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Archives for October 2010

Tea Party not so mad

Mark Mardell | 23:49 UK time, Saturday, 30 October 2010


Tea Party rally in Colombus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio

"He's just trying to pretend there's as much enthusiasm for the other side. But it's not true."

That was the sentiment of the lady who'd been hooting and hollering next to me as if she were at a revivalist meeting - booing the mention of labour unions, cheering the constitution.

While people gathered in Washington DC for comedian Jon Stewart's "march for sanity", I was with some of the people he tries to mock.

The rally in Lane Road Park, just outside Columbus, Ohio, was rather smaller - about 200 people - but then there were no superstar entertainers on display.

We'd all gathered as three buses from the Tea Party Express rolled into the car park. The organisers hadn't been able to tell me if Sarah Palin would appear as originally advertised. She has apparently grown rather capricious when bestowing the favour of her presence.

But if the crowd were disappointed at the no-show, they certainly didn't show it, gathering in front of the bus and whooping "Freedom" before settling down to listen to speakers, including Diana Nagy, a Christian country singer in high-heeled boots who out-Palined Palin with a swooping, giggling delivery of political punchlines. Unlike Sarah Palin she also gave a solo performance of the national anthem, with heavy emphasis on the line "one nation under God" and less politically explicable weight on the word "stars".

This is a movement that tends to easily embrace martyrdom and the sense of being got at by an elite. Stewart won't hurt their self image.

The main speaker said: "Our name is being dragged through the mud, that we're violent racists." The all-white crowd cheer or just nod. I have never seen any overt racism at a Tea Party rally and don't today.

Most I spoke to never watch Jon Stewart and they didn't care very much about the rally. One man who'd just told me Barack Obama was a communist said: "I don't know who he is but if he says we're nuts he's a liar."

Well, maybe Stewart doesn't quite say that, but plenty do, and one Washington Post columnist recently pulled together the inanities of various Tea Party candidates.

What is interesting about this is that most of the odd things that have been said by Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell date before the current race.

The struggle of those in charge of the Tea Party, if anybody can be in charge of something so hydra-headed, is to put the focus on fiscal conservatism and the constitution and not get caught up in social issues. This can prove very difficult. One man carries a banner: "Speak for yourself Obama, we are a Christian nation, we are a Christian nation, whatever Obama says". A T-shirt has a list of 10 principles, covering the constitution, the budget and ending up: "I believe in Jesus Christ as my saviour". I am sure many Tea Party supporters would endorse all 10 sentiments, but if they try to broaden their agenda, they will narrow their base.

Over the past year I have spoken to many supporters of the Tea Party and been to lots of rallies. I have spoken to people whose characterisation of Mr Obama and his aims seems to me way off beam, a cartoon enemy conjured from some 1950s nightmare. Some believe the constitution tightly constrains the sort of economy America must have, and that only they can define what is properly American.

There is a wide-eyed enthusiasm that is easy to mock. But talk to people for more than a few minutes and fury tends to dissolve into concern, worry about the economic direction of the country, worry about the size of the government and the level of taxation. They're mad as hell, but that doesn't make them crazy.

Why politics demand stern Obama reaction

Mark Mardell | 00:11 UK time, Saturday, 30 October 2010


President Barack Obama meets his national security team at the White House

You won't catch the White House playing down a terrorist threat, especially with an election a few days away.

The BBC has been told by a senior administration official that a Saudi tip-off led to the discovery of the "sinister" devices on cargo planes bound for the United States. They were rather curious - ink cartridges smeared with white powder with and some electronics attached.

We don't yet know exactly what they were, or what sort of damage they could do.

Still, whenever President Barack Obama has tried to play down a threat or put it in context he has been attacked with breathless horror, as though a stiff upper lip was somehow giving in. So there is no mileage in doing anything but playing it up to the maximum.

Mr Obama was the first to say that the devices contained "explosive materials", though off-the-record briefings in Britain suggested the one at East Midlands Airport didn't. Mr Obama didn't use the word "bomb" though. It was made clear he was told about "a credible terrorist threat" just seven minutes after the discovery of the device in Britain. A photographer was on hand to capture later, stern-faced meetings.

But on first sight at least, while this is nasty stuff it doesn't look like a fully-fledged plot against America. There have been various theories. A dry run? Well, you generally do a dry run when human agents are at risk of being discovered, not envelopes.

It doesn't mean rather stupid terrorists could not have planned a dry run, but it doesn't make any logical sense. It doesn't seem these "proto-bombs" could bring down an aircraft or were set to do so. The dry run could have been designed to cause exactly the sort of disruption and media coverage that has indeed followed.

But to me it looks like a rather bizarre attempt at a long-distance letter bomb. Even with the mid-terms round the corner, I doubt it will have much political impact, but Mr Obama was probably politically wise to make it look as though he is in personal charge of a grave situation.

Leaving others he has appointed to get on with it may be his instinct, but delegation is seen by the media here as failure.

A different campaign in West Virginia

Mark Mardell | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 29 October 2010


"In West Virginia, we're a little different."

