Ben Roback: Is the “Green New Deal” fantasy or 2020 reality for the Democrats?

It is hard to see a Democrat who opposes the legislation courting the Left of the party and winning the Presidential nomination.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

In January, this column entertained the idea of whether or not a true progressive could win the presidency in 2020. A core feature of almost all Democratic candidates seeking their party’s nomination will be their support for a ‘Green New Deal’, the economic stimulus program designed to decarbonise the US and address economic inequality. It has been principally proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, and subsequently become a feature of the early election campaign. It has also become a lightning rod for the youthful, progressive insurgency taking place within the Democratic Party around the country.

Are the economics and politics of the Green New Deal possible?

In February, Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduced a Green New Deal resolution in Congress that lays out the principles and goals behind their policy proposals. It consists of five goals, 14 projects, and 15 requirements. One thing that is immediately clear is that it will require a Democrat in the White House in order to stand any chance of being enacted. Otherwise, it will face the same fate as the American Clean Energy and Security Act – the Democrats’ last attempt to forge a legislative path to address climate change, which passed the House of Representatives in 2009 but progressed no further.

The policy proposal is expected to heavily influence the Democratic Party, pushing its grass roots and 2020 hopefuls towards a more defined and aggressive plan to address climate change, but the impact on this administration’s legislative approach is likely to be negligible at best. President Trump continues to conflate weather with climate change, whilst appointing sceptics to review climate science. If anything, it could have the opposite effect – to push the White House even further to the right on climate change and decarbonisation, owing to the vehemence with which Republicans oppose Ocasio-Cortez’s plans for increased government spending. On that basis, the Green New Deal could become a legislative proxy for the battle that will take place in 2020. It sets up the election to be one between climate change deniers and climate change interventionists, in that climate change has now become a signifier of broader and deeper divisions in American society.

The Green New Deal builds on the principles outlined by President Franklin D Roosevelt, whose New Deal was launched to battle the effects of the Great Depression. The 2019 proposal focuses on reducing inequality, whilst aiming to eliminate US greenhouse gas pollution in a decade. In addition, it includes a job guarantee program “to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one”.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US still has a long way to go in its path to renewable energy. Currently, the US gets just 17 per cent of its power from renewable sources. If the Green New Deal ends up being little more than a motivator to push a future Democratic president in the direction of renewable domestic energy sources, it could start with markedly increasing that figure.

Voters will rightly demand to know how progressives intend to pay for these bold ideas. This could differ in the primary, where the Democratic base will seek ideological purity from their candidates, and the general, where the wider American public will be more concerned with pragmatism. For now, the architects of the Green New Deal have sought to largely avoid the question. It is good politics to float the ideas and consider how to pay for them later, but the economics of the proposal will not go away. In the same way that Jeremy Corbyn has pledged free university places, greater NHS funding and the best part of £500 billion in public spending and failed to answer how he would pay for it.

How will it shape the Republican response to climate change?

Given the Green New Deal is intrinsically linked to Ms Ocasio-Cortez, whom the Republicans and conservative media have grown to love opposing and mocking in the short period of time in which she has been a member of Congress, it is unlikely the GOP will support any version of a Green New Deal. Both in terms of the politics and the economics – it would invoke the kind of vast government spending the party rallies against, whilst also acknowledging the existence of climate change and the need for a government response to it.

On the campaign trail and now in the White House, Mr Trump has denied that emissions of greenhouses gases caused by human activity are warming the planet. Instead, he argues that climate change patterns are changing naturally, and in his more excessive moments laments a climate change “hoax” engineered by China to economically punish the United States. It is difficult to foresee a sudden reversal in those views.

The electoral trends might be the only thing capable of pushing Republicans into acting on climate change and reversing their current position. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in December 2018 found that 66 per cent of Americans now say they have seen enough evidence to justify action on climate change, up from 51% 20 years ago. Crucially, a gap appears between registered independents – 79 per cent of whom support action – and Republicans – 56 per cent of whom said that concern about climate change is unwarranted or that more research is necessary before taking action.

The path to a Green New Deal might not run through 2020

The Green New Deal as currently proposed has faced its own wave of criticism. Patrick Moore, the co-founder of Greenpeace, even went as far as describing it as “completely crazy”. It has been dismissed by the right as a would-be act of reckless big-state spending. Government spending is often embraced by the left – such as FDR’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal and LBJ’s Great Society – but it is not alien to the right. If President Trump’s executive action on border security isn’t shot down by the courts, he will spend over $5 billion with the stroke of a pen.

The enthusiasm of first-term Democrats in the 116th Congress has made the Green New Deal a litmus test for the 2020 general election. Already, Democratic hopefuls like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have expressed their support for the proposals. It is hard to see a Democrat who opposes the legislation courting the Left of the party and winning the 2020 nomination. For a Green New Deal to succeed, it may need a longer runway than the months between now and the November 2020 general election. It may also need more visible climate change crises in the areas that are most vulnerable, in order to pressure Republican politicians to shift their stance – like in Florida. It will certainly need a Democrat in the White House and their full endorsement.

Lord Ashcroft: “There’s not going to be a single Democrat that can go toe-to-toe with the President.” My interview with Kayleigh McEnany.

Trump’s press secretary sets out how the President intends to run his re-election campaign in 2020.

If you enjoyed the last presidential election, you’ll be delighted by the thought that we’re only 20 months away from the next one.

Characteristically enough, Donald Trump declared his intention to seek a second term earlier than any previous incumbent, and his campaign is already in what Americans like to call “the staffing up process.” One of the earliest senior appointments is Kayleigh McEnany, the former CNN commentator named earlier this month as the campaign’s national press secretary.

I met her last week at the Trump campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia for a discussion you can hear in full in the latest Ashcroft in America podcast.

If candidate Trump’s slogan in 2016 was Make America Great Again, I asked, how far is he going to claim to have achieved that by 2020?

