lessons from America

6 weeks is a very long time in politics

6 weeks ago the Obama convention bounce – and the Democratic activist high from those scenes at Invesco stadium – were thought to be at their peak.  And Obama had a bare lead in the electoral college vote, according to the polls. 

6 weeks ago Sarah Palin had just been unveiled to the world as McCain’s running mate …. and the media thought it a masterstroke.

6 weeks ago the Dow was as high as 11500 and the FTSE 100 stood at 5600.  And a mattress was what what you slept on, rather than a safer place than banks to store your money.

And 6 weeks ago I left Denver, after an amazing experience at the Convention, in the city and with my hosts Hunter and Tyler.  

Tyler and Malcolm Hunter, Malcolm and Tyler

…. my tan has definitely now gone, despite the Indian Summer we’ve experienced here. Since departing Denver on such a high, I’ve been to 5 political conferences: the Greens, Trade Union Congress, Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives.  I’ve watched my godson take his first steps, first aided and now on his own.  I’ve celebrated my birthday, and my twin brother’s!  And I’ve continued to talk, watch, read, blog and breathe the US elections. 

But lotts has changed in the past 6 weeks.  That’s a bland understatement of the highest order.  The financial, economic and political landscape in the US, the UK and to a lesser extent across the world has radically altered. 

Here in the UK, Gordon Brown is now seen (at least for the moment) as a leader fit for these times, rather than a pathetic character about to prematurely ousted from a job he seemed ill-suited for.  The Conservative lead in the polls has diminished from its historic highs.  The Conservative leader David Cameron is now having to not only back regulation and nationalisation, but he is calling for even tighter curb on boardroom pay and perks than the Labour Prime Minister.   We have revived our old enmity with Iceland, this time over banking rather than fish.  And many people – councils, charities and businesses included – have discovered to their cost that when something looks too good to be true (in this case high interest rates on their savings offered by Icelandic banks without any risk), it probably is.

In the States, “the tectonic plates have shifted” (as John Prescott’s catchphrase aptly puts) to an even bigger degree.   Perhaps the best way of visualising what has happened, is through this fantastic graph, posted by State of the Union (h/t  Look at the way McCain’s fall in popularity almost exactly mirrors the collapse in confidence on Wall Street.

And if yesterday – ‘Black Friday’ – wasn’t bad enough for McCain, we had the ‘Troopergate’ verdict giving further credence to Sarah Palin’s lack of suitability for the V-P job, and criticisms of McCain’s decision-making.  I’m not sure though, in electoral terms, it does anything more than confirm and harden the ‘love her or loathe her’ responses to her.  It’s a lot of passion on both sides she’s managed to stir up these past 6 weeks.
Unbelievably, from the close race 6 weeks ago we are now looking, certainly if the election was held today, at an electoral college landslide for Obama, a possibility of the Democrats getting near to that filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, and a large House majority.  Only the most optimistic would have predicted this situation.   But now we are here, we don’t want to let it slip back.  I absolutely love this rousing, tour de force of a post by Markos which sets out the motivation for the final 4 weeks of the campaign:

“The day after the election, I want to see an electoral battlefield littered with defeated Republicans, their ranks demoralized, their treasury in heavy debt, and no real leadership to take the helm. I want a vacuum so complete, that a bloody leadership battle between the neocons, theocons, and corporate cons shakes the GOP to its core, and leaves it fractured and ill-equipped to stymie the progressive agenda, much less ramp up for an even bleaker (for them) 2010.”

“Guys, that’s why I don’t worry about complacency. We’re not out to win this thing. We’re out to crush them. And that’s going to require a level of engagement beyond anything you’ve ever done before. It’ll mean more phone banking, more canvassing, more donating. … We’ve all got something to offer, whether it’s time or money, and now’s the time to offer what we can.”

Given I can’t offer money (foreign donations are illegal), I am going to be offering my time.  My time in the States.  Campaigning for Obama.  More shortly ….

October 11, 2008 Posted by | global perspective | , , , , , | 1 Comment

No Palin, No fireworks?

After the excitement of last week’s v-p debate,  tonight’s debate may be a quieter affair.  And I’m not talking about what happens in Nashville, Tennessee.  I’m talking about what happens in towns, cities, houses and bars across the US.  The debate parties tonight may take on a calmer tone … and not just because the Dow fell another 5% earlier.  Its all down to Sarah Palin and and the passions on both sides that she stirs.