A single shot rings out. It's a graphic, even shocking image, of a Democratic politician physically sending a bullet through the president's programme, taking political aim at Obama.

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The TV ad is meant to appeal to men like Victor Stover.

The hills of West Virginia are clad in the red and gold of autumn, wreathed in early morning mist. Victor, lightweight bow in hand, arrows at the ready, stands stock still, all in camouflage, even down to a veil covering his face. Despite his lack of motion, no deer appear. No matter, he enjoys the peace of the countryside.

A coal miner for 15 years, he works at Walmart and is a registered Republican. But he likes the Democratic Governor Joe Manchin who's running to become West Virginia's senator, in the seat left vacant when the legendary Robert Byrd died earlier this year. In a Democratic state, it shouldn't be a tight race. But it is. Perhaps because of the president.

The race is very tight and the Republican John Raese has suggested the governor would "rubber stamp" all the president's proposals.

So in his advert, Mr Manchin presses all the hot buttons for Republicans like Victor. To the sound of country guitar, he loads a rifle, saying he is against restricting gun ownership, and against "Obamacare" a scornful term usually used by the right to attack the president's healthcare reform. Then, taking aim, he shoots through a piece of paper, representing a cap and trade bill, which would introduce a carbon tax, scarcely popular in this coal mining state. It a response to the advert of his opponent.

That both candidates are burnishing their anti-Obama credentials says just how far the president has fallen in public esteem, or at least in politicians' judgment of the electorate's mood. While West Virginia didn't even vote for Mr Obama in 2008, it is not an isolated case. Many Democrats don't want the president's support, or to be linked with him in any way. In Mississippi, a congressman has even gone so far as to let it be known that he voted for John McCain in 2008.

The Republican candidate in the last presidential election has been in West Virginia, supporting Mr Raese. Senator McCain told us the race is a reflection of the terrible state of the economy and "the legacy of this president". He says electing a Republican would be a "repudiation of the president" and jokes that Manchin is "running away from Obama as fast as he can: he should become a Republican and run against Rockefeller" (the state's other Democratic senator).

I catch up with Joe Manchin at a small rally at the Stonewood Volunteer Fire Department. He tells supporters that there is a "mean spirit" abroad, fostered by 24-hour cable tv, and that "hoping our leaders fail is hoping your country fails". This is a party crowd, so he is more subtle than in the advert, saying that Senator Byrd cared about what was right for West Virginia, what ever Democratic or Republican presidents thought, and he would be the same.

I ask him why he has distanced himself from the president.

"I don't know about distancing. We're a little different in West Virginia. The bottom line is that cap and trade is absolutely horrible, not just for this state but for the country."

So is it an advantage to be seen as separate from the president?

"I don't look at it that way at all. I look at what is best for West Virginia. And if we have differences they are respectful. No matter who the president is, Democrat or Republican and you can be different, that is what is so great about our country."

Victor Stover does intend to vote for Manchin. "He has a winning track record. As governor he's done an excellent job."

Although he voted for McCain, he claims not to be be swayed by the anti-Obama rhetoric, but says he likes the governor's independence of mind, rather echoing his phrases. "That's the good thing about this country, you have freedom of choice, freedom to distance yourself from a party. After all I am a registered Republican but I will vote for who'll do the best job."

Victor's son, Russell, is out hunting in the same woods, but his weapon is a rifle and his quarry squirrels. His politics are different too. He voted for Obama, who he'd give a B, or B-plus, and sees himself as an independent. He's currently studying for a postgraduate law degree, having worked for the FBI for some years. He seems at first scornful of the candidate's stance, saying that president is doing a thankless job.

"More and more people, even Democrats, are finding fault with the president, and want the public to see them as semi-independent."

But he, too, will vote for Mr Manchin and admits the independent stance helps.

"In some sense, it does. I don't want to compare it to rats leaving a sinking ship, but some people do that."

What happens if Obama loses the House?

Mark Mardell | 08:56 UK time, Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Obama_head.jpgThe predictions are pretty clear: the Democrats will lose control of the House and perhaps the Senate.

Those of a cynical disposition may wonder how much difference it will make. President Barack Obama has had enough trouble getting big policies like healthcare and financial reform past his unruly party and a Senate determined to obstruct.

But it will be even more awkward if the Republicans are in charge, and what the French call "cohabitation" may end with the reluctant partners hardly on speaking terms.

It is hardly new in American politics to have a president of one party and the House ruled by his opponents. It has been the case for 38 of the past 60 years. While there's plenty of historical precedent, many in Washington point to Bill Clinton as the president for Mr Obama to emulate.

"The lesson from the Clinton mid-terms is that both parties will have come to the table. The stand-off is not sustainable," says Kiki McLean, one of Mr Clinton's senior aides.

"I believe this is imperative for the Democratic president and the leadership of Congress to work on moving forward. There has come a level of hyper-partisanship in this country that is really intolerable, and it is really an impediment to progress for us."

This is perhaps an important aspiration. But it may be checked by reality. As awkward as the current Congress is for the president, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The election is likely to return plenty of Republican members who are from, or at least are backed by, the Tea Party movement. They will want to halt healthcare reform, deal with the deficit and generally shake things up. They do not want government as normal.