“Moving forward, it’s ‘keep America great’.” Last time round “he was on pace to win from the very beginning” because “the conservative base found their hero. They found someone that they found to be authentic, that spoke from the heart, that wasn’t scripted, that wasn’t a mannequin politician.” Since his election, she says, “the results speak for themselves.”

The base is one thing, but my research regularly finds around one third of Trump voters saying they were voting mainly to stop Hillary Clinton. If the Democrats can find a more appealing candidate this time – which ought not to be hard, given her approval ratings at the time – doesn’t that mean he’s in trouble?

If they were sceptical at first, she believes, they have been won over: “They recognise that this president has brought jobs back, that he’s brought security to manufacturing, that he’s fought for the American people, he’s fought for the blue-collar worker, and they see those results on the ground.”

McEnany puts the economy, rising wages, and falling unemployment at the head of a long list of the President’s achievements. But does that leave him vulnerable if the economic cycle takes a turn for the worse? “I don’t foresee the economy changing at all. The fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Moreover, “business owners know that they have a free-market capitalist in the White House,” a President who will deregulate and allow “uninhibited growth.”

At this stage in the process, most of the interest is on who the Democrats are going to nominate as Trump’s opponent. What kind of person does she think the party is in the mood to choose?

“A socialist. It’s pretty clear. You look at the fact that just eight years ago, what the Democratic contenders were saying then versus now and it’s striking. You’ll recall President Obama would say over and over, if you like your health care you can keep it. There is a recognition that there is a place for private insurance. Now you’re hard pressed to find a single candidate who says that – the order of the day is government-run health care… The left is ruling the day, the extreme left and socialism is the order of the day.”

As for what kind of Democratic opponent would give the Trump campaign the toughest job: “I don’t think a single one would… When you’re standing up to results like that there’s not going to be a single Democrat that can go toe to toe with the President. It’s much like back in the Reagan era where Reagan asked voters, are you better off today than you were four years ago. And when that question is asked of voters, the answer is yes.”

While there is the prospect of a high-profile independent candidate in the 2020 race, McEnany argues that this would cause Trump less trouble than his other opponents. “I don’t think it will be a centrist ticket, I think it will be a liberal one. You’ve seen [former Starbucks boss] Howard Shultz come out and say, ‘I can’t stand with this socialist Democratic party’. He’s still a liberal, make no doubt about it, but should they nominate a far-left socialist they’re gonna have a real problem on their hands.”

So if you’re not worried about sceptical voters or your potential opponent, what is the biggest challenge facing the Trump re-election campaign? “Breaking through the filter of the mainstream media.” A study by Harvard University had found “historic negative coverage” during Trump’s first hundred days in office – “there’s so much unfairness, so much false reporting and the President’s not given a fair shake.” The campaign’s job is “making sure the American people have unfiltered access to what the President wants to share with them.” The campaign’s own polling during the State of the Union speech confirmed this.

“We saw a double-digit rise in approval among swing voters who just directly watched the President. There’s a lower number for those who watched the media reporting of what the President said. That’s proof to us that our strategy moving forward, the President unfiltered wins the day, at rallies and speeches talking directly to the American people.”

 

You can hear Lord Ashcroft’s full interview with Kayleigh McEnany in the latest Ashcroft in America podcast.

Ben Roback: A trade war between Washington and Brussels would be dire for the car industry

For many years, if you cut a Republican they bled free trade. No longer.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

The Grand Old Party has traditionally bled free trade. It is to the Republicans what the social safety net is to Democrats and what free enterprise is to us Conservatives. In so many policy areas, President Trump has picked up and moved the anchor of the Republican Party, but none more so than on trade. “I like punitive tariffs” is not a statement we are accustomed to hearing from Republican occupants of the White House, but when it comes to putting ‘America First’ into action, this president will use all the tools at his disposal. “I love tariffs, but I also love them to negotiate,” the President also said on the same day – welcome to his Art of the Deal.

Those comments came ahead of a US Commerce Department report due to be published which is expected to recommend that the EU vehicle industry be classified as a threat to US national security. This is on the grounds that it strips the USA of an industrial base needed to produce military hardware. On the basis of that recommendation, the President could raise tariffs from 2.5 per cent to up to 25 per cent within the next three months.

Analysts fear the wider impact of a back and forth conflict, like Dutch financial services giant ING who warned ‘if the tariff precipitates a ‘tit for tat’ trade battle between the US and EU, economies on both sides of the ocean would be hurt significantly more’.

For motor manufacturers in the big production countries like Germany and the UK, that could turn into an economic nightmare – as well as inflicting punishment on the very blue-collar workers in manufacturing states that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House. German car manufacturers exported almost 500,000 vehicles to the US last year, while the car trade between the US and the EU is estimated to be worth at least around €50 billion annually. BMW’s largest plant in the world is not in Bavaria, but South Carolina. In the States, 113,000 Americans work for European vehicle manufacturers whilst 186,000 people are employed directly in motor manufacturing in the UK. Crystallising the potential domestic impact, a report from the Center for Automotive Research published last week showed that a worst-case scenario of a tariff of 25 percent would cost 366,900 American jobs in the auto and related industries. Readers accustomed to accusations of Project Fear will have to wait and see whether the forecasts are any more accurate than the direst projections made related to Brexit.

If the US Commerce Department recommends a hike in tariffs, we can expect the European Union to quickly respond in kind. That risks setting off a transatlantic trade war from which the President will not want to back down – especially after he was widely seen to have conceded to the Democrats in order to bring an end to the 35-day government shutdown. It would also mark another cooling of EU-US relations, in the same week that Mike Pence delivered a stridently ‘America First’ message to the Munich Security Conference. On Iran, Pence said the “time has come” for European partners to “stop undermining US sanctions against this murderous revolutionary regime”. But in urging EU Member States to pull out of the Iran Deal, he was met with a stony silence in the room. Far from considering pulling out of the Iran Deal, in February the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) announced the creation of a new platform aimed at facilitating legitimate trade between European firms and Iran.

