Questions for America

To my great relief, absolutely nothing changed after America’s election this November. However, once the post-Romney-defeat euphoria wore off, the world realised that absolutely nothing had changed. The problems of a divided government rose up out of the swamp of campaign politics – most notably the ongoing saga of the fiscal cliff. Yes, that’s right, if Washington’s politicians don’t grow up a little in the next nine days, a culmination of tax rises and spending cuts will wipe 5% off the GDP of the world’s leading economy.

Forget the implications of this for a minute. The fact that America has ended up in this situation is crazy enough as it is. In recent years the Democrats and Republicans have moved further and further apart from each other on the socio-political scale; dividing the country along with its Congress. Why has this happened? Many cite the recession, but the trend began way before the sub-prime bubble so rudely burst. I would argue that what we are seeing is a conflict of ideas about how to redefine America as it sees itself being overtaken by China, Brazil and India. The Republicans appear to be founding this ‘new’ America on its 19th century predecessor. Sometimes it seems that the Democrats are merely trying to stop them from succeeding. That may not be a bad goal.

I realised recently that I can not remain objective about American politics. I have tried and I have failed. The Republicans are simply too balmy – too socially regressive. So from now on, I am not even going to try to hide my liberal bias.

And so the markets will spend this holiday season fretting about the fiscal cliff. I am going with most commentators and hedging my bets that a deal will be done. Surely not even America’s politicians would sacrifice the world’s economy in order to ‘keep face’? But a deal won’t represent a breakthrough – bipartisanship won’t thrive. Until America is on the road to somewhere, its politics are going to remain ugly.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the shooting of twenty children in a small town in Connecticut. America’s gun laws are almost unique – in some states guns can be brought in supermarkets by showing a driving license. These are the laws which allowed a teacher in Newtown to buy the gun her son eventually shot her with, before committing the multiple murders of her former colleagues and the children they cared for.

Why do these laws still stand more than 200 years after the need to fight the imperialist British was removed? Because ‘the right to bear arms’ was enshrined in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, making it sacrosanct in the eyes of many Americans. The National Rifle Association, in a press conference held on the same day as the first funerals of the children – called for armed guards in all school, declaring that violent video games, not the ready availability of guns, were the cause of the Newtown tragedy. Many Republicans – and, indeed, some Democrats – agree with the NRA. They will have to fight with Mr Obama, who this week finally declared his intention to reform gun laws.

And so we are left to wonder: will the deaths of so many six-year-olds achieve a change in sentiment not touched by the murders at Columbine, Virginia Tech or Aurora? Perhaps, but alas, perhaps not.

Sorry, I really don’t like Mitt

It’s been a slightly hectic half term – filled with history coursework, UCAS forms and marginal cost curves. And it hasn’t just been busy for me. The American election has heated up, Syria and Turkey are sparring at their border and the party conference season bored everyone to tears.

I went on holiday to Washington, DC this week and was metaphorically sat on by the campaign. The Republican adverts on Fox News physically pained me (I bought an Obama badge to make myself feel better), and CNN didn’t mention the gun battle raging in Beruit in their hurry to analyse the pre-debate run up. The highlight for me was Obama explaining the 21st century to Romney, who he accused of having social policy from the 1950s and foreign policy from the 1980s (a political truism if ever there was one – the Governor believes Russia, not al-Qaeda, is still the biggest threat to the US).

Obama has a point here. Romney’s domestic policies are scary (banning abortion, banning gay marriage, denying healthcare to the poor – my, he’s a bundle of fun), but the idea of him running the international community is truly terrifying.

Just imagine him at any Palestine-Israel talks. He’d probably refuse to recognise the Palestinians at all, or something, as he seems to believe that all Palestinians are terrorists. Talk about making a bad situation worse. Obama, by contrast, is committed to a two state solution.

And just imagine a Ahmadinejad-Romney phone call. Or one between the Republican and Hu Jintao. You see my point. Romney is already threatening to brand China a currency manipulator, have you ever heard a more sure-fire way to rebuild East-West relationships?
If you’re still unconvinced about Romney’s inability to handle foreign policy, I remind you of the Romneyshambles. Yes, that was what his tour to Britain was dubbed by our press. The man managed to insult America’s closest ally by insulting our preparedness for the Olympics – an event, incidentally, seen world-wide as a success. If he can offended the don’t-give-a-damn Brits, his hopes with the touchier ones are slim.

