Sunday, November 27, 2011

UK: The world watches the GOP debates with raised eyebrows

The Independent

Republican rivals lose their way on foreign affairs

Newt Gingrich shines in latest TV debate as his opponents make series of bizarre gaffes
By David Usborne

Newt Gingrich, who is riding high in the polls, took centre stage in a debate between the candidates for the Republican nomination, flaunting the relative depth of his national security experience even if he courted trouble with an answer on immigration likely to enrage conservatives.

In the grand environs of Constitution Hall, blocks from the White House, the eight candidates arrived for a debate focused on foreign affairs. Their conversation was predictably hawkish but also fractured by significant differences of view. At no point did anyone think to raise Russia or Europe and its problems.

And for even armchair scholars of foreign affairs there were some eyebrow-raising exchanges. Rick Santorum, a former senator, called Africa a country. Herman Cain, a businessman, said a strike by Israel against Iran might fail because it has mountains. Rick Perry, the Texas Governor, spoke of the "absolute failure" of intelligence gathering under President Barack Obama, the killing of Osama bin Laden notwithstanding. Mr Gingrich said electro-magnetic pulse attacks might be an existential threat to America.

The debate, sponsored by CNN and two conservative think-tanks, showed that the field has no unity of vision on dealing with the world's trouble spots. They clashed on topics ranging from Iran and Pakistan and drawing down troops in Afghanistan. That some might still need training wheels – Governor Rick Perry got little support when he proposed a no-fly zone over Syria – may also do little to burnish the image of the party of Reagan.

"This is early and it takes time" to get up to speed on national security affairs, said retired General Wesley Clark, who, though a Democrat, was in the debate audience.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, showed no great nervousness toward Mr Gingrich, who has caught up with him in the polls. A rather soggy Mr Romney came alive when Jon Huntsman proposed withdrawing from Afghanistan faster. "We don't need 100,000 troops," he asserted. "This is not time for America to cut and run," Mr Romney replied. As for Mr Perry's no-fly zone, Mr Romney also offered that a "no-drive zone" might work better in Syria, where tanks, not planes, are the main tools of repression.

Mr Gingrich often hogged the camera with his knowledge of foreign affairs. Yet he wilfully strode into the perilous terrain of immigration policy saying that he would not attempt to deport illegal aliens who had been in the country for 25 years, were law-abiding, tax-paying and belonged to a "local church".

"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying lets be humane in enforcing the law," he said, adding that Republicans were the party of the family. Michele Bachmann hit back: "I think the speaker just said that he would make 11 million people who are here illegally, legal."

Appearing soft on immigration has cost Mr Perry dearly among conservatives. Yet Mr Gingrich in interviews stood by what he had said. It remains to be seen whether he will earn points for consistency – and humanity – or if voters who have flocked to him will now turn away.

Israel: GOP candidates show little hesitation in tough Iranian war stance


U.S. Republican candidates split over backing Israeli strike on Iran
Herman Cain: I would support an Israeli attack on Iran so long as it came with a 'credible plan'; Ron Paul: if Israel pursues an attack, U.S. should get out of the way and let Israel 'suffer the consequences.'
By Natasha Mozgovaya

The two-hour-long foreign policy debate between eight Republican presidential hopefuls at Constitution Hall in Washington - packed to capacity with local dignitaries and reporters, former officials and scholars - will probably be criticized by foreign policy experts on the things it didn't focus enough on: the Arab spring, China, and seemingly deteriorating relations with Russia.

Israel, however, had no reasons to complain; it probably received more attention than its leaders would have wished for, especially concerning the discussion of a possible military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities that also touched upon the topic of alleged Israeli nuclear weapons.

Asked if in the event that Israel attacked Iran to prevent Tehran from getting nuclear weapons, would they help Israel launch the attack, or otherwise support it - former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain said, "I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success.”

“Remember, when you talk about attacking Iran, it is a very mountainous region. The latest reports say that there may be 40 different locations, and I would want to make sure that we had a good idea from intelligence sources where these are located. And if Israel had a credible plan, that it appeared as if they could succeed, I would support Israel, yes,” said Cain.

“And in some instances, dependent upon how strong the plan is, we would join with Israel for that, if it was clear what the mission was, and it was clear what the definition of victory was,” Cain added.

Congressman Ron Paul presented an opposing view on Iran: "I wouldn't [support an attack on Iran]. I don't expect it to happen, because, you know, the Mossad leader that just retired said it would be the stupidest thing to do in the world. And it's a big argument over in Israel. They're not about to do this.”

“They've just polled 40 major experts on foreign policy here by the National Journal. Not one of them said there should be a unilateral attack on the sites in Iran. So that's not going to happen. And if you're supposing that if it did, why does Israel need our help? We need to get out of their way,” Paul said.

“We interfere with them when they deal with their borders. When they want to have peace treaties, we tell them what they can do, because we buy their allegiance and they sacrifice their sovereignty to us. And then they decide they want to bomb something? That's their business, but they should, you know, suffer the consequences,” Paul continued.

“Israel has 200, 300 nuclear missiles, and they can take care of themselves. We don't even have a treaty with Israel. Why do we have this automatic commitment that we're going to send our kids and send our money endlessly to Israel? So I think they're quite capable of taking care of themselves,” Paul added.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's claim that the debate over the possibility of Israel attacking Iran was "because Iran has announced they plan to strike Israel," invited some discussion.

Bachmann quoted the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying that "he wanted to eradicate Israel from the face of the Earth. He has said that if he has a nuclear weapon, he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, he will use it against the United States of America.”

The next question went to the foreign aid to Africa. Nevertheless, the next candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, returned to the topic of Iran and Israel.

"We have a president who pursued an agenda of saying, we're going to be friendly to our foes and we're going to be disrespectful to our friends," Romney said. "The right course in America is to stand up to Iran with crippling sanctions, indict Ahmadinejad for violating the Geneva - or the genocide convention, put in place the kind of crippling sanctions that stop their economy.”

“I know it's going to make gasoline more expensive,” Romney added. “There's no price which is worth an Iranian nuclear weapon. And the right course is to show that we care about Israel, that they are our friend; we'll stick with them. If I'm president of the United States, my first foreign trip will be to Israel to show the world we care about that country and that region."

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said he'll bomb Iran's nuclear facilities "only as a last recourse, and only as a step towards replacing the regime. No bombing campaign which leaves the regime in charge is going to accomplish very much in the long run. You have to seriously talk about regime replacement, not just attacking them.”

Gingrich also disagreed with Paul's approach, saying he'd "collaborate with the Israelis" on the conventional campaign against Iran, because "it will be an extraordinarily dangerous world if, out of a sense of being abandoned, they went nuclear and used multiple nuclear weapons on Iran. That would be a future none of us would want to live through."

Former Governor of Utah Jon Huntsman accused U.S. President Barack Obama of "missing the Persian Spring," and then going to Libya, where the U.S. doesn't have any "definable interest."

"We've got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have [an] American interest. It's called Israel. We're a friend and ally. They're a friend and ally. We need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States,” said Huntsman.

“And we have nuclearization in Iran, centrifuges spinning. At some point they're going to have enough in the way of fissile material out of which to make a weapon. That's a certainty. Sanctions aren't going to work, because the Chinese aren't going to play ball. And the Russians aren't going to play ball, and I believe the mullahs have already decided they want to go nuclear,” Huntsman continued.

“Why? They have looked at North Korea. They've got a weapon; nobody touches them. They look at Libya. Libya gave up their weapon in exchange for friendship with the world; look where they are,” Huntsman added. “Our interest in the Middle East is Israel. And our interest is to ensure that Iran does not go nuclear."

Texas Governor Rick Perry said, “If we're going to be serious about saving Israel, we better get serious about Syria and Iran, and we better get serious right now."

Perry said that the U.S. needs to sanction the Iranian central bank. “What we need to do before we ever start having any conversations about a military strike, is to use every sanction that we have. And if you sanction the Iranian central bank, it will shut down that economy."

Some arguments made by the candidates are quite disputable - for example, Perry's claim that the sanctions against the Central bank of Iran will shut down its economy, or Romney's assumption that "there's no price worth an Iranian nuclear weapon".

In Monday's Republican voters' focus group in Virginia, organized by The Israel Project, only two out of seven participants were ready to support U.S. sanctions that might harm the U.S. economy or raise gas prices, despite the fact that all of them perceived Iran as extremely dangerous and serious about its threats.

The Democrats were obviously expecting an attack on President Obama's Iran policy, and in the past day and a half, they did their best to explain the effectiveness of the current measures in isolating and weakening Iran.

Middle East: Opinion: The US can no longer bear reckless wars

Al Jazeera


Defence and democracy in America
The US economy can no longer bear the reckless use of presidential power to declare war at any time.
By Bennett Ramberg

Los Angeles, CA - The failure of the US Congressional Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach agreement on budget cuts now sets the stage for $1.2tn in automatic reductions to begin in January 2013. Should these cuts go into effect, the US Defence Department, which already must implement $450bn in reductions over ten years, will take half the hit. But pushback has already begun, with Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta arguing that further reductions will impose "substantial risk" to the national security of the US.

