As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world.
But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough.
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Friday, February 29, 2008

Obama has given hope to a generation ... but we could easily tune out again

Guest post by Ed Wallis

It’s a well-aired myth that young people are uninterested in politics. What they are, in fact, generally uninterested in is politicians. But that'’s largely because my generation isn’t used to hearing a politician being actively inspiring. Barack Obama, fueled by record turnout and unusual enthusiasm amongst young voters, has achieved the aura of inevitability in the race for the Democratic nomination by getting a new generation ‘fired up and ready to go.’

Cue sniffy dismissiveness about poetry, bubbles and fairy tales. This all somewhat misses the point – Obama is speaking to and for a whole other set of concerns, and is doing so in a way that feels entirely natural and authentic. Yes it’s broadbrush, but voters under 30 are responding in droves. He doesn’t feel like a fraud and is not making embarrassing attempts to get down with the kids. He is riding the zeitgeist, and inspiring star-studded campaign videos along the way.

This connection inevitably breeds a backlash. But it shows the slightly warped state of political commentary when charisma, freshness, and vitality become potential minuses to guard against. And the relative constitutional weakness of the Presidency requires an effective President to be a galvaniser, who can bring people together and get things done. The Obama campaign is being sniped at as a ‘cult of personality,’ but being able to spearhead a movement for ‘change’ seems no bad thing in a country crying out for some healing.

What particularly insulates Obama from these attacks, however, is that he reaches far outside the youth ghetto. That is the big difference between Obama and Howard Dean’'s insurgent campaign of 2004 - check out The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by his campaign manager Joe Trippi for an evangelical account - which used the internet to ride a wave of idealistic young supporters, and go from zero to hero heading into Iowa. Dean could not broaden his appeal enough to avoid being brought down by his own personal flaws as a candidate and the television attack ads of opponents. But he blazed a trail and showed that young people would still engage with politics, given the right circumstances.

Obama, unlike Dean, is a viable mainstream candidate who can command support from Williamsburg to Wyoming. So this could actually happen. But with great power comes great responsibility. On Obama'’s shoulders rest the hopes of a generation seriously engaged in politics for the first time. And there’s the rub. Political scepticism still runs deep and hope for ‘change’ remains fragile. If the Clinton Machine, superdelegates, or, most worryingly, legal wrangling in Florida can precipitate an unlikely Hillary comeback, then it will strike a devastating blow for the chances of a new kind of politics. A new settlement lies in the balance; the message is ‘'we are listening, but it won’'t take much for us to tune out again'.

As Anthony Barnett recently put it on OpenDemocracy, ‘for many she will be seen as the conveyer of the dead hand of prerogative and the instrument of disappointment, who crushed the hopes of the young now mobilising in droves for Obama. They, in all likelihood will nurse their wounds, withdraw from the campaign and some may even vote McCain.’

Obama'’s fusion of charismatic new appeal and electability in the face of an unpopular status quo is not unprecedented, but you have to go back to 1968 and RFK to see anything quite like it. The link between Obama and the Kennedy clan has been a feature of this campaign, and was made explicit by Teddy Kennedy’'s Obama endorsement. Bobby Kennedy appealed to the same type of constituency, and did so against the backdrop of a similarly unpopular war. And, albeit in more tragic and dramatic circumstances than can be foreseen today (although this spectre has been raised), the fall of his campaign was a landmark disappointment for a new generation of the politically conscious.

As Hunter S. Thompson reflected, his assassination ‘plunged a whole generation of hyper-political young Americans into a terminal stupor.

Of course there is no way for Obama to live up to the hype and expectation that currently surrounds him. At some point in the near or distant future, in the campaign or in government, we will be disappointed - such is the nature of politics and, indeed, life.

But if old-school politicking now conspires, be it in the guise of the Clintons, the Democratic establishment or the Republicans, and Obama falters, it will likely have a similarly numbing effect to that cataclysmic moment in California 1968 which opened the door to Richard Nixon.

No pressure.

Texas ad wars: that 3am call

Hillary refused in the last candidate's debate to say that Obama was not ready to be Commander in Chief - wisely, as giving that line to McCain would also have enraged Democrats in the primary. Still, that is the theme of her latest Texas campaign spot, where Obama would not keep your children safe if the phone rang in the middle of the night. (ad script; watch the ad).

It may perhaps prove the closest that the Clinton campaign has come to an iconic ad. But there are several problems with it.

* Its 3am in the campaign too - and this seems too late. The Clinton campaign have never offered a substantive contrast on national security, beyond the 'knows world leaders' (from time as first lady)' claim to experience. There was a debate to be had about national security last summer. But Clinton somehow ducked it, while Obama was bullishly confident about taking on the conventional wisdom on national security.

* The attack plays straight to an Obama USP and Clinton negative - making the right call on Iraq. He has his one national security contrast - for Clinton or McCain - buttoned down, and it plays particularly well to the primary audience. And his campaign have been quick off the mark turning his fightback comments into a super-rapid rebuttal pastiche. In cutting to the candidate and the Oval office earlier, the attack response has a positive, Presidential feel.

