As people struggle to come to terms with how Jo Cox MP could be so brutally slain outside her constituency clinic, many have focused on the coarsening of public debate and the abuse, both actual and online, aimed at politicians.
Though there has undeniably been a coarsening of public debate in recent years, we should not delude ourselves that there was once a golden age when all political discussion was genteel and free from ad hominem attacks.
Politics has always been a rough trade where vigorous and full bodied exchanges are the order of the day. Take this robust response from Frank Aiken T.D. in Dáil Éireann in July 1959, which I found while doing some research on Irish diplomatic history.
This piece first appeared two weeks ago on Broadsheet.ie in the aftermath of the appalling events in Pulse nightcub in Orlando, Florida- link: broadsheet.ie/2016/06/13
When faced with a massive tragedy the natural inclination of most democratic political leaders, from across the spectrum, is to put partisan politics aside for a time and stand together in solidarity and grief.
Campaigns are put on hiatus, genuine political differences are temporarily put aside while the country mourns and tries to cope with the enormity of what has befallen it.
It is what happened in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France and in Belgium and countless times in the USA in the aftermath of yet another mass slaying of innocent victims.
Yet, last night, even before the names and details of the 50 men and women callously slaughtered in the Pulse Nightclub in Orlanda had been released, the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate for the U.S. Presidency chose to take the other route, going was online to whip up anger and score political points off the worst instance of US domestic terrorism.
“Donald Trump looks as if he was playing a President in a porn movie.” This was Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle’s scathing put down of the Donald on BBC radio four’s News Quiz last Friday.
Maybe it is something to do with the Donald’s addiction to calling everything ‘huge’ (or as he says it: huuuuuge ) and lauding his own achievements with outlandish superlatives but Boyle’s taunt perfectly captures Trump’s OTT and hammy public appearances.
Trump’s emergence as a real contender for the White House has surprised most pundits including – if one of his former publicists is to be believed – himself.
How could this gauche, egotistical, property dealing demagogue tear up the US presidential campaign playbook and beat a string of long established Republican hopefuls?
Hard though we may find it to comprehend from this side of the Atlantic; but part of the Trump phenomenon is that he has teed-up this US presidential election to be a fight between the Washington insider: Hillary Clinton and the outsider: Trump.
While surfing the internet I came across this little nugget: Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Rules of Life”.
The ebullient LBJ was a larger than life character who contemporaries described as highly driven, ambitious and devoid of any interests or past-times outside politics.
Though mainly remembered now as the President who even further embroiled the US in the Viet-Nam war (a policy he inherited from JFK) too many forget his personal campaign for massive social reform, entitled: The Great Society. You can find the text of LBJ’s first Great Society speech here
My column for The Herald from Washington DC on my “coffee shop” poll one year on from President Barack Obama’s second term win.
“The worse I do, the more popular I become”. So said the late President Kennedy trying to understand his higher poll ratings after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Almost exactly 50 years after Kennedy’s assasssination the words could just as easily sum up Barack Obama’s past year. Sitting here, looking out from my Washington DC hotel bedroom towards the Dome of the Capitol building; it is hard to believe it is over a year since I was writing about the 2012 Presidential debates. Though his lack lustre performancein the first debate hurt his poll ratings in the opening weeks, I had no doubt he would be re-elected.
The real question one year ago was if Obama’s second term could deliver the hope and promise which his 2008 campaign promised and his first term failed to match. One year on, it seems that his record in his second term will not be any more impressive than his record in the first.
Over the past 12 months he has presided over a budgetary crisis that effectively shut down large parts of the federal bureaucracy; the Snowden leaks and allegations of spying on friendly governments; continuing problems with his health care reforms, indecision over how to respond to the Syrian crisis and worsening relations with Russia and Putin. Add the sluggishness of the American recovery and you have a catalogue of woes that should have his political foes beside themselves with glee – but they’re not.
Just as in the 2012 election: Obama is blessed with his opponents. Over the past week the President has, as leader of the Democratic Party, witnessed three significant victories: in the Mayoral elections in Boston and New York and the Gubernatorial election in nearby Virginia where the former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, a man with several relations in Dublin, won in a traditionally Republican State.