But, if history is a guide, global events, not deficit hawks or military promoters, will have the ultimate say over how far defence reductions go. As the Cold War ended, who would have thought that the US would become entangled in Somalia, the Balkans, and Kuwait - or, when the new century began, that the US would spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year on wars in Southwest Asia.

While the US must, of course, bear any cost to fight a war of survival, throughout history, America's economic power gave it a broad cushion to pursue wars of choice. In today's world, one would think that US economic distress would cure that compulsion. But that did not happen in Libya, and events will likely tempt future presidents to behave in the same way, despite the risks. And Congress is unlikely to use its authority to play a more assertive role if legislators wed themselves to the recent past.

The fiscal challenges of the US ought to prompt a re-evaluation. Practical change requires revision of the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which grants presidents unfettered rights to commit US forces for 60 days. More fundamentally, Congress must ask itself whether the responsibilities that it assumed in America's formative years provide a template for today.

"Upon the whole it rests with Congress to decide between war, tribute, and ransom as the means of re-establishing our Mediterranean commerce," Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson advised President George Washington in 1790, as he pondered a response to continued attacks by the Barbary Pirates on America's merchant fleet off North Africa. With no navy to speak of, Congress had little choice but to grin and bear it.

In 1798, it stopped doing so. It responded to revolutionary France's attacks on American ships destined for England by voiding treaties and commercial agreements, and then, at the request of President John Adams, by authorising the use of force.

By the time Jefferson assumed the presidency, that quasi-war had ended, but the challenge posed by the Barbary Pirates remained. In 1801, with Congress absent from the capital, Jefferson took matters into his own hands, ordering a new fleet of frigates to sea to protect merchant shipping. Still mindful of Congress' critical role in war-making, Jefferson asked for - and received - ratification when legislators returned.

A decade later, amid the Napoleonic Wars, with the British attacking American ships and impressing sailors, Congress broke with the past. Despite divisions, for the first time it used the power granted by the Constitution to declare war. In the nearly 200 years that followed, Congress did so only four more times, three in response to attacks on US maritime interests - the Spanish-American War and the two world wars - and the Mexican-American War in 1846.

President James K Polk provoked the Mexican-American war by sending American forces across the disputed Texas frontier without congressional consent. That set a precedent that would be replayed in repeated interventions in the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico from the turn of the century through the early 1930s, as well as in interventions in China and Russia. Throughout, Congress remained largely impassive.

That passivity continued after World War II, not only in Latin America, but also in US interventions around the world - Korea, the Balkans, Lebanon, Somalia, and now Libya. In other instances - the Formosa Straits, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait - Congress issued broad authorisations but no declaration of war.

Had the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gone well, perhaps the US could accept the costs and manner of authorisation. But they did not go well, bolstering those who declare "enough", and prompting the question of whether the US president alone - even under the facade of congressional authorisations rather than formal declarations of war - ought to bear the war-making responsibility.

At the time that it advanced its draft war-powers legislation, the Senate said "no". Instead, it proposed that Congress assume the authority to commit forces to combat without a war declaration except to forestall or respond to an armed attack on the US or to protect the evacuation of American citizens from foreign soil. But the final War Powers Resolution rejected that approach.

Those who feel comfortable with the status quo would do well to heed the conclusion Representative Abraham Lincoln reached at the end of the Mexican-American War: "Allow the president to invade a neighbouring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure."

In today's difficult economic era, only Congress can ensure that the president's pleasure no longer becomes the country's burden. The time to act in formulating new legislation is now, before the next war of choice presents itself.

Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst and consultant to the US Department of State and the US Senate. He is the author of several books on international security.

A version of this article was first published on Project .

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

UK: Failure of the 'Supercommitte' shows US Congress disfunction by putting party purity over country

The Economist

A downgrade for Congress
By failing to agree on measures to limit the deficit, America’s politicians have failed their country

IT WAS not a very ambitious target. All that the congressional “supercommittee” was required to do was to figure out a list of measures that would reduce America’s budget deficits by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. That sounds a lot, until you realise it is only 0.6% of GDP, not even a quarter of the $5 trillion or so that is really needed to right the books in Washington, and less than 3% of the $44 trillion that the federal government is expected to spend over that period. To reach a goal that a business cost-cutter would regard as desultory, the bipartisan committee of 12 senators and congressmen was accorded exceptional powers. Its work was to be subject to a simple up-or-down vote, with no possibility of amendment; and the Senate would not be able to use its power to filibuster. Yet on November 21st, after three months of deliberation, the team was forced to admit that it had failed.

On paper this failure might not seem to matter very much. Supposedly, spending cuts equivalent to the same $1.2 trillion figure will now automatically be triggered, starting in 2013, with $600 billion hacked out of the defence budget (see Lexington) and the other $600 billion coming from other non-mandatory categories of spending, including education, housing and environmental protection. But in reality the failure is deeply alarming, for several reasons.

First, it shows that Republicans and Democrats, even when offered the best possible conditions for dealmaking, can’t do it. The Democrats refused to consider structural reforms to the big entitlement programmes (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security). The Republicans refused to countenance anything that would see tax rates rise, even though no sensible analyst believes that the deficit (running at 8.5% this year) can be closed to a sustainable level by spending cuts alone, and even though ruling out any tax rises, even for people making more than $250,000 a year, is difficult to justify. Though a few interesting proposals were floated, suggesting that the Republicans were not totally immune to getting rid of loopholes (as long as any rate increases for the rich were off the table), they never came close to enjoying majority support. Until the political mood changes dramatically, it is impossible to see Congress tackling the deficit successfully—a process which will require reductions (through a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts) to the tune of four times what the supercommittee has just failed to deliver.

Second, the past few months have confirmed even more strongly the near-irrelevance of the president. A Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton would have been much more effectively engaged in twisting arms and, where necessary, dispensing favours. Barack Obama remained damagingly aloof throughout the supercommittee’s fruitless deliberations. This should not have been surprising, given his lamentable failure a year ago to endorse the effective and brave conclusions of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that he personally appointed. But it does not bode well for the future—assuming that he has one, and is not turfed out of office in a year’s time.

Third, this week’s collapse sets up a nasty fiscal shock, to be administered in just five weeks’ time. At the end of this year a temporary cut in the payroll tax is due to expire; so, too, are the extended unemployment benefits which are all that stand between millions of Americans and destitution. Folding an extension of these measures into the supercommittee negotiation was the best hope of preventing what could amount to around at least 2% of fiscal tightening next year. The chances of avoiding that tightening now look grimmer.

Finally, it is now clear that an almighty budget row will have to take place towards the end of next year, in the run-up to and immediately after the presidential election on November 6th. Congress will be trying to undo the supposedly automatic budget cuts it agreed to only in order to make it impossible for the supercommittee to fail: Mr Obama has said he will veto any such attempt. At the same time, the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire, threatening a sharp tax rise for all income-tax payers, rich and middle-class alike, unless some sort of deal can be done. Expect more destabilising brinkmanship, just like the sort that attended the debt-ceiling crisis in the summer.

The not-so-bright side

There is, however, a last consideration. One reason why the supercommittee failed is that it felt no real sense of urgency. America is not Italy: this week, its ten-year government bonds were trading at a yield of well below 2%, the lowest levels for over half a century; as the euro moves towards disintegration, the attractions of Treasury bonds will only increase. But even that silver lining has a cloud: the corollary of this observation is that it will probably take a genuine, terrifying, American bond crisis to force the politicians to act.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

UK: Defense cuts after 'supercommittee' failure

The Economist

Terrible swift sword
It was never supposed to fall on the Defence Department itself

IN THE summer of 2010 Admiral Mike Mullen, then still chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff, said that the biggest security threat facing the nation was the national debt. The proposition that military strength depends in the long run on economic health is hardly controversial. But the admiral cannot have foreseen the astonishing sequence of budget negotiations that have paralysed Congress this past year. In the latest twist this week, Democrats and Republicans on Congress’s so-called “supercommittee” failed to agree on a plan to reduce the budget deficit, thereby exposing the defence budget to the prospect of a decade’s worth of deep spending cuts.

The Budget Control Act that Congress passed in August stipulated that if the supercommittee failed, government spending would be cut automatically by some $1.2 trillion, with the axe falling most heavily on the Pentagon. Add this “sequestration” to the $350 billion of cuts already agreed on this summer, and the Defence Department is looking at losing up to $1 trillion, almost a fifth of the total, from its spending plans in the ten years from 2013. Leon Panetta, Barack Obama’s defence secretary, calls the consequences “devastating”. At the end of the ten years, he says, the United States would have the smallest ground force since 1940, the fewest ships since 1915 and the smallest air force in its history. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both Republicans, claim that America would face a “swift decline as the world’s leading military power”.

Plenty of defence wonks agree. “The future of America’s national security hangs in the balance,” say the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Heritage Foundation and the Foreign Policy Initiative, a group of right-leaning think-tanks that have banded together to “defend defence”. At the Brookings Institution, Michael O’Hanlon, like Mr Panetta a Democrat, is also worried. Even without the extra burden of sequestration, he argues, the $350 billion reduction already agreed would cut into muscle, not just fat. America might no longer be able to meet its “irreducible” defence needs, such as winding down the Iraqi and Afghan wars responsibly, deterring Iran, hedging against a rising China, protecting the sea lanes and keeping terrorists at bay.