* On first seeing it, I immediately thought of the infamous LBJ Daisy Girl 1964 attack on Goldwater, though that was a different 'whose finger on the trigger' argument to argue that the world was not safe in the hands of his opponent. However, as Karen Tumelty points out, its a direct copy of a Mondale '84 ad.

Perhaps the lack of originality doesn't matter much. But Mondale lost in a 49 state landslide. Meanwhile, EJ Dionne is the latest commentator to think there's something Reaganesque about the positive Obama appeal.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Expectations, expectations

Barack Obama has won eleven primaries in a row, his streak extended by the Democrat Abroad result. The scale and demography of his Wisconsin victory saw him demonstrate much clearer momentum than before.

Everybody agrees that victories in Ohio and Texas are essential for Hillary Clinton to keep the campaign going. Bill Clinton has helpfully said so. Do the instant obituaries are being written for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The weekend papers were full of comments from inside the campaign about the darkening mood of pessimism. When will she admit its over? Who will tell her? What post-Presidential campaign career ambitions might she have?

But don't forget how much the media has got most things wrong in this topsy-turvy race. And the narrative of the lost Clinton cause is not backed up by the current polls.

The primaries are on Tuesday. A consistent lead in Ohio, usually of eight points, although the Texas race is much closer. But expectations have fallen through the floor for Clinton, even though there seems to be much to play for.

As a result, two victories would now look like one of the great upsets (and could transform the dynamics of the race), despite these long having been states where Clinton was ahead.

The polls Obama may well extend his winning streak on March 4th. He has been consistently winning the ground war, and winning by much more sizeable margins than polling predicts. But in failing to manage expectations, his campaign may be repeating a mistake they made between Iowa and New Hampshire, when 'signed, sealed and delivered' blared out at what everyone thought would be a victory rally.

It wasn't over then. And it isn't now either.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Why Obama should defend John McCain over the NYT

So far, discussion of the New York Times' controversial feature on John McCain has been more about the NYT's decision to publish (on which Gabriel Sherman of The New Republic has a blow-by-blow backgrounder) than on the almost-allegations made about rumours of a McCain affair or inappropriate links to lobbyists. NYT editor Bill Keller admits to being taken aback by negative reader reaction and 'how lopsided the opinion was against our decision'.

Ezra Klein suggests that 'the path of wisdom' would be for Obama to 'set precedent' for the campaign, saying something like:

Look, you want to ask me about his plan for a 100-years in Iraq or more tax cuts for the rich or better deals for telecom lobbyists, we can talk about that. But his personal life is not only none of my business but, frankly, it's none of yours

Klein is right, though most respondents on his blog seem to disagree. Those charging Klein with naivety - saying that 'being nice to the Republicans doesn't make then nice to you' are missing the strategic point, which goes beyond the innoculation/self-protection of Obama further down the road.

This is an opportunity for Obama to do the right thing. (Any political advantage arises primarily from being seen to do the right thing, even if there might seem to be short-term political gain in not doing so).

But there is a political advantage here too. Obama would get to define and project what breaking with the 'same old politics' means for him. And an early counter-inuitive move could help to frame his candidacy and the race for those voters who wait for a General Election race to shape up before paying too much attention.

As that would become an argument about how he believes the General Election should be fought - and here he gets to set a challenge for McCain.

Obama would have to fight the General Election saying: there is a deep clash of different visions for America, of different policies and politics, but I respect my opponent and do not need to question his integrity to disagree fundamentally about these issues. (Hence Obama's saying in his victory speech on Tuesday night:

"I revere and honor John McCain's service to this country. He is a genuine American hero. But when he embraces George Bush's failed economic policies, when he says that he is willing to send our troops into another 100 years of war in Iraq, then he represents the policies of yesterday. And we want to be the party of tomorrow. And I'm looking forward to having that debate with John McCain."

Those arguing that 'this is war, if we fight nice and they fight dirty, we lose' miss the point. That simply is not an option for Obama: it would be inauthentic given his core campaign message.

Obama then gets to challenge McCain to respond in kind.

If McCain does so, Obama has the tone and framing for the type of General Election he wants.

If McCain does not do so, then it is he that has the authenticity problem. What happened to 'straight talk' John McCain? Having been the victim of a Bush/Rove personal destruction campaign in 2000, is he now using or (more plausibly) passively benefitting from such tactics himself?

If Obama had publicly defended McCain, it would raise the bar for McCain to distance himself from attempts to Swift Boat Obama by Republican surrogates. Yet there is a political trap here too. McCain's distancing himself from such attacks could raise questions from the sceptical base about how much McCain wants to fight and win as a Republican. (And liberals doing the right thing by McCain now could help here too).

(Obama would also get to draw an implicit contrast with the Clintons. That is mostly in his favour, though would confirm the doubts of those who fear Obama will be chewed up and spat out by the Republican attack machine).

Ultimately, if Obama is offering a different kind of politics, he needs to use potentially defining moments to act consistently with that.

