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The Reporters: US mid-terms

All entries by this reporter: Justin Webb

Bush: No room to hide

Only last week, Vice-President Dick Cheney said he and Mr Bush were not up for election - it would be full speed ahead in Iraq, irrespective of the result of the mid-term polls.

That full-speed-ahead policy has hit a wall.

bush203bafp.jpgPresident Bush, faced with the prospect of a bitter fight with the newly powerful Democrats - a fight he would probably lose - has opted for appeasement. He has thrown raw meat to the Democrats, in the shape of his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.

He was asked whether this amounted to a new direction. He couldn't quite bring himself to say yes, but he did say that the man he had asked to replace Mr Rumsfeld, former CIA director Robert Gates, would provide new leadership and a fresh perspective.

Mr Bush knows and has accepted that his Iraq policy has been repudiated. There is no room for pretence and no room to hide.

If the Democrats can come up with a better plan, he is ready - desperate even - to hear about it.

Platform for Democrats

The bleak fact for the White House is that the Democrats' taking control of the House of Representatives gives them the chairmanship of every committee - the power to hold hearings, the power to instigate legislation - a platform in Washington.

What will they do with that platform - will they try, for instance, to impeach the president? Or will they stick to Nancy Pelosi's stated goal of leadership? Probably the latter.

Many of the new intake are moderate Democrats, conservatives even, who are not looking for an ideological fight.

For fuller analysis from Justin, check back later.

To be continued...

The voters of South Dakota appear to have rejected a state law banning almost all abortions, even in case of rape or incest.

I wonder whether this might turn out to be a big blow to abortion-rights campaigners. My logic is this: If the South Dakota law had passed, it would have set up an uncomfortable situation for the president, who had quietly but firmly opposed the ban.

Had it passed, he would have been put in a position of opposing a law he regarded as too draconian, though it is quite obviously morally coherent - after all it is not the fault of the foetus if it was conceived through rape or incest.

In other words it would have put most of the nation - including most conservatives and their president - in the same camp, against the South Dakota law.

As it is, the old battles can continue.

Time to Use the Big Guy

Are the Republicans making the same mistake the Democrats did in 2000?

excitement_ap203b.jpgI know plenty of Republican candidates do not want to be seen with the president, and the Democrats have been having fun using the Bush visage in their adverts - but isn't it time to tackle this in a Rovian way and turn the apparent weak card into the Ace?

I remember one trip with President Bush during the 2002 midterms. We seemed to dot around from event to event in a dizzy pace for days, and - apart from lack of sleep and too much fried food - what I recall most strongly was the sheer excitement these events generated.

And the fact (and it is a fact) that the man himself looked a million times better and more comfortable in his own skin in this environment than in he does in DC.

So if I were advising the Republican party - Hell, no, I am advising them - I would say get your man out there and never mind the downside with the moderates and swingers, most of whom you have lost anyway. Concentrate on the magical powers he has over the base. If you need them this time, and you do, you need to let them know.

The Gore queasiness about Clinton cost him the 2000 election, and - let's face it - for similar reasons: The party was uneasy about its main asset and refused to overcome that uneasiness even though its core supporters would have loved it. History is repeating itself.

Republicans on the run

You join me in the King of Prussia Mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I have just spent an hour outside Lilly Pulitzer looking for Republicans.

santorum_ap_story203.jpgMy producer is rather impressed, I think, that I am able to find shops that appeal to particular political sub-sections of the nation, but my wife has advised me well: these girls are right-leaning. The only problem is they are right-running as well - dashing past me, looking for all the world as if a child molester has just invaded their gently perfumed space.

Nobody wants to talk about politics here. I try my best Hugh Grant English accent, but to no avail. Eventually we give up on Lilly and go for prosperous-looking chaps instead and the Lord smiles on us: We come up with a firm supporter of Senator Rick Santorum ("It'd be a sin if he lost," he tells me) and a couple who think the senator is too extreme.

Thus we will illustrate the demise (temporary perhaps) of social conservatism as a political force in Pennsylvania politics. Talking politics with ordinary folk in this country is tough work - a reminder that those of us who are interested (and particularly those who are involved) are a small and atypical group.