All this sounds a mite alarmist. People close to the Defence Department have a habit of overreacting to cuts, and if these are as damaging as advertised they are unlikely to happen. Great nations decline in different ways: by losing wars, overreaching, collapsing internally. But it would be extraordinary if America sacrificed its position as the world’s leading military power as the result of a legislative accident. And this would be an accident. Nobody intended the provisions of the Budget Control Act to be enacted. The law was a pistol Congress pointed at its own head in order to frighten itself into cutting the deficit. Mandatory defence cuts were designed to scare the Republicans; mandatory cuts in other programmes were supposed to scare the Democrats. In the event Congress failed to scare itself enough, which means that it reached no agreement, so the pistol might go off after all.

But will it? Congress has a year to take evasive action before sequestration bites. Senators McCain and Graham say that the cuts “cannot be allowed to occur”. Howard McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is threatening legislation to block them. Congress does, after all, have the power to amend or repeal its own law, though Barack Obama has the veto, and has promised to use it should Congress try to dodge the bullet. He may relish the chance to cut defence spending and blame the Republicans for it.

The likeliest outcome is therefore neither a sudden, history-altering reduction in defence spending, nor a quick fix that lets Congress wriggle out of its trap, but a drawn-out and perhaps salutary election-year debate about how much defence to buy at a time of distress. The defenders of defence have strong arguments. America spends less than 5% of GDP on defence, more than most countries but less than the highs of 9% it reached in the 1960s. Health and pensions, not defence, are the real drivers of the deficit. But one of the most interesting things about this debate may well be the changing stance of the Republican Party.

A wobble in the Grand Old Party

The day after the supercommittee said it had failed, eight Republican presidential candidates took part in a “national security debate” in Washington, DC. Mitt Romney spoke vehemently against the defence cuts, but Newt Gingrich declined to agree that all military savings were unacceptable, and Ron Paul questioned their true magnitude. Neither Grover Norquist, he of the notorious anti-tax pledge, nor the tea-party movement, sees a reason to exempt the Pentagon from the general fiscal austerity. FreedomWorks, an advocacy group, has just issued a “tea-party budget”. This embraces a plan by Tom Coburn, a conservative senator from Oklahoma, for $1 trillion of defence cuts over the decade.

All this adds up to what Senator Graham considers a profound change within his party. He was aghast when its leadership made defence into the supercommittee’s hostage, claiming that Ronald Reagan would never have done such a thing. But the Reagan era is long gone, and Robert Gates, the (Republican) defence secretary who stayed on to serve Mr Obama for two years, summed up the new thinking when he asked: “Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the United States’ battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?”.

America is not about to throw away its military pre-eminence, either by accident or design. But the fat years are over, and the failure of the supercommittee may accidentally have given its politicians an incentive to answer such questions seriously.

UK: The battlefields of Black Friday

PJ: Is this another 'only in America' story. All I can say is Wow...Wow!

The Guardian

Black Friday sales start with pepper spray stampede

Woman pepper-sprayed her rival bargain-hunters as 152m expected to flock to stores
By Paul Harris

Shoppers in the US kicked off their annual "Black Friday" orgy of consumerism amid scenes of pushing, pulling, running and – in one case – pepper-spraying their way through the doors of the nation's shops and malls.

The annual tradition, when many stores open early with cut-price sales on the day after Thanksgiving, has become a source of controversy amid frequent scenes of near-rioting and injuries as mobs of people crowd into big-name shops.

But few can have expected even the most determined of bargain-hunters to adopt the brutal tactics of one female shopper in a Los Angeles suburb who attacked her rivals with pepper-spray: a substance more recently associated with police brutality against Occupy Wall Street protesters.

At least 20 people, including several children, were injured as the woman deployed her weapon. "I heard screaming and I heard yelling. Moments later my throat stung. I was coughing really bad," said Matthew Lopez, a shopper who recounted his story to the Los Angeles Times.

The woman, whom witnesses said appeared to be defending an X-Box games console, has not been found or yet identified. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the gigantic store remained open amid the mayhem and other shoppers continued to roam the aisles filling their trolleys with goods.

The incident occurred late on Thanksgiving evening as the Walmart – like some other stores – had pushed back its Black Friday opening to begin late on Thursday.

The day gets its name from the idea that the period after Thanksgiving marks the part of the year when many shops finally get in the "black" and start turning a profit for the year.

But America in 2011 is stranded in a moribund economy marked by sluggish growth and a headline jobless rate stuck around 9%. Many retailers have pinned their hopes on a strong shopping season in the run up to Christmas and will be looking pouring through data from Black Friday for signs of increased spending.

Experts expect 152m people to hit the shops over the Black Friday weekend, up 27% on last year, with many retailers hoping for a desperately needed shot-in-the-arm to consumer spending in a still battered economy.

Even Apple, which has until now eschewed a discounting policy, cut its prices for one day on Friday.

Elsewhere in America the queues and rush to get through the doors was a little more steady and less violen than in Los Angeles. There were several shooting incidents, in Florida and in North Carolina, but it was far from clear these were directly linked to Black Friday shopping.

Yet, despite the problems, millions of people queued up outside stores in order to be first inside and snap up some of the bargains on offer on anything from TVs and consumer electronics to fashion and furniture. At Macy's in New York an estimated 9,000 people waited in the street for a midnight opening.

In recent years, as media coverage of the event has grown and scenes of rioting and stampedes have become more common, Black Friday has drawn its share of criticism.

However, this year, as the Occupy movement has sprung up across the country, shoppers in some parts of America have also been joined by protesters trying to persuade them to put down their bags and go home, or at least avoid large chains and shop smaller and more locally.

Some campaigners called for a boycott of stores by consumers, though judging by the mayhem and huge queues that had little impact. Elsewhere protests were held at stores. At Macy's in Manhattan a small group of people chanted "Occupy it, don't buy it" to waiting shoppers.

In places such as Seattle protesters planned to hold rallies outside Walmarts in the city. In the small city of Boise, Idaho, a local Occupy group aimed to dress up as the undead to symbolise "consumer zombies".

In Iowa "flash mobs" of protesters were set to target malls to try and convince shoppers to stay or away or think more politically about their purchases.

Friday, November 25, 2011

UK: The ugliness of political ads

PJ: I've always wondered why 'truth in advertising' laws do not extend to political ads. Voting for the right candidate that shares your vision is important; learning the truth about your chosen candidate is essential. Advertisers are held accountable for claims they make about toothpaste, breakfast cereals and the miles/per/gallon of a Ford focus. But for some reason, that I have never understood, it is acceptable to make false claims about yourself or your opponent during election season. When trying to decide who to vote for for the most important job in a nation, shouldn't political ads face the same rigours of truthfulness as your mouthwash?

The Guardian

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry accused of blatant untruths about Barack Obama

Republican candidates criticised for TV ads that step over line
By Chris McGreal

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have been accused of telling TV viewers blatant untruths about Barack Obama.

The men deny their TV commercials are deceitful and dishonest but both ads selectively quote the president to make it appear he is saying one thing when he is saying another.

The advertisements have been widely scorned for crossing a line from a longstanding practice of political campaigns pushing the truth to its limits, over to misrepresentation.

One ad appears to show Obama admitting he will lose next year's election if he talks about the economy. The other has him calling American workers lazy.

Romney's campaign ad is airing on TV stations in New Hampshire, which holds its primary in January. It shows the president saying: "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."

The ad appears to have the president admitting he is vulnerable on the economy. But Obama's words were from his 2008 campaign, and he was quoting a statement by a strategist for his Republican opponent, John McCain, who was the one on the back foot over the economy.

Perry's ad shows a short soundbite of Obama saying: "We've been a little bit lazy I think over the last couple of decades."

The ad switches to Perry saying: "Can you believe that? That's what our president thinks is wrong with America – that Americans are lazy. That's pathetic."

But a viewing of Obama's full statement shows that he was saying the US government had been lazy in attracting foreign investment.

Darrell West, director of governance studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington, said that Romney and Perry had gone further than previous campaigns in misrepresenting the truth.

"Those ads are blatant misrepresentations," he said. "They are much more egregious than what we've seen in the past. Typically candidates have tried to be close to the truth because they know journalists are paying attention, but with all the problems of the news industry politicians have concluded they can get away with murder."

The president's spokesman, Jay Carney, said of the Romney ad, which is the first TV spot of his campaign: "It's a rather remarkable way to start. And an unfortunate way to start."

But the Romney campaign defended the commercial, saying they were merely turning the tables on Obama for having mocked McCain on the economy three years ago. Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman for Romney, said in a blogpost on the candidate's website: "President Obama's campaign is desperate not to talk about the economy. Their strategy is to wage a personal campaign – or 'kill Romney'. It is a campaign of distraction.

"Now, the tables have turned – President Obama and his campaign are doing exactly what candidate Obama criticised [in 2008]."

