Category Archives: U.S. Politics

Energizing the base—and suppressing the opposition—in 2012

The state of the U.S. economy is the critical indicator for this year’s presidential election, but who better turns out their base will be as pivotal. Both President Barack Obama and probable Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney have significant challenges in this respect.

While President Obama continues to receive high personal approval ratings, his overall job performance, most pointedly his stewardship of the economy, is viewed dimly—although perceptions have improved recently as he has become more populist in tone and aggressive in his criticism of Republicans. The classic question Americans ask in an election is whether they are better off now than they were four years previously. A majority of Americans perceive their situation as having deteriorated since Obama became president. As a result, enthusiasm and support for Obama have unquestionably waned; many are disillusioned.

The long-stated Republican goal of ensuring Obama to be a one-term president—see Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on the subject—means too that the Republican presidential nominee—the “anti Obama”—needs to be someone around whom the party can really rally. The tight 8-vote victory of presumptive nominee Romney over Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul running a close third, in this week’s Iowa caucuses highlights that Republicans are not united by or enthralled with Romney’s candidacy. The Republican faithful do not support Romney with their usual commitment to their leading presidential contender. He is perceived as too moderate and inconsistent on conservative issues—he has derisively been called “John Kerry without the medals”—in a political party that has lurched rightward due to Tea Party influence, and his Mormon faith is problematic for the many evangelicals in the party.

So both the Democratic incumbent and the likely Republican contender have enthusiasm deficits. Turnout issues extend to the demography and make-up of their supporters.

President Obama has lost luster with many of his young, previously keen supporters. Youth in 2008, many voting for the first time, were greatly motivated by Obama’s campaign of change, his message of hope, and his inspiring personal story, and they canvassed, organized, and turned out for him in a big way. Now they are most disappointed. Change hasn’t come to the extent promised, and the tough jobless economic recovery and brutal political environment in Washington have crushed the hopefulness Obama represented.

The Occupy movement, which involves some former but now disillusioned Obama supporters, presents a challenge for Obama. Obama is part of the “1 percent” by dint of his financial success as the author of Dreams from My Father, his sensitive exploration of his roots, and The Audacity of Hope, his 2006 policy prescriptions for America; his life embodies the proverbial “American Dream”. Obama frequently espouses the themes the Occupy movement introduced into American political discourse, but it would be politically suicidal for him to get any closer to Occupy. Similarly, Occupiers might not feel motivated to organize or work for Obama this time, but it would be a massive blunder if they remained indifferent and didn’t turn up to vote for him on November 6. Particularly since Obama’s likely opponent is a very wealthy former CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity company, who epitomizes crony capitalism on Wall Street and the “1 percent”. Indeed, Romney was born into the “1 percent”. His father too was a CEO, of a car company.

A factor from the Iowa caucuses to watch was the strong turnout of young people for isolationist Ron Paul. Did they vote for Paul because of his obvious anger and disgust at the way things have been run? Could the main candidates re-engage these alienated youth for the general election?

Apart from youth and students, other constituencies vital to electing Obama in 2008 were women, poor people, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities. Republican lawmakers in over a dozen states, many of them so-called “swing” or battleground states, have passed laws in recent months that aim to restrict access to the polls. These laws intentionally target Democratic-leaning sections of society by imposing strict voter-ID registration requirements, limiting registration drives, and reducing early voting. In December 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would investigate such laws, to ensure they were not discriminatory or disenfranchising. Other ways have been used to limit voter turnout. For example, an aide to former Maryland Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich was recently convicted for initiating robocalls to African American voters in the 2008 gubernatorial election, telling them erroneously late that Election Day that they didn’t need to go and vote as the result had already been established.

Resorting to these types of initiatives to restrict voter turnout highlights a perception challenge for Republicans. The Republican Party is increasingly seen as a party of white, born-again, blue collar Americans. A wry observation from National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” underscores this perception problem. Commenting on the Mayan prediction that the world will end in 2012, Alonzo Bodden noted that “Surprisingly, Herman Cain becomes the Republican nominee [he earlier suspended his campaign]. And when forced to choose between two black people, the conservatives decide to nuke the planet instead.”

