Tag Archives: Congress

How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

Before Trump waged his insurgent candidacy, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won election as governor of Minnesota. (Reuters)

How about this for a black swan?

Americans haven’t elected a take-no-prisoners executive bound to drag the country into a hard-right populist dystopia.

Instead, they’ve elected a third-party-style insurgent (albeit from within the Republican Party) who will struggle to make allies in either congressional party and fizzle out after four years of smoke, but not a lot of noise — or economic or policy accomplishments.

It already happened — in Minnesota. In 1998, voters weary of grey establishmentarians, elected instead the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Christening himself as Jesse ‘the Mind’ Ventura, he narrowly clipped Republican Norm Coleman (then St. Paul mayor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (the son of the former vice president). But Ventura, in his one lonely term as governor, transformed a $4 billion budget surplus into a $4.5 billion deficit and otherwise spent most of his time fighting with the media and with members of the state legislature.

Ventura, who ran and governed on the quirky Reform Party ticket founded in 1996 by Ross Perot, lent his support in 2000 to Trump’s nascent bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. Trump eventually lost to the anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

Far from a lapse to 1930s-style authoritarianism, perhaps the Trump administration will be far more like a national version of the Ventura experiment. Trump has already squandered nearly a quarter of his first 100 days on distractions and controversy. 

Continue reading How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)
Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, faces a unique primary challenge on August 9. (Facebook)

Don’t look now, but House speaker Paul Ryan may have just one week to salvage his career.USflag

OK, that might be hyperbole, but the longtime Wisconsin representative is facing perhaps the stiffest challenge of his nearly two-decade career in elective office.

For the better part of a decade, Ryan has been the face of movement conservatism in the United States. From the beginning of the Obama administration, Ryan quickly filled a role as something of the dean of conservative policymaking on Capitol Hill, earning for himself a reputation as a radical intellectual of the American right, who would routinely propose budgets that would so drastically reshape taxes and spending in the United States, even his predecessor as House speaker, Newt Gingrich — no shrinking violet on the American right — dismissed some of his ideas as ‘right-wing social engineering.’

Nevertheless, Ryan’s ascent in American politics is stunning. He served as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012; had the Romney-Ryan ticket won that election, Ryan would have played an important role in formulating economic policy for the Romney administration. Reluctantly — very reluctantly — Ryan agreed to run for House speaker last year after John Boehner stepped down and the frontrunner, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, suddenly dropped out.

In many ways, Ryan’s has been a fairy-tale rise in American politics and, even today, he is a plausible future president in 2020 or beyond.

* * * * *

RELATED: A brief history of Republican speakercide

* * * * *

That may be changing, however, in the age of Trump.

By all appearances, Ryan was already facing an uncomfortably tough primary challenge from local businessman Paul Nehlen. But that challenge became a bit tougher on Sunday evening, when Republican presidential nominee nudged supporters toward Nehlen via Twitter:

On Monday, Trump refused to endorse Ryan in his primary, openly mocking the House speaker with the same kind of equivocating language that Ryan used in May when he refused to endorse Trump for the presidency:

Trump praised the House speaker’s underdog opponent, Paul Nehlen, for running “a very good campaign.” Trump said that Ryan has sought his endorsement, but that as of now he is only “giving it very serious consideration.”

“I like Paul, but these are horrible times for our country,” Trump said. “We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership. And I’m just not quite there yet. I’m not quite there yet.” Trump’s refusal to back Ryan represents an extraordinary breach of political decorum and signals that the Republican Party remains divided two weeks after a national convention in Cleveland staged to showcase party unity.
Continue reading Trump boosts Nehlen in August 9 primary vs Paul Ryan

Three lessons about the state of Indian politics from spring election season

Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa (left) and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (right) both have reason to smile at India's spring election season. (Facebook)
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa (left) and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi (right) both have reason to smile at India’s spring election season. (Facebook)

For the better part of a week, exit polls showed that Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalithaa, both beloved and scandal-plagued, was in trouble of being rejected by voters. India Flag Icon

But when election officials announced the results Thursday for the May 16 state elections, her governing AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) instead won a resounding victory. It proved the staying power of one of India’s most enchanting regional leaders, despite her temporary, nine-month suspension as chief minister that followed a 2014 a conviction on corruption charges, and despite disastrous flooding late in 2015 that affected the Tamil capital of Chennai and that killed over 400 people throughout the state.

None of those problems seemed to matter to Tamil voters, who returned the AIADMK to power, five years after Jayalalithaa returned to power at the state level and two years after she nearly routed both regional and national parties in India’s parliamentary elections.

Despite the pollsters’ last-minute spook in Tamil Nadu, none of the results announced Thursday in spring elections across five states offered much of a surprise. But the voting, across five states, from India’s northern border with China down to its most southern tip, which incorporated, in aggregate, a population of over 225 million Indians, was as close to a ‘midterm’ vote as prime minister Narendra Modi will get.