Perry defended his ad while appearing on Fox News. "That's a fair ad, absolutely," he told host Bill O'Reilly. "He said 'We've been a little lazy'."

O'Reilly challenged him by pointing out that Obama was talking about the government, "not the folks". But Perry brazened it out. "I think he's talking about Americans … I think that's exactly what he's talking about," he said.

Romney's campaigners are delighted at the attention the controversial ad has drawn, giving it a wider audience than it would otherwise have had. They appear to have calculated that hitting Obama on the economy outweighs whatever damage may be done by charges of untruths.

West is sceptical. "It plays to Romney in the sense that his ad is getting a lot of attention," he said. "But I think the Romney campaign is on very shaky ground to be running a false ad. Voters do pay attention to the veracity of ads."

But West acknowledged that politicians are less concerned about being exposed by reporters. "Politicians think that the news media have completely collapsed, based on the financial crisis, and so they are acting as if there's no accountability and they can say whatever they want," he said.

"They know the news media don't have the same credibility as they had in the past. They think they can say whatever they want and get away with it."

Romney's campaign has also borrowed a historic campaign ad from Margaret Thatcher's 1979 election campaign that declared "Labour isn't Working" and featured a long line of people waiting outside an unemployment office. Romney's campaign has substituted "Obama" for "Labour" and called it a tribute ad.

Middle East: The money behind the US right wing

PJ: Money means power in politics and the Koch brothers certainly have enough money to wield a lot of power. This is not the first article that I have read about these politically powerful billionaire boys and I'm sure it won't be the last. It all reminds me of a James Bond movie where the rich and powerful villain plots to take over the world. But unlike a film, the influence that the Koch brothers garner by fueling the propaganda machines of Americans for Prosperity and the CATO Institute will not be thwarted by a handsome super spy...the American people are the only ones who can stop their manipulation and they can do so with a simple vote.

Al Jazeera

The Koch Brothers
People & Power asks if the tycoon duo's fortune could put the radical right into the White House.
By Bob Abeshouse

Charles and David Koch are each worth about $25bn, which makes them the fourth richest Americans. When you combine their fortunes, they are the third wealthiest people in the world. Radical libertarians who use their money to oppose government and virtually all regulation as interference with the free market, the Kochs are in a class of their own as players on the American political stage. Their web of influence in the US stretches from state capitals to the halls of congress in Washington DC.

The Koch brothers fueled the conservative Tea Party movement that vigorously opposes Barack Obama, the US president. They fund efforts to derail action on global warming, and support politicians who object to raising taxes on corporations or the wealthy to help fix America’s fiscal problems. According to New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who wrote a groundbreaking exposé of the Kochs in 2010, they have built a top to bottom operation to shape public policy that has been "incredibly effective. They are so rich that their pockets are almost bottomless, and they can keep pouring money into this whole process".

Koch industries, the second largest privately-held company in the US, is an oil refining, chemical, paper products and financial services company with revenues of a $100bn a year. Virtually every American household has some Koch product - from paper towels and lumber, to Stainmaster carpet and Lycra in sports clothes, to gasoline for cars. The Koch’s political philosophy of rolling back environmental and financial regulations is also beneficial to their business interests.

The Kochs rarely talk to the press, and conduct their affairs behind closed doors. But at a secret meeting of conservative activists and funders the Kochs held in Vail, Colorado this past summer, someone made undercover recordings. One caught Charles Koch urging participants to dig deep into their pockets to defeat Obama. "This is the mother of all wars we've got in the next 18 months," he says, "for the life or death of this country." He called out the names of 31 people at the Vail meeting who each contributed more than $1m over the past 12 months.

In the 2010 congressional elections, the Kochs and their partners spent at least $40m, helping to swing the balance of power in the US House of Representatives towards right-wing Tea Party Republicans. It has been reported that the Kochs are planning to raise and spend more than $200m to defeat Obama in 2012. But the brothers could easily kick in more without anyone knowing due to loopholes in US law.

The Kochs founded and provide millions to Americans for Prosperity, a political organisation that builds grassroots support for conservative causes and candidates. Americans for Prosperity, which has 33 state chapters and claims to have about two million members, has close ties to Tea Party groups and played a key role in opposing Obama's health care initiative.

This year, Americans for Prosperity spent at least half a million dollars supporting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's efforts to cut social spending and roll back collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The legislation passed by Walker makes it more difficult for unions, which are major backers of Democratic candidates, to secure funds for political purposes. Americans for Prosperity is also very active in a battle against unions in Ohio, another important 2012 presidential state. Its president, Tim Phillips, says that the organisation is winning in Wisconsin and around the country "because on the policies of economic freedom, we're right". He refused to tell People & Power reporter Bob Abeshouse how much the organisation is spending to combat the unions.

The Kochs have also poured millions into think tanks and academia to influence the battle over ideas. According to Kert Davies, the director of research for Greenpeace in the US, the Kochs have spent more than $50m since 1998 on "various front groups and think tanks who ... oppose the consensus view that climate change is real, urgent and we have to do something about it". As operators of oil pipelines and refineries, the Kochs have opposed all efforts to encourage alternative sources of energy by imposing a tax on fossil fuels.

Patrick Michaels, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, often appears in the media to contest global warming science. CATO was founded by Charles Koch, and the Kochs and their foundations have contributed about $14m to CATO. Since 2009, there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans who see global warming as a serious threat according to Gallup polls. Davies argues that the change can be attributed in large measure to the efforts of scientists like Michaels and others who are funded by the fossil fuel industry.

The Kochs have also promoted their free market ideology and business interests through aggressive lobbying in Washington DC, and financial support of political candidates. Greenpeace has tracked more than $50m that Koch Industries has spent on lobbyists since 2006, when Cap and Trade and other legislation to combat global warming was being considered. The Kochs have been the largest political spender since 2000 in the energy sector, exceeding Exxon, Chevron, and other major players.

The Kochs contributed to 62 of the 87 new members of the US House of Representatives in 2010. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the Kochs supported have taken the lead in opposing US Environmental Protection Agency efforts to reduce global warming emissions. Other members backed by the Kochs belong to the right-wing Tea Party bloc that took the US to the brink of default in July by refusing to consider a budget deal that would include tax increases.

In 2012, many believe that President Obama can raise a billion dollars for the presidential race, and break all fundraising records. But as Lee Fang of the Center for American Progress tells reporter Bob Abeshouse, in the end it may not matter "because the Koch brothers alone increased their wealth by $11bn in the last two years".

Cartoon for the times

Washington Post

Thursday, November 24, 2011

UK: Republican contenders on foreign policy

The Independent

Republican rivals lose their way on foreign affairs

Newt Gingrich shines in latest TV debate as his opponents make series of bizarre gaffes

By David Usborne

Newt Gingrich, who is riding high in the polls, took centre stage in a debate between the candidates for the Republican nomination, flaunting the relative depth of his national security experience even if he courted trouble with an answer on immigration likely to enrage conservatives.

In the grand environs of Constitution Hall, blocks from the White House, the eight candidates arrived for a debate focused on foreign affairs. Their conversation was predictably hawkish but also fractured by significant differences of view. At no point did anyone think to raise Russia or Europe and its problems.

And for even armchair scholars of foreign affairs there were some eyebrow-raising exchanges. Rick Santorum, a former senator, called Africa a country. Herman Cain, a businessman, said a strike by Israel against Iran might fail because it has mountains. Rick Perry, the Texas Governor, spoke of the "absolute failure" of intelligence gathering under President Barack Obama, the killing of Osama bin Laden notwithstanding. Mr Gingrich said electro-magnetic pulse attacks might be an existential threat to America.

The debate, sponsored by CNN and two conservative think-tanks, showed that the field has no unity of vision on dealing with the world's trouble spots. They clashed on topics ranging from Iran and Pakistan and drawing down troops in Afghanistan. That some might still need training wheels – Governor Rick Perry got little support when he proposed a no-fly zone over Syria – may also do little to burnish the image of the party of Reagan.

"This is early and it takes time" to get up to speed on national security affairs, said retired General Wesley Clark, who, though a Democrat, was in the debate audience.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, showed no great nervousness toward Mr Gingrich, who has caught up with him in the polls. A rather soggy Mr Romney came alive when Jon Huntsman proposed withdrawing from Afghanistan faster. "We don't need 100,000 troops," he asserted. "This is not time for America to cut and run," Mr Romney replied. As for Mr Perry's no-fly zone, Mr Romney also offered that a "no-drive zone" might work better in Syria, where tanks, not planes, are the main tools of repression.

Mr Gingrich often hogged the camera with his knowledge of foreign affairs. Yet he wilfully strode into the perilous terrain of immigration policy saying that he would not attempt to deport illegal aliens who had been in the country for 25 years, were law-abiding, tax-paying and belonged to a "local church".

"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying lets be humane in enforcing the law," he said, adding that Republicans were the party of the family. Michele Bachmann hit back: "I think the speaker just said that he would make 11 million people who are here illegally, legal."

Appearing soft on immigration has cost Mr Perry dearly among conservatives. Yet Mr Gingrich in interviews stood by what he had said. It remains to be seen whether he will earn points for consistency – and humanity – or if voters who have flocked to him will now turn away.