The strong desire to deny Obama re-election may have Republicans flocking to the polls, even if they are lukewarm about their eventual nominee. Dismay with the gridlock and partisanship in Washington—the public has given Congress its lowest-ever job performance rating of single digits—could result in yet greater voter apathy, or could concomitantly inspire voters to emphatically kick out all incumbents.

So, folks, if you thought the tone of the 2011 local elections was combative (see the photo of a Virginia campaign placard), watch out for 2012. It’s likely to be worse.

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The “99 percent”

A tense standoff last night between Occupy D.C. protesters and police over an unauthorized wooden structure that protesters provocatively erected and police predictably took down, arresting 31 in the process, may escalate into a wider confrontation. Police may now decide that the two Occupy D.C. camps must be cleared. Or the camps may be allowed to continue, so long as the occupants resume their previous non-aggressive style. Whatever official decision is made, as the temperature dips further this winter, I predict that the ranks of Occupy D.C. are likely to thin.

Police in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Portland, amongst other cities, have already evicted protesters from parks and arrested those who resisted leaving. The clearing of the University of California at Davis campus was particularly controversial due to police pepper spraying kneeling protesters, actions that were captured on video. Mayors have justified clearing the parks as necessary for public health, and overnight camping is prohibited in many parks.

Yet the factors that motivated the Occupy movement have hardly dissipated. They are still very much in play. These include anger at expanding income disparities, where the wealthy “1 percent” gets richer and richer and the rest of society—the “99 percent”—receives diminishing or no benefit. Protesters are also disgusted at crony capitalism and how individuals and institutions in the financial and mortgage sectors were not punished for their role in the 2008 financial collapse and mortgage crisis but were instead bailed out. There is also deep frustration over ongoing unemployment and the lack of prospects, and worry about debt and the inability, for example, to repay student loans.

While the Occupy movement may have a winter go-slow, there is no question in my mind that the movement will be back in the spring, especially because of the pivotal presidential election in 2012.

The Occupy movement has profoundly changed political discourse in the United States. All discussion now on how to revive the economy to foster job creation while simultaneously cutting spending and raising revenues to cut the federal debt is phrased in terms of the impacts on high-earners, the middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. Where to make necessary spending cuts and how and for whom to increase taxes are the core issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. That is the accomplishment of the Occupy movement.

As I walked through the two camps of Occupy D.C. last week, chatting to people here and there, the significant political impact of the Occupy movement was not all I pondered. I marveled, honoured, and celebrated freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The two Occupy D.C. camps are in the heart of Washington, D.C. The one camp, Occupy McPherson, is literally two blocks northeast of the White House; this is where yesterday’s clash with the police occurred. The other camp is at Freedom Plaza. This site is flanked by Pennsylvania Avenue as the road heads from the White House and the Treasury Department to Capitol Hill, passing the Willard Hotel, one of D.C.’s swankiest, and the National Theatre, both now gaily festooned in Christmas finery.

Yes, Washington is the “protest capital” of the United States, so local authorities are used to this type of activity and are conditioned to tolerate it. Yes, prior to yesterday’s skirmish, police had issued warnings to D.C. Occupiers about, for example, urinating in public and the like; possible pretexts to clearing the camps? Nevertheless, the camps are an extraordinary sight, and their persistence in their prominent locations highlights the core values of a tolerant society.

During my most recent stroll through Occupy D.C. camps, I wondered how other societies marked by huge disparities in income between rich and poor would handle such ongoing protests. I tried to imagine “Occupy Beijing”, with protesters camping in Beihai Park, the dusty public park nearest to the lush, well-manicured Zhongnanhai, Chinese leaders’ official compound in the heart of Beijng. The Chinese leadership’s initial tolerance of weeks-long protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a massive blood bath. Today on Tiananmen Square, any attempt at protest, whether it is shouting obscenities or unfurling a critical banner, is squashed immediately by the vigilant, always present security officials. Instant arrest is guaranteed.