A Californian friend, blogger and Obama volunteer co-ordinator, drew my attention to what happened at these debate parties last time.  She reported that people were literally yelling at the TV whenever Sarah Palin spoke.  Indeed, there’s a piece from her local Pasedena paper – look at the photo gallery. Most people had their head in their hands when Sarah came on screen. 

The conversation I had with her confirms what I’ve been hearing from others as well, that Palin not only infuriates a certain part of the Democratic base, she does so for some Republicans too, particularly women, who really are offended by her whole cutesy act.  I realised that Palin gave Democrats a real fundraising and activist boost straight after her selection, but reports from Obama campaign offices and high anti-Palin merchandise sales suggest that this is still continuing in a big way. 

Palin does provoke huge negative reaction in the UK – even amongst Conservatives who support McCain. But
I have been surprised at the level of visceral hatred of her by quite a lot of women. I’m not sure that was factored in to McCain’s calculations when he picked her.  

Amusingly, I received comments saying how people thought I was being very fair and even to Palin in my liveblogging of the debate.  Perhaps it was just that I was not yet completely out of my diplomatic, holding-my-tongue, non-partisan mode from my few days with the Conservative party earlier that week.

October 8, 2008 Posted by | debates, global perspective, Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Brown’s Palin moment

BBC One’s 1 o’clock news nicked my phrase.   I had been using it a few hours earlier in a phone call to a friend to describe Gordon Brown’s decision to bring Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet.  Then suddenly it’s on TV.  To be fair, for us political junkies it was a fairly obvious observation: that this was Brown’s ‘Palin moment’, where he tries to pull off the same kind of stunt that McCain did when he surprised everyone and picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.  The idea is simple: to gain days of favourable press coverage which simply focuses on what a surprise the decision was, and which reinforces conventional wisdom about being a courageous, decisive, (and in McCain’s case maverick) leader.  Then you get several more days of positive coverage examining the actual pick itself and why it was such a good idea. 

And so far its working to some degree.  Witness first of all Nick Robinson’s “gobsmacked” reaction and Martha Keaney’s astonishment; the leads on Friday evening’s news programmes; then today’s editorial in The Guardian and the main comment piece in The Independent amongst other exhibits.   The Mirror and The Sun both use the words “shock return” in their headlines.  But the UK media works differently than their US counterparts, and are certainly less deferential and (some of the time) less easily fed a line. The Times today sounds a more sceptical note, and The Telegraph is hostile.

Whichever way the news cycle ends up playing it, the strategy from both McCain and Brown has its risks as well as its rewards.  There is one interesting difference though in the thinking behind the choices: Palin energises the Republican base and tends to turn off independents / undecideds; Mandelson could well do the reverse and strengthen Labour’s appeal to the centre whilst upsetting rank-and-file members.

October 4, 2008 Posted by | global perspective, lessons from America | , , , , | Leave a comment

Liveblogging the V-P debate

[0447] Until Tuesday night and the next Obama-McCain debate, that’s it for the liveblogging.

[0436] In closing, the debate is summarised on Daily Kos as “the student versus the statesman”.  That’s how it seemed to me as well, on one level.  And Bill Schneider, senior analyst on CNN, has said pretty much the same thing.  But on the other hand, Palin’s folksy charm and smiling was quite appealing, even to me.  I doubt this debate is going to be a game changer, or even sway too many voters.  Early polling reaction seems to bear this out.  Interestingly, although I go on about Palin exceeding her low expectations, Biden apparently seems to have exceeded his expectations by not doing any major gaffes and a more emotional, personal style too.  He impressed me too and I think his positives will rise after a quiet few weeks. But I think Palin’s negatives may stabilise after falling heavily recently, and the Republican base may be re-energised a bit after a bad few weeks, so halting (but unlikely to do anything to reverse) Obama’s healthy lead.   

[0419] Palin receives a rapturous welcome at the Republican post debate party.  She’s actually very good in this type of partisan setting, rallying the faithful and combining both passion and zinging lines.  The crowd is loving it, and so is she.  This is like a repeat of her Convention speech, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.  She really does fire up the base in a way McCain never has done and could never do.  I think I am witnessing the start of her run in 2012. Seriously, I think she could do very well in the Republican primaries.

[0358] CNN just interviewed a guy from the website – that may be one to look at for historical context to tonight’s debate.  Though you may have to wait, as the site seems to have crashed after being plugged on national TV.