UK: Who should pay more? The rich or the poor?

The Economist

Tax progressivity
Somebody has to pay for government

Nov 23rd 2011, 15:50 by M.S.

PAUL KRUGMAN addresses several common conservative objections to the paper by Emmanuel Saez and Peter Diamond I talked about on Monday. The third one is that the very wealthy are job creators who should be rewarded, not taxed. "This", Mr Krugman says, "is where things get interesting."

[T]extbook economics says that in a competitive economy, the contribution any individual (or for that matter any factor of production) makes to the economy at the margin is what that individual earns — period. What a worker contributes to GDP with an additional hour of work is that worker’s hourly wage, whether that hourly wage is $6 or $60,000 an hour. This in turn means that the effect on everyone else’s income if a worker chooses to work one hour less is precisely zero. If a hedge fund manager gets $60,000 an hour, and he works one hour less, he reduces GDP by $60,000 — but he also reduces his pay by $60,000, so the net effect on other peoples’ incomes is zip.

...So, are conservatives comfortable with this analysis? I would guess not, that they have a deep-seated belief that the 1%, by working harder, are doing the 99% a big favor, creating jobs and raising incomes — and that this gain isn’t fully (or even largely) captured by the money they’re paid.

My point, then, is that this claim — and the lionization of high earners as people who make a vast contribution to society — is not, in fact, something that comes out of the free-market economic principles these people claim to believe in.

To make the same point another way: the Diamond and Saez paper is about deciding who should pay for government spending. Ultimately, it has to be paid for by somebody. If you tax rich people less, you tax regular and poor people more. And when you tax them, they, like rich people, have a certain propensity to work less ("deadweight loss"). Also like rich people, the money they pay in taxes is money they cannot spend, which leads to lower economic activity and lower GDP in the short run. Yes, high marginal tax rates at the top end will lead rich people to work less, but this is precisely the "income elasticity" that Messrs Saez and Diamond already account for in their paper. You may feel that their estimates of income elasticity are too low, but if so, that's the case you need to make. So why should considerations of economic growth lead us to be more reluctant to raise taxes on the rich than on working-class people?

When people argue that we should not raise taxes on the rich because the rich are "job creators", they leave out the crucial point that if the rich pay less in taxes, regular people pay more. To argue that growth concerns should lead us to restrain the tax code's progressivity over and above any income elasticity effects is to argue that regular people's money is literally not as good as rich people's money. This would not be a winning political message if it were clearly stated. And beyond its political and moral unpalatability, the argument that regular people's money actually does more than rich people's money to stimulate job growth, through increased broad-based consumption, seems at least as plausible.

UK: Backlash after Newt announces his 'humane' policy

The Guardian

Newt Gingrich calls for 'humane' policy on illegal immigration

Latest Republican frontrunner risks alienating conservatives by advocating 'humane' approach to illegal immigration

By Ewen MacAskill

Newt Gingrich has gambled his status as the latest frontrunner in the Republican presidential race by advocating a "humane" approach to illegal immigration, a stance that risks alienating conservatives.

Gingrich, the former House Speaker, said he was conscious he was entering an area that was potentially dangerous for him. "I am prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law," he said on Tuesday night.

An earlier frontrunner in the race, Texas governor Rick Perry, saw a sharp drop in his support in September after advocating a similar approach to immigration.

Gingrich was speaking during a Republican presidential debate in Washington in the runup to the nomination contests, which begin in Iowa on 3 January. The debate on foreign policy and security was dominated not only by immigration but Iran, Pakistan and the Patriot Act.

Gingrich is the newest candidate to achieve frontrunner status in the polls. Others - Michele Bachmann, Perry and Herman Cain - have enjoyed being out in front, billed as rivals to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

The former Speaker has emerged in the lead through his performances in the debates, demonstrating a knowledge of issues absent from some other candidates.

He is given to speaking his mind, sometimes in a temper or in an ill-judged moment. But he was well aware during the debate of the consequences of backing a policy unpopular with Republicans.

He argued the children of illegal immigrants should not be ripped away from their families. He said that he did not believe Americans wanted to take people who have lived in the country for 25 years and expel them over a crime committed long ago.

It is a sensitive issue for Republicans, many of whom want to expel illegal immigrants, even though they are critical to the economy and many have lived almost their entire lives in the country.

Spin-doctors for his rivals, including Romney, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, jumped on Gingrich's comment, viewing it as a mistake. A spokesman for Romney pointed out that Gingrich had supported 'amnesty' legislation for illegal immigrants in 1986 and "was repeating the mistake now".

But Gingrich was unrepentant, his team saying that it was unrealistic to expel an estimated 12 million people.

Conservatives might admire him for his bravery in standing up for a policy that could cost him votes. Although his stance is the same as Perry's, the problem for Perry was that he went on to describe as heartless Republicans who did not agree with him. Gingrich was more subtle, saying that the Republicans were the party of the family and should not be the party that breaks them apart.

Romney, the candidate that is still likeliest to win the party nomination to take on Barack Obama for the White House next November, had a relatively subdued night.

The latest poll, from Quinnipiac, has Gingrich on 26%, Romney 22%, Cain 14%, Perry 6%, Ron Paul 6%, Bachmann 4%, Santorum 2% and Jon Huntsman 2%.

On Iran, Gingrich was as measured as he was on illegal immigration, at least compared with other candidates. While some leaned towards supporting an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Gingrich expressed scepticism because an attack would still leave the regime in place. He advocated instead covert actions, taking out Iran's scientists and undermining the regime. One of the benefits of such an approach, he said, was that it was deniable.

Perry, who made headlines in the last debate with a memory lapse when listing one of his key policies, got through the night without making any further gaffes.

Cain, following a bad week in which he was caught on video demonstrably ignorant about US policy on Libya, did little in the debate to give voters confidence he had a handle on foreign issues. He backed the idea of an attack on Iran but added the caveat that it would have to be done with care because it was "a mountainous region" and there were about 40 sites where nuclear facilities could be hidden.

Romney said he would be willing to take military action but favoured firstly imposing crippling sanctions.

The candidates were harsh in denouncing Pakistan, particularly Bachmann, who expressed concern that its nuclear facilities were vulnerable to terrorists. Perry proposed withdrawing US aid to the country.

Paul, a libertarian and maverick, had a feisty debate, critical of the US response to terrorism. "I think the Patriot Act is unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty… I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security. You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

UK: America's border problem?

The Economist

Crying wolf
The Republicans are fretting about a disappearing problem

ASK any Republican presidential candidate, and they will tell you without hesitation: America’s border with Mexico is as leaky as a sieve. Mitt Romney thinks all 1,969 miles (3,169km) of it must be fenced. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Rick Perry was pilloried for suggesting that in some rugged areas, more “aviation assets in the ground” might be better than fencing. Bemused by such talk, Barack Obama joked earlier this year that Republicans would not be happy until there was a moat full of alligators to keep illegal immigrants at bay. A few months later Herman Cain said there should be an electrified fence, with a charge strong enough to kill. He later explained that he too was joking, but would never apologise for standing up for America.

At the border itself, all this talk seems otherworldly. At a “processing centre” in El Paso, where the fingerprints of those caught crossing from Mexico illegally are taken and checked against various databases, there is precious little processing going on. Of the 20-odd workstations, only two are manned. The Border Patrol agents sitting at them chat idly to themselves. Just two detainees, their paperwork complete, sit timidly in the corner of an enormous holding cell. An adjacent cell for women stands empty. Next door, three more agents scan 25 screens relaying footage from video cameras along the border, looking for possible incursions. In some of the grainy pictures, scrubby and deserted patches of creosote and mesquite sway in a gentle wind; in others, herons peck at fish in the shallow trickle of the Rio Grande. Asked whether anything is going on, an agent replies, “it’s really quiet today.”

It’s quiet most days in the El Paso sector, as the Border Patrol dubs this 268-mile slice of the border. Back in 1993, agents arrested 285,781 people trying to enter America illegally. In those days, the holding cells in the processing centre, explains Scott Hayes, a Border Patrol agent, were full to bursting. In 2010, however, agents picked up only 12,251 illegal immigrants in the area—a 96% decline. Much the same is true of the border as a whole: last year’s tally, of 447,731 arrests, is barely a quarter that of the peak year, 2000, when 1,643,679 people were intercepted. This year’s figure will be under 350,000; a fifth of the peak.

The drop in arrests reflects not laxer enforcement, but stronger. There are over 17,000 Border Patrol agents on the border with Mexico, a fivefold increase over 1993. They patrol in cars and all-terrain vehicles, on bicycles and horses, in boats, planes and helicopters. When there are no agents around, cameras, reconnaissance drones and three different types of sensors—seismic, magnetic and infra-red—keep tabs on things. A third of the border is fenced, and most of the rest is in areas so remote or rugged as to make fences pointless or impractical. Some parts of the fence are 17 feet high, with metal plates extending ten feet below ground to prevent tunnelling.