I thought about other protest movements that have emerged from the “99 percent” in 2011: The groundswell of public discontent in Arab countries that has felled dictators; and the protests in India supporting activist Anna Hazare’s campaign for tougher laws against chronic graft.

As I meandered amidst the tents of Occupy D.C., I wondered about South Africa, my home country with its alarming income inequality. Wealth there is concentrated in a small elite, government and corporate corruption is now widespread, unemployment is shockingly high, and many young people feel they have no prospects or productive means to improve their lives. Despondency increased with recent passage of a democracy-narrowing Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) whereby classified information that is in the public interest cannot now be disclosed. Exposing government corruption or malfeasance is now seen as threatening national security.

How tolerant would South African authorities be of an “Occupy Pretoria” or an “Occupy Cape Town” that tapped into public disgust at government corruption? Imagine a tent city of frustrated, unemployed youth and other representatives of the “99 percent” in the terraced gardens under the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or in the Gardens adjoining Parliament in Cape Town. Would the South African government allow such months-long encampments? I reckon neither an “Occupy Pretoria” nor an “Occupy Cape Town” would be tolerated as long as Occupy D.C. has been allowed to endure.

Taking a leaf out of the Republican presidential field

How Washingtonians deal with the fallen tree leaves adorning their lawns, backyards, and pavements is a revealing prism through which to contemplate illegal immigration in the United States, and Republican Party presidential candidates’ differing views on it.

Many in the area rake up their leaves themselves—or have their children or a neighbourhood teenager do it—and then bundle them into bulky bags that wait expectantly on sidewalks for collection on the next “trash day”. Many hire private gardening services to tend to the mass of foliage that nature dumps most predictably this season. The gardening service workers might gather the leaves with buzzing, mosquito-like leaf blowers, bag the leaves, and then remove the bags immediately. Alternatively, leaves can be left in piles curbside, to become shriveled, dried or soaking (weather permitting) brown fodder, that county workers come and slurp up with giant “vacuum cleaners” on scheduled collection days.

Latinos from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, or Nicaragua—you name the Central or Latin American country—invariably comprise the work forces of these gardening services here in the D.C. metro area. And one has to wonder how many of these folk are legally in the United States. I would hazard the guess that most are illegals.

Given the inability to agree at the federal level on how to address the perennial problem of illegal immigration, states have begun taking action themselves. Adopted measures include, for example, requiring police to ask people about their immigration status when in contact with them for other reasons. Such measures are highly controversial and are presently under judicial review.

In states that have passed such measures, including Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, labour that helped tend fields, plant crops, and harvest fruit has noticeably “disappeared”.

Despite high unemployment rates among local American residents, reports from these states note the apparent reluctance of locals to perform the work that undocumented workers so typically provide.

This quandary is familiar to me. It reminds me of South Africans simultaneously panning Malawians, Mozambicans, and Zimbabweans for coming illegally to South Africa and taking jobs from local people—while not being willing to perform these jobs themselves, despite astronomically high unemployment.

The two current GOP frontrunners, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, present contrasting views over whether to allow the reputed eleven million illegal immigrants who have settled in the United States a path to legal residency.

In the most recent Republican presidential debate, Gingrich opined: “If you’ve come [to the United States] recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home. Period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

Romney retorted that such a policy would be a “magnet”: “To say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”

Gingrich responded: “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century… And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

Romney then noted that he was “not going to start drawing lines about who gets to stay and who gets to go. The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”

The Republican Party already has a perception problem with Latino voters, the fastest growing part of the U.S. population. A debate exchange such as this between the present two top contenders in the GOP presidential race cannot help Republican prospects. Yet the question is whose views better reflect those of the Republicans who will vote in the Republican primaries. Will Gingrich’s “liberal” (by Republican standards) but more realistic views on illegal immigration hurt him in the primaries or not?  President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats had supported passage of the Dream Act earlier this year that would have allowed certain categories of illegals to be on a path to eventual citizenship, but Congressional Republicans voted it down.

Whether or not they can vote, you can be assured that Washington’s leaf blowers are following the contortions of the national debate on illegal immigration with great interest.