Regional parties are stronger than ever

Mamata Banerjee won a second term as chief minister of West Bengal, despite her failure to stem corruption. (Facebook)
Mamata Banerjee won a second term as chief minister of West Bengal, despite her failure to stem corruption. (Facebook)

In the spring’s two biggest prizes — West Bengal and Tamil Nadu — voters delivered resounding victories to regional leaders like Jayalalithaa and West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

* * * * *

RELATED: Banerjee eyes reelection in West Bengal state election results

* * * * *

The resilience of regional parties, often more tied to personality or class patronage than to a set of policies or rigid ideology, shouldn’t have been a surprise. Following the spring voting, 15 Indian states are now governed by chief ministers from regional or left-wing third parties. Last year, Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) suffered humiliating setbacks both in Delhi and in Bihar, the former to clean-government guru Arvind Kejriwal in the latter to a regional party alliance headed by chief minister Nitish Kumar, one of a handful of politicians in the country with a better record on economic growth and development than Modi himself. Continue reading Three lessons about the state of Indian politics from spring election season

Polls give Morales a lock on Guatemala’s presidential runoff

Jimmy Morales, a former comic actor and a populist, anti-corruption candidate, should easily become Guatemala's next president. (Facebook)
Jimmy Morales, a former comic actor and a populist, anti-corruption candidate, should easily become Guatemala’s next president. (Facebook)

He is in many ways an accidental man of the moment, the man standing on stage who can most credibly claim, as his slogan goes, that he is ni corrupto ni ladrón — ‘neither corrupt nor a thief.’guatemala flag icon

Jimmy Morales, the 46-year-old former comedian, who just a few years ago graced shampoo bottles across Guatemala in an afro wig and blackface, is now the overwhelming favorite to win the country’s presidential runoff on Sunday, October 25, with one recent poll for the Prensa Libre giving him 67.9% of the vote to just 32.1% for the former first lady, center-left Sandra Torres. Other polls show similar gaps in Morales’s favor.

*****

RELATED: Torres edges Baldizón into Guatemalan runoff with Morales

RELATED: The contour of Guatemala’s new Congress is very conservative

*****

Barring a complete change of heart, Morales will become Guatemala’s next president.

So who is he and what does he believe? How did a comic actor wind up leading Central America’s largest economy? Most importantly, what will his election mean for Guatemala’s future? Continue reading Polls give Morales a lock on Guatemala’s presidential runoff

A brief history of Republican speakercide

John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will step down and resign from Congress at the end of October. (Facebook)
John Boehner, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives will step down and resign from Congress at the end of October. (Facebook)

Since the end of the decades-long Democratic dominance on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives has had four Republican speakers (or near-speakers). All four  — all — were forced out by internal coups or otherwise disgraced by scandal.USflag

John Boehner, the affable, business-friendly Ohio congressman who announced his resignation last Friday, is just the latest Republican speaker to meet a difficult end — facing a revolt of tea-party and hard-line conservatives within his caucus threatening a government shutdown over Planned Parenthood funding.

By stepping down at the end of next month, Boehner will be able to keep the government running with the support of Democrats, if necessary. As the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza writes, Boehner sacrificed his career for the long-term good of the Republican Party.

A week ago, Boehner grumbled about the difficulties of leading his caucus, comparing himself to a garbageman who has gotten used to ‘the smell of bad garbage.’ Over the weekend, he unloaded to Politico on his party’s most conservative and uncompromising legislators:

“The Bible says, beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading, you know, noise about how much can get done,” Boehner said. “We got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town, who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things they know — they know! — are never going to happen,” he added.

Boehner will join a small club of Republican speakers, all of whose legacies are somewhat tarnished. That’s not even counting the legal troubles faced by former majority leader Tom DeLay or former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who resigned from the leadership in 2002 after making controversial remarks praising the late Strom Thurmond, a longtime South Carolina senator who mounted a segregationist ‘Dixiecrat’ presidential campaign in 1948.

Newt Gingrich, the Georgia congressman who engineered the ‘Republican revolution’ that brought the party control of both houses of Congress after the 1994 midterm elections, lasted for exactly two cycles. When the party sustained midterm losses in 1998 to president Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party, partially as a result of Republican congressional inquiry into Clinton’s perjury relating to an alleged sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Gingrich resigned rather than face full insurrection from rebels within his own caucus (that, at the time, including a younger Boehner). Continue reading A brief history of Republican speakercide

The contour of Guatemala’s new Congress? Very conservative.

LIDER

Even before the final, official vote count is announced in Guatemala’s presidential election, we already know the results of the other major election that took place on September 6  — for the 158 members of the Guatemala Congreso.guatemala flag icon

Notwithstanding the triumph of comedian and anti-politician Jimmy Morales in the first round of the presidential election, if Morales wins the scheduled October 25 runoff, he will face an immediately hostile and divided Congress.