Make no mistake, the tariffs floated by the President are purely the design of political gain rather than economic or security necessity. Otherwise, they would be fiercely supported by the sector. Instead, the tariffs are firmly opposed by the US car industry. The Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association has said: “Not a single company in the domestic auto industry requested this investigation.”

Another bad news story is the very last thing motor manufacturing in the UK can handle at this delicate time. Ford, Nissan, Toyota and most recently Honda have all sounded a collective alarm over the future of their physical presence in the UK. Brexit and political instability are undoubtedly contributing factors – just as the industry is adapting to new global trade deals like the EU-Japan deal which reduces the incentive to build in Europe, and changing consumer behaviour that seeks out electric as well as petrol/diesel.

Motor manufacturers in the UK have sounded drastic warnings about the likely impact of No Deal on their sector. Some around the Cabinet table have sought to amplify that caution, like Greg Clark and his colleague Richard Harrington. But look beyond Brexit and we might collectively find that it is in Washington and Brussels where much of the industry’s future is being thrashed out.

Italy’s spat with France shows the EU is at threat not of disintegration but of hijack

Will fans of the EU establishment be quite so keen on unaccountable, centralised institutions when their opponents start appointing commissioners?

While various prominent figures in Brussels occupied themselves with threatening Brexiteers with eternal damnation this week, they might perhaps have spent their time more productively somewhat closer to home. No doubt Donald Tusk and Guy Verhofstadt dislike the EU losing one of its largest members, but the union has other problems with the relationship between its remaining members.

Only yesterday the simmering tension between Italy and France boiled over, with Paris taking the extraordinary step of withdrawing its ambassador from Rome for the first time since the Second World War.

The spark was a visit by the Italian Deputy Prime Minister to meet some of the Yellow Vest protesters who have rioted against the Macron government in recent months. That meeting was an obvious provocation, and is rightly seen by the French government as an insult to its legitimacy by an outside power.

It didn’t come out of the blue, though. Ideologically, Emmanuel Macron and Matteo Salvini are cut from very different cloth, and their potential to clash is further heightened by the fact that each has eagerly pursued a strategy of defining himself among his domestic supporters by criticising the other. Last June, when Macron described populism as a form of political “leprosy”, Salvini derided the French President as a “chatterbox” who liked to “preach” to European leaders who actually got things done.

The format of the Italian governing coalition also lends itself to a bit of one-upmanship in the game of publicly insulting Macron, as neither party wants to look weaker than its partner. In January, the Deputy Prime Minister – from the 5 Star Movement – accused France of contributing to illegal migration from Africa by a continued policy of imperialism. Salvini then upped the ante by openly calling for French voters to “get rid of a terrible president” – meddling in the domestic politics of an ally to a degree that would be unthinkable in ordinary times. Not to be outdone, his coalition partner has now held this meeting with the gilets jaunes.

Both are playing to a home crowd, quite openly with the goal of outdoing their coalition partner in the forthcoming European elections. While the Italian coalition between Salvini’s nationalist Lega and the anti-establishment hotch-potch which makes up 5 Star has held together far better than most observer (and indeed many members of both parties) expected, that doesn’t mean they have stopped viewing one another as rivals, or dreaming of governing alone. Macron – preachy, smug, and responsible for refusing to admit migrants across the French border while expecting Italy to accept those who come across the Mediterranean – is the punchbag that they now use to display their strength.

It might be a primarily domestic performance, but the effects have been international. France is fuming, and a breakdown in diplomatic relations between two major European nations is a remarkable and rare sight. British Eurosceptics habitually look out for signs of rupture and division within the EU and are prone to declare “Aha, now the wheels are starting to come off.” But is that really the case?

The EU obviously has persistent problems. The eye-watering scale of youth unemployment in the south is well-known. Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland are now governed by parties which are far from the tastes of the Brussels establishment. Long-established parties of the integrationist mainstream have been swept away in tumultuous elections in several member states. A poll in France earlier this week put support for leaving the EU at 40 per cent – a startlingly high number which would may well cause a cold sweat in various offices in Strasbourg.

However, we Brits should resist the temptation to assume dissent – even explicitly Eurosceptic dissent – across the EU takes the same format, or comes from the same tradition, as Euroscepticism in the UK.

For historical, political and economic reasons, actually wanting to escape or dismantle the EU and its institutions is less popular on the Continent than here. Consider that even in Italy, where a large chunk of the younger generation have had their economic prospects sacrificed on the altar of monetary union, only 25 per cent of people want to leave the Euro, never mind the European Union. Marine Le Pen, supposedly unafraid to court controversy, rowed back from considering Frexit once she got into the final two for the French presidency. Even Yianis Varoufakis, an eye-witness to the willingness of the EU to trample people and countries in the pursuit of its political project, always shied away from advocating an end to membership.

That might change (as Fraser Nelson points out, perhaps the presence of a successful former member might have that effect in time) but ever closer union has so far persisted as an idea, despite a severe buffeting from some pretty horrendous storms of its own making, and it isn’t dead yet.

And yet these tensions between France and Italy (and between Warsaw and Brussels, and Hungary and almost everybody) are real, painful and intensifying. They shouldn’t be misinterpreted or over-interpreted, but equally they can’t simply be ignored or wished away. In reality, what we’re seeing is an attempt not to break up the EU by people like Salvini and Orban, but an attempt to bend it towards their way of thinking and away from that of so-called centrists like Macron.

They know that, at the moment, those wielding power in Brussels are generally in agreement with their opponents, so most of their speeches and actions are pitched against the sensibilities of the EU institutions. But later this year they will be able to appoint their own people to a new Commission, and they will gain a voice at the heart of the EU. When that happens, I wonder if supporters of the current Brussels establishment will be quite so keen on the unaccountable, centralised structures which they built on the assumption that they would run them forever.