[0355] Returning to something from the last debate.  The good performance of the moderator.  Kos notes it adroitly as: “Gwen Ifil was excellent. Like Lehrer, I forgot she was on stage, and that’s the way moderators should be” .  Indeed, I was so focused on Palin and Biden and their exchanges, that I barely noticed the interventions from Gwen; except the times she wryly asked them to answer the question or reminded them they were out of time.  Makes such a pleasant change from the way the Democrat primary debates were so badly and partisanly moderated.

[0350] Palin mainly holding her own against the more experienced Biden is a draw according to the analysts in the media.  Exceeded those low expectations. (See 0254).  But as Kos says: “she needed to prove that she could get beyond pre-packaged talking points to demonstrating some capacity for analytical thought. In that regard, she failed.”   Several people on Twitter note how close Palin is to her cartoonish SNL caricature. I think that’s unfair; she seemed more confident at times than her SNL persona, but there was still plenty that fitted so well with her caricature.

[0340] Palin did have a few good lines “Obama flying the white flag on Iraq” was one; and on education. There was no ‘car crash’ and she did the down-to-earth thing very well.  She wasn’t ripped to shreds by Biden; partly I suspect as he saved most of his criticisms for McCain. Palin learnt from McCain’s mistakes last time, and there was little snarky comments or nasty attacks. 

[0336] “Cute and adorable, but not quite so (vice)-presidential” is the succinct summary on Palin by Bill Nicholson, USA Today night editor, speaking on Radio5Live. 

[0330] Biden has done well in the final sections to emotionally connect with the audience (in the hall and on TV), giving heartfelt anecdotes about his family, his experience and his values.  That was one area it was feared he would fall down on, so he’s done well in that respect.  Update [0500]: see this clip from the debate for the bit when Biden talks about his family and the hardships and personal tragedy that he has experienced.  It felt – and is certainly being reported as – a real ‘I feel your pain’ moment, succesfully and genuinally connecting Biden with ordinary voters.

[0328] Palin really is a political lightweight and novice, without much of her own experience or understanding beyond Alaska and her family.  Anywhere else that might really matter and hurt electorally.  I’m less sure it’s such a thing in the US.  It worked for Bush in 2000.  If Obama wasn’t so strong and McCain so weak a candidate, it might work again this year.

[0325] I wish my bingo card just had the word “maverick” on all its squares. I would have had crossed off every square by now.

[0323] OMG. This is brilliant. Biden has just hit a home run on McCain.  “He is not a maverick on anything that really matters to people.” And he continues in that vein in a wonderful, cleverly worded attack on McCain.  A planned exchange no doubt, but I bet it works.

[0321] Biden: “People are looking for help, not more of the same”.  I immediately think of the rhyme “McCain, McSame.”  So does the McCain campaign team obviously, as they have coached Palin to rebut this directly give as one of her number one talking points that “we need change. Change is coming.  John McCain is a maverick and will lead the reform.”

[0317] Palin says she wants a bit more executive power for the V-P position. Hmm. Controversial.

[0311] “Oh, say it’s not so, Joe.”  Palin going all folksy, or rather even more so than usual.  She’s actually quite charming and believable when she’s like this, and explaining education policy.  Even cracks a joke on school credits.  But makes me think small town mayor, or maybe at best inspirational primary school head teacher, not major national political figure.  Then again she gave a ‘shout out’, so maybe a dj or talk show host would suit her better. I’m beig elitist though, I think it may play better in some sections of US society so it may actually be a good strategy from her; going on her strengths and her differences from Biden / Obama.

[0309] Huge traffic on twitter surrounding Palin’s comment that “McCain knows how to win a war”.  Almost unanimous calling her out on this. Vietnam?  I’d love to see the news site’s FactCheck on this one.

[0303] Palin is struggling.  She was rambling, trying to mark snarky comments, searching through her notes, her body language is awkward and she sounds goofy.  But she somehow pulls out a strong answer on Darfur and divestment.  Again though it all comes down to what has done in Alaska, rather than anything relating to the other 49 states or a national policy.

[0301] The consensus on the blogs and twitter is that – unsurprisingly – Biden is winning the foreign policy section hands down.  Only issue I have is he getting a bit wordy, and sometimes changing tack or restarting sentences midway through a point.

[0300] “Past is prologue” says Biden.  We’ll be dissecting that for weeks, its such a wonderful and multi-layered line.

[0257] “We are fighting terrorists and building schools in Afghanistan” says Palin.  Biden hits back hard:  “facts matter.  Our commanding general there says an Iraq-type surge won’t work.”  I would also add that it seems disingenous at best and heartless at worst for Palin to dismiss the bombing and killing of civilians, as she seemed to do. 