Former Republican Congressman Tom Davis says: "The Tea Party brings an element into the Republican coalition, and it makes compromise a little harder. These folks are pretty hard-edged about their views and are in no mood to compromise with the president."

Mr Davis adds that three senior Republicans who tried a type of bipartisan co-operation in the past year were sacked by their party members for reaching across the aisle.

"I think that has had a chilling effect on some Republicans and their ability to at least come easily to work across the table with President Obama," Mr Davis says.

There's no doubt that new Republicans will try to get the Bush tax cuts continued, destroy Obama's healthcare reforms by taking the money away from them and block any moves towards a carbon tax.

But Matt Kibbe, the chief executive of Freedomworks, says Republicans must have a positive agenda.

"The number one applause line I get addressing rallies of activists is that 3 November is more important than 2 November. It is not enough to throw the bums out and elect new political leaders. We have to get serious about new legislation and fixing problems," he says.

But having a positive agenda is one thing, compromise is another. This sets the stage for a blame game, an almost inevitable competing narrative - where each side portrays the others as the wreckers standing in the way of what ordinary Americans want and need.

clinton_campaigning.jpgMr Clinton's presidency is not the only historical model, says long-time Washington insider and economist Mark Bloomfield.

"The other model is the Harry Truman model, which is to stick to your guns and Congress be damned - and run against the Congress in 2012, which is what Obama could do. He could say, 'I tried to fix the economy, I tried to give people healthcare, but the Congress refuses to deal with me. It's a do-nothing Congress,'" Mr Bloomfield says.

But he warns that a failure to reach agreement could be catastrophic.

The new members of Congress, primarily from the Republican Party, may not be willing to compromise. They will not necessary follow the leaders of the Republican Party, so predictably you will have gridlock - but you could also have chaos.

"Traditional politicians go along and increase the debt limit. These Tea Party people may not vote to increase the debt limit, which means the US government cannot raise money. So the government defaults. This is very, very serious, and this could come in the first quarter of next year," Mr Bloomfield says.

Such chaos would sharpen the blame game. For all the current emphasis on Mr Clinton as a compromiser, he ended up with the Republicans refusing to play ball and closing down the government. But if President Obama is feeling a little depressed next week as he contemplates which presidential predecessor to follow, he might reflect that both Mr Clinton and Mr Truman were re-elected.

A lesson from Ronald Reagan

Mark Mardell | 17:16 UK time, Tuesday, 26 October 2010


A snappy new documentary on Ronald Reagan underlines one of the most important skills for successful politicians. They have a thousand voices in their head every time they open their mouths.

If the Tea Party had a patron saint, it would be "St Ronnie", so it's timely that General Electric has put out this eight-minute plus documentary about the conservatives' hero.

Sure, it's hagiography, but that doesn't make it bland or worthless. Instead, it hammers home one of the key components of President Reagan's success, and underlines a lesson for all politicians. From 1954 to 1962, the former life guard, radio sports announcer and Hollywood actor became host to a Sunday evening programme, General Electric Theatre.

He also spent 10 weeks a year talking to GE workers all over the country. A quarter of a million of them every year. He later did much the same thing on the "rubber chicken circuit" for the Republican Party. Although Edmund Morris's controversial biography, Dutch, suggests as president he wasn't much of a listener, indeed glazed over when the subject wasn't himself, Reagan did listen then.

He got straight from the horses' mouths the preoccupations and prejudices of white, middle-class America, night after night, for weeks on end. Absorbing and articulating the views of these people, understanding the pulse of America, was critical to his political rise.

Although Bill Clinton is a very different politician, he is also someone who loves to talk and listen to people, although he probably parses and incorporates their views rather than adopting their thoughts as his own. It is a skill and an enthusiasm I suspect Barack Obama lacks. It is rather too late for him to take a tour on the General Electric circuit, but taking a leaf out of St Ronnie's book wouldn't have done him any harm.

Disgruntled Democrats in the Bay State

Mark Mardell | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 25 October 2010


"I am one of the disappointed early adopters. I bought into the whole promise, because we wanted it so badly."

Obama on the campaign trail in Massachusetts

The thin-faced middle-aged man dressed in bohemian black is exactly the sort of person the president will be aiming at when he goes on the Jon Stewart show mid-week, and in his weekend blitz to get out the Democratic vote.

I am talking to him in the Cafe on the Common in Walltham, Massachusetts with the director of political science at Boston's Suffolk university, Dave Paleologos. The pollster has brought me here because it is a very typical city in Massachusetts, with a good mixture of young and old, ethnic groups and classes.
It was this state where warning bells were first sounded for the president with the victory in January of Republican Scott Brown in a Senate race.

At the time, many pointed to the enthusiasm of the Tea Party as one reason for his victory. But perhaps just as important, then and now, is Democratic disgruntlement.

I am on the hunt for swing voters who went for Obama but are now going to vote Republican. But part of the fun of being a reporter is that what you find is not always what you are looking for. There are strong Republicans. There are people who think Obama is doing a good job. But most striking are liberal Democrats who are unhappy.