Garvan Walshe: Can civil war be avoided in Venezuela?

A wise US president with a clever plan would be able to reduce the risks. But this one may well squander the opportunity for a peaceful return to democracy.

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He grew up in Latin America and now runs TRD Policy.

Lacking the persuasive skills of their charismatic predecessor, the leader lives on borrowed time. A disastrous election campaign took away the government’s parliamentary majority. The streets have been filled with opposition demonstrators. Regional allies have turned against their former friend. The administration’s policy provokes only exasperation from economists. Its oil resources are not what they once were. Opposition media are filled with stories of food shortages and stockpiling. Hints are dropped of emergency powers and even the declaration of martial law. European Union leaders have turned up the pressure by demanding concessions by a strict deadline.

But whereas Theresa May managed this week to retain control of Britain’s legislative agenda (the Cooper and Grieve amendments having been defeated thanks at least in part to Labour frontbenchers breaking their whip), Nicolas Maduro is in a much deeper hole.

Having been defeated in elections for the national assembly in 2015, he got his handpicked Supreme Court to anoint a puppet parliament and remains in office as an unvarnished dictator. His security forces torture and imprison opposition leaders while his country goes without food. Three million Venezuelans have fled – to America, Spain and Chile if they can; to Colombia, Peru and Ecuador if they must.

Last week, Juan Guaidó, the young head of the democratically elected National Assembly — himself only installed because Leopoldo López, the real leader, has been placed under house arrest by the regime — declared the presidency vacant, and, under Venezuela´s constitution, proclaimed himself interim president, and demanded free elections.

He immediately received the support of the Organisation of American States, and with it the democratically elected governments of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay and the United States as well as several smaller countries. Britain has followed their lead.

The European Union is due to follow suit. Led by Spain’s centre-left government, they gave Maduro days to agree to hold free elections, and will transfer recognition to Guaidó if, as everyone expects, Maduro digs in with the support of Russia and China.

It’s not a matter of much surprise that Britain’s Labour Party has avoided facing this issue square on. It has instead taken refuge in myths of Cold War era US “intervention”. It allows them to evade the obvious failure of a regime that promised “Socialism in the 21st Century” and which is unable to supply basic services to its people despite owning what are by some measures the world’s largest oil reserves. Yet the bankruptcy of this position, taken by John McDonnell among others, is clear, and has been dismissed by none other than the notorious far-right US Senator, Bernie Sanders.

Far from a US provocation, the Venezuelan crisis is domestic in origin. The Chavez-Maduro regime politicised the oil industry, failed to keep control of law and order, and rather than improving the conditions of the poor, made them far worse. Food, medicines and basic sanitary products are often unavailable. Beset by mass demonstrations and sporadic military revolts, Caracas now relies on Russian and Chinese security assistance to keep itself in power.

The stage is now set for a stand-off between the democratically elected National Assembly and what Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, calls the “tyrant”. Maduro stays installed Caracas’s Miraflores palace, while his secret police operate from a post-modernist disused shopping centre converted into a warren of torture chambers known as the Helicóide.

The transfer of international recognition to the National Assembly is more than just symbolic. Pursued fully, it would mean that, in the view of the countries that recognise it, the Assembly will be the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan state abroad. Its appointees, not Maduro’s, will be recognised as diplomats. Property belonging to the Venezuelan state can be assigned to it, and not to Maduro’s government. Efforts are under way to transfer oil revenues to its control. Conversely, Maduro and his agents will no longer be, in the eyes of major world democracies and the international financial system at least, legitimate forces of order. They will have been converted into rebels using force to overthrow the legitimate government of Venezuela, as represented by the National Assembly.

This could begin to change the balance of power, but to stand a chance of bringing democracy back to Venezuela, further steps must be taken. What is needed is a diplomatic process to put pressure on the regime to acquiesce in free elections that will continue alongside what will it is hoped will continue to be peaceful popular opposition to Maduro, and the role of the United States will be crucial.

A wise US administration would stay in the shadows, and leave public leadership to Latin American countries, while providing diplomatic heft (in particular in dissuading Russia and China from provocation) and practical and organisational assistance to the regional anti-Maduro coalition. Such discretion would shield Venezuela’s democracy movement from the charges of American imperialism that Maduro has already begun to deploy and which are being enthusiastically if hypocritically relayed by pro-Russian satellite TV.

We don’t, however, have such a wise administration. This one, understaffed diplomatically, incapable of consistent action, with a president beholden to Moscow, and a counterproductive fondness for the theatrical may well squander the opportunity for a peaceful return to democracy in Venezuela. Among the risks facing the world in 2019 we may now have to add further deterioration. Descent into prolonged violence or even low-level civil war now looks all too possible.

Ben Roback: Can a true progressive win the presidency in 2020?

Hopefuls should remember that what plays well in the primaries may be un-deliverable from the White House.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Make no mistake, the 2020 presidential election campaign is well underway. At the latest count, over half a dozen Democrats have announced their intention to seek the party’s nomination and well over a dozen more could join the field in the coming weeks and months.

Building on the anger and passion that pushed the Democratic base to join the resistance and then turn out to vote in the midterms, the wide field of Democratic hopefuls is set to gravitate around a progressive left-wing agenda.

Pushing that leftward shift is the rising stars of the party, all of whom make no apology of their progressive and at times even socialist values. The nickname-only Democrats are the brightest lights in that group – namely “AOC” (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), “Beto” (Beto O’Rourke) and to a fading extent “Bernie” (Bernie Sanders).

The policy platforms put forward by those running in 2020 are, for the majority, unquestionably left-wing. The default proposal by anyone seeking the Democratic nomination has been Medicare for all and support for a ‘Green New Deal’. It is no surprise that the Obama-alumni hosts of Pod Save America described those two policies as the “secret password” that gets Democratic hopefuls into the race.