And yet, as election day draws closer, Romney’s chances of becoming the world’s most powerful man are increasing. Obama’s soaring rhetoric seems a thing of the past and his promises of change have gone stale during four years in which the economic recovery has been pitiful. I would argue that the economy he inherited was simply too bad for him to repair in one term, but many see things differently. Even I am disappointed in his failure to close the detention centre at Guantanamo. But I also recognise that he has been dogged by the almost fundamentalist Republicans in Congress, who I hold mainly responsible for the debt-ceiling debacle. Maybe a more reasonable opposition would have made the balancing act envisaged in the Constitution a political reality.



For most of the summer, Obama had a comfortable lead. His poor performance in the three Presidential debates ate into this and put Romney in the lead for the first time. But the picture is more nuanced. Because of America’s electoral college system, the popular vote is not the most important measure. What matters is how many, and which, states you win. And in the so-called swing states – those actually up for grabs – Obama’s edge has narrowed less. Most are now neck-and-neck. All is still to play for.

This is the closest race for a long time. Not since the Nixon-Kennedy contest have the debates mattered so much. Romney definitely triumphed here, but may be left without a lot to say now that figures have put recent growth at 2%. He may now not be able to keep his other policies on the sidelines. One can only hope that American voters find them as unsavoury as I do.

Romney gears up

The withdrawal of Rick Santorum from the race to be the Republican presidential nominee came when I was cut off from the world in deepest Yorkshire. When my dad met me from the train, it was the first thing he told me (you can decide what that says about both of us). Ever since, I’ve been trying to decide whether the news is good or bad.

The good news is that America’s next president will not be an illiberal, barmy tea-partier. If you look at the political seen in the US, there was every chance he could have been. The bad news is that Santorum’s exit makes Mitt Romney the nominee. And that’s a problem because he’s almost credible.

Romney’s economics were once sound and his history as a moderate may persuade some Democratic voters, disillusioned with Barack Obama, to change their allegiances. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney implemented a very sensible plan which looks a lot like ‘Obama-care’ – the President’s now-demonised health insurance initiative. Yet the man who was once so moderate has been pushed to the right by his own party during the nomination race. The question now is: will he tack back to the centre ground, or continue to campaign for tea-party votes?

In normal political circumstances, it is always the middle which decides who wins and who loses an election. But the American political landscape is far from normal. The Republican party has become more and more dominated by its ultra-conservative wing, while a once promising Democrat in the White House has failed to set the country alight with jobs and growth. Therefore, we may see Romney become even more right-wing in order to make sure he gets the votes he should anyway. That does not bode well for America’s future.

Personally, I can only hope that swing voters have been put off by Romney’s pandering to some pretty scary people. Another glimmer of hope comes in the crude form of money: Obama has more of it. That gives his campaign an helpful advantage – especially as this time around, his image will be harder to sell.

Sell it he must. Romney may (or may not) be a moderate, but he is no liberal. He has already rallied against such things as medical care for the elderly and abortion, which raise not a peep in European countries. Maybe that sentence is telling – I want the American public to be more like me.

2012 – another year of change?

Welcome to my 2012 predictions post, where I’m going to detail how and why I think things are going to go this year. I’d love to get some debate going, so please comment to tell me why I am wrong – there’s nothing better than an argument.

The Arab spring
I think 2012 will see a divide emerge in the Arab spring countries, with some moving ahead whilst others struggle and still others beginningh the process. There seems to be general agreement that Syria is heading towards civil war, which I think is likely. The Assad regime is in no mood to go, whilst most of the population is against it. Add to this the religious tensions – the Assad regime is comprised of members of the small Alawite sect, while 80% of the population is Sunni – and strife indeed appears inevitable, especially as more and more armed men defect from the army. Who will win any civil war is hard to say, but it is unlikely that it would be Mr Assad. By 2013, Syria will have a new leader. Howeverr, those most likely to suffer under a new government are Christians and women, because Islamism will definitely flourish. This means the West is being cautious in what it wishes for. Sadly I think 2012 is going to see a lot of bloodshed on the streets of Hama, Homs and Damascus.
Although Lybia has already toppled (and killed) its dictator, 2012 is not going to be an easy year here either. The country is critically divided into tribes, who, without a strongman’s military control, are not likely to get on with each other. The civil war has resulted in a large number of guns being in civilians hands, which is not really a recipe for stability. And no one has a clue how to deal with the large numbers of Gadaffi loyalists who are very annoyed with life. However there is some hope that the National Transitional Council will draft a half-decent constitution and hold some fully-decent elections, providing the country does not erupt again. Even in this case, the road ahead is rocky. The NTC is by no means a legitimate body, and that makes criticism of its ideas legitimate. Islamism will grow here too, because there are not any other political parties. The different tribes are likely to start bickering about representation and oil interests. There is hope, but it’ll take hard work to fulfil it.

