Can We Afford Such Success?

Gaziantep

According to The Hill newspaper, the White House says its war on ISIS is succeeding: hate to see what failing would look like.

Let’s do a quick rundown: ISIS is advancing in Iraq’s Anbar province, they are close to taking Baghdad airport or at least are in range to bomb it; they are launching suicide bombing runs on the capital; for all the favorable Western press the Pesh (and Iraqis) have made no serious advances since the Mosul Dam; the Iraqi army (which we spent a fortune on) remains in disarray; Kobani is holding on by dint of an extraordinary stand by YPG fighters; the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is on the brink of collapse; Assad is taking advantage; the Syrian rebels are demoralized and ignored; the Syrians feel they are being sacrificed, which they are. Did I leave anything out?

Will A Better But Not Yet Good Economy Safe Obama?

Democrats hope in a tight election race that marginal improvements in the economy will persuade voters to back their man over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. With the exception of the parties clashing over Libya, and whether the administration was culpable by neglect in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans during the September storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, the election has been dominated by the state of the US economy.

The culture wars of the past have dimmed in significance this year. Even the divisive issues of abortion and immigration have faded. With Obama’s fate likely tied to how voters judge his record in restoring economic growth, Democrats have been burnishing any good economic news coming their way. Read my take on this in the Daily Mail.

Independents Like Obama But Favor Opportunity Over Fairness

Independents are likely to be crucial in deciding whether Barack Obama secures a second term in the White House or whether his likely GOP challenger Mitt Romney ousts him. A new poll released today and conducted for the moderate Democratic Third Way think tank suggests that Obama is sitting pretty when it comes to independents in battleground states. Fifty-seven percent of swing independents view the President favorably compared to 41 percent being inclined to Romney.

Further good news for the Democrats comes when the pollsters drill down on the economy. The two parties are in a statistical tie when it comes to whom independents trust to manage the economy; and on taxes, traditionally a GOP strength, Obama has a six point lead over the Republcians.

But the President’s support is soft. A key finding generally is that swing independents are concerned with opportunity more than fairness. According to Third Way co-founder Jim Kessler, “What they’re really worried about is the country slipping. They’re not sure their family is going to reach the heights they expected. They’re relatively sure China will have the world’s leading economy in 15 years. They’re looking for someone to answer that.”

And the President doesn’t so that when he stresses fairness more than opportunity. It is something the Republican group Amrerican Crossroads has picked up on. It plans to launch an ad blitz  and according to one of the organization’s strategists, Steven Law, the spots will go softly on the President to avoid offending independents with too much negativity but will question whether Obama is up to the job of fixing America.

To Publish Or Not

Should newspapers publish photographs released by the White House of the dead Osama bin Laden, even if they are gruesome? The Washington Post has a thoughtful news report on the debate some newsrooms are having over whether to publish any photographs that are released.

White House aides are debating also what to do. According to the Post, President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, says officials are worried about releasing such photos because: first, their disturbing nature per se, and, second, because of the danger they may inflame anti-American protest around the world and prompt a more violent Muslim backlash.

At the same time officials want to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters that his death is part of some American conspiracy.

But would publishing the pictures dissuade those who don’t want to believe: they could also maintain that the pictures are inaccurate and made up.

Surely, there is plenty of evidence around to prove the U.S. claim: for example, the testimony to Pakistani officials of bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, who witnessed her father’s death.

The traditional news media is confronting a similar question of sensitivity. As the Post points out, U.S. newspapers consider themselves family publications – the kids can see.

If the White House releases pictures, they are going to be all over the web and carried by traditional media in other countries: Latin America, for example, where the media have fewer qualms. If U.S. newspapers don’t publish, do they highlight the fact that their relevance is increasingly less in the digital age? If the do publish for that reason, do they debase themselves?

Surely news is news, though, and the pictures are the very definition of news. Publishing would not be in these circumstances gratuitous: there is real journalistic value.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was on the Sunday Telegraph an intense debate was prompted when an excellent reporter, Walter Ellis, managed to secure photographs of the bodies of two British soldiers who had been killed in Northern Ireland after blundering accidentally into a massive Irish Republican funeral.

The soldiers had been stripped to their underpants, slapped around and then shot. One of the bodies was left in the shape of a human cross.

After much soul-searching it was decided that however gruesome the pictures were, there was journalistic value to publishing. The photographs helped illustrate the hatred and violence of the Northern Ireland troubles and also showed how no one in the funeral crowd lifted a hand to help the soldiers or protested their ill-treatment.

Far From Over

Interesting analysis in Politico today suggesting that the House race is far from over. The suggestion is that everything has to break right for the GOP to secure the lower chamber. The Democrats still have a chance but it will depend on three factors, I suspect:

* Can the White House reframe the mid-terms into not just being a referendum on Obama and a more even contest on what the GOP is or is not offering?

* While Tea Party enthusiasm can drive conservatives to the polls will it also turn off independent and swing voters and drive them into the hands of the Democrats?

* Will Tea Party involvement energize the Democrat base?

Boehner the Ogre?

What on earth are White House strategists thinking by seizing on the GOP”s House leader, John Boehner, as the Republican scary pin-up to attack ahead of the mid-term elections? The Republican Minority Leader may not be to everybody’s taste but he is “a hard man to demonize,” as The Economist has pointed out. He is a mild-mannered country-club-type Republican, who even back in the mid nineties when he aligned with Newt Gingrich wasn’t one of the trusted members of the praetorian guard.