This has been the primary season when going negative backfired. And so Obama versus McCain could be the type of General Election that much of the United States wants and needs. (There is plenty there for partisans too: please, please, please don't give me the usual nonsense that you can't find any real differences between these two candidates).

Just not for those who believe that democratic elections should be all-out partisan war, with no holds barred. After all, both of these candidates would know that one of the lessons of the Bush era is that rules of conduct matter, even at war.

* UPDATE: The New York Times' own public editor Clark Hoyt argues against publication in his column.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Obama as Icarus?

An Obama nomination isn't inevitable, yet. But Hillary Clinton's final, best answer in the Texas candidate's debate last night acknowledged the possibility of defeat. This was an important signal. Clinton will still fight on to win, but now within the limits demanded by partisan loyalty. (But what alternative is there when a desperate bid to go nuclear would almost certainly backfire?).

The insurgent is now the clear frontrunner and Democrats have a final chance to scrutinize the potential vulnerability of an Obama bid: could he really go toe-to-toe with John McCain in November and win? Will Higham of the think-tank Demos dreads an Obama candidacy, articulating the fear that Obama 'is a political Icarus who's just now nearing the beating sun'.

I think there are three big fears about Obama's General Election resilience. And each threatens to evoke recurring Democrat nightmares from the ghost of elections past.

The first is that Obama wlll prove 'achingly vulnerable' (as Higham puts it) to the negative politics of personal destruction which have dominated and polarized US politics for a generation. Unlike the Clintons, that 'vast right-wing conspiracy' just haven't gotten around to him yet.

The second is that 'outing' Obama as a liberal, not a moderate, could damage him just as it destroyed Michael Dukakis in 1988.

The third is that McCain versus Obama would expose the Democrat vulnerability on national security, so that Obama follows John Kerry in 2004 in being beaten in an election which seemed to be the Democrats to lose.

Any one of these threats could prove fatal to Obama's White House bid. Yet the alternative - audacious, hopeful - view is that a Clinton candidacy which would replay once again the Democrats' nightmares, in the hope of exorcising them, and an Obama candidacy which might transcend them.

Indeed, the Clinton campaign essentially accepts these Democratic vulnerabilities as fixed, operates within them, and attempts to win despite them:

On negative politics, that means treating the war wounds of having been 'vetted' by a generation of partisan wars as a credential. This means accepting polarisation as a given, mobilising your own base, and hope to shift one or two decisive states from red to blue.

On policy and ideology, it means triangulating within the accepted centrist constraints, while persuading your own side not to foster false hopes.

On national security, it means being acutely aware of the Democratic vulnerability and try to neutralize the issue. Don't let the Republicans open up any space to your right, and try to get the campaign back onto the economic and healthcare.

This approach was tried and failed in 2000 and 2004. Gore and Kerry made avoidable tactical mistakes and could have won those knife-edge contests. The Clinton campaign fears that any alternative approach risks forgetting the lessons which enabled the Democrats to win in 1992 and 1996. But Obama rightly believes that the Democratic Presidential campaign playbook now needs to be rewritten for different times.

I believe Obama is well placed to fend off negative personal attacks with style and grace. John McCain is much less likely to fight the type of Bush-Rove campaign of which he was himself the victim in South Carolina in 2000. Might we be heading for a deep clash over issues and future visions for America in which each candidate respects the other's integrity? That may sound naïve, yet eschewing the politics of personal destruction will be in the enlightened self-interest of both candidates in an Obama-McCain race. It would damage McCain's 'straight talk' brand of integrity and Obama's appeal to a new politics. (Obama called McCain 'a genuine American hero' in his victory speech on Tuesday, before contrasting their views on the economy and foreign policy).

So far, this has been the year that going negative failed. (Sorry Mitt, sorry Rudy, sorry Bill Clinton too). Of course, Obama can expect Republican surrogates to attempt to 'swift boat' him, but his biography long ago put potentially damaging material on the record on his own terms. His entire campaign frame has built in resilience to the 'same old politics'.

Could his liberalism be more damaging to Obama? Karl Rove now advocates making this the central Republican attack. A fascinating study of voter perceptions of the ideological positions of various candidates was published last month by the Pew Research Centre: Obama does needs to persuade an electorate which perceives itself as to the right-of-centre to back a left-of-centre candidate. (And there is something in the charge that Obama has rarely challenged his own supporters or gone outside their comfort zone yet).

However, despite his impeccably liberal Senate voting record, Obama's domestic policy positions are often a slight step right of Hillary's, for example on universal health care mandates. Obama's authenticity demands that he stands up for his public record, rather than triangulate away from it. That need not reduce his crossover appeal. Andrew Sullivan, who has been the most articulate pro-Obama Republican, has stressed Obama's ability to debate difference with respect: 'What strikes me about Obama is not that he is conservative or liberal, it is his policy liberalism with conservative temperament', Sullivan has written.