As people in the cafe munch on their seven-grain rolls and sip borscht, the soup of the day, the man in black continues:

"Others with a clear vision, Noam Chomsky, for example, knew better. He knew Obama was in the pocket of the financial industry. He knew that we shouldn't get our hopes up. But things were so bad for eight years that it was impossible not to hope for hope."

I ask him if he will vote in the mid-terms.

"Possibly. Probably not, it just encourages them."

A busy mum trying to keep her toddler under control tells me about the president.

"He's disappointing in my view. We had higher hopes with his slogan of change. I did vote for him but it seems it's Clinton take two. He had a huge mandate and he should have just really driven home the Democratic principles. He's really in the back pocket of Wall Street, it's more of the same, more of corporate America"

A short stroll up Main Street brings me to a grittier, run-down, part of town. In Bullets bar and grill working men who don't seem to be working are talking loudly over shots and beer. None of their drinks seem to be their first that afternoon. A man with longish grey hair and a moustache is keen to share his discontent with how the president is performing.

"Not as good as he could be doing that's for sure."

Did you vote for him?

"Yes. We should be out of Iraq and winding down Afghanistan and we should be taking care of our economy. You know this country is going down the tubes."

I ask him if he will vote in the mid-terms.

"I think Scott Brown's good, I didn't vote for him, but I want to keep him, I am open to Republicans."

Scott Brown is not on the ballot paper this time round, but is scarcely good news for the Democrats. Another man chips in about the president.

"I think he's a failure. We really expected something from this man, he's got a full Democratic House ...what has he done?"

I ask if he voted for Obama.

"I voted Democratic, I always have, but you know what I would like to see a strong independent party because both of these parties suck."

Dave Paleologos says this is what the Democrats are up against: "You need a reason to get out and vote, and you've got a lot of dogs across the country wounded by the economy and their inability to pay their bills every day and when you try to help a wounded dog you get bit. And the Democrats are trying to motivate people who are hurting and its very difficult to do."

Massachusetts is still an overwhelmingly liberal, Democratic state. It certainly doesn't seem gripped by Tea Party fever. But from Bullets bar to the Cafe on the Common it is those who stay firmly sat on their bar stools and trendy metal chairs who may do the president's party, and its agenda, the most harm.

Pentagon tries to plug the Wikileak

Mark Mardell | 20:49 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010


The Pentagon is trying stay aloof from allegations US soldiers were ordered to turn a blind eye to torture and instead is concentrating on condemning the leak.

Here is their statement:"We deplore Wikileaks for inducing individuals to break the law, leak classified documents and then cavalierly share that secret information with the world, including our enemies.

"We know terrorist organisations have been mining the leaked Afghan documents for information to use against us and this Iraq leak is more than four times as large.

"By disclosing such sensitive information, Wikileaks continues to put at risk the lives of our troops, their coalition partners and those Iraqis and Afghans working with us.

"The only responsible course of action for Wikileaks at this point is to return the stolen material and expunge it from their websites as soon as possible."

The nearest they get to talking about the substance is to refer to "a snapshot of events, both tragic and mundane". They say the reports "do not bring a new understanding to Iraq's past".

It will be interesting to see if they can maintain this line, or whether further investigation into the allegations is inevitable.

But there have already been a series of leaks about Afghanistan. Are they right that lives have been put at risk?

Sources say that as far as they know no individual has been harmed yet, but they don't know the status of every individual associated with the documents.

They fear that locals could be put off working with the intelligence community because their identities are not secure, and I suppose at a stretch that could be seen as putting future lives at risk.

Are you angry, Delaware?

Mark Mardell | 21:55 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010


After a five-minute interview extolling the virtues of Grizzly Landscapes products, from laminate tops to vinyl railings, radio host Dan Gaffney leans forward into his microphone to announce the next segment of his programme.

Chris Coons debates with Christine O'Donnell

"This is 927 WGMD. We're going to bring in the BBC and ask about how you feel as a voter... Mark Mardell is the BBC North America editor and he's in the studio with us to monitor your phone calls today and some of them might end up on some BBC report."

I was indeed sitting in on Dan's early morning show, conservative talk radio for the Delmarva area, the Delaware-Maryland peninsula.

Delaware seems an unlikely place for fury. The countryside is like a lush and greener England. It is easy to see why early settlers christened their new hometowns with names like Lewes, Seaford and Dover.

Occasionally the gentle green fields give way to long strip malls that are a source of some of the state's prosperity. Signs proclaim these are not mere shops but "shopping outlets" where out of state folks can take advantage of Delaware's lack of sales tax. The state is a tax haven for companies too.

The seaside resorts are a far cry from raucous Ocean City to the south, down the Maryland coast. Delaware's seaside is pastel-painted and genteel.

Yet in Delaware the Republican's mainstream candidate was defeated by Tea Party-supported Christine O'Donnell, who declares at the beginning of one TV ad "I am not a witch" to counter a story she had told many years ago about "dabbling in witchcraft". She's been called "a nut job".

I was interested in finding out what fuels the apparent fury of Delaware voters. There was little doubt that they were pretty cross. Here's a sample of the callers' opening words:

"I am angry."