Along a two-mile stretch of the border just outside El Paso, five Border Patrol vehicles wait, ready to give chase should anyone manage to get past the fence. In the centre of town, where it is easiest for people to dash across from Ciudad Juárez on the other side and disappear in the busy streets, the entire border is floodlit. Elsewhere, agents have access to mobile lighting units, as well as hand-held infra-red cameras akin to night-vision goggles. There is even a special unit to chase hapless migrants through the city’s storm drains. If anyone makes it past all these obstacles, there are checkpoints at the bus station, at railroad yards and on the main roads out of town, complete with dogs to sniff out stowaways. And there is more manpower and clever kit on the way. The budget for border enforcement and immigration has quadrupled over the past decade; the Border Patrol is still hiring.

Agents used to be so outnumbered by the crowds flooding across that they could not give chase to all of them. They would return to their posts after arresting one group to find the tracks of several others who had crossed while they were away, Mr Hayes says. Nowadays plenty of agents respond to each breach. Those caught are not simply sent back across the border as they used to be: 90% suffer some sort of punishment—typically a few weeks in jail. What is more, the government has quietly started handing out more temporary visas for Mexican farm workers and the like, making it easier to enter legally. America’s weak economy, and the falling birth rate in Mexico further reduce the incentives to cross. The Border Patrol will never manage to apprehend every last suspect, says Mr Hayes, but it is not that far off.

Yet as Mr Obama suggested, the Republicans who have been bleating about the border are far from satisfied. They have hauled officials charged with policing it before Congress to berate their efforts. In states such as Arizona and Alabama, they have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, on the grounds that the federal government has abdicated responsibility in that area. They refuse to discuss policies aimed at resolving the status of the 11m-odd illegal immigrants already in the country until they deem the border secure.

Mr Obama himself has succumbed to this mindset to a great extent. He has repeatedly requested increases in spending on Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, even as he has suggested cutting the budgets of other agencies. He has prolonged the deployment of some 1,200 National Guard troops along the border, to provide backup for the Border Patrol. The administration has boasted of deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.

Yet there are some who question the entire premise of attempting to seal the border. Historically, says Doug Massey of Princeton University, the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico correlates most closely with economic growth in America and with the number of visas handed out, not with increased policing of the border. The whole thing is a colossal waste of money, he complains.

Israel: Not enough red meat for Obama bashers at GOP debate


Republican debate disappoints Israel-loving Obama-bashers
At Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina was one of the most disjointed and unfocussed of all the debates held so far.
By Chemi Shalev

The legions of Israel-loving Obama-bashers who had been expecting to cheer wildly as the U.S. President’s policies got torn apart piece by piece must have been sorely disappointed with Saturday night’s Republican Debate in South Carolina.

Not only were the moderators from CBS and National Journal inordinately preoccupied with the situation in Pakistan - which is, let’s face it, unfathomable to most humans - but the only direct question in the debate concerning Israel was the one that landed Texas Governor Rick Perry in hot water again, after he implied that Israel would have to justify its need for foreign aid as if it was just another run-of-the-mill country, and not the apple of the Republican eye.
Republican debate - Reuters - 18.10.2011

Republican presidential debate, Oct. 18, 2011.
Photo by: Reuters

To be sure, the evening was replete with policy statements and world views that most Israelis and many American Jewish voters would enthusiastically applaud, including statements by two of the more prominent debaters – Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich – that they would support American military action against nuclear-seeking Iran.

And, as is often the case when the Republicans try to outdo each other, even the most dedicated Jewish doomsayers would likely be taken aback by Michelle Bachman’s assertion that Pakistan, Iran and God knows who else are planning a “world-wide nuclear war” against Israel, or by Gingrich’s Crusade-like revelation that the Arab Spring is actually an anti-Christian onslaught.

Nonetheless those who had eagerly anticipated a public mauling of U.S. President Barack Obama over what they view as his infuriating attitude towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were, but for a few hardly-noticeable exceptions, left wanting. Others who had been geared up to hear a Republican chorus – excluding Ron Paul – extolling the party’s credo of life, liberty and the pursuit of Israel’s happiness - were also feeling disappointed.

Many of these people – trust me on this – are probably convinced that the moderators’ insistence on an anything-but-Israel debate is a liberal left-wing conspiracy directed by the White House itself.

Be that as it may, the debate on foreign policy was one of the most disjointed and unfocussed of all the debates held so far, interspersed as it was by those surrealistic interludes in which the fringe candidates with the least chances of winning – most notably former governor Jon Huntsman but also Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and yes, Michelle Bachman – were more restrained and rational than the recognized leaders of the pack, refraining, for example, from declaring war on Pakistan and open season on China.

To cap it all, the inexplicable decision by CBS to arbitrarily cut off the debate in the middle and to send viewers to overloaded Internet sites was as good an indication as any of the low priority of foreign policy in this election campaign, to the extent that if Herman Cain does lose his current frontrunner status, as people expect, it won’t be because he seemed so absolutely clueless in last night’s discussions.

As for those who still feel they are owed their pound of flesh from Obama because of his Israel policies, they will probably have to wait for next summer’s debates between the president and whoever will then be the Republican nominee.

Follow the author on Twitter @ChemiShalev

We all love a little humour which is why I couldn't resist this column by Kathleen Parker

PJ: A lot of Americans view their politics similarly to the way those of us on the outside see it. This fun (and astute) column by the Washington Post's syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker is a good example.

The Washington Post

What ever happened to the GOP’s 2012 presidential wannabes?

By Kathleen Parker, Published: November 22

Another debate, another episode of “The Dating Game.” Will the winner be contestant No. 1, 2 . . . 8?

The truth is, everyone has always known who the Republican nominee will be, but we enjoy the game. For a while. By now, self-caricature has evolved into full-blown self-mockery, and the debate season has begun to wear thinner than an unmanly man’s pizza crust.

Seriously, how could anyone wish to hasten the end of a campaign in which a presidential candidate declares that manliness corresponds to the number of toppings on a pizza? Or who, speaking at a Christian-themed amusement park, recalls breaking a sweat upon learning the too-foreign-sounding name of his cancer physician, Dr. Abdallah? Or whose chief of staff smokes cigarettes in campaign ads?

Herman Cain is a one-man clown car. God bless and peace be upon him.

Despite all this stuff swirling around in our heads, we’ve learned through the weeks of prime-time performances that each candidate, though somehow not quite right for the presidency, is quintessentially right for something else, perhaps previously unforeseen. Conventional wisdom has always held that not all candidates are seriously running for president when they run for president. To every loser goes a trophy of some sort — book sales, speaking engagements, secondary government roles. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, in other words, isn’t just a Cain stab at China’s capital city.

To their credit, the Republican candidates have brought valuable entertainment to a country tempest-tossed by despair. But what happens next? What might we expect to see in 2012 after the nominee has been selected and the remainders are left to reinvent themselves? Herewith a few suggestions:

Newt Gingrich is universally known as a man of ideas. He is also known as a man of mostly bad ideas. The rule usually is, nine out of 10 are lousy but one is fabulous. One fabulous idea a month could be helpful when most politicians are jogging in mud. It is also widely believed that Gingrich can’t win a general election, thanks to his considerable baggage, but more specifically because he is simply out of touch with the nation’s ennui. His recent remark that the Occupy Wall Street crowd should get a bath and a job — as though Americans are willfully unemployed — will be viewed as so callous as to disqualify him for employment in the Oval Office.

Therefore, Gingrich should become czar of the Office of Ideas and amuse himself down the hall from the president, appearing nightly on Cain’s new late-night Fox television show.

But of course Cain should have his own show! What else for the former radio talk-show host/preacher/pizza man? He’s likable, telegenic, talkative, irreverent, quick-witted and the sort of dinner-party guest who makes a good television host. If he doesn’t have a contract by the end of January, he needs a new agent.

Speaking of television shows, Rick Perry has game-show host etched in his face. Adorable and silly, he’s wasting his time governing the state of Texas. He needs to harness his inner giggle bunny and hit the stage. There’s hardly any air between “Bring it!” and “Come on down!”

Now to the less-amusing candidates, beginning with the too-smart-for-his-own-good Jon Huntsman. The Republican nobody loves — except for Democrats and independents — Huntsman will not be the nominee. However, the former governor and ambassador to China is central casting’s choice for secretary of state.

Ron Paul? He is our Jiminy Cricket, the nation’s conscience who utters unspeakable truths. In the coming Republican administration, Paul will head the newly created Congressional Office of Reality. Every day he’ll release a summary of government stupidity, called “The Daily Scowl,” which will delight voters and make politicians feel virtuous. He will slam his door for tour groups, who will applaud and move along.

Rick Santorum will host a weekly Fox show called “The Gathering Storm.” The un-Fareed Zakaria, he will conduct a global conversation about America’s place in the world and connect the dots showing new alliances forming against the United States. Regular features will include a “Paranoia Thermometer,” a terrorist tracking map and a real-time “Conspiracy Busters” segment in which Special Forces swarm suspected terrorist meetings while viewers watch. Suggested soundtrack: the theme from “Jaws.”