The central McCain theme against Obama will be the contrast on national security: 'is Obama ready to be Commander in Chief?'. Again, here Obama seems ready to break with the conventional wisdom of how Democrats deal with this vulnerability. EJ Dionne worried this week that 'every political consultant worth a six-figure fee will tell the Democratic nominee that fighting the election on broad foreign policy questions (as opposed to a limited dialogue built around a simple "Bush Bad, Iraq War Dumb, McCain Backs Both" theme) would be to play to McCain's strengths'.

Yet Obama's audacious strategy could well be to challenge McCain directly on national security. There was a glimpse of this when Obama was accused of foreign policy 'gaffes' early in the campaign last summer, over his comments on meeting leaders hostile to the US and his willingness to pursue al-qaeda into Pakistan. The audacious nature of the Obama challenge was fleshed out in a revealing memo on 'conventional Washington' versus change from academic rising star and Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power. The spirit of that memo would lead Obama to offer a significant challenge to McCain's foreign policy philosophy - to articulate clear divisions over national security, not to minimize them.

Each of these choices would involve risks. But the most striking feature of Obama's campaign to date is that he has forced his opponents to run within his campaign frame, which has enabled him to anticipate attacks and turn these into a reconfirmation of the choice he is offering voters. He has dealt head-on with the charges that he is offering 'false hopes' or that 'talk is cheap'. (Comprehensively out-organising the Clinton machine in every caucus state counts as action as well as words). Win or lose, it is hard not to conclude that the candidate who began as a clear outsider has won the campaign.

Still, there remains a final chance for buyer's remorse in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and beyond. Some cases of 'Obama comedown syndrome' have been diagnosed. And it would take a very serious dose of Obama-mania indeed not to admit that his nomination involves a leap of faith. It is a risk which Democratic voters seem ever more ready to take.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Should the super-delegates count?

It is difficult to see how a Convention majority can now be won by either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the remaining primaries. So much attention is being paid to the role of the super-delegates at the Convention. (For updates on endorsements, and more in-depth analysis than anybody could reasonably need, see Democratic Convention Watch).

The superdelegates may not play as decisive a role as the arithmetic suggests. But a key question is how legitimate their role is - and what political damage would be done to the party's prospects in November if a candidate who was ahead on votes and elected delegates lost the nomination.

I am unconvinced by the characterisation of super-delegates as faceless party apparatchiks who should not have a say.

Firstly, the super-delegates are part of the rules and everybody has known it.

Secondly, the party's senior elected representatives - members of Congress, Governors and the like - can claim a legitimate stake in the nomination. The success of a Democratic Presidency will depend in part on the ability to work with them. They are public figures, who will be held accountable for their choices and role. The use of indirect democracy and an effective electoral college to select a candidate, fusing popular participation with checks and balances, this system is much more characteristic of the US conception of democratic politics than a genuine 'national primary' would be. I do agree with critics of the system that the growing proportion of superdelegates is problematic: I think it would be a better system if the superdelegates were a smaller group, not including the members of the Democratic National Committee. But that is an issue for future elections, rather than this one).

Thirdly, the Democratic party super-delegates are there for a reason. They are one of the very few examples, outside the allocation of power in Congress, where the idea of a national party in US politics has any meaning. The intention was to present an extra hurdle to insurgency campaigns, particularly to protect the party against enthusing itself into selecting a candidate likely to be hammered in the General Election, as had happened to George McGovern in 1972. The reform did not take place until 1982, the 1972 campaign had been one of the first where the primaries were decisive. (In the contentious and tragic 1968 campaign, the nominee Hubert Humphrey had not entered most of the primaries. Robert Kennedy, assassinated after winning the California primary, had defeated the alternative anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy while the favourite for the nomination held back).

Obama's is a challenger movement. But he is no McGovern. He would be not just a credible carrier of the party standard, but could well win an electability argument against Hillary Clinton.

So the case for a super-delegate veto of the Obama candidacy is weak. But, by the same token, 'playing by the rules' (as the Obama campaign rightly insists over the disputed Florida and Michigan delegations) should simply mean Obama's team accepting the need to meet the super-delegate test, by splitting the super-delegate vote sufficiently to maintain a lead at the Convention. He should be well placed to do so. Having won most votes and most states will be a persuasive argument, both morally and politically, as would the evidence of his greater ability to reach beyond the core Democrat vote.

Much will depend on the margin between candidates. If the elected delegates were effectively tied - or if one candidate had a lead of about 50 delegates - then it would be difficult to cast the battle for super-delegates as illegitimate. It would become the 'final caucus'. But if one candidate was 500 delegates ahead, the trailing candidate will surely fail to persuade super-delegates to overturn that, not least because the charge of illegitimacy would stick. But there is a grey area between these two scenarios. All that can be said is that public, political and media perceptions of fairness will matter a great deal - and early pledges from super-delegates may well not hold.

Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the nomination will be decided in a dramatic vote on the Convention floor. In that sense, the super-delegate issue could prove redundant. However, the means of persuading one candidate to concede would in part be the ability of key non-aligned figures - Howard Dean, Al Gore and other mediators - to articulate the party's interest and persuade significant numbers of other super-delegates to swing behind them.