"I'm completely angry."

"I am an angry voter."

"I am a very angry American citizen."

My gentle suggestion that conservative talk radio and Fox news might fuel that anger is mocked by Dan: "Does Fox television," he says in the imitation of a British drawl "make the debate coarser?"

The idea is dismissed by the callers who say those on the left started the name calling because they have no arguments. One woman says she hates mudslinging before delving into the student past of the vice-president.

But why are these callers angry? The economy, obviously. Paul from Lewes says:

"I am not part of the (Tea Party) movement I am part of the silent majority. I have been a business owner for 30 years and in the last three years have had to close one of my businesses. The reason I am angry is the government itself has so much money, and they waste so much money. When times are good, you tend to overlook that, but when times get tough, when I've done what I've had to do I watch the government throw out cash like it's meaningless, it pisses me off."

Tim from Saxborough, like many on the right who are angry, goes back to first principles and the constitution.

"We have a completely corrupt system. Our country was founded on the limitations put on the government by the constitution and that has just been shredded. In the last three years it has been hyper-extended. Banks, healthcare, the auto industry - the left is our enemy and the right needs to take back the government the way it should be."

The sense that the current administration is not only wrong but illegitimate, outside the bounds of America's founding documents, is put clearly by the last caller, Larry from Lewes.

"Just put in Clinton or Bush or Obama for King George. It is the same large government tyrannizing the people. It is not about Republican or Democrat, it's about no longer having a citizen legislature but being ruled by career politicians, a ruling class, just like they had in Europe before the revolution."

Anger at the economy is evident, but also the sense the government has overstepped the mark.

What else did I find in Delaware? Listen to my report on Radio 4's Today programme.

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Who wants to be in the "stoopid party"?

Mark Mardell | 14:52 UK time, Thursday, 21 October 2010


There's been much mockery of Delaware Republican candidate Christine O'Donnell for her lack of awareness that the concept of separation of church and state is fundamental to the American constitution. Now the backlash begins. Politico carries an article noting that the remarks attracted ridicule "on the left and in the British press", and suggesting that this sort of sneering at daft remarks is a strategy by elitist Democrats. President Barack Obama is appearing on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show next week, so obviously he thinks touching the funny bone might humour exasperated liberal voters. It is easy to understand why questioning what look like silly remarks looks like a political tactic in the US. It is mostly comments from Tea Party supporters that have raised the laughs. I've spoken to a lot of supporters of the movement over the last year. Some say things that are bizarre to British ears, like calling Obama a Marxist. Some are inane and confused, my favourite being the lady who seemed unaware that the term "Tsar" to describe an unelected head of a government organisation is a a nickname bestowed by the media rather than Obama, saying: "I mean, that's a word from a socialist European country." But most Tea Party types I meet are well educated, well informed and articulate.

All the same, when Ms O'Donnell says "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains", it doesn't seem to me elitist or politically partisan to have a chuckle.

But that word again. Elitist. In an excellent article in the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum points out that the word "elite" has, in the US, become disconnected from its roots - as a description of a privileged class who inherit wealth and power - to mean people like Obama who have risen from ordinary backgrounds and become highly educated. Should the resentment by the ignorant of education and self-improvement become the wellspring of a political movement? Does anyone really want to form the Stupid Party?

In the US and UK, Big Defence is sacrosanct

Mark Mardell | 02:31 UK time, Tuesday, 19 October 2010


In the words of the White House, "the Prime Minister stated that the United Kingdom would remain a first rate military power, and remained committed to meeting its responsibilities in Nato". This came in the latest phone call between David Cameron and President Barack Obama.

The US has indeed been concerned about the planned British defence cuts and has been consulted every step of the way. The lines between Washington and London have been burning during the last week, and I would bet that some American generals knew more about what was to be proposed than their British counterparts.

The bottom line was that the US wants to make sure the UK can provide troops quickly to fight alongside the American military and sustain an operation. This is both for operational reasons and political ones, so that in any future engagement the US isn't seen as going it alone.

After that, the US wanted reassurances that Britain wouldn't give up on special forces aircraft carriers, the new joint strike aircraft, special forces, and the hottest and trendiest new area of concern, cyberwarfare.

The fact, I am told, that the cutbacks will be in areas of duplication shows how closely the US has been involved.

There was another concern. Nato countries are meant to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Few do. Up until now, the UK has been one of the few to keep up to the mark. To fall below this figure would, the Americans believe, have sent quite the wrong signals to other Europeans. On both side of the Atlantic, Big Government has its critics. But Big Defence is sacrosanct.

A tale of two cities

Mark Mardell | 13:05 UK time, Friday, 15 October 2010


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The mid-term elections will, in part, be a verdict on President Barack Obama. The economy, and how he has handled it, will be all important. But inside the Beltway, people are talking about other reasons for his fall from grace. An excellent article in the New York Times magazine portrays a president who realizes that he has focused on policy at the expense of politics, who believes he has not been canny enough in playing the opposition and has taken too perverse a delight in doing what he regards as the right thing, even if people don't like it.