Convivial and clubby, Boehner is sociable with Democrats in the Capitol Hill watering holes. His style is not dissimilar from Bob Dole’s, another Midwestern conservative able and willing when circumstances demanded to make deals across party lines. In some ways Boehner comes across as your dad’s genial brother, ready with a crack and the offer of a drink and a cigarette. He’s also not that well-known nationally. So painting him as the ogre moderate Republicans, centrists or independents should flee from at the polling booths is unlikely to secure the Democrats much advantage.

And if the the GOP does capture the House, as opinion polls suggest consistently the party will, then Boehner is someone the Whte House will need to be able to negoiate with – that is if there isn’t going to be another nineties-style government shut-down.

Targeting Boehner strikes me as another major misstep by the White House when it comes to strategy and thinking things through. Strategic and communication errors have marked this administration almost from the start. In the first summer of this administration, President Obama and senior aides neglected to sell the health-care reform – something that still hasn’t been sold to most Americans.

From the beginning they failed to focus on the economy. No FDR-style “fireside chats,” no trying to manage expectations and to explain that recovery from the financial crisis would not be speedy (as is the case always from recessions caused by financial crashes), no preparing Americans for the long haul and no cheering of them up.

Only belatedly has the President and his senior aides started to talk about the economy. Too little and too late.

So who should the White House target? Surely, they should be highlighting the civil war underway in the GOP, pitching Republican moderates and a new generation of Tea Party-aligned ideologues. Boehner is a small-government conservative while a lot of the likely GOP freshmen are more “no-government” and this, from a strategic point-of-view, is surely what the White House should be emphasizing. Earlier this week, I argued that the GOP primary results were a godsend for the White House and Democrats but they seem to want to throw away what the Republicans give them.

A Good Night for the White House

There hasn’t been much to cheer up the White House in recent weeks but last night’s Tea Party upset in the GOP Senate primary in Delaware must have prompted some pretty big smiles in the West Wing. “Tea Party Scores Big,” was the Washington Post headline this morning. But the scoring is at the cost of the GOP and the headline could easily have been instead – “Big Night for the White House.”

Tea Party activists won’t feel that way. From their perspective they are shaking up politics and disproving Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive interpretation of the Tea Party as just “Asrto-turf “ and “not really a grass-roots movement.” As Tea Party victor Christine O’Donnell said last night after her defeat of veteran GOP congressman Mike Castle, this is “no more politics as usual.”

Add O’Donnell’s stunning victory to the string of embarrassments the Tea Party has been handing out to the Republican establishment this year, from Alaska with Joe Miller’s trouncing of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a primary to last spring’s Tea Party overturning of Sen. Robert Bennett at the Utah Republican state convention, and it hard for the activists to think anything but that history is with them.

Certainly there are pollsters and commentators eager to confirm that view. Writing in the Washington Examiner, pollster Scott Rasmussen and political consultant Douglas Schoen launch on a breathless paean to the Tea Party’s importance, arguing that the movement is “demonstrating a level of activism and enthusiasm that is both unprecedented and arguably unique in recent American political history.”

While they are right to castigate the press for dismissing the movement earlier this year, and while they are surely correct in arguing that the Tea Party has been “one of the most derided and minimized and, frankly, most disrespected movements in American history,” I am not so convinced that the Tea Party movement is that different from the third-party challenge of Ross Perot back in 1992.

Many of the things claimed for the Tea Party were claimed also for the Perot movement – one as inchoate  as the Tea Party. It was going to shake up politics and repaint the political landscape permanently. The activists were highly active and incredibly enthusiastic and glowing with the self-righteous  belief that their time had come. And what did it in practice do? Act as a major factor in the defeat of George Bush and the election of Bill Clinton.

And that is exactly what the Tea Party is likely to achieve. Their victories are not over the Democrats, supposedly their real foes. Their triumphs are over party allies and each time they win they are underscoring the civil war that continues to rage within the GOP, thereby weakening Republican prospects come November.

O’Donnell inadvertently revealed that when she said last night in her victory speech that, “This is more of a cause than a campaign.” Causes tend not to do too well when it comes to general and congressional elections and they can inflict incredible harm on the party they are trying to capture. The anti-war movement did no favors to the Democrats and succeeded in assisting Richard Nixon to victory in 1968. The ugly anger of the Buchanan Brigades and their challenge to Bush in the 1992 primaries only added to the hurdles the incumbent president had to try to jump.

Compare the poll numbers Rasmussen and Schoen outline in their article. One of their surveys finds nearly one quarter (24 percent) of the electorate self-identified as being members in the Tea Party movement. That’s about what the Perot movement was polling in the summer of 1992.

Admittedly, the Perot movement was taking votes and support away from the GOP; Tea Party activists claim they will bring votes to the Republicans come November. But is this really true? Most Tea Party activists vote GOP when push comes to shove and for every new vote they may attract to a Republican candidate, they will turn off an independent voter or centrist who could have been enticed to vote GOP.

Take a look at what happened to John McCain’s presidential prospects after Sarah Palin joined the ticket. Yes, he got an opinion poll jump for a few days after his pick but once the broader electorate got to know Palin more, his numbers plummeted.  She was meant to reflect McCain’s “change credentials” and help him appeal to urban women. In fact, her selection was a turning point in the campaign for the Democrats and along with the Republican crack-up was a determining factor in his win.

Senior Republicans know this. Last night, the silence from GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, who issued no statement congratulating O’Donnell, was telling. O’Donnell’s win in Democrat-tilted Delaware has jeopardized the chance of the GOP in winning the Senate seat there in the fall. She is too conservative for the state and the Tea Party is too conservative for a lot of the electorate.

Earlier this week I suggested that President Obama would be hard pushed to reverse the GOP tide. Last night he might have found a new ally in the Tea Party. Yup, it was a good night for the White House.