In Tunisia and Egypt, however, democracy is making slow but steady process. Elections have just been held in both countries – although the process in Egypt was slightly dubious. I predict that the new Constituent Assembly in Tunisia will actually get its job done, and that we will see proper elections under a good constitution sometime this year. Of course, Islamists will do well, but Tunisians are naturally moderate and I can’t see them putting up with extremism. It also helps that Tunisia is a very homogeneous country, which promotes secularism. Egypt is not extremely fractious either, but it does face more problems than its neighbour. The main one is the army – which has entrenched itself into the workings of political power and is loathe to back out and make room for civilians. It had a crucial role in Mubarak’s regime and has run the country since he fell, which means it has the power to do what it wants. When the election results are worked out, it is doubtful that the army will simply go away. Therefore I think Egyptians will spend most, if not all, of 2012 trying to get its generals back into their barracks. Once they have succeeded in this, I see no reason why they should not follow their Tunisian counterparts to democracy.

Bye bye Putin
It is not often that one witnesses 80,000 people chanting ‘Russia without Putin’ throng the streets of Moscow. Twice. It just doesn’t happen. Nor do people boo the Prime Minister when he appears at over-staged sports fixtures. Apart from now – they do. That’s why I say that Mr Putin’s days are numbered. He brought all this on himself, by taking natural Russian apathy towards politics for granted and treating his people like idiots. They are used to him fiddling elections – but he was so blatant about it that they felt that he was laughing at them (probably). They are used to him bending the rules of the constitution, but his use of Dimitri Medvedev as a pawn in his games was just too ridiculous. Patience snapped. It’s not only his fault though – it’s hardly been a good twelve months for corrupt rulers. It seems that the Arab spring has slapped Russians round the face and forced them to ask ‘why are we putting up with what they’ve succeeding in bringing down?’ And found no answer. Now Putin needs to realise that his people aren’t sheep. Theoretically, he has every chance of surviving 2012. But I don’t think he will. He is so self-assured that he is probably yet to realise how much trouble he’s in and therefore won’t make the liberalising changes that could save him. That will be his downfall. How a Russia without Putin functions will be interesting too see. In a way, it will be harder for Russia to achieve democracy than Arab countries. This is because Russia technically already has a democratic system, but it’s completely corrupted. It will have to take this structure apart before it can start building a new one.

Now this is not something backed by anything I’ve read, but I think the Communist Party of China is in line for a shock. I’m not saying that ‘Communism’ is going to fall in 2012, far from it. What I am saying is that it will become a lot harder for the Party to control dissent. We’re already seeing protests in Mongolian areas of the country and international anger at the plight of Nepal, and the internet is causing a stir. Not only can people from these areas post evidence of confrontation online, they can also debate and form ideas with people on the other side of the world. The government is trying to limit and control the internet, but its very nature mean that they can’t keep up. Liberalism is (maybe) coming to China.