Others criticise him for being insufficiently emotional, the "great communicator" who's unable to connect. I asked one of the Washington Post's leading commentators, Dana Milbank, what he thought had happened.

He led people to believe he would transform this nation - that he would be inaugurated and he would walk on water across the Potomac and there would be peace in the world and economic prosperity. Part of it is his fault. Perhaps Obama was naive in promising something he thought he could deliver but couldn't, or he was cynical in promising something he couldn't deliver. But either way he's being punished for that.

Milbank says the difference between campaigning and governing - between poetry and the prose, in former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's phrase - is part of it. "People saw this transcendent uplifting figure who is all of a sudden talking in a fairly pedestrian way." Although he will try to capture the old magic on the campaign trail, it will be "a little harder to do that now because America has seen another Obama who is pragmatic, calculating, incremental, which is very different from the soaring figure they met two years ago".

At Freedom Works they have another word to describe the president - "arrogant". The group, which tries to co-ordinate and help Tea Party organisations, is hitting the phones to support conservative candidates. Chairman Matt Kibbe says:

He seems aloof and he seems to not be able to connect with the American people. When the leader seems disconnected it is disconcerting for all voters. It seems to me a lot of the political frustration of the Tea Party is because of a commitment by Candidate Obama to be transparent and to change Washington, when President Obama hasn't listened to the American people. It strikes me they think he just doesn't care what they think.
Raymond Sharp


I leave the city of pundits, politicos and pressure groups for Anacostia. Still within the Beltway and part of the capital of the richest country in the world, the largely black area in Washington's south-east quadrant is crushingly poor, with unemployment nearly three times the national average and 43% of children living below the poverty line.

When Obama says "don't make me look bad" and says the message must go out to beauty parlours and barber's shops, he is talking about getting the vote out in places like this. African Americans and young people who had often not voted in the past turned out for him two years ago, and made all the eifference. He needs them again.

In the "My Spot" barber's shop, Raymond Sharp is vigorously brushing a young boy's hair and giving him a buzz cut. The boy squirms. As a barber he keeps his finger on the pulse and rejects the idea of Obama as too remote, too calm.

He's a man of action but he's not quick to jump into things. He really wants to find out what's going on and the pulse of the situation at hand and deal with it objectively. You know former presidents, they just rush into things too quick. He's just a man who really thinks about what is going on before he does it and I feel like a lot of people aren't really used to that.
Shervette Bell


A few miles down Martin Luther King Avenue, Shervette Bell sits rather forlornly, surrounded by shoes and cardboard boxes, as she prepares to move from the home where she has lived for 16 years. She voted for Obama but in June lost her job as a beautician. She's leaving before she can be evicted. She tells me: "It sucks to be me, at the moment." But she doesn't blame the president

He was left in a real tight bind when he came in. I knew there wasn't a magic word that could be spoken and everything would change overnight. He had to fix everything that was wrong. And every thing was wrong. No-one talks about how it was left in shambles.  And it's: "You're the president now. Do it." He's got his hands full.

Does she still have hope?

Yes, I do. Without hope we can't move forward. And we pray for him daily to be able to do all the things he said he would do.

It strikes me yet again that poorer black Americans have infinitely more patience than those who are new to economic hardship, and they don't expect change to happen overnight. But they, too, await results. There is little doubt that Mr Obama's image is not all it was when he was elected. What is fascinating to watch is how much the upcoming elections force him to become another sort of president still - either more accommodating or more political and tactical.

Seeking hope in Missouri

Mark Mardell | 12:27 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010


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Missouri: A song comes on the country music station as I drive across a rusty bridge deep in the Ozark mountains.

We won't take a dime/ if we ain't earned it/ When it comes to weight/ brother, we pull our own.

It's safe to say that sentiment would go down well in much of Missouri. It is not natural Obama country, not keen on stimulus. Indeed, it is the one targeted swing state he didn't win. But in the heady days of 2008, he came close: John McCain won the state by just 0.1%.

On the radio, Josh Thompson drawls on: "We're about John Wayne, Johnny Cash/ and John Deere way out here." The lyrics evince the prideful insecurity that is at the heart of a certain type of country music.*
In the car next to me is a poster from that 2008 election campaign, from a different sort of America, the iconic "Hope" image. There doesn't seem a lot of it left around here. In addition to the beautiful Lake of the Ozarks, the gentle wooded hills and tumbledown barns, there are ghost towns. Little petrol stations and general stores, boarded-up and abandoned.
One of them used to be owned by Kevin Keeney. I pull into the pretty little town square of Waynesville to meet him.

Kevin Keeny


A muscled, fit man, who looks much younger than his 55 years, he stands outside the post office, politely pressing customers to take one of his flyers. They read:
No to unemployment
No to government hand-outs
No to food stamps
I want to work!

Rent a man, indeed.