Though techically a victory for the Republic Party, the President can also add moderate Governor Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey to the Democrat column. The more conservative “tea party” republicans seem very reluctant to rejoice in Christie’s win, with the darling of the American right Newt Gingrich saying that he was more of a “personality” leader rather than the leader of a movement.
Maybe he is right. Perhaps Gov Christie is just media savvy creation and not the real deal, but his capacity to win over moderates, women and Latinos is something the Republican Party needs if it is to convince voters, post Obama, that they are worth a second look.
For decades before George W Bush presidential elections were fought on the basis of the Democrat lurching to the left to win the nomination but steering back to the centre to win the election itself and the Republican doing likewise, only to the right first,then back to the centre. Bush and his campaign stratagust Karl Rove changed that – they went right towin the nomination and then stayed there working on bring out new right of centre voters. The model worked in 2000 and 2004, but is now bust. The voters know it. The people at the top of the Republican Party know it. Only their grassroots don’t get it. Very few of the people I spoke with over the past few days here in Washington DC and in neighbouring Virginia, regret voting for Obama. They may feel let down by the President, but almost none believe that Romney was the way to go. Though hardly an exhaustive or scientic survey. To be frank it was conducted mainly in bars, coffee shops and stores. I did try to correct any imbalance in the sample due to my social habits by also talking to people attending the same business conference as me. Those interviews yielded the far from astounding conclusion that those who complain most loudly about Obama, never voted for him. Just like it is back in Dublin.
This is my latest column on how “playing the man, not the ball” is hurting Irish politics. It appeared in today’sHerald (August 24th 2013):
With the council elections due next May local political organisations will soon make final decisions as to which of their aspiring candidates will make it on to the ballot paper.
Given the time and energy many of them have already put in to proving that they can get elected, it is tough to see willing and able people rejected, but politics is a tough business.
Unfortunately most new candidates, just like most new businesses, fail. Only a few ever make it to the national stage.
Predicting who will is more a dark art than a science. From my experience of running campaigns the key predictor of success is not passion or commitment, its obsession… and I don’t mean the fragrance.
Those most likely to succeed in modern Irish politics, even at the local level, are those who need and crave that success more than almost anything else.
This does not mean that they are not interested in leading and improving their communities: most are, but that comes a weak second to their determination to succeed.
But here is the contradiction: we risk making political life so demanding, intrusive and tough that those with ideas and initiative are frightened away leaving the obsessive, the egotistical and the power hungry.
This is nothing to do with constituency work. Most are prepared for doing clinics and handling representations. The problem is that politics’ traditional “cut and thrust” has become a lot more vicious and brutal. The old rule of “nothing personal, only politics” is giving way to the “everything is personal” one.
How many people do you know who are thinking of getting into local politics? I bet it is not many.
Political parties are finding it hard to persuade people to run. There are many community activists and leaders who are qualified to run, but not so many prepared to accept today’s levels of attention and scrutiny, not just from the media.
Politics today requires politicians as thick skinned as a T-Rex but with the purity of the Dalai Lama. Have any form of skeleton in your cupboard and you may kiss your chances of succeeding goodbye. The rule now is: one strike and you are out. How many of the great political leaders of the past century could pass that test: Churchill, Kennedy, Mitterand?
The irony is that this increasing pressure is not coming in the first instance from the media – it is coming from other politicians.
They are the hacks greatest sources of political tittle-tattle and gossip. They are the ones most likely to play the man not the ball.
Not that this is a new phenomenon. As George Orwell wrote over half a century ago, “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Add the power, immediacy and spread of the web and social media, texting plus the emergence of the constant campaign – where candidates are in campaign battle mode all year round – and suddenly a piece of damaging gossip that might once have had an audience of hundreds has a far wider and less forgiving audience.
It is what President Obama described some years ago as “the coarsening of our political dialogue” In an age when many voices are competing for attention and coverage he concluded “…that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention”, posing the question: “How can we make sure that civility is interesting?”
We see it here too. How often have you listened to TV or radio discussion and concluded that these two have no respect for each other? I recall one recently when a next generation politician, who I shall not identify, deftly dispensed with any discussion of facts or and focused on undermining the integrity of an opponent who was not even there.
Why would anyone who either with a successful career elsewhere offer to subject themselves to that?
My take on the US Presidential election results from tonight’s Evening Herald
“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half!” If this is how Henry Ford felt about his cash you can only imagine how the campaign treasurers in both American parties feel about 90% of theirs.