Which brings us finally to Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney, one of whom will be the nominee and very possibly the next president. Although both candidates have perfect hair, the nominee will not be a woman.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Middle East: Opinion: The art of playing the victim in US politics

PJ: The author of this Al Jazeera opinion piece focuses on the US right-wing's use of its 'victim' card. I found it very interesting to then read another opinion piece, this one from Israel's titled:

Israel's self-victimizing right is misleading the people
By Merav Michaeli

"The savage attack of the extreme, self-victimizing right is misleading the whole system, causing it to think that maybe it really does represent the majority, and apologize for not adhering to its ideology."

Al Jazeera


Herman Cain and the conservative victimology
Herman Cain's claim that he's the real victim reflects a wide-ranging conservative belief with profound consequences.
By Paul Rosenberg

San Pedro, CA - As Herman Cain's candidacy has begun to falter - like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry before him - at least there's an important lesson to be learned from the counter-attacks on those accusing him of sexual harassment. These come, not just from Cain itself - "the Democrat machine in America has brought forth a troubled woman to make false accusations" - but also, more extremely, from supporters in the conservative movement who have attacked victims of sexual harassment more generally, and even the very concept of harassment itself.

"I'm the victim here," has been Cain's rallying cry, invoking the memory of Clarence Thomas, who claimed to be the victim of a high-tech lynching. But outside of conservative circles, history has not been kind to that line of argument. Not only do most now believe that Thomas did harass Anita Hill, the over-the-top "high-tech lynching" charge never did make any sense. A lynching is a way of circumventing the legal process, ignoring the evidence, rushing to judgment and destroying a human life. But in Thomas's case, the only threat he faced was that of not being confirmed, still leaving him on the second-highest court in the land.

What's more, it was Thomas himself, with his dramatic, but unfounded accusation, who was seeking circumvent the standard legal process, suppress evidence and rush to judgment - one that would favour him, rather than his accusers. Yes, there were other accusers in addition to Anita Hill. And Thomas had help in suppressing their testimony, most notably from Vice-President Biden, then head of the Judiciary Committee, who was all in a hurry to wrap things up quickly. Nor were we allowed to hear about the extent of Thomas' obsession with pornography, a pattern of behaviour that made Hill's accusations far more credible. Nor, for that matter, did we know for certain that Thomas had already lied under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, when he claimed to have never really thought about Roe vs. Wade. (A sympathetic conservative biographer conclusively judged that he had a decade ago.)

So Thomas' claim of victimhood was bogus, however dramatic it may have been. And so is Herman Cain's. For one thing, Democrats would just love to run against him - he polls as a much weaker candidate than Romney. He himself admitted he had no proof for his accusation, the motive was completely backward and he had also blamed his Republican rivals - particularly, Governor Perry. If anyone's story was suspicious, it was Cain's story of being victimised by the Democrats. Moreover, Cain's own actions helped create the very situation he railed against.

Initially, there were only two anonymous accusers and Cain made much of the fact that they were anonymous, even as his own story shifted from day to day. But those accusers were anonymous in part by Cain's own doing. He refused to ask that their confidentially agreements be waived, even as he attacked them from his high-profile position, giving them a taste of why they might not want to come forward. Cain had 10 days to respond to the allegations before Politico went public with them, and he had apparently decided that blaming the victims - and the media - was the strongest defence he had. Certainly, stronger than answering questions directly. Evasiveness is not the way to build credibility and trust.

But Cain is a beacon of non-defensive honesty compared to some who support him. He certainly doesn't deny that sexual harassment exists. But many conservatives do, as Media Matters pointed out within days of the initial accusations. Exhibit A was John Derbyshire, who wrote in the National Review: "Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing? Is there anyone who doesn't know it's all a lawyers' ramp, like 'racial discrimination'? You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up." For talk show host Laura Ingraham, it's all about greed: "We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends. It always ends up being an employee who can't perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green."

But conservatives also see it as a political tool, Media Matters pointed out. Rush Limbaugh was a prime example of this: "You know what sexual harassment is? You know what it really is? It's a political tool. It is a political tool invented by the left. And - for the express pur - just like political correctness is a political tool of the left to shut people down, sexual harassment is a political tool of the left to get rid of people or to score money gains, whatever is most desired."

By the time Sharon Bialek stepped forward, a week after the initial accusations were revealed, conservatives were well-primed to attack her, and that's exactly what they did, just as Alan Simpson had attacked Anita Hill as "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty". Yet, the same day Bialek stepped forward, the American Association of University Women released "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School", a detailed survey report covering grades 7-12.

The survey found that sexual harassment in one form or another was extremely widespread, poorly handled and seldom reported to authorities. Nearly half of all students (48 per cent) reporting being harassed in the previous year and only 12 per cent felt their schools were doing a good job addressing sexual harassment. Only 9 per cent of those harassed reporting the incident to an adult at school - a dramatic level of under-reporting, the exact opposite of what conservatives allege. "We hope that it will be a wake-up call," report co-author Holly Kearl told me. Indeed, the attitudes that Cain's conservative defenders expressed - disbelief, minimisation, blaming the victim - are all part of the problem that the report uncovered.

"Nearly half of student harassers thought it was just part of student life or really no big deal, Kearl said. This includes a substantial number who said they were just joking or being stupid. Most of the student harassers have been harassed themselves, so that really suggests there's a culture of acceptance around harassment at the schools. And so that's clearly showing that there's a problem.

The parallel with the attitudes of Cain's supporters is striking. It was interesting that the study came out the same week as the allegations [against Herman Cain] being headline news, said Kearl. It really speaks to this culture of sexual harassment happening and where it's fairly acceptable and sort of treated as joke or something people need to get a thicker skin about. It's problematic when that's the attitude at the school level and the workplace level.

It's deeply troubling to think that many conservatives are so committed to their belief systems that might even ignore this study, and the potential threat to their own children that it reveals. But this is only one example out of many. Conservatives have a powerful tendency to see themselves as victims, which manifests itself on many different fronts.

Conservative victimology ratio

How powerful is this tendency? In two different areas earlier this year, I was actually able to quantify it, and come up with what I call the conservative victimology ratio. Basically, if you harass someone and then turn about and blame them instead, that's a one-to-one victimology ratio. If you harass 10 people, and blame them all individually, that's a 10-to-one victimology ratio. Likewise, if you actually have been victimised once, but say that it's happened 20 times, that's a 20-to-one victimology ratio. What I discovered almost by accident was a victimology ratio greater than 20,000-to-one.

It began with reporting on the role of leading Christian conservatives in America in encouraging and promoting the passage of a Ugandan law establishing the death penalty for homosexuals. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow spearheaded reporting on it in America's cable news universe, and it was only after she did so repeatedly that some of them repudiated their support. One of those figures was Rick Warren, whom President Obama had selected to pray at his inauguration. At first, Warren told Newsweek, "It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations." But eventually, he changed his mind and spoke out against the law. In an emailed press release, Warren denied having anything to do with the law and denied having much influence in Uganda as well, but he said he'd do what he could.

What left me thunderstruck, however, was this short passage: There are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world that kill people. (For instance, last year, 146,000 Christians around the world were killed because of their faith.) First, I was shocked that Warren would try to minimise the appalling nature of the kill the gays bill in any way. After all, he was supposed to be taking a stand of moral opposition. Belatedly, to be sure. Under pressure? Yes. But a moral stand, nonetheless. One does not take a more stand and in the process, minimise the evil by portraying it as commonplace.

Second, I was shocked by the claim of thousands of evil laws around the world that kill people. While millions die each year, the number killed, even in wars, is a tiny fraction of that. The number of people executed under law is in turn a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction. Outside of China, which does not report exact statistics, less than a thousand people are executed every year. Third, I was shocked that Warren associated martyrdom generally with state execution. Fourth, I was utterly astonished at the figure cited for martyrdom: 146,000 Christian martyrs per year. If that were the case, the world would be awash in constant stories about them. But it is not. According to two studies cited in Wikipedia, the number of intentional homicides worldwide is under 500,000. If nearly one in three was a case of Christian martyrdom, believe me as a newspaperman, you'd know about it.

So where did this number come from, I wondered. I contacted Warren's public relations representative, and I investigated online as well. Both avenues lead to the same place: The International Bulletin of Missionary Research. Another source claiming extremely high rates of Christian martyrdom is the World Christian Encyclopaedia, which claims there have been more than 45m Christian martyrs in the 20th century. But when I tried to find specific lists of martyrs, I came up almost empty. One place that does describe specific martyrs is Open Doors. It's website has been redesigned since, but at the time its Christian Martyrs page announced Hundreds of Christians Martyrs around the globe are dying for their faith. Not "hundreds of thousands a year", but "hundreds" without any given time-frame.