Seven months ago he owned his own business, a petrol station and general store with a family home attached. Things had been tight for a while, then he found he could no longer make his mortgage payments and declared bankruptcy.
He and his wife have found a little work and a place to lay their heads, looking after a rambling house in the woods, which belongs to a woman who lives in California. He feeds the hens, chops wood and keeps the place up to scratch but it's hardly enough.
When I roll out my "Hope" poster he's not impressed. He's loath to speak ill of the president but says Mr Obama must be badly advised.
"I just don't believe in spending your way to prosperity," he said. "It takes hard work, not hand-outs, to create prosperity."
It's one thing to hear that from a conservative think-tanker in a plush Washington office. It has rather more impact coming from Mr Keeney's lips.
I say goodbye and drive on past a garage advertising snacks of ribs, catfish and frogs' legs. This country fare, along with the living buffalo and ostrich I pass, are rather exotic examples of the importance of agriculture to the state. As I draw near to St Louis, the scene becomes more industrial. There's everything that makes a great American city great.

Keith Kornfeld

Like Pizza. I pull into Fortel's Pizza Den to find Keith Kornfeld hard at work feeding the lunchtime trade. He's owned the franchise for 10 years but business is down 20% and he's struggling.
He says he voted for Mr Obama because of his opposition to the the Iraq war but always had doubts about his economic policies. He'll be voting straight Republican in the mid-term elections, hoping a different Congress will put the president back on track. Mr Kornfeld did not oppose the stimulus spending in principle but thinks it has been wasted, spent on shoring up state budgets, not creating real jobs.
It's a common enough cry and easy to understand. Many projects provide very few jobs at a huge cost. I leave St Louis and cross the Mississippi River into Illinois on the Eads Bridge, a road, rail and pedestrian span dating from the 19th Century. Some $25m in stimulus money is being spent on doing it up, providing nearly 900 new jobs. But work doesn't even start until next spring. No wonder Americans don't see the evidence the stimulus is working.
Illinois is much more like Obama country - it is his home state. Yet the Democrats could well lose his old Senate seat in the upcoming election, and the state governor's race too.
Unemployment has just dipped below 10% but remains above the national average. All around are boarded-up homes and evidence of decay as I drive into Granite City. The steel works there had to lay off thousands of workers but has hired most of them back - one good sign amid the gloom.
The steelworkers' union representative in the town is Randy Virgin (he says his parents either had a sense of humour or were pretty innocent). He admits that many workers are still hurting and don't like the idea that Mr Obama stepped in to help Wall Street and the banks but not their industries. But he says Mr Obama had no choice - if the president hadn't acted, things would have turned out much worse. I show him that Obama "Hope" poster. He, at any rate, says there is still hope.
"I think there is," he said. "This was the worst downturn since the Great Recession. It was President Obama's actions that kept it from being much, much worse."
If Mr Obama's reputation ever recovers it will be when the economy does. Our next stop is Washington, to see if this most inspirational of candidates has mishandled hope in office.
*But don't let my sneering East Coast ways put you off his excellent first album, Way Out Here.

Is "don't ask, don't tell" dead?

Mark Mardell | 03:31 UK time, Wednesday, 13 October 2010


It is ironic that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was introduced by Bill Clinton as a compromise. Rather than simply sacking someone for being gay, it meant that the military shouldn't pry into someone's sexuality - but on the other hand, homosexual people could not come out and still serve.

That was 17 years ago. During that time, the compromise has become a provocation, and one of the most hotly-fought battles in America's cultural wars between social conservatives and liberals. The judge in California has come down heavily on the liberal side, arguing that the policy is an infringement of the right of free speech and other fundamental rights. She turns the traditional argument on its head and argues that by putting good servicemen and women under stress, it damages the military's readiness and unit cohesion and so harms the government's interests.

The US government is indeed in an odd position: President Barack Obama wants to get rid of the law but his plans have been blocked by the Senate, so the Department of Justice fought this case because it is a challenge to existing laws and policy. That doesn't mean it will appeal against the court ruling within the 60-day limit.

For now, the policy is illegal and the military must not dismiss people or investigate them because of it. In one sense, it might be easy for the president to let this ruling stand as the law of the land, but if he does he will be attacked by the left for not being bold enough himself, and by the right for not standing alongside many members of the military establishment who oppose change. It is all the more embarrassing for him that those behind the case are a group of gay Republicans. What will the White House and the Department of Justice do? We've asked, they won't tell.

By the way, the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted the near-disappearance of this blog over the last couple of weeks. In case anyone is interested, it was all down to an attempt to co-ordinate the publication of a series of pieces for the BBC News at Ten: it was difficult to update the blog while filming them without giving the game away. I hope the other pieces will go out, here and on TV, later this week. Apologies for this tortuous explanation but I didn't want to you to think I'd simply got bored.

Mid-terms in Nevada: A Tea Party tipping point?

Mark Mardell | 16:04 UK time, Monday, 11 October 2010


Nevada: In Nevada I get a real feel for the glorious absurdity of Las Vegas, where I am a first-time visitor, an appreciation for the harsh beauty of the mountains and desert and an admiration for the engineering achievement of the Hoover Dam.

Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam project: would the Tea Party approve?

But in this key battleground of the mid-terms, I don't get a first-hand feel for the candidates. They are being kept under wraps.