* * * * *

RELATED: Torres edges Baldizón into Guatemalan runoff with Morales

RELATED: Guatemala lifts Pérez Molina’s immunity six days before vote to replace him

* * * * *

Though social democratic candidate and former first lady Sandra Torres appears to have bested conservative candidate Manuel Baldizón, a wealthy businessman and the 2011 presidential runner-up, it’s Baldizón’s party, Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER, Renewed Democratic Liberty), that won the greatest number of seats in the Congress.

Though LIDER won just 19% of the vote nationwide, it is entitled to 44 seats, making it the largest party in the next Guatemalan Congress. Moreover, despite the resignation and arrest of president Otto Pérez Molina just days before the election, his conservative Partido Patriota (PP, Patriotic Party), which has often partnered with LIDER over the Pérez Molina administration’s past four years, won about 9.5% of the vote and another 17 seats.

guatecongress

The Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE, National Unity of Hope), a party founded by Torres’s husband — technically former husband –Álvaro Colom, who preceded Pérez Molina as president, won nearly 15% of the vote, entitling it to the second-largest bloc of seats with 36. Todos, a centrist splinter group from the UNE founded three years ago by Felipe Alejos, won 16 seats in the Congress.

Morales’s own movement, the nationalist Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN, National Convergence Front), won just 11 seats and, nationally, just 8.76% of the parliamentary vote.

No other party managed to win more than seven seats in the Congress, though the Encuentro por Guatemala, a leftist party formed by Rigoberta Menchú, the K’iche’ Mayan activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, to defend the interests of Guatemala’s indigenous population (and sometimes, however baffling, a political ally of the hard-right followers of Efraín Ríos Montt, who is facing charges of genocide for his role in massacres against indigenous Mayans in the early 1980s) won seven seats.

Since the end of Guatemala’s civil war and the country’s return to democracy, despite its corruption and imperfections, political parties are organized more around personalities and patronage networks than ideologies.

Though both the Guatemalan and international press have focused on the photo-finish race for the presidency, there are two important lessons in the congressional election results.

First, with such a divided Congress, Guatemala’s next president will not command a majority. Pérez Molina benefited from a casual alliance with LIDER, a symbiotic arrangement that gave Pérez Molina a working congressional majority (including, until two weeks ago, a bulwark against stripping him of presidential immunity) and Baldizón a patina of ‘inevitability’ to succeed Pérez Molina (though that obviously backfired given the tens of thousands of Guatemalans protesting politics as usual).

But the winner of the runoff will have to build a multi-party coalition to govern effectively. That’s especially true if he or she hopes to enact campaign finance reforms to reduce the role of corruption in politics from illicit contributions by business interests and drug traffickers alike. Morales has so far refused to make any electoral deals with either the UNE and LIDER, and that’s probably good politics. But he will nevertheless need to build a majority if he wants to accomplish anything if he wins the October runoff.

The second lesson is that the old guard is alive and well in Guatemalan politics. The FCN’s fifth-place finish indicates that Morales may well have trouble mobilizing an effective national campaign in the runoff. That’s true if, as now seems likely, his opponent will be Torres, but it will be even more so if, somehow, Baldizón manages to claw his way into the second round. LIDER, the UNE and the Patriotic Party together hold 97 seats, a supermajority of entrenched political elites who could effectively block reform.

For now, with just over 99% of all votes counted, Torres leads Baldizón by a margin of 19.79% to 19.64% (Morales won 23.85%) — that amounts to just 5,958 votes. Baldizón  is already arguing that the vote is fraudulent, and there’s no sign that he will easily concede defeat. So it may be days, or even weeks, before it’s clear who Morales will face in the runoff. Even if he doesn’t make it to the runoff, Baldizón’s party will still be a force to be reckoned with in the years ahead.

Four reasons why Puerto Rico won’t become a state anytime soon

51srars

For all the comparisons to Greece’s debt crisis, there’s one simple solution that many Puerto Ricans and mainland policymakers are prescribing to solve the commonwealth’s own financial crisis — and it’s not available to Greece or any other eurozone members. PR

Puerto Rico could simply become the 51st American state.

For the past 63 years, it’s been an estado libre asociado — a self-governing commonwealth that lies uncomfortably between a state and a territory, with bespoke elements unique to Puerto Rico, both good and bad.

Republican presidential contender and former Florida governor Jeb Bush supports statehood and in 2012, both US president Barack Obama and his rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said they would support it if a clear majority of Puerto Ricans want statehood — Puerto Rico held a status referendum in the same election year. Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s Democratic-affiliated non-voting delegate to the US  House of Representatives, made the case for it in an op-ed in The New York Times earlier this month.