These will be political decisions. But talk of 'smoke-filled rooms' will prove wide of the mark, and not just because of greater health awareness. If there is a clear public sense that one candidate has 'won' the primaries, then the Convention is likely to swing very firmly behind them. My instinct is that the role of the super-delegates may well be less to choose the new King or Queen of the Democrats, but in helping to manage victory and defeat for a unified Democrat coronation.

How Obama won the campaign

It certainly isn't over. The scale of Obama's victories last week took a neck-and-neck race into with one where he was the frontrunner. The Obama camp deny this and would prefer to stay the underdog - their last overdog phase lasted just days between Iowa and New Hampshire. But the central question of the Democrat campaign is now, in the face of greater scrutiny, he can close the deal.

And whatever the final result, it is difficult not to conclude that Barack Obama has won the campaign. Hillary Clinton's core problem is that she finds herself in the campaign which Obama has framed. His simply being there after Super Tuesday destroyed her 'inevitability' strategy in terms of strategy, public messages and campaign funding and organisation. Despite some mis-steps under pressure, Obama's campaign has been impressive in its consistency and relative calm.

Still, Hillary Clinton is not out of this. A good estimate might be that she has a perhaps 25%-33% chance of the nomination. But each of her routes there looks hazardous.

Going negative: The Clinton campaign complains about Obama being untested. Their latest negative ads in Wisconsin strike me as pretty tame, and unlikely to do much damage to Obama, while taking the hit from their opponent on 'going negative' and 'politics as usual'. Again, Obama finds his opponent is playing into his campaign frame.

The big state strategy: She has won some of the biggest states, and has poll leads in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania which could her back in front in elected delegates. But she is conceding most of the smaller states, and so is likely to have lost ten primaries in a row by March 4th. Shades of Rudy Giuliani?

Challenging the rules: It is difficult to find any non-partisan observer who thinks the Clinton campaign has a case over seating the Michigan and Florida delegates, who are barred because the state parties broke the February 5th on primaries or caucuses for those outside the four states given special privileges. The Clinton camp gave clear commitments, with all of the campaigns,that they would accept the rules. (The Michigan case is particularly risible).

The New York Times regards this move as 'potentially incendiary'. That may be an understatement, as Ezra Klein argues.

The Clinton campaign would do better to close this issue down - and quickly. It simply plays into the 'movement versus the machine' frame of the Obama-ites. It is difficult to see how this could be used to achieve the nomination without damaging the party. (Senator Chuck Schumer, Clinton's fellow New York Senator, gave a good and emollient performance, when billed as representing the Clinton campaign on Meet the Press yesterday, stressing the need for party unity) . A much better approach would be to propose that both candidates to agree to a new primary or caucus - if the practical logistics would allow it. That would be difficult for the Obama campaign to oppose.

Super-delegate edge: For some, the super-delegate issue is similar to the Michigan/Florida case. But the super-delegates are part of the rules and everybody has known it, as I argue in a longer post on this issue. But the ability of the super-delegates to save Hillary Clinton is much overstated. Her lead among super-delegates has fallen considerably, and pledges need not stay pledged. This is only likely to be a route to the nomination if the delegate race is very close to a tie.

So Clinton needs to win - and win well - in Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and perhaps also find a legitimate way to bring Florida or Michigan back onto the map. It is not impossible. But it will be very dificult. And even a good performance in the key target states may take us back into neck-and-neck territory rather than a clear Clinton lead.

Obama's 'framing advantage' has helped him to respond deftly to attacks from his opponent. Demand more policy detail? He can do wonkery too and has a natural 'professorial' mode. Putting some policy heavy, somewhat boring passages in his speeches before getting back to the campaign uplift isn't too difficult for him, as the New York Times reports

“Today, I want to take it down a notch,” said Mr. Obama, of Illinois, standing on the floor of a General Motors plant. “This is going to be a speech that is a little more detailed. It’s going to be a little bit longer, with not too many applause lines.”

In return, he insists again and more powerfully that 'words do matter'. To respond, Hillary Clinton needs to combine the 'solutions business' policies' by showing she can soar and inspire. That's harder.

Perhaps as the Clinton campaign has adopted the unfamiliar role of the challenger, perhaps they have now become too focused on their frustrations in making the case against Obama when the problem is that they have yet to articulate a distinctive case for their candidate.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dear Gordon: why we need an Iraq inquiry

A letter to the Prime Minister, which is reported in today's Independent.

11th February 2008

Dear Prime Minister

Next month will mark the fifth anniversary of the House of Commons' debate on military intervention in Iraq in March 2003. I believe that this would be the right time for the government to set out plans to ensure the lessons from Iraq are learnt and inform the future of British foreign policy, by announcing an independent public inquiry into the Iraq war.

Iraq has been the most significant foreign policy and military engagement of the last decade. It has also been the most controversial and publicly contested episode in British foreign policy for half a century, since Suez, dividing Parliament, political parties and the country.