A vote for Rick

A visit to Philadelphia to witness the bare-knuckle fight to keep one of the best known social conservatives in the Senate. Rick Santorum is in trouble and has the slightly haunted look of a man who doesn’t quite know where it all went wrong.

santorum_203ap.jpgWe hear him on conservative talk radio in the car with the host praising him for his lusty singing from the conservative hymn-sheet but the man himself, on a crackly phone line, is lukewarm in response. The reason perhaps: we catch up with him in Philadelphia (no conservative bastion, let's face it) where a new-look Rick is talking about his ability to keep jobs and work across party lines. Abortion: unmentioned. Gays: unmentioned. Iraq: unmentioned.

Still he has my vote on one count - after the event he stood and took my questions about whether the social agenda was done for, with good humour and good grace. A lesser man, faced with a BBC reporter with an off-message agenda, would have walked off. He answered four questions politely and fully. Good for him.

Giving up?

I have not seen this list - full disclosure here on the lack of first-hand reporting - but a couple of Republican politicos I have talked to have mentioned an internal document which suggests that the Republican party has now given up on 12 of the in-play midterm congressional seats. (Given that you have enough interest to read this blog you probably already know that 15 losses would result in a Democratic party victory next month.)

Apparently the name of the candidate in each "lost" seat has a G next to it - as in Gone. Of course it isn't that they want to bin these fine men and women - they just cannot afford the advertising necessary to keep them in play. In other words, this is an economic rather than a political decision.

How much fairer is the British system where, with Stalinist attention to detail, district (constituency) spending is limited to virtually nothing, local TV advertising is banned (yes banned!) and politics is considered a better determinant of the outcome than economics. Not freer - fairer!

America's healing power

There is something healing about America. A trip to the chilly city of Minneapolis reminds me of this.

ellison_203ap.jpgI am here to interview the man who will almost certainly be the country's first Muslim congressman, but before seeing him I had a chance to meet some of the surprisingly diverse set of people he will represent.

Many Minneapolitans don’t come from these parts. Some are Muslims fleeing war in east Africa, doubly out of place in a part of the world where freezing snow attacks you from a near horizontal angle (yes, in mid-October) and the prevailing religion is Lutheran Christianity.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am sure plenty of east African inhabitants of Minneapolis are miserable, noticing that a culture based on moose fancying and wood carving is not one over which they feel any sense of ownership.

But plonk them down in Europe and the chances are they stay miserable, and stay alienated, and their kids stay that way as well. Plonk them in Minneapolis and transformation is possible.

Omar from Somalia escaped from war and lives here now. He speaks broken English but fluent Arabic; he gets his news from al-Jazeera.

And yet Omar says he is thankful for the opportunities given to him. His daughter went to college in Minneapolis and is now a translator. She has, he says in a matter-of-fact-way, not had time to get married yet.

Bingo - Americanisation has begun. If she does get married and have kids they will eat Somali food but think American thoughts.

And America will gain another generation of hopeful people, for whom life is an upward curve.

One thing that might make them hopeful is the fact that the next Democratic congressman here is likely to be of their faith: the first Muslim ever to serve in the House of Representatives.

Some people say Keith Ellison, an African-American who converted to Islam in his teens, is a phoney, a man who espouses kind, gentle, inclusive politics while harbouring the prejudices of his more extreme co-religionists, particularly against Jews.

But it occurs to me that the Americanisation of values is at work here too: Mr Ellison could not get elected if he said Israel should be destroyed or homosexuals should be stoned.

His supporters – some of whom may well believe those things – will not get them from their man.

So Muslims are on the way to getting representation and a voice in Congress. But to get those things they are having to bow to the highest of American values: tolerance and individual freedom.

Unnatural justice

Sorry to go back to sex but my attention is caught by the website of the Republican congressman Mark Kirk. Under the heading Children Should be Safe In Congress (any takers for the idea that they shouldn't?) Mark writes: "I am disgusted with the actions of Rep. Foley who should be condemned and then prosecuted."


I should declare an interest here: Back in the days when Mark and I looked like page boys and sex did not involve electronic devices (well, not often) we were classmates at the world's finest institution of learning, the London School of Economics. But I could have sworn he went to law school after his sojourn in London and assuming that he concentrated just a little did he not learn that to condemn and then to prosecute is an unusual approach to natural justice.

Of course he did. But on this sex scandal issue such considerations are thrown out of the window as sanctimonious politicos on either side of the divide (the Democrats' adverts are even worse) vie with each other to hate Mark Foley more. I write this in the knowledge that Mark Kirk is a decent amiable reasonable American (in fact I harbour a genuine and not entirely impartial desire that he one day makes it to the White House and I hope he will still have me to tea) but this story has unhinged even the sanest.