* * * * *

RELATED: The next debt crisis in the United States may
require a Puerto Rico bailout

RELATED: Could Puerto Rico really become the 51st US state?

* * * * *

It’s true that both the Greek and Puerto Rican crises share much in common. Both governments are tethered to monetary policies that aren’t necessarily optimal. Functionally, that means neither Athens nor San Juan have a currency that they can depreciate to spur exports. Neither the European Central Bank nor the Federal Reserve can realistically be expected to tailor monetary policies to local needs. That, in turn, has exacerbated the effects from the economic forces of the past decade — the 2008-09 subprime crisis in the United States and the 2009-10 sovereign debt crisis in Europe, along with the economic pain of a nearly decade-long recession, rounds of tax increases and spending cuts, and accompanying rises in unemployment and downward pressure on wages. Lower growth, of course, means lower revenues and higher budget deficits — and more borrowing means higher yields that are now sucking Puerto Rico into a downward spiral. Alejandro García Padilla, its governor, made clear in late June that he believes the island’s $72 billion in debt is unsustainable.

In both scenarios, Greeks (through the Schengen zone) and Puerto Ricans (through the universal grant of US citizenship made in 1917 to allow Puerto Ricans to fight in World War I) can relocate to more economically prosperous European and American regions with ease. Migration means that fewer Puerto Ricans are left to service the growing debt — or build businesses and communities that can provide the revenues to fund schools and infrastructure. The island’s population is creeping downward; from a peak of 3.83 million in 2004, it was down to just 3.55 million last year. The pace of emigration is rising — to about 50,000 annually.

There are key differences as well between Greece and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s status is a relic of the late colonial era, and the United States acquired the island in 1898 as a result of its war against Spain (in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere). From the beginning, full-fledged independence has never been a popular option among Puerto Ricans. But nationalist sentiment rose so strongly by 1950 that two pro-sovereignty activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attempted to assassinate US president Harry Truman.

The US policy response, Operation Bootstrap, adopted throughout the following decade to industrialize the island, transformed Puerto Rico into a more modern, urban place, even as American businesses consolidated the island’s farmland. But it never whisked Puerto Rico into a miraculous Caribbean Singapore, and it decimated small-scale agriculture.

Puerto Rico also suffers from the classic ‘island effect’ that economists sometimes describe of countries where dependence on imports and higher transport costs artificially increase the cost of living — a condition that’s often found throughout the Caribbean and islands, but that also affects Israel, a country surrounded by hostile Arab states with virtually no cross-border trade.

Most important of all, there’s no real talk of ‘PRexit,’ because no one believes that Puerto Rico could just abandon the ‘dollarzone.’ There’s no plan sitting in US treasury secretary Jack Lew’s desk that outlines the potential steps because it’s so much more implausible than a ‘Grexit.’

García Padilla is right that the crisis, decades in the making, is due to political factors as well as economic. Default may come soon — the Puerto Rican government says it doesn’t have enough cash to make a scheduled August 1 payment of nearly $170 million. That could launch a messy years-long default process, with the island trying to force haircuts on its bondholders. If San Juan can’t demand debt relief, protracted litigation might result in court rulings forcing Puerto Rico’s government to prioritize creditors over the salaries of public servants — galvanizing so much economic suffering that it would draw international condemnation over America’s neocolonial version of Greece.

There’s no effective Chapter 9 process for Puerto Rico, unlike for US municipalities, so the alternative of an orderly Detroit-style restructuring, isn’t available. The Obama administration, moreover, has made it clear that it doesn’t support a bailout — and it’s not clear that Republicans in Congress would be willing to provide the funds for any bailout.

So calls for statehood, in both Puerto Rico and on the mainland, and on the left and right, are on the rise, and predictably so. But as genuine as those calls might be, it’s a very, very unlikely result– and that will likely be true for a long time.

Here’s why. Continue reading Four reasons why Puerto Rico won’t become a state anytime soon

Expect Paul campaign to launch genuine US foreign policy debate

randpaul2015

With the dream of uniting an unlikely coalition of socially liberal Millennials, fiscally conservative ‘tea party’ supporters and a swatch of economic liberals in both parties, US senator Rand Paul of Kentucky became the second major US figure to launch a 2016 presidential bid today.USflag

His chances of winning the White House aren’t, frankly, great. But they’re not non-existent, and if he wins the Republican nomination, he could potentially convince a much wider electorate to support him over the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former US secretary of state. If he fails, he’ll still have burnished his profile as a thoughtful foreign policy counterweight within the Republican Party — sort of a conservative version of the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold. More importantly, he will drive a necessary debate on controversial aspects of US foreign policy that are increasingly taken for granted.