On the campaign trail then, we will hear an awful lot more about Medicare for all and the jobs boom associated with a Green New Deal. But just as Donald Trump found that it is easy to promise that he will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it at rallies, Democratic hopefuls might also find that their most progressive policies are dead on arrival on day one of a Democratic presidency.

Political kryptonite for the Republican Party, a Medicare for all bill has no chance of passing a GOP-controlled House or Senate. The proof? Before introducing legislation that would create a government-run, single-payer health care system in September 2017, Sanders said:

“Look, I have no illusions that under a Republican Senate and a very right-wing House and an extremely right-wing president of the United States, that suddenly we’re going to see a Medicare-for-all, single-payer passed. You’re not going to see it. That’s obvious.”

Moreover, the party structures on the left are yet to get behind some of these radical reforms. Tom Perez, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman, regularly pivots to a broader answer about health care policy when asked whether he supports a single-payer plan. Nancy Pelosi, the House Majority Leader, was more direct earlier this year when she was asked whether Democrats should run on a single-payer platform in 2018, and said: “No. I say to people, ‘You want to do that, do it in your states.'”

All that is before we even consider the process required for such a fundamental overhaul. That’s why Vox wrote:

“Doing anything as big as Medicare-for-all would be difficult. Doing it while cancelling a large portion of the country’s current health insurance plans, even with a transition period, would be an undertaking with no precedent in the history of American social policy. It would require the categorical commitment of the next Democratic administration to get it done.”

Notwithstanding those legislative and political challenges, the left will be buoyed going into 2020 by polling that shows strong support for major policy overhauls. According to Reuters, 70 per cent of Americans support Medicare for all, including 85 per cent of Democrats and a staggering 52 per cent of Republicans.

Despite that gloomy picture, it is worth remembering historical examples of radical agendas being implemented in the face of political objection. Although there has been much commentary on the increasingly progressive economic policies favoured by the likes of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the viability of their ideas in today’s political environment, it should be noted that Democrats have, in the past, been able to advance an interventionist agenda in the face of staunch right-wing opposition.

From Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which laid the basis for modern day social security, to Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ which, among many other things, created Medicare, an advancement of left-wing social and economic policies is not a new phenomenon in US political life.

A wide-open race that could get wider

Polling continues to show that there is no clear Democratic frontrunner for 2020. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll  found that 56 per cent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents, when asked whom they would support for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, didn’t offer up any name at all. The starting gun has barely been fired and there are months for more hopefuls to throw their hats into the ring.

With an early flurry of announcements and the creation of exploratory committees, more ‘establishment’ candidates like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg (whose candidacies are expected but not guaranteed) might keep their powder dry and wait to see the direction that the race takes before entering.

With Trump entering a new period of vulnerability and exposure on three major fronts – the shutdown, Mueller, and his approval ratings – the list of Democrats and left-leaning independents that think they can run against him and win is long and growing by the day. At the same time, the rising Democratic stars are pushing the party’s presidential hopefuls further and further to the left. The narrative that underpins 2020 Democratic candidates will therefore become increasingly progressive.

Politics is the art of the possible, not the art of the promise. Democratic hopefuls would do well to remember that what they promise in Iowa and New Hampshire is not necessarily compatible with what they can deliver in the White House. The President’s current self-inflicted problems are the perfect proof of that.

Six cautionary lessons from Macron’s France

Maybe this new-party-with-a-charismatic-leader thing isn’t as easy as people imagined.

1. Maybe this new-party-with-a-charismatic-leader thing isn’t as easy as people imagined.

Macron’s initial victory was stunning; he went from a standing start, to setting up a new party then sweeping to power in a matter of months. Inevitably, it set minds racing – what if someone could do the same here? What if…what if I could do the same here? The marching bands, the banners, the magazine front covers. Just imagine. This Macron syndrome was misguided at the best of times – too many people disregarded the unique circumstances, or the entirely different electoral system, and went ahead and launched gimmicky but doomed new parties in the UK. The current state of Macron’s government suggests that not only is his success quite hard for others to replicate, it is quite hard for him to sustain, too.

2. The centre can be quite an empty place

There’s a fallacy about centrism which runs as follows: if there is a chunk of people on the right, and a chunk on the left, then imagine what vast numbers inhabit the middle. Just strike a balance and you will secure an unchallengeable majority! Except, of course, that view is founded on defining the centre as an average position between two poles – there is no guarantee that many people, or even anyone at all, occupies that actual mid-point themselves. Macron managed to build a coalition of voters, but the practicalities of government have revealed what divides, not unites, them.

3. Day-to-day concerns are at least as emotive as high-flown goals

Macron’s election pitch was a call to reach sunlit uplands, to open up the economy and revolutionise France through democratic consent. It worked, not least because it cast an implicit comparison with the hidebound and clunky older parties. But the gilets jaunes protests which have caused so much chaos lately represent that rhetoric crashing down to earth – yes, they’ve become caught up in many other issues and causes, some of them alarming and extremist, but they began in protest against a proposed fuel tax. A politician should have wide horizons and high goals, but they do need to bring people with them – particularly those for whom the theoretical ambitions equate to real-life pain.

4. A new man cannot necessarily banish old problems

It’s notable that while everything about France’s president seemed new in 2017, since then many of his experiences in government feel rather familiar. The battles over economic reform, for example, track those fought – and often lost – by predecessors including Sarkozy and Hollande. The structural issues faced by the French state, economy and society still dictate the form of its politics more than vice versa.

5. Today’s revolutionary can be tomorrow’s arrogant establishment

It didn’t take long for the new broom to become the unpopular government. To an extent, that’s a function of the populism Macron used to gain power – it is easier to criticise than to wield power. And to an extent it’s an effect of the sheer egotism required to found your own party and give it your own initials (En Marche/Emmanuel Macron). Moving into a palace, of any sort, doesn’t help but comes with the gig. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to retain the appeal of the radical outsider while setting taxes, or limiting budgets, or making winners and losers in other ways. Imitators, would-be successors, and incumbents fearful of challengers are all watching closely.