Last January polls showed Obama and Romney in a statistical dead heat within a point or two of each other. Ten months and some €4.7billion of campaign spending later and the two parties appeared to have hardly budged an inch.
Watching the early results in the Presidential and Congressional come in this morning you had to wonder did either candidate or party get value for its money.
On Monday I said that I though Obama would win and that he would win the majority of the so called battleground States. While I was fully confident of that view when I penned it last Monday, I did have one brief moment of doubt last night.
It came by way of a stern but firm Facebook message from an old friend in New York. He said he thought that Romney might just shade it. His comments came as a bit of a shock as my mate is no political novice and is usually a good judge of these things.
The first key result I was waiting for was Virginia. While Obama could win the election without winning in Virginia it would be a good early indicator of how the election was going.
According to the US TV networks they would be ready to make a prediction, based on exit polls, about 30 minutes after midnight Irish time.
The final pre election polls had Obama set to win it by around 2%, but that was inside the margin of error. The exit polls would tell all. My heart sank a little when the Networks declared Virginia too close to call at the appointed time.
Could my mate be right? Could it be that Romney had managed to claw back enough to reverse Obama’s small lead? Virginia was not essential or critical to an Obama win, but it might be an indication of other problems.
The uncertainty lasted about thirty minutes. Soon reports started to emerge that Florida was too close to call. On Monday I had predicted it would go to Romney. Almost every polling company had been calling it for Romney for weeks, yet the reports coming out from precincts and districts across the State were saying that it was neck and neck.
Latino, women and young voters were coming out for Obama in bigger numbers and by wider margin than predicted. Obama had been expected to get about 66% of the latino voter, but the exit polls were not putting it at 71%..
Florida was the third easiest State for Romney to win from Obama, yet it was going to Obama, though only just. Of the swing sates only two: Indiana and North Carolina went to Romney, the rest stuck with the President.
In each case the margin was tight, but in America’s first past the post system, the winner takes it all.
By a little after 3.00am is was virtually all over. While there were several races still too close to call, all were favouring the President. Obama had not won the magic 270 electoral college votes but it looks now that there was almost no mathematical possibility of Romney reaching it.
While he was not losing them by large margins the States were being stacked up against Romney. By 4am it was all over once Ohio was called for Obama. With that Romney’s last remaining hope was quashed. While a few diehard Republicans refused to accept the prediction it was over and so Election 2012 ended with a stronger Electoral College victory for Obama, 332 to 206, than even I dared imagine a few days ago.
To quote Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Though I’m loathe to disagree with a Nobel prize-winner, when your editor asks for a prediction you don’t reply: don’t know.
While national polls show the US Presidential election as a dead heat, I reckon Obama will make it. The two keys to forecasting US elections are polls in the nine battleground states and voter turnout.
It is the “electoral college” system. Get the most votes in a State and you get all its “electoral college [EC] votes”. The votes allotted are weighted roughly according to the States population with the winner being the one to get 270.
The system is far from perfect. You can win the election without a national majority. It happened in 2000 when Bush beat Gore by 271 EC votes to 266, while getting 544,000 fewer votes nationally. It may happen again this time.
The campaigns are framed accordingly. President Obama jokingly acknowledged this truth at the Al Smith dinner in New York saying: “In less than three weeks, voters in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida will decide this incredibly important election, which begs the question, what are we doing here?”
Last night’s State polls show Romney likely to take just one of these: Florida, but trailing the President in the other two. Like Meath, Ohio is seen as a bellwether state. No Republican has ever won without winning Ohio and Obama’s lead there looks solid.
Over the next 24 hours, ahead of polls closing on election day tomorrow, both campaigns will be focussed on their GOTV campaigns – getting out their vote. This is still crucial even though around 20% of likely voters (approx 29 million people) have already cast their ballots.
Obama’s handling of the Hurricane Sandy crisis plus the sight of him working with one of his staunchest Republican critics: New Jersey’s Gov Chris Christie cannot have hurt his chances.
Just in the same way as Romney had started to surge before the first debate, Obama had started to regain ground before Sandy hit. Each event was not the catalyst for a bounce it was what encapsulated something already in progress.