As a deeply libertarian voice in the US Senate and an avowed non-interventionist when it comes to the Middle East, Paul will present the strongest challenge to mainstream US foreign policy that, despite recently squabbles over Iran, Israel and Russia, remains chiefly bipartisan in nature. He will make the case for a truly alternative US policy worldview that questions everything from a 14-year global approach to terrorism, Internet surveillance and civil liberties, the proliferation of unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft in the US effort to stop radical Islamism, the use of drones to target US nationals abroad, ongoing US military action in Afghanistan and escalating action in Syria and Iraq, and the Obama administration’s ongoing diplomatic initiatives with Cuba and Iran. He is also likely to question the US Congress’s decades-long supine position on foreign policy.

* * * * *

RELATED: Six important points from Clinton’s foreign policy interview [August 2014]

RELATED: What would Jeb Bush’s foreign policy look like?
[December 2014]

* * * * *

Paul will find many traditional allies on the right, who believe that the United States is at its best when its military adventurism is kept to a minimum, and he will find many traditional allies on the left, where even Obama supporters have grumbled for years that his administration features more continuity than rupture with many aspects of the foreign policy developed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Initially, Paul will benefit from supporters who backed his father, Ron Paul, the US congressman from Texas, in his 2008 and 2012 presidential contests. Though Paul (the father) served as something like the crazy/wise uncle of the Republican contests in 2008 and 2012, there’s a sense that his son is both more polished and more pragmatic.

Paul will also benefit from the quiet support of Mitch McConnell, Paul’s Kentucky colleague in the Senate. Paul’s support crucially boosted McConnell, now the Senate majority leader, to primary and general election victories in the 2014 midterm elections. McConnell’s support and his access to national donors should give Paul the kind of ‘insider-outsider’ credentials to make him a serious threat for the nomination. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Paul has reached out to the 2012 nominee, former governor Mitt Romney, with whom Paul’s father developed a close relationship in the 2012 contest. Other young, libertarian-minded Republican officials might also support Paul.

Paul’s campaign means that the Republican nomination contest will feature the most robust debate since perhaps the 2008 nomination contest between Obama and Clinton on the role of the United States in the world. Already, Paul has demonstrated his willingness to break with Republican orthodoxy by cautiously welcoming the Obama administration’s relaxation of ties with Cuba. His reticence to engage US troops abroad will also bring him into conflict with much more hawkish Republican voices so long as Iran, Yemen and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) top the list of US foreign policy headaches as the 2016 campaign season unfolds.

But Paul’s presence in the 2016 contest will most importantly highlight that there’s just not that much difference between Clinton, on the one hand, and the Republican foreign policy establishment that would likely take power if Republican frontrunners like former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

Continue reading Expect Paul campaign to launch genuine US foreign policy debate

The case for O’Malley in the 2016 presidential election

o'malley

The most damning thing that you can say about former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley isn’t that he was underwhelming, either as governor or as Baltimore mayor.marylandUSflag

It’s that we were merely whelmed by him.

Even today, as O’Malley prepares to become the most serious challenger to former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, there’s not a whole lot you can pin on O’Malley, for good or for ill. He lacks the psychopolitical baggage of a Clinton candidacy, but he also doesn’t own any single issue or represent any broader movement. He’s a set of technocratic biceps with a penchant for data-driven policy and Celtic rock.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, though. Formidable as Clinton is, O’Malley has all the tools to wage a compelling campaign for the US presidency.
Continue reading The case for O’Malley in the 2016 presidential election

On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran

fulbright

J. William Fulbright.USflagIran Flag Icon

One of the great contrasts lurking underneath the latest outrage of the day in American politics is that Arkansas, the state that produced as its senator throughout the late Jim Crow era was a progressive Democratic voice and a crucial dissenting clarion on Vietnam. Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with thoughtful foreign policy in the 1960s and the 1970s, a multilateralist who helped midwife the United Nations and who stood up to the tyranny of Joseph McCarthy’s deranged anti-Communist witch hunts. He also thought the segregation of African Americans was perfectly fine, he joined the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He served as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974. He was rumored to be John Kennedy’s top choice to be secretary of state, ultimately disqualified by the his shameful support for segregation.

tomcotton

On Monday, Tom Cotton (pictured above), the heir to the other Arkansas seat in the United States Senate, and who won the seat as the darling of the ‘tea party’ movement on the American right, drew verbal missiles from much of the American left (and quite a few moderate Republicans) for organizing a purposefully inflammatory letter to Iran, just as US president Barack Obama and his administration enter a crucial period in negotiations over international sanctions against Iran, a country of over 77 million people, and its desire to build a nuclear energy program.

* * * * *

FROM THE ARCHIVES: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

* * * * *

The chasm between Fulbright and Cotton is amazing. It’s a lesson in the dynamism of American politics or, really, any political system. The same jurisdiction that just 60 years ago produced a Fulbright can today produce a Cotton. The same jurisdiction than seven years ago enthusiastically supported hard-line conservative ‘principalist’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his venal anti-Semitic rhetoric, can today embrace the liberal reforms of Hassan Rowhani.