6. International leaders look less shiny at home

We have a depressive habit in this country of looking at our leaders on the world stage, with our intimate knowledge of their flaws and weaknesses, and then taking their interlocutors at far more generous face value. Think of all the lavish articles in the British press about the resolve, strength and certainty of Macron, or indeed Merkel, in recent years – normally contrasting the British government we know to be troubled and weakened with the firm and steadfast occupant of the Elysee. And yet, we now know, the French President also has feet of clay. Perhaps we should be a little more sceptical of lionising international leaders from a distance.

Lord Ashcroft: Trump, his opponents, and the voters – halfway through his (first?) term

As a woman in Iowa told us: “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that I’m going to have a job from day to day.”

Yesterday was the second anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President. Other things being equal, the next such ceremony will take place on 20 January 2021. In other words, we are now into the second half of Trump’s term – or should that be his current term? Since the 2016 election campaign, my Ashcroft in America project has helped explain how Trump came to be elected, the hopes and fears of his supporters and opponents, and what they make of the unfolding story of his presidency and its seemingly endless controversies.

My new book, Half-Time! American Public Opinion Midway Through Trump’s (First?) Term – and the Race to 2020 brings together two years of research with new polling conducted since last November’s midterms to explore how different parts of the electorate see the President and his agenda, and how they are lining up for next year’s showdown. Here are five of the big points.

Trump’s supporters are (mostly) still with him

Those who voted for Trump give him high marks on most issues, and overwhelmingly say that they approve of his overall performance. They largely give him the credit for America’s recent economic success, citing his tax cuts and rolling back of regulations. They also strongly approve of his appointment of two conservative judges to the Supreme Court – a particularly important point for Republican voters who had their doubts about Trump at the election. His tough line on immigration, which they closely associate with national security, has also gone down well with the base, as has his willingness to take on international partners over trade deals and defence spending, and his continued determination to say exactly what he thinks.

But this is not uniform across the board – those who chose Trump as the lesser of two evils, or switched to him having previously backed Barack Obama, give him lower (though still positive) scores compared to those who were enthusiasts from the outset. They are more open than Trump voters in general to be willing to consider an alternative at the next election.

Many separate his personal behaviour from what he does as President

This is not to say that Trump’s voters like everything about him. Many are doubtful about his personal ethics, and want him to be a bit more presidential, cut out the name-calling and generally calm down, especially on Twitter. But even his more reluctant voters generally like what he is doing as President, even though fewer approve of his character. Whatever their qualms on this score, they decided at the election that other things mattered more, and this still holds true. Many of the criticisms of Trump have focused on his conduct, but his voters are more focused on delivery. As a woman in Iowa told us shortly before the midterm elections: “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that we’re going to be successful and I’m going to have a job from day to day.”

We can expect to hear a lot more about immigration and healthcare

During the 2016 campaign we asked Americans about their greatest fears. Republicans’ biggest worry was the immigration system letting in individuals who would threaten their community. For Democrats, and for voters overall, it was being unable to pay for treatment if they or their family were to have a serious illness. Two years later, these two issues topped the list when we asked about the most important issues in the midterm elections.

As of today, the federal government remains shut down because of the continuing standoff between Trump and the Congressional Democrats over funding for a Mexican border wall. Trump continues to invoke the migrant caravan making its way north towards the frontier. The most committed Republicans have the most negative views about the effects of immigration, and Democrats regard the now-abandoned policy of separating the children of illegal immigrants (which made even some Trump supporters uneasy) as among the most deplorable aspects of the Trump presidency.

Meanwhile, the controversy over healthcare has not gone away since the administration’s failure to push reform through Congress, and Democrats are not alone in worrying about it: Republicans too raise it as a concern and most want to keep the requirement for insurers to cover pre-existing conditions. The two issues look set to play a big part in the next two years and the 2020 campaign itself.

The investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign – potentially the most explosive of all, and which could in theory explode his presidency – is not one that actually moves many votes: whether you think Trump is bang to rights or the probe is a politically motivated witch hunt essentially depends on whether you voted for him in the first place.

The electorate is shifting – especially on the left

During the run-up to the 2016 election, we asked 30,000 Americans about their background, ethnicity, education, work, religion, level of political interest and sources of news – among other things – as well as their attitudes to social and cultural issues. We analysed the results to identify ten distinct segments within the electorate, which fell into four clusters: the Democrat Core, Centrist Voters, Republican Partisans, and a more disengaged but dissatisfied group we called the Trump Targets.

In a similar study two years on, we find some small declines in the centrist and disengaged groups and a minor uptick in the Republican-supporting segments. But the biggest change has been on the Left.

As before, a third of the population falls into one of the three segments of the Democrat Core – but while two of these groups (the Mainstream Liberals and more working class and socially conservative Blue-Collar Democrats) have shrunk, the most left-leaning segment has doubled in size. This shift is a telling part of the movement’s response to the Trump presidency. We have heard focus group participants explain how they once considered themselves moderates, but have felt themselves driven leftwards in reaction to his words and deeds.

We can also see changes in their broader political outlook. In the most liberal groups, we can see dramatic falls over the last two years in the numbers thinking life in America is better than it was 30 years ago, that life for today’s American children will be better than it was for their parents, and that it is possible to succeed in America whatever your background.

His opponents’ reaction to him could work to Trump’s advantage

Not surprisingly, asked what kind of candidate they would like to see take on Trump in 2020, Cosmopolitan Activists prefer the idea of a progressive liberal to a moderate centrist by a huge majority – bigger than that among Democrats more generally, let alone uncommitted voters in the middle. People most likely to be in play on the other side – Obama-Trump voters, lesser-of-two evils Trump voters who couldn’t stand the idea of President Hillary Clinton, and moderate Republicans open to an alternative to the incumbent – seem unlikely to flock to such an individual.