An inquiry can not change the course of events since 2003. But there is widespread recognition, among those who took different views about the war, of the need to learn lessons from the Iraq war and its aftermath. A full inquiry would ensure that a rounded assessment of the pre-war diplomacy, the intelligence failures regarding Iraq's WMD programme, the conduct of the war itself, and the difficulties of post-war political and economic reconstruction could inform future policy.

This is a particularly important moment for the future of foreign policy. The US election has provided a natural moment for America to take stock at the end of a political cycle: it is striking that the theme of change has been central to the campaigns of leading candidates for both parties. With a growing awareness among political leaders and broader public opinion in the United States of the limits to what even the most powerful nation in the world can achieve alone, it is important to show that working together for stronger international cooperation can provide a more effective alternative.

Britain, our European partners and other allies can make a major contribution to leading an international public debate about how we can work together to strengthen multilateral institutions for an age of growing interdependence. This should lead to new thinking about how to address the global challenges of our age, including security and terrorism, climate change, the responsibility to protect human rights, and spreading global development and decent chances in life to all.

This agenda should also be at the heart of the Labour Party's thinking as it creates a new progressive foreign policy agenda to put forward at the next General Election in Britain, and the party should seek to reach out and work with those outside party politics who are working on these great progressive causes.

But our ability to pursue this debate within Britain and beyond, and to engage people in it, will depend on acknowledging and learning the lessons of Iraq, showing a clear commitment to building from these to create the new internationalist agenda we need for the future. A public inquiry into Iraq would be an important way to achieve this.

Yours sincerely,

Sunder Katwala
General Secretary
Fabian Society

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Much ado about Sharia

Rowan Williams is shocked at the outrage his comments on sharia law have created: issuing clarifications of his lecture on religious and civil law in England and the World at One interview which provoked the furore.

Asim Siddiqui has an excellent commentary, putting the furore into context, though I think he is a little generous to the Archbishop's sagacity. The media may have gone somewhat overboard. But Williams needed to be aware of the impact he will have as a public figure, and given his office, on such a 'hot button' issue. And the views he expresses in the speech and interview are not clear and, at times, do discuss the possibilities and dilemmas of competing juridstictions.

Siddiqui says:

I would argue that the basic objectives of sharia (protection of life, family, dignity, intellect and property) are all covered by British law. The fundamental purpose of sharia is to achieve justice. This country is more just than most. So what more sharia do people want?

The aspects of sharia being considered by the archbishop are restricted to matters of family and finance law, ie civil matters. No one is suggesting introducing the so-called Islamic penal code - so let's not waste time debating something most of us don't want to see in the Muslim world, let alone Britain.

Many critical voices from within the Church of England have asked why the Archbishop seems to be making claims on behalf of Islam, rather than Christianity. What he is trying to do is defend and entrench the claims of faith in the public sphere against the most strident secular voices - and to make common cause across faiths to do that. But this was not the way to achieve that, or to begin a public debate. if that was part of the aim of this lecture, it has backfired spectacularly.

'Mathematically impossible' for Clinton or Obama to win without super-delegates

The Democrat nomination is going to be decided at the Convention.

That is the prediction of Paul Kane of the Washington Post - though it is easier to find where his point is picked up on political wire - because of how even the race is, and because Dem primaries are not 'winner-take-all'. Unless a neck-and-neck race turns overnight into a landslide, the super-delegates will come into play.

Do the math. If they both have about 900 pledged delegates so far, they need to win more than 1,100 of the remaining 1,400 delegates to win the nomination through actual voting.

Of course, there are lots of versions of that scenario. The elections will have an impact on the super-delegates' choices, especially if either candidate can open up a lead. But both campaigns may shift up a further gear on the micro-targetting and arm-twisting as much as the public campaign.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Would McCain put Mike Huckabee a heartbeat from the Presidency?

John McCain wants to build bridges with conservative Republicans.Mike Huckabee, having been written out of a two-horse race by the media, did strikingly well in the southern states, and has managed to stay on friendly terms with McCain.

So there is now a great deal of chatter about McCain-Huckabee being a good way to balance the Republican ticket. Huckabee has done well with evangelical voters in particular, but he has offended a good deal of the Republican establishment with his left-leaning economic populism.

Would it be a balanced ticket for conservatives or a 'dual maverick express'?

Many observers note that Huckabee has a great deal of conversational charm on the campaign stump. But this just makes him a disarmingly charming lunatic.

McCain may gain credibility with part of the conservative base. But Independents and swing voters, especially women, may worry about a 72 year old candidate sharing a ticket with a creationist.

When it comes to God in public life, Huckabee is an American revolutionary and risks sounding like a fundamentalist:

"[Some of my opponents] do not want to change the Constitution, but I believe it's a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God, and that's what we need to do is to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards,"

He has made a great many controversial remarks on gay rights - and discussed this on Meet the Press before Christmas. He defended his claim in a 1988 book that:

"It is now difficult to keep track of the vast array of publicly endorsed and institutionally supported aberrations--from homosexuality and pedophilia to sadomasochism and necrophilia."

Just last month, he was comparing gay marriage to bestiality.

I think the radical view is to say that we're going to change the definition of marriage so that it can mean two men, two women, a man and three women, a man and a child, a man and animal."