It’s also a lesson that no single political leader or official is right all of the time. Just as Fubright’s record on civil rights appears to us today as inhumane and unjust, Cotton could one day emerge as a thought leader on any number of issues. (Though probably not on Iran, if his Monday letter is any indication).

Yes, Tom Cotton’s letter is basic

No one will remember this stunt a year from now or a decade from now. It probably won’t even have much of an impact by the time March 24 arrives, the latest artificial deadline established by the ‘P5+1’ group of countries reaching for a workable deal in respect of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Part of that has to do with the letter’s amateur-hour tone: Continue reading On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran

Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader

herzog

As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to the United States to deliver a controversial address to the US Congress on Tuesday morning, he’ll leave behind him in Israel (if only for a couple of days) one of the toughest election campaigns of his career.ISrel Flag Icon

The Washington speech has sucked up much of the attention from Israel’s election campaign, both in the United States and in Israel itself. But that doesn’t guarantee that Netanyahu will win what would be a fourth term as prime minister and his third consecutive term since returning to power in 2009.

Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד‎), consistently since December, has been tied in most polls with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎), a merger between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, herself the former leader of the late Ariel Sharon’s essentially defunct Kadima (קדימה‎, ‘Forward’).

Though Israeli politics has become a dizzying array of fragmented, personalized parties, where political leaders denounce opponents one day only to join forces with the same opponents the next, Herzog and Livni both support a more progression economic agenda as well as the ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Zionist Union’s combined support means that Labor’s newest leader, Isaac Herzog, has emerged as the top alternative to Netanyahu to become Israel’s next prime minister. A soft-spoken attorney, Herzog isn’t known for his charisma or his bluster, and his chief quality might be that he’s regarded as the quintessential anti-Netanyahu, at least in style.

So how did Herzog (pictured above) get to this point? And what would a Herzog-led government look like?

Herzog wants to end Labor’s wilderness period

Though the Labor Party hasn’t won an Israeli election since 1999, it nevertheless has a storied legacy — it’s the party of Golda Meir, of Yitzhak Rabin, of Shimon Peres. Herzog himself is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and he studied in New York in the 1970s when his father was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Herzog is Labor’s fourth permanent leader in a decade, and he hopes to lead Labor to its most successful election victory since the 1999 parliamentary elections under former prime minister Ehud Barak. Continue reading Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader

Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

nitishreturns

That didn’t take long.India Flag Icon

Less than a year after his resignation in the wake of a strategic miscalculation, a break with India’s conservative, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) over its decision to anoint Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Nitish Kumar is back as the chief minister of Bihar state.

It’s not every day that Patna, Bihar’s capital city, becomes the epicenter of Indian domestic politics. But the return of Kumar (pictured above) heralds the comeback of one of India’s most wily politicians, a potential national rival to Modi, and one of the most capable policymakers in India today. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kumar’s ‘Bihari model’ is in some ways superior to Modi’s ‘Gujarati model’ when you look at the development gains that Bihar state made under Kumar’s nearly decade-long tenure as chief minister from 2005 to 2014.

Kumar’s return comes no less than nine months before regional elections are due in Bihar, one of India’s most important states that will now be shaped widely as a standoff between Kumar and Modi.

mapbihar

With nearly 104 million people, it’s India’s third most populous state. Bordering Bangladesh on its far eastern corner, Bihar has a predominantly Hindi-speaking, Hindu-practicing population. But 16.5% of the population consists of practicing Muslims, making it an especially diverse state in terms of religion.

Don’t underestimate how important the state is — and how important its further development could become. Bihar is home to more people than the entire country of The Philippines or Vietnam or Egypt, and it’s only at the beginning of what could be a longer trajectory of rising economic growth.

For now, Kumar is taking a gentle stand with respect to Modi, pledging to work with India’s new prime minister for Bihar’s benefit. But Kumar will not be renewing a one-time alliance between the BJP and Kumar’s own party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)).

Once a leading player in the BJP-dominated National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Kumar pulled the JD(U) out of its alliance with the BJP when it became clear that Modi would lead the alliance through the 2014 elections. That was a difficult proposition for Kumar, whose party attracts a significant share of votes among Bihar’s Muslim population. Modi’s reputation among Muslim Indians remains fraught, in no small part over Hindu reprisals for the burning of a train of Hindu pilgrims. Those riots, which took place in 2002 in the first months of Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 Muslims. Critics argued that Kumar, instead, wanted to be the BJP-led alliance’s candidate in his own right, and observers point to long-standing antipathy between Modi and Kumar, as veteran writer Sankarshan Thakur writes in The Telegraph:

The two men have duelled infamously on the national stage and the prickly needle between them became the sole cause of the collapse of the JDU-BJP alliance in Bihar and the crises that have dogged the state to this day. The Modi juggernaut had decimated Nitish in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and caused him to resign. Nitish has displayed a near-pathological aversion to Modi, refusing even to bring the Prime Minister’s name to his lip. His return as chief minister raises the charming prospect of the two men having to come face to face and engage as leader of nation and state.