But as well as being the furthest to the left on the political spectrum, the young, educated and affluent Cosmopolitan Activists are also by far the most likely of all the segments of the electorate to donate to campaigns, work for candidates, attend political events and, crucially, vote in the Democratic primaries. Will their horror at Trump and all his works drive them to choose the candidate most likely to hand a second term to their nemesis?

Half-Time! American Public Opinion Midway Through Trump’s (First?) Term – and the Race to 2020 is published this week by Biteback.

Ben Roback: Three weeks into a record shutdown and no sign of a compromise

The President’s strategy of making a resumption of normal government depend on funding for his wall doesn’t appear to be working.

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

As British politics sinks further into a self-enforced abyss of disagreement with no end in sight, it is worth remembering that we are not alone in navigating choppy waters.

The US Government is in its third week of a partial shutdown that it brought entirely on itself.

The shutdown is now entering day 27, and crucially there is little indication of a cooling of tensions that could provide a light at the end of the tunnel. Its implications are octopus-like, reaching simultaneously into complex areas of public policy and people’s everyday lives.

Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are either being furloughed or working without pay, bringing pain to households in commuter towns in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. Around the country, a lack of airport security personnel means screening takes hours when it should take minutes (scarily, in three weeks, Atlanta airport is expecting over 100,00 passengers coming into town for the Super Bowl).

The longest government shutdown in history shows no sign of ending any time soon. Americans employed by the government and tourists hoping to visit national parks are losing out at the sharp end of the shutdown – but does its continuation in fact suit both parties?

Playing the blame game

Both the White House and Congressional Democrats have been keen to continually lament the shutdown, scathing about its impact on Main Street American jobs and the macroeconomic impact. The longer the shutdown goes on, the more both sides are proven correct – yesterday the New York Times wrote:

“The partial government shutdown is inflicting far greater damage on the United States economy than previously estimated, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday, as President Trump’s economists doubled projections of how much economic growth is being lost each week the standoff with Democrats continues.”

For the President, this brings a significant risk. Donald Trump has prided his tenure so far on the economic impacts he has delivered – a bullish stock market and wholesale tax reform for companies and individuals. Tumbling economic forecasts suddenly undermine that narrative, which will be one of the central features of his 2020 re-election campaign.

It represents a likely battle taking place between the economic and immigration advisers in the President’s inner circle. After all, the shutdown is only entering its 26th day because of the White House’s insistence that fiscal provisions to keep the Government open contain over $5 billion in government funding to build a wall on the US/Mexico border.

With absolutely no surprise whatsoever, Democrats are refusing to acquiesce – immigration became one of their top priorities as an increasingly diverse electorate become ever more important to their electoral coalition. In previous congressional cycles, the focus had been on securing a long-term solution for the so-called “dreamers”, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy. Notable attempts failed under President Obama in 2014. Since Trump made chants of “BUILD! THE! WALL!” a central feature of his election campaigns, that focus has sharply shifted to the issue of the wall.

So, who is to blame? The President has sought to shift blame towards the Democrats, whom he continues to describe as “obstructionist”. Following a televised address to the nation last week, three polls showed that strategy is failing to land:

  • A Quinnipiac University poll (here) found that 56 per cent of voters held Trump and congressional Republicans responsible for the shutdown whereas only 36 per cent said they thought congressional Democrats were responsible.
  • A CNN/SSRS poll (here) found that 55 per cent of Americans blamed the President for the shutdown, compared to 32 per cent who blamed the Democrats. Interestingly, the poll also found that a majority (56 per cent) opposed the deal whilst only 39 per cent supported it.
  • A CBS News/YouGov poll (here) found that 47 per cent of Americans blamed Mr Trump “most” for the shutdown, compared to 30 per cent who cited Democrats. However, 20 per cent allocated blame “equally” on both parties, suggesting neither is gaining as a result of the current malaise. Worryingly for the GOP, these criticisms are held acutely amongst suburban voters – whose votes will be crucial for Republicans in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia in 2020.

Immigration shaping up to be the biggest wedge issue in 2020

As we enter the lame duck period, so much of what happens in US politics will be viewed through the lens of the 2020 general election. The proof? Since Christmas, three Democrats have launched their early campaigns for the presidency and a fourth appears imminent. On the left, the pressure from the grass roots will be to hold an aggressive line in staunch opposition to the wall. There will be absolutely no political reward whatsoever for riding to the rescue of a President that has buried himself in a bunker. And so:

  • Elizabeth Warren, who was the first to launch her campaign for 2020, has tweeted: “24 days into the #TrumpShutdown and over 800,000 federal employees have already missed 1 paycheck. How many more before Republicans stop crushing working families and re-open the government? Time to end this.”
  • Tulsi Gabbard has tweeted: “Today an estimated 800,000 federal employees will miss their first paychecks of the year. Families are suffering. Our country is less safe. The impact of this shutdown is real.”
  • Kirsten Gilibrand has tweeted: “The emergency at our border is the cruel treatment of children who are still detained. It’s the asylum seekers being shut out. It’s @realDonaldTrump’s dehumanizing attacks on immigrants in need. We need to end the shutdown and get back to solving real problems families face.”

For the President, the strategy of keeping the government shut down unless Democrats vote to fund his border wall doesn’t seem to be working. According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, since the shutdown began the president’s aggregate approval rating has fallen from 42.2 per cent to 40.8 per cent.

No end in sight

The 2018 midterm elections saw the Republicans and Democrats trade on the currency of anger and fear in the American public. Those two sentiments have continued into the 116th Congress and there is no sign it will end any time soon. For that reason, it is hard to forecast a sudden change in sentiment from the White House or Congressional Democrats, one of which would be needed to bring about an end to the shutdown.