I am not sure that Huckabee for Veep is that much more likely than the Clinton/Obama or Obama/Clinton 'dream ticket', which strikes me as neither plausible nor strategically smart.

McCain may want a less controversial conservative standard barrier. Or could he break with the conventional wisdom and not go conservative at all? The most intriguing chatter is about the possibility of McCain asking Colin Powell to run on the ticket with him.

My hunch is that McCain would struggle to get Powell to agree to run - but that it could prove a very smart choice for the Republicans.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Why is it such a bad year for going negative?

So, farewell Mitt Romney. Somehow, we never really knew you. Perhaps the real Mitt Romney should have tried for the nomination (pragmatic, technocratic, can read a balance sheet, turned around a Winter Olympics, and ideologically flexible enough for his Republicanism to prosper in the liberal heartlands). Instead, Romney ran as the faithful heir of the Reagan coalition, with everything (except his Mormon faith) straight out of Republican central casting. On paper, it must have looked a perfectly pitched candidacy, if only the voters had believed it. (Even his reason for quitting - the Iraq war - doesn't ring true though it offered a reminder of the gulf there will be between the major candidates over Iraq and national security this Autumn).

One of the most cheering things about the 2008 election is what isn't working.

Money: Of course, money still matters too much in US politics. But Mitt's millions couldn't get him the nomination, and he was outplayed by Mike Huckabee largely volunteer force. On the Democrat side, money has mattered and Obama's fundraising success during 2007 was an early signal that his could be a viable challenge to Hillary Clinton. But there is now a twist. Until the last few weeks, the Clinton campaign strategy was based around a decisive Super Tuesday result, reflected in the fundraising and spending plans. Now, the game is in overtime. That means a big headache for the Clinton campaign, many of whose high-value have hit the campaign spending limits, and a significant edge for the Obama movement's ability to raise millions in smaller donations.

Talk radio: The shock jocks of the US right have done a great deal to coarsen US debate over the last 20 years. But Rush Limbaugh has spent the last fortnight going ballistic to insist that John McCain (and indeed Mike Huckabee, for his economic populism) are betraying conservative America. They have been ignored. If your pitch is to be a self-apppinted and infallible populist voice of the people, it is a very big problem if the people stop listening.

Negative ads: From Lee Atwater's infamous WIllie Horton campaign attacks for Bush senior in 1988 to the swift boating of John Kerrey, there has been a sense of Democrats being helpless in the face of the evil genius of right-wing attack ads. But Romney has run a relentlessly negative textbook campaign - and it has failed. Overall, TV ads haven't had a fantastic impact or salience. There might not be an iconic campaign spot of 2008.

Personal attacks: There is no doubt that Bill Clinton's 'bad cop' routine damaged Hillary Clinton's campaign though, though it has also helped to polarise attitudes to voting around race and other demographic groups.

So what's going on? Are politics as usual losing their potency? I am not claiming that the remaining candidates are angels, but Perhaps this will turn out to be naively optimistic - and the candidates will go nuclear on each other from here on. Or an improved mood in 2008 might prove a one-off, another unusual feature of this most unusual race.

Perhaps. But it's worth considering the hypothesis that something bigger is going on. The public may be more media-savvy and sceptical than they were, so that techniques which seemed cutting-edge in the 1980s and 1990s now seem very dated.

And there is much greater scrutiny of what campaigns say - because of the scale of 24/7 media, and the ability of blogs to scrutinise and bite-back if dubious claims are made.

The sheer volume of coverage may mean that no future ad could ever have the sort of impact of LBJ's famous attack on Goldwater in 1964 or the Willie Horton ads of 1988. If voters don't want to be overwhelmed, they have to find their own filters. The Romney campaign changed messages too much for these to gain a resonance. Campaign themes and messages may matter less than voters' sense of a candidate's authenticity - that they embody the values and issues of their campaign.

While it will be a hard fought General Election, I think the tone of the contest could be rather more elevated than many people expect. John McCain was a victim of the politics of personal destruction in the Republican primaries of 2000. I don't think he is going to practice them in the General Election. And the Democrats would benefit from any sort of truce which could put the focus back onto the Games themselves.

Seven million all

'Clinton and Obama trade victories' was the apt Washington Post headline. While it is delegates that count, where it is looking very even in the end, the most fascinating statistic from Karen Tumulty of Time aggregates the nationwide votes (not the final totals) to show both Clinton and Obama won almost seven and a half million votes each, and were very close to tied among voters choosing either one of the frontrunners.

Clinton: 50.2% (7,427,942)
Obama: 49.8% (7,370,023)

I took part in an interesting post-Super Tuesday panel debate at the House of Commons organised by Progress.

McCain will be the Republican nominee: he is the most electable Republican in a post-Bush age, and the party didn't quite hate him enough not to recognise that. So that will be tough for the Democrats. There are gains: on issues like climate change and torture, the debate will be on Democrat-friendly territory. And there are still huge differences between the parties - on Iraq, national security, healthcare and the economy.