Bihar’s regional elections, due before November, will be the most important political test for Modi’s strength since his election last year. The BJP’s recent loss in regional elections in the National Capital Territory of Delhi to the anti-corruption Arvind Kejriwal must certainly give Kumar hope that he, too, can unlock the means to defeating Modi. For their part, the BJP, under the leadership of former Gujarati minister Amit Shah, will pull no punches in its attempt to wrest Bihar away from Kumar, giving it a key foothold in northeastern India. If Modi and the BJP succeed in Bihar, they will have a credible shot at winning 2016’s elections in West Bengal — the fourth-most populous state in India and, like Bihar, both much more Muslim and much poorer than the rest of India. Continue reading Nitish Kumar returns to front-line Indian politics

Forget the Gandhis. Kejriwal is now India’s true opposition leader.

kejriwalpart2

When the former (and now future) Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal challenged Narendra Modi for a seat in the Indian parliament from the symbolically and religiously important city of Varanasi last spring, it was a sign that Kejriwal, days after resigning from Delhi’s 49-day government, maybe bit off more than he could chew. India Flag Icon

He lost. Badly.

Furthermore, instead of securing a national perch in Delhi, where Kejriwal (pictured above) and his newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) found such success in the 2013 Delhi regional elections, the party instead won none of the seven seats up for grabs to the lower house of the Indian parliament. The AAP managed to win four seats in Punjab only because of voter disgust with the corruption of the ruling Sikh nationalist party in that state.

Kejriwal’s decision to resign as chief minister, just 49 days after forming a minority AAP-led government to wage a national campaign looked like a disaster. The AAP, like many third parties, was largely swept aside by the Modi wave that gave the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) a landslide victory.

* * * * *

RELATED: Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

* * * * *

After Delhi’s government reverted to president’s rule, it seemed like the BJP would easily sweep to power there too, especially after winning regional elections last October in Maharashtra, the home of Mumbai (Bombay) and the second-most populous state in India.

Today, however, with the announcement that the AAP swept up an unexpectedly strong victory in voting on February 7 (winning 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi legislative assembly), it’s no longer risible to think about Kejriwal competing on the same platform as Modi. Voters have given Kejriwal, whose AAP is barely two years old, a second chance to carry out his agenda of anti-corruption good governance. It’s the first time since Modi’s remarkable national victory last spring that any figure or group has decisively defeated the BJP at any level of Indian politics.

Remember that in the landscape-shifting December 2013 elections, the AAP won just 28 seats, four fewer than the BJP. It governed in an awkward alliance with the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) that, under former chief minister Sheila Dikshit, had governed Delhi for 15 years and, increasingly, became synonymous with corruption and incompetence.

delhivote15In the latest vote, Congress won no seats at all to Delhi’s legislative assembly. The party is still reeling after its massive rejection last spring. Congress won so few seats nationally that it cannot even appoint the leader of the opposition in the lower house of the Indian parliament, the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा). Since its defeat, there’s no sign that the Nehru-Gandhi family shows any sign of realizing that it must fundamentally change in order to regain the electorate’s trust. There’s no sign of any rising stars in the party from outside the family — if Rahul Gandhi proved uncharismatic and uninspired in 2014, it’s conceivable that his sister, Priyanka Vadra, might be the right answer for 2019.

But given the uninspired leadership of the quasi-monarchical Gandhi family, Kejriwal has a real chance to eclipse Congress and build a new, populist force for the secular center-left in India, attracting votes from all castes and religions whose votes are no longer tied to the independence movement of the 1930s and 1940s. That’s provided that Kejriwal can, in the years ahead in Delhi, deliver on his promise of less corruption, better services and greater safety, especially for women. (Critics will note that there’s plenty of Hindu traditionalism lurking beneath the surface of the AAP movement, but that’s just as true for Congress as well or for any Indian party that wants to compete in a country where four-fifths of its population practice Hinduism). Continue reading Forget the Gandhis. Kejriwal is now India’s true opposition leader.

Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

kejriwal

Guest post by Devin Finn 

On February 7, when Delhiwallas go to the polls to vote for candidates for all 70 seats in the Vidhan Sabha (विधान सभा) — the union territory’s Legislative Assembly — the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, आम आदमी की पार्टी, literally the ‘Common Man’ Party) has another opportunity to prove it knows how to remake politics.India Flag Icon

The AAP’s leader Arvind Kejriwal has promised to end corruption and improve the lives of the poor. Hanging in the balance are several fundamental political processes: ongoing efforts to chip away at corruption, an unprecedented movement to combat violence against women, and the possibility that an alternative vision of politics may find support among voters.