Lord Ashcroft: America – the mid-terms and beyond

The 2020 race, then, looks wide open and depends on two things outside the President’s direct control.

For many months before America’s midterm elections, the conventional wisdom was that newly enthused Democrats, Republicans embarrassed by the antics of Donald Trump, and non-voters spurred into action by indignation at the state of their country’s leadership, would join forces to sweep the GOP from Capitol Hill.

As we know, this did not quite come to pass. While the Democrats gained 40 districts to take control of the House of Representatives, the Republicans strengthened their hold on the Senate, making a net gain of two seats in the upper chamber. Hardly the rout that Democrats had predicted – in fact, more like the tide flowing in both directions at once. What’s going on?

The straightforward answer is that the state-wide Senate elections included Trump-friendly small-town and rural voters, with the GOP gains being made in states it had carried in 2016. The competitive House races, meanwhile, were heavily concentrated in prosperous suburbs of big cities, where people take a more sceptical view of the President. My research during the campaign, which included focus groups in some of the key districts across the country, from New Hampshire to California, helped to illuminate some of the deeper dynamics of the race, and offered some signposts for what to look out for next.

Much about current American politics is explained by that fact that while criticisms of Trump focus largely on his personal behaviour, his supporters – including those who were initially reluctant – continue to separate this from his actions in office. Indeed, only one in three of those who voted for him mainly to stop Hillary Clinton say they approve of his character and personal conduct, but nearly nine in ten of them say they approve of what he is doing as President. This was confirmed throughout our midterm focus group research. As one woman in Iowa told us, “It’s like the CEO of the company I work for. I don’t care if you’re the nicest guy in the world. I care that we’re going to be successful and I’m going to have a job from day to day.” While critics are transfixed by his style, his electoral coalition is more interested in delivery.

As for what they think is being delivered, our Iowan’s example holds true. Again and again our groups mentioned the performance of the economy, which many attribute to a pro-growth, anti-regulation presidential agenda. This was a crucial point for many of those who had voted for him only reluctantly two years ago. “I thought he was a joke,” a man in California told us. “But being a blue-collar worker, being a construction worker, for commercial drivers the work has tripled for me since he’s been in office. So for me, OK maybe Trump is immature and he’s definitely not a politician, he’s a businessman. Maybe that’s what we needed.”

My pre-midterm survey found that when asked about various aspects of his performance, both his stronger and more hesitant supporters, as well as independents and voters as a whole, award Trump the highest marks on the economy and jobs. His combative approach to ‘bringing back jobs’ to America, renegotiating NAFTA and confronting China over international trade, is an important part of his perceived record in this area – as well as being, in the eyes of his coalition, an example of what can be achieved with a more robust attitude to diplomacy than they believed America has adopted for some time. The President’s face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-Un and the freeing of American prisoners from North Korea are regularly mentioned as further fruits of a tough and unapologetic stance.

Two other issues have had a particularly galvanising effect on the Trump coalition. The first is his nominations to the Supreme Court, a matter whose importance to conservatives cannot be overstated. We found during the presidential election that this was a decisive factor for Republican-leaning voters otherwise sceptical of Trump, and he has fully delivered on their expectation that he would appoint conservative justices. Brett Kavanaugh’s explosive confirmation hearings in the weeks leading up to the midterms helped propel GOP turnout by reminding Republicans of the battle they were in.

The second was border control, perfectly highlighted during the campaign by the migrant caravan wending its way to the American frontier from Honduras. Though Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration has appalled its opponents and made some otherwise supportive voters uneasy, for his own people it falls into the category of ‘promises delivered’, as it has since the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ in the very earliest weeks of his administration.

All of these things help explain why the Trump coalition has held together as well as it has in the face of the furious controversy surrounding every day of his presidency, and why the midterms did not produce the Republican wipe-out many had predicted. But there has been some erosion, as the House results showed, and we must remember that two years ago he lost the popular vote and won by only a tiny margin in some of the states that gave him the edge in the electoral college. The 2020 race, then, looks wide open and depends on two things outside the President’s direct control.

One of these is the economy. To the extent that his support rests on growth and jobs, greater confidence and higher living standards, it could be vulnerable should these things fade. The point was made succinctly by John Kasich when I interviewed him in the Ohio Governor’s Mansion shortly before the November election: “I know that one guy that I grew up with said the reason he likes Trump is because his 401k [retirement savings plan] is improved. Now I don’t know what happens after the stock market tumbles. Does that mean he doesn’t like him anymore?”

The other variable beyond his power to determine is how the Democrats decide to play things. They managed to turn out their supporters, engage previous non-voters (2018 turnout was higher than for any midterm election for more than a century) and persuade enough former Republicans to switch to capture key Congressional districts, but it is as easy to take the wrong lessons from victory as from defeat.

The most misguided conclusion for them to draw would be that they are already on course for victory. The legendary Democratic campaigner Bob Shrum told me when I interviewed him in October that this danger was remote: “I don’t think after 2016 that there is the slightest chance that Democrats will ever again assume a presidential election is in the bag, at least those who were alive in 2016.” As one who had declared on TV “that no way no how, in no universe, not this one or an alternative one, could Donald Trump be President the United States, I don’t think people are ever going to get that complacent again.”

But as I found in my pre-midterm survey, few Democrats believe the party needs to rethink its ideas, and most think the key to victory is enthusing non-voters and their own base rather than reaching out to those who voted for Trump, however reluctantly. And as we found speaking to Democrats in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, many are torn between the need to reassure moderate independent voters and their own yearning for a more liberal, progressive candidate and platform which could frighten away some of those who helped put them in charge of the House. In 2020, the identity of Trump’s opponent will matter as much as his record in office. The next chapter in America’s political story looks set to be as enthralling as the last.

Lord Ashcroft’s research, commentary and interviews can be found at LordAshcroftPolls.com.