Even before the first debate Romney was closing the gap with Obama, particularly with women voters. The Obama campaign had spent millions over the Summer on TV ads portraying Romney as an aloof, remote right winger, using his own words from the primaries to indict him. The Republican convention and Romney’s selection of arch fiscal conservative, Paul Ryan, as his running mate did not help dispel the image.
But as soon as he hit the campaign trail proper Romney eased his message. Gone was the tea-party rhetoric that won him the nomination: in its place the more emollient, stern but fair tone that had made him a moderate Governor.
Women, particularly married women and mothers, started to rally to his cause as they heard him talk about rebuilding America and securing their children’s future. Obama’s double digit lead amongst woman was slashed to about 6%. This is roughly the same amount by which Romney led Obama amongst white men.
By contrast Obama has a 2 to 1 lead among Latino/Hispanic voters, an increasingly important constituency, and a 20 to 1 lead with African-Americans. Getting both groups to the polls in numbers could clinch it for him.
I could go on quoting polls of other groups. Under 35s, veterans, middle class etc, but let me close with a slightly more bit quirky one. Asking voters who they think will win has, in previous elections, been seen to be a better indicator of an election result than asking them who they plan to support.
This time around voters, by a double digit margin, think Obama will beat Romney. It may not be quite as scientific but it, and my gut instinct, convinces me Obama is on course for a second term.
My take on the third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov Mitt Romney, from tonight;s Evening Herald. The print edition features an abridged version of the full piece below.
If recent polls are right then last night’s presidential debate outcome will please about 95% of us, even if a deal on Irish bank debt never made the agenda!
In their third encounter President Obama again came out on top, but Romney was not too far behind. While Obama has been slipping in the polls since even before the first debate, he still leads Romney on the issue of foreign relations and he showed why last night.
He has, after all, been dealing with foreign affairs for the past four years, while Romney has just been studying it for the past few months. President Obama is the man who took the US out of Iraq, the man who focused on finding and eliminating of Bin Ladin. Then again George Bush I was the man who presided over the fall of communism and drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, but found his re-election bid frustrated by the weakened economy.
Last night’s confrontation was not nearly as fierce as the previous debate, partly because it focussed on foreign affairs, but largely because the two men were seated throughout.
For this rsason their individual body language was not as noticeable as it had been last time. Their words had to carry the force of their argument – and they did. Both went on the attack – Obama attacked Romney’s grasp of the issues, while Romney dismissed the President’s foreign policy record as faltering.
Obama had the one-liner of the night. He countered Romney’s criticism that the US Navy has fewer ships now that it had 1916: ad libbing that they also had fewer bayonets and horses. Obama’s prepared put down saying that Romney’s foreign policy was from the 80s, his social policy was from the 50s and his economic policy was from the 20s was good, but not as effective.
The reality that dare not speak its name last night is the fact that foreign relations is not nearly as important as everyone likes to pretend.
Despite the high flown rhetoric from both on America’s place in the world, this election is about the contents of the ordinary man or woman’s wallet – no other issue comes closer.
Yes, America’s attitudes to the Middle East, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria are important, but these will not decide the outcome of this election, jobs and living standards will.
The two candidates as good as admitted this as they wove the economy and domestic concerns into their replies. The purpose of the debate was not so much to debate foreign policy, but to see how both candidates could handle complex issues.
As with the past two debates the role of the moderator was almost as important as the performances of the two contenders. Across the three debates it has had something of a Goldilocks quality to it. In the first Jim Lehrer was judged to have taken a bit of a back seat. Candy Crowley, the moderator of the second debate was accused of taking too big a role in the encounter, framing supplementary questions and, most notably, pulling up Gov Romney on his alleged misquoting of the President.
If Lehrer and Crowley had made the presidential porridge too cold or too hot, last night’s moderator, veteran news man Bob Schieffer, worked to get the balance just right. Schieffer was more forceful than his close friend Lehrer in enforcing the agreed rules, but was less interventionist than Crowley.
Most american commentators agree that these have been the most exciting debates in decades, but they have not done much to reduce the numbers of undecided voters.
As in previos elections the debates have envigorated those whi have already decided who they will support. The battle for undecideds will be won or lost on the ground in a handful of states, particularly Ohio.
The outcome of this election will be tight, the next fortnight will be fraught.