Opinion polls indicate a tight race, with party leaders from both prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, or भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and the AAP trading barbs and accusations of rules violations. After a rough 2014, AAP is attempting to concentrate strength in Delhi and demonstrate that it can govern. AAP has sought to contest as many seats as possible, build a widespread political movement in Delhi, and train and equip activists who can exploit social media to generate precise and effective messaging. Even if AAP loses, will politics be the same?

* * * * *

RELATED: Meet Arvind Kejriwal,
the rising anti-corruption star of Indian politics

RELATED: Did Kejriwal err in resigning as Delhi’s chief minister?

* * * * *

The AAP campaign labors in the shadow of its brief administration a year ago. In a serious upset in December 2013, Delhi voters elected Kejriwal by a considerable margin to his New Delhi constituency seat, and handed AAP the reins to the city, albeit dependent on outside support from the previous governing party, the Indian National Congress (भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). After only 49 days, however, Kejriwal resigned: he had promised to do so on principle if lawmakers failed to pass the Jan Lokpal, a parliamentary bill that would mandate an independent ombudsman to curb corruption.

Most Delhi voters and political analysts I conversed with during last spring’s election season asserted that Kejriwal’s resignation was no way to change politics. This was perhaps borne out by AAP’s electoral humiliation in the national vote in April and May 2014. Spreading itself thin, the fledgling party won just four seats out of over 400 it contested. Meanwhile, the BJP gained 51.9% of all seats and a comprehensive mandate.

Still, it is those ’49 days’ that both haunts and enlivens the AAP campaign. Kejriwal has apologized to supporters for reneging on the opportunity to lead the Delhi government. While he lost significant political capital by staking his leadership on the bill, Kejriwal now knows that he must play the political game for real. He has tried to demonstrate that in less than just two months, the concrete initiatives that AAP put in motion were on the right track, including  establishing an anti-corruption hotline and 5500 new auto rickshaw permits. Rahul Kanwal thinks this could be an asset:

The poor actually liked those 49 chaotic days. That was when electricity and water bills had halved and the neighbourhood cop and bijliwala were too scared to ask for bribes. The day Kejriwal’s government fell is the day the ravenous agent of the state was back on the poor man’s door asking for his monthly hafta.

While the #49DaysNostalgia lends an air of experience to today’s AAP effort, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as Kejriwal likes to say. The question is whether voters are willing to support AAP after its two serious missteps in 2013 and 2014. At least three major issues are at stake. Continue reading Kejriwal’s AAP looks for second chance in Delhi vote

The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington

netanyahucongressPhoto credit to AFP.

Washington, it’s not always about you. USflagISrel Flag Icon

For a week, US House speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the US Congress has stirred controversy in the capitals of both countries, but especially in Washington, where commentators of all political stripes are attacking the veteran Israeli leader for the breathtaking breach of protocol in bypassing the administration of US president Barack Obama and dealing exclusively with Obama’s political opponents in the legislative branch. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, perhaps the leading US commentator on Israeli affairs and the bilateral relationship, slammed the move in a piece on Tuesday headlined, ‘The Netanyahu disaster.’

Yes, Netanyahu wants to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and he’s made it clear that he will stop at nothing to thwart Tehran from enriching even the tiniest bit of uranium in its quest to develop its nuclear energy industry — to say nothing of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Yes, Netanyahu is a political foe of the Obama administration and, time after time, he’s gone out of his way to indicate his disapproval of its approach to Iran and other issues central to Israeli regional security. Netanyahu has increasingly developed common cause with the US right, and he has a fervent supporter in Sheldon Adelson, one of the wealthiest Republican donors in the United States (he almost single-handedly bankrolled former speaker Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential bid) and a top Netanyahu financier in his own right.

But neither of those are the real reason that Netanyahu is so eager to speak before the US Congress, now entirely controlled by the Republican Party. Nor will Netanyahu be dissuaded by arguments that it’s a fantastic breach of protocol that will make an already tense relationship with the Obama administration worse. After all, Netanyahu practically endorsed Mitt Romney, Obama’s Republican challenger for the presidency in 2012, and he easily won his own battle for a new term as Israeli prime minister two months after the American presidential election. The potential of alienating a sitting US president certainly didn’t harm Netanyahu’s own domestic political prospects two years ago. The fact that Netanyahu is one of the few US allies who so often publicly contradicts the US president might even boost his standing among Israeli voters.

The real impetus for Netanyahu?

His scheduled appearance comes just two weeks before he faces what will be his toughest election battle since 1999, when he lost an election to Ehud Barak, then the leader of the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).  Continue reading The real reason Netanyahu is coming to Washington