But even that seems like a wild exaggeration. If it were true, couldn't Open Doors easily find five examples from the previous year? Instead, the page linked to five cases, only three of which happened the previous year, while one happened in 2007 and another in 2005. I just revisited the page. There are just four martyrs listed now. Three from 2009, one from 2005. Martyrdom is very serious matter. Wildly exaggerated claims mock that seriousness. These wild exaggerations troubled me and I went looking for insight about them. One helpful article appeared in 2008 in Christian Century, by Jason Byassee, "How martyrs are made: stories of the faithful". He specifically talked about the World Christian Encyclopaedia:

[T]he Encyclopaedia treats every victim of Stalin as a Christian martyr and says there were one million "Jewish Christian" martyrs in the Holocaust. It also gives some problematic data in listing causes of death: between 1,000 and 10,000 martyrs may have been "quartered", we are told; a similar number were "eaten by piranhas" and as many again "eaten alive". Between 10,000 and 100,000 (notice the broad range) have been "frightened to death," from one to two million "liquidated" and four to 10 million "lowered into sewage". Even more non-specific: between 500,000 and one million were "wiped out".

To say there's a "credibility problem" here would be a vast understatement. And yet, this is clearly something that many conservative evangelicals believe. Even if Open Doors could find five martyrs per year, where would that leave us? Five actual martyrs compared to 146,000 imaginary ones gives us a conservative victimology ratio of 28,600 to one. That represents an extremely severe disconnection from reality. But how representative is it?

'Voter fraud' vs. voter suppression

Fortunately - or unfortunately - there was another field in which to gather data that I was already quite familiar with: the right-wing myth of massive voter fraud. Throughout the Bush years there had been an intense obsession over voter fraud. In fact, there was major scandal involving the firing of six? United States attorney for political reasons, most of which turned out to involve their refusal to pursue dubious voter fraud cases that Karl Rove wanted brought in order to influence elections.

For all the efforts made, however, they could only find about as many voter fraud cases as Open Doors could find martyrs. A Bush-era paper by Barnard polisci professor Lorraine C. Minnite, "The Politics of Voter Fraud", reported, Voter fraud is extremely rare. At the federal level, records show that only 24 people were convicted of or pleaded guilty to illegal voting between 2002 and 2005, an average of eight people a year.

And yet, the myth of massive voter persists as an article of faith on the right. For example, a September 3, 2010 story in the Orange County Register, reported that former House GOP leader Dick Armey accused Democrats of widespread voter fraud, accounting for 3 per cent of elections, roughly 3.8m voters in the 2008 election.

"I'm tired of people being Republican all their lives and then changing parties when they die," quipped Armey, 70. While many dead people do remain on voter rolls, the Bush Administration never found a single case in eight years of someone impersonating them to vote. You can't have a ratio with zero cases, but even supposing there were one in eight years that would give us a conservative victimology ratio of 30.4m to one.

There are other ways to estimate this ratio for voter fraud claims. One can, for example, compare the actual number of voter fraud cases to the number of voters suppressed in the name of keeping the voter rolls pure. Voter suppression can be defined in a number of ways, conscious, unconscious, intentional, unintentional, etc. But in the end what really matters is how many people don't vote compared to how many would vote, if everyone participated equally. With this most expansive conception in mind, we can look at America's current voting levels and compare them to past levels or we can look comparatively at states with higher and lower levels. At its best, American states approach the high voting levels of other advanced nations, so this provides a credible measure of what an unsuppressed level of participation might be. This is a debated conception, to be sure, but it does provide a useful benchmark.

For historical declines in voting participation in presidential elections, taking 1896 as the base, the decline in voting percentage in 2008 amounts to roughly 38m voters. Comparing this to eight fraud cases per election, we come up with a ratio of 4.75m to one.

For contemporary cross-state ratios of voter participation rates, I used several different benchmarks for comparison. The highest one was Minnesota’s participation rate, which was very close to the national rate in 1896. The lowest one was the national average participation rate. A third one used the average state between these two measures. These three benchmarks produced conservative victimology ratios of 4.42m to one; 1.93m to one; and 633 thousand to one.

Next, I looked at state and local resistance to implementing the National Voter Registration Act, which was intended to remove barriers to voting among groups that tend to have low participation rates. Using data from the report, "Ten Years Later: A Promise Unfulfilled: The National Voter Registration Act in Public Assistance Agencies, 1995-2005" using two different methods, I obtained conservative victimology ratios of 89,360 to 1 and 98,909 to one for this measure.

Another measure of voter suppression is felony disenfranchisement - the loss of voting rights by felons. While Americans tend to take it for granted, other countries find it extremely odd. Preventing felons from voting reinforces the message that they are outsiders, that society wants nothing to do with them. This is hardly an approach that encourages felons to become productive members of society. And it's no accident that blacks as disproportionately disenfranchised by a large margin. For black felony disenfranchisement, depending on the calculation method (state level vs. aggregate US), the conservative victimology ratio ranged from 144,797 to one to 139,191 to one. For overall ex-felon disenfranchisement, the conservative victimology ratio was 173,875 to one.

Finally, I looked at the special case of the faulty Florida felon purge list, which was deliberately manipulated to generate false positives (people with names similar to those of actual felons). This produced a conservative victimology ratio of 22,010 to one, resulting in the fraudulent election of George W. Bush as President in 2000.

This year, Republican legislatures across the country have passed a number of different bills making voting more difficult, all under the rubric of fighting voter fraud. Several of these are being challenged and more challenges will almost certainly come. But as it stands now, a study from the Brennan Centre, Voting Law Changes in 2012 finds that:

These new laws could make it significantly harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.
The states that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012, 63 per cent of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Again, using a baseline of eight actual cases of voting fraud a year, if fully successful, this would produce a conservative victimology ratio of 625,000 to one. Using the data above, it's clear that this level is quite high compared to other voter suppression associated with direct government action or inaction.

The conventions of American journalism, as well as the culture of Washington DC, require that we believe in a myth: the myth that liberals and conservatives are basically identical, just facing in different directions, that's all. Any hint that they are fundamentally different in any way is itself seen as a sign of bias. But the conservative victimology ratio not only shows that this myth is unfounded, it is also potentially quite dangerous to our democracy.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

UK: Great Expectations

PJ: Remembering that the President of the United States is not a dictator would serve Americans well. The fact is that the leader of the free world must rely on a Congress to establish laws and assign a budget for the country's expenditures. It is the job of both the presidency and the houses of Congress to work together for the betterment of the country. The success or failure of any President is often the joint success or failure of the Congress. Expecting the US President to make good on all campaign promises is unrealistic since they do not have carte blanche.

The Economist

Disappointed liberals
The expectations game

JONATHAN CHAIT, looking at American liberals as they try to gin up enthusiasm for Barack Obama's re-election campaign, offers a theory of why they are so disillusioned:

Here is my explanation: Liberals are dissatisfied with Obama because liberals, on the whole, are incapable of feeling satisfied with a Democratic president. They can be happy with the idea of a Democratic president—indeed, dancing-in-the-streets delirious—but not with the real thing. The various theories of disconsolate liberals all suffer from a failure to compare Obama with any plausible baseline. Instead they compare Obama with an imaginary president—either an imaginary Obama or a fantasy version of a past president.

As Mr Chait points out, Mr Obama has logged a lot of activity as president, most of which Democrats said they wanted—the health-care reform, the recovery measures, the end of the war in Iraq, and so on. And his argument that conservatives are more inclined to group conformity and message discipline than liberals is probably correct, the occasional tea-party movement notwithstanding. This analysis, however, underplays the fact that Mr Obama set the bar for himself incredibly high. He was the guy who offered the implausible baseline. In June 2008, after the final Democratic primary, he offered the following remarks in Minnesota:

The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

I'm giving the long version of the comment because when these remarks are quoted on conservative blogs—as you can imagine, they've been teased—Mr Obama's qualifying clauses about how this can only happen if people are willing to work for it are sometimes omitted. Still, "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"? It's terribly grand. Grander, I think, than what we typically hear from a presidential candidate of either party. And it's odd, in retrospect, because Mr Obama himself is not much given to melodrama. In other words, there's a discrepancy between the campaign's rhetoric and the president's comparatively aloof, cerebral style.

Several hypotheses come to mind. One is that the candidate doesn't control all the campaign messaging. There was an unusual outpouring of spontaneous admiration around Mr Obama during the Democratic primary—the folk art, the crowds, the long-form essays. So although Mr Obama isn't as warm as, say, Bill Clinton, he had this kind of ersatz charisma cloak. That lasted him through the election cycle, but once everyone settled down to the hard work of governing, some of the goodwill dissipated, and it's been hard for Mr Obama to summon any rascally charm.

An alternative explanation would be that in Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama had a primary opponent who was manifestly competent and tolerable to most voters, who had a similarly moderate platform and who exceeded him in political experience. "I'm not a show horse," Mrs Clinton would say on the trail. "I'm a workhorse and I will go to work for you." It was a completely plausible pitch; Mr Obama himself seemed to think so, which is why he later hired her. It just wasn't very exciting. And so Mr Obama's way to win the primary against her was to present himself as the transformative candidate—a bit of an unknown quantity, perhaps, but the candidate with the potential to change the world and tame the ocean.

In any case, the degree of Mr Obama's personal culpability in the creation of these supersized expectations isn't particularly salient. He does have a defensible record as president, which is why liberals are defending him, even if they are disillusioned. And I agree with Mr Chait that if Democrats hadn't had such high expectations three years ago they might be more enthusiastic today. But it's hardly surprising that they had high hopes. That was a key selling point of the Obama candidacy.