I dared imagine a few days ago.