[0254]  Sean on 538 says: “I can foresee the praise for Palin’s performance on the post-mortem cable shows already. She has beaten expectations – the lowest expectations in history.”  Exactly what I’ve been warnign about these past few days, and am feeling at the moment.  Palin has had enough okay moments for this to be true no matter what happens the final half hour of the debate; even though Biden is so much stronger.

[0252] Israel: “a peace seeking nation” says Palin.  History may say otherwise.  Also it is outside pressure that has helped to bring Israel to the table or moved things on to a point where Israel feels safe enough to conduct peace negotations.  Palin doesn’t seem to acknowledge this. Biden points this out.

[0250] Palin gives a very passionate answer on “freedom” and not talking to our enemies.  

[0247] Palin gets one over her boss: she can say “Ahmadinejad” properly and first time. And to rub it in she does it twice in a minute.

[0244] “God love him, but he has been dead wrong” – Biden on McCain.  He started out quite muted I thought, but has really started getting into his stride and hitting some big ones.  Tweets seem to think the oil / climate change exchanges were the turning point for Biden and has been performing much better since.

[0241] Biden on Iraq: “I didn’t hear a plan [from Palin/McCain].  Obama has a plan”.  Its just like earlier this week at Tory Party Conference, with their slogan “Plan for Change” and claims of no plans and new ideas from Labour.

[0239] DailyKos is noting that Palin seems to be looking down at her notes more and more, and wonders whether this will become even more frequent and more obvious as we go through proceedings. 

[0235] If McCain’s rallying cry is “bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran”, then Palin’s is now “drill, drill, drill”.

[0233] sock it to her, Biden.  He gives a clear, sensible and 21st century answer to climate change.

[0231] Appalling answer by Palin on climate change. Fascinating.  This one will be played and played on youtube.  You sense she doesn’t have a clue; or rather ties herself up in knots trying to disguise her lack of belief in gloal warming and man’s contribution to it. She just repeats the word “climate change” several times each sentence and that’s about it.

[0230] Nate, and then some on twitter, are noting how Palin’s answers seem very scripted and over-coached, speaking too quickly and giving pat answers at points.

[0224] “Energy is my own area of expertise” says Palin.  Tries to position herself as the friend of taxpayers versus the oil producers and energy companies.  She did impose a windfall profits tax, so it can be done – note to Brown and the Government here.  Biden then hits back and tries to drive a wedge between McCain and Palin on that policy.

[0222] Great and clear explanation by Biden of government finances and where things need to be squeezed or changed or not happen (ie tax cuts to wealthy people).

[0221] Biden gets the first big laugh line, making fun of the “ultimate bridge to nowhere”.

[0218] Palin suggests that no one should be pleased with the way the State is running things at the moment.  But its not the State, its the market that has been failing so badly these past few weeks.  The State is the one that has to come in and pick up the pieces, and is the only one to be trusted to run Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac etc.

[0215] Palin goes off on one, doing some “straight-talking” as she puts it.  It is interesting that when she was first picked, we all thought she was picked as a ‘gap-filler’ rather than a ‘reinforcer’ – ie. she was different than McCain and trying to hit some electoral spots that McCain didn’t.  But actually it is turning out that she is playing that ‘reinforcing role’ – stressing and doubling McCain’s maverickness and straight-talking. 

[0209] Following things on the special twitter feed, like last time. The Fix says that both candidates are getting in their hits early.  And plenty of chit-chat and yelps of joy from people playing Palin bingo, as “hockey mums” gets its first mention of the night.

[0208] “team of mavericks” – that’s not on my bingo card but it should have been. It’s one of her favourite lines.  Its her strongest strategy: to stress her non-insider and ordinary ‘joe’ status.

[0207] I like it: Biden spends a minute talking about bipartisanship and then attacks McCain.  It made sense, but brings a wry smile to my face.

[0205] Palin starts off with a folksy anecdote, much as had been predicted on blogs and by past performance in Alaskan debates.

[0203]  “Can I call you Joe?” asks Palin, trying to get ahead early by showing her down-to-earth manner.  Also sugests they have never met before.

[0202] And we’re off. Gwen Ifill is the moderator.

[0158] Another reason to stay up and follow this: Palin bingo.  I’ve got my card and am playing.  Even if you watch the debate online sometime later, download the card(s) and see if you are a winner during the debate.

[0155] It’s time for such fun and fireworks hopefully.  Joe Biden versus Sarah Palin.  One time only.

October 3, 2008 Posted by | debates | , , | 2 Comments