Just a thought: Congressional pages must be at least 16 - which is also the age of consent in DC. And a further thought: just what is "internet sex"? An oxymoron if ever there was one.

Return of the Newt

Newt Gingrich is a busy man - I wonder why? The guy who led the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and then lost the plot bigtime, is back. I know this because I went to see him the other day and witnessed a politician in demand.

newt203.jpg"Hi I'm Newt!" is his cheery greeting. But having put the visitor at ease Newt is unavailable for smalltalk - as we prepare to record his thoughts his mind was on his schedule and his young assistants are darting in and out of the board room with new and ever more complicated travel arrangements for the next month. He answers my questions but his mind is in Texas or Missouri or - most likely - the studios of Fox News.

He's charming enough and cogent enough but there's something dessicated about his reasoning: He calls for the Republicans to go back to offering what he calls "big ideas" to solve the America's problems, as if those ideas could be taken from the (think tank) shelf and simply rolled out.

He also compares George Bush to Lady Thatcher (prompting me to think though not say, "I knew Lady Thatcher, Lady Thatcher was a friend of mine, and Senator you're no...")

Newt's view by the way is that a period in the wilderness sorting out some big ideas and licking wounds and doing what political parties do in these circumstances is NOT what true republicans should be looking for after 7th November.

That trendy view on the right of the party - let the Democrats faff around as bosses in congress for a couple of years while we have a punch-up and emerge the stronger for it - is not Newt's. He's too much of a real politician, a seeker after power with a purpose, to be seduced by his fellow rightists. He wants the Republicans to win and the Democrats to lose. From this big idea all others must flow...

Prophetic words

This sex stuff is a trap for the Democrats: the case against the Republicans looks so bad, so utterly unanswerable, that the pressure is on the Democrats to win big in the elections on 7th November.

foley_ap203.jpgIf they fail to deliver they surely go up in flames - this view confirmed to me a few minutes ago in a conversation with a former staffer in the Clinton White House who added these prophetic words: "Never underestimate our ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

The fact is that the Democrats are not exactly cruising ahead through the force of their arguments or the huge attractiveness of their policies. They are at the moment the beneficiaries of a series of mess ups on the other side - as Jay Leno put it: "This is the worst thing to happen to the Republicans since last Thursday..."

Before the last presidential election I remember someone saying that by the time Karl Rove had done his work no-one would know whose side John Kerry fought on in the Vietnam war; at the time it seemed implausible but...

Well watch out for the same again - I predict that the Democrats will get the blame for this in the end and not quite know how to avoid it.

The barmy army

Over lunch in Bullfeathers - a Capitol Hill favourite of impecunious interns and parsimonious correspondents - a fine chap who covers Congress for one of America's greatest newspapers told me the other day what these elections mean to him: misery.

dcskyline203.jpgYou see the kind of folks who care - really care - about the mid-terms this far out from the vote are barmy partisans who spend the whole day surfing the net looking for bias. They dissect my friend's copy and challenge every supposed deviation from total impartiality (of which they know nothing and everything) with lengthy rejoinders and demands for clarification.

All of it proof - my newspaper friend acknowledges gloomily - that this November 7th is a REALLY BIG DEAL. Sure a few conservative Republicans are licking their lips and looking forward to the exquisite pain of defeat, the better to prepare for the libertarian future, but most see a Democratic victory as just that, a Democratic victory. And they don't like those words.

From the Left the feelings are even more intense: this is after all the last chance they have to poke the eye of the president, metaphorically speaking, and a failure now would surely call into question their capabilities given all that has gone awry for this White House and for the Republicans generally.

Watch this space: it's going to get mighty rough, and we (the mainstream media as we are affectionately known) are in the firing line.

About Justin Webb

I'm BBC radio’s chief Washington correspondent, and also a television anchor (currently to be seen in the US on the evening BBC World News on PBS stations).

Before arriving in Washington I spent three years as the BBC’s Europe correspondent, based in Brussels, Belgium. Before that, I had stints as a roving foreign correspondent - during which I reported from the first Gulf War, the war in Bosnia, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the first democratic elections in South Africa, and even a coup in the Maldive Islands.

I've also been employed by the BBC as an ambassador for the organisation, holding public meetings and chairing question and answer sessions.

Beyond the BBC, I'm a regular commentator on US/European affairs on Fox News, CNN, and the Diane Rehm show on NPR.

Finally, I was educated at Friends’ School Sidcot and the London School of Economics (graduating in 1983 with an honours degree in economics).

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