There were different views about whether the Clinton and Obama camps could fight a close race without knocking lumps out of each other. I felt they could: not just because of the party's interest, but because the Bill Clinton-led attacks on Obama ahead of South Carolina suggested this may be a year when 'the politics of personal destruction' will backfire.

There was an interesting discussion about why money and negative advertising have declined in impact. Is it due to particular factors like the inauthenticity of Mitt Romney, or about a shift in media and political communication?

A few other interesting nuggets
* More Democrats voted in London yesterday in just one location of the international Democrats Abroad primary than in the Alaska caucus. Democrats Abroad, including in London, have voted strongly for Obama over Clinton.
* John McCain isn't going to choose Mike Huckabee as Vice-President, thankfully.
* None of the panel wanted to make predictions, though there was a general sense that Hillary Clinton could just edge the Democrat nomination, with mixed views as to what would happen in a knife-edge Clinton/McCain race.

Monday, February 4, 2008

MPs, bugs and a stupid own goal

A report in the Sunday Times that Sadiq Khan MP was bugged by Scotland Yard while visiting a constituent has created a major stir at Westminster, leading to the swift announcement of a government inquiry and a statement in the House of Commons today.

The allegation, which appears to be true, would be in clear breach of the long-standing bar on the police bugging MPs under the Wilson doctrine, and it is important the government inquiry finds out how and why this was allowed to happen. It remains to be seen why this operation was carried out, whether proper authorisation was sought and from whom, and why this took place in the absence of any credible grounds for suspicion.

I should declare a personal connection. I know Sadiq Khan, who has recently become vice-chair of the Fabian Society for 2008 having been an important contributor in our work around Britishness, citizenship and integration, and has been leading a Fabian project with John Denham MP in this area over the last two years, which we will be publishing shortly.

But that is not the main reason I was shocked and angered by the report. A great many people will suspect that this was not entirely unconnected to the fact that the MP for Tooting happens to be a Muslim. It is of the gravest concern is that some in authority do not understand that they risk sending the message that every British Muslim is to be regarded as a potential 'fifth columnist' and object of suspicion. It is difficult to think of a more effective way to undermine the efforts of those working for integration, seeking to forge a confident British Muslim identity so that future generations have no reason to see their faith as a barrier to their being full and equal participants in British society.

Sadiq Khan has been a challenging advocate of integration and equality before entering parliament and since, as a civil rights lawyer and Chair of the human rights group Liberty. In a significant Fabian speech - being a British Muslim on the anniversary of the July 7th bombings, he challenged his own government on issues where it risks undermining an appeal to hearts and minds, and also vocally criticised all of those, from the BNP to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, who exploit community grievances to foster division.

These efforts should be supported, not undermined.

And the good news is that there are a number of positive signs that this thinking has had a significant impact in the British government rethinking its language and policy on terrorism since the departure of Tony Blair. While the Brown government's emerging agenda remains work in progress, the attempt to ditch the 'war on terror' for a more effective 'hearts and minds' approach is an important one, which those who have been critical of the government are watching with interest. (Sunny Hundal wrote a good commentary reflecting on this after the recent Fabian conference).

And yet, even as progress is made, it is undermined. How depressing that, for some in the Establishment, there is nothing that even the most prominent and integrated of British Muslims could ever do to pass some secret loyalty test.

UPDATE: I have a commentary piece about this - A very British subversive on Comment is Free.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Europe's leaders discuss their world after Bush agenda

The Independent's political editor Andrew Grice's 'week in politics' column develops the World After Bush theme, reporting that Gordon Brown is trying to build European support for reform of the major global institutions and that the Downing Street summit of Europe's big players moved on from financial instability to post-Bush planning over goat's cheese and dessert.

This is good news. Despite Brown's commitment to a 'new multilateralism', he has appeared semi-detached towards the European Union, not least in scoring an embarassing own goal over the signing ceremony of the Lisbon Treaty. But perhaps that has proved a wake-up call: the attempt to play to the eurosceptic press gallery backfired.

But with the British political battle now joined over Europe, there has been a shift to a more positive case from the Brown government. And Britain's ability to promote a new multilateralism depends on building European support, rather than trying to leap over the most powerful multilateral club in the world in an attempt to reshape the global order.

Much of the agenda in my manifesto for the World after Bush depends on that commitment to Britain 'punching our weight in Europe'.

This credible global Europe depends on Britain being fully engaged. The jury is still out. The UK is the most globally engaged of any society, and the most globally open major economy. We have most to gain from global cooperation, and most to lose if it fails. We must make full use of our membership of the EU, the world's most powerful, democratic multilateral force.
So the British government needs to stop telling the public it is protecting us from the worst of the European project – and start making the positive case that we only punch our weight through Europe if we want our voice to count. Politicians who talk about climate change or global development are simply not credible if they shy away from the essential means to deliver.

There will still be choppy waters ahead, but I am rather more optimistic about this than before Christmas.

But a key question remains: whether Britain and France can, with Germany, find enough common purpose to make a shared European agenda possible.

As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.