The US Republican race and elections
It was a good day for liberalism and sanity when Michelle Bachmann bowed out of the race to become the Republican presidential candidate having come sixth in the Iowa caucus, and I for one breathed a sigh of relief. Looking forwards, I think Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum will be the people to watch. Mr Romney has been a favourite for a while and is vaguely normal. He has the most moderate social views, which is why Republicans might settle for him – he might be able to appeal to voters who would normally be Democrats, but are disappointed with Mr Obama. The right of the party don’t like him, but the more strategic may convince them. Mr Perry is the only darling of the mainstream right left in the race and therefore has a fair chance, because he can appeal in some way to most Americans. But he is a worrying figure. He would not only ban gay marriage, but even gay relationships. Under his presidency, abortion would be illegal. He is, quite frankly, very scary. Mr Santorum is even more conservative, and reading his website makes me actually angry. So what do I think will happen? Mr Santorum won’t make it, because moderates will balk. So it’ll end as a race between Romney and Perry, which is likely to be very close. Mr Romney is most likely to win but Perry’s right-wingers might pull their weight. And then what? If Perry wins, Obama has more hope than if Romney does. But Mr Obama is not popular – the unemployment rate is stubbornly above the 9% mark, he has not been as revolutionary as his most die-hard fans hoped, and many of his promises have not been fulfilled. Against Romney, he will have a fight on his hands. For that, I almost hope Perry wins the nomination.

Undoubtedly, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel will be seeing a lot of each other this year. Against the will of Sarkozy’s own globalisation-hating citizens, the pair will have to implement a strict regime of fiscal integration in order for the markets to give any credit to the Euro. They will get there eventually, but it will take some fighting for. As Cameron has dug himself into a hole, it is likely that Britain will become isolated and will be unable to affect EU policy. This will cause a shift of power to the East, where France and Germany will find themselves confronted with the autocratic President of Belarus, Alexander Lukahenko, whose policies are threatening the democratic values of the Union. The powers of Europe will have to decide what measures should and can be taken against on of their own members. However, I think it sadly likely that the Euro crisis will blur matters of politics and morality into the background.

Americans wait to see who will be on the ballot

2012 sees the US Presidential elections – one of the biggest political events in the world. Due to the country’s unique brand of democracy, campaigning for the top job is on an almost perpetual cycle and now it is time for the two parties to choose their candidates. Fortunately, the Democrats are keeping Barack Obama as their leader, leaving the country free to concentrate on the race for the Republican nomination.

The field is crowded, with nine candidates having officially entered the race. The front runner is Mitt Romney, a former Governor of Massachusetts and son of a former Governor of Michigan. Mr Romney ran for the nomination in 2008 but lost to John McCain, having one some early primaries. This year he is once again leading the pack and seems set to stay ahead, so far at least. However, the nomination procedure puts emphasis on grass roots support, which Mr Romney does not have. This is mainly because he is a Mormon, whereas many Republicans are evangelicals and see him as belonging to a suspicious cult. Others even doubt his republicanism, mainly because, as Governor of Massachusetts, he introduced a health care bill that was almost identical to the one Mr Obama put forward this year. In Republican eyes, that is tantamount to heresy. Mitt Romney will need to do a lot of work to convince voters that he is a true Republican, but if he can do that he is well on the way to fighting Mr Obama come 2012.
The other strong candidate is the current Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. Mr Perry has the advantage of being sufficiently evangelical, but he also has a reputation for being fiscally conservative having balanced Texas’s budget books. Therefore, he encompasses the party’s two main ideals – small government and traditional Christianity. His presence in the race is putting pressure on Mr Romney to explain his past, but Mr Perry himself will face strong opposition from Michelle Bachmann, the darling of the ultra-conservative tea-party movement, whose popularity has increased now that Sarah Palin has formally announced that she is not running for the nomination. She is the most conservative of the possible victors, having tried to pass an amendment banning the state from recognising same-sex marriage during her time as a Senator in Minnesota.
Other candidates include Ron Paul, a social libertarian whose main focus is cutting all spending including the Republican’s cherished defence budget. He is unlikely to win the nomination, because he is seen to be on the fringe of Republican policy. However, he has a following of very vocal and fierce supporters who refuse to let him lose the limelight. The other candidates each have their own agendas and supporters, but are not popular with Republican grandees and have no chance of facing Obama at the polls. However their presence energises the front runners and keeps the debates going.
Although this race does not determine who will win next year, it is hugely important. The Republican’s choice of candidate will change how the election is fought and which party independent voters will support. It may have an effect on the crucial swing states. Most importantly, if the Republicans do win it will determine the next President’s policies in office. The question is whether the party will choose to put forward a typical conservative or a tea-party radical. The implications of that will be far-reaching, not least for domestic affairs and foreign policy – and that will affect the entire world not just the US.