Still I continue my quest to understand the most important phenomenon in American politics at the moment: the Tea Party movement.

The battle in Nevada is the clash at the heart of this election. The Silver State is tarnished. It has the worst economy and the highest unemployment and home-repossession numbers of America's 50 states - so perhaps it is not surprising that the man who has been senator here for 24 years, Democratic leader of the Senate Harry Reid, isn't boasting.

Instead, he's running on his opponent's supposed "extremism". It is something the Tea Party relishes. Reid is a hate figure for those on the conservative right: he is someone who they say has dragged President Obama to the "extreme" left. That word again.

His opponent Sharron Angle, with huge Tea Party support and a Palin endorsement, beat more centrist Republicans to take him on.

Neither Angle nor Reid was to be seen while I was in the state. Instead of campaigning in person, they're ever-present in adverts on TV and radio. His tactic is simple. Just about every ad ends with the words: "Sharron Angle? She's just too extreme."

Nevada terrain


Nevada is the driest state in the USA - although it rained on me - and Sharron Angle's economics are drier than dry.

She is accused by opponents of wanting to abolish the Department of Education, to do away with social security and Medicare, to do away with funded testing for cancer and even of suggesting that if conservatives don't win at the ballot box, they may have to think about armed insurrection.

She is scarcely a new face on the Nevada scene; indeed she is the perennial candidate. But this time she has struck a chord.

As I watch Republicans stuffing envelopes with leaflets and even free gum (fair dealing: I haven't drunk the Kool-Aid but I am chewing the freebie as I write), one of the workers, Kim Bacchu, tells me the difference between the Republicans and the Tea Party.

Kim Bacchu

Kim Bacchu: 'tipping point'

Although she doesn't use these words, it seems to me that she clinically supports the former and loves the latter.

At the heart of the Tea Party, she says, is adherence to the constitution and a belief that Obama's economics are taking America away from this document. She says:

"This progressive agenda has progressed to the tipping point in the United States, where we either stand up for the constitution of the United States or we accept socialism, tainted with Marxism."

Later I meet the founder of "Anger Action Is Brewing" (the "Anger" is crossed out), Debbie Landis, who supports Angle but has fallen out with the Republican Party. She says the Tea Party is about fiscal conservatism rather than any one party, and that around 30% of her members are Democrats.

Perhaps the Tea Party is just the latest phase of a long-term realignment of American politics into more "normal" European patterns of left and right, where Blue Dog Democrats and "Rinos" (Republicans in name only) find their rightful ideological home, rather than choosing parties on the basis of what their mummies and daddies did.

Travis Christesen

Travis Christesen

Travis Christesen - a young man who, like many Tea Partiers, has only been active in politics since the 2008 election - makes no bones about his aim: to infiltrate the Republican Party.

I ask him what he means by this.

"We are going to elect people who are going to represent us, and represent the principles which we stand for. So either those who are in office now will start to represent us in that way, or we will push them out. We will elect people who will represent us the way that we would like to be represented."

I talk to several old-timers, moderates, who seem lukewarm about Sharron Angle as a candidate but determined to support her now she's in. "She's an interesting woman," says one, comparing both her gaffes and appeal to those of Sarah Palin.

A Republican strategist says that it is essential for mainstream Republicans to embrace the Tea Party. He muses that, from his point of view, Harry Reid is dangerous and will do damage if he is elected. Sharron Angle will get lost in Washington and not cause much trouble. While the Tea Party feels that the Republicans have veered from Reaganomics, it hasn't felt particularly centrist for a while now.

Michael Steele

Michael Steele: Tea Party is changing Republican Party 'for the better'

But when I catch up with the Republican Chairman Michael Steele in Las Vegas, he seems to think that this is not much of a gamble, that his party has found a winning streak.

He tells a small audience of party workers that only a year ago they were walking around with their heads bowed, thinking they would never recover. Then along came the Tea Party.

I ask him whether there is a danger they will lose seats like Nevada, which were in their grasp, by being pushed to the right. Is it, I ask him, changing the Republican Party?

"I think for the better. Look, we are the conservative party. I made no bones about that: we are the conservative party; the Democrats are the liberal party."

The gulf in American politics is growing wider all the time, and 2 November will be an important day - not just for Democrats, but for the future direction of the Republican Party.

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Why is the Tea Party boiling?

Mark Mardell | 12:00 UK time, Saturday, 9 October 2010


NYC_LV.jpgLas Vegas, Nevada

A forlorn yellow balloon is trapped by the sky, unable to rise any further. It's stuck, against the deep blue heavens and the fluffy white clouds. Gondolas circle St Mark's Square below. It's a very American illusion. For I am in one of Las Vegas' palaces of dreams, the huge Venetian hotel where a narcotically-vivid sky has been craftily painted on the vast ceiling which arches way above my head.

The hotel casino seems busy enough, music blaring and lights glaring, but like the balloon the city's economy nowadays has trouble rising to its accustomed heights. Those of a censorious disposition might find it fitting that this city, devoted to the illusion of sudden undeserved wealth, is nestled in the desert embrace of Nevada. This state has the unpleasant distinction of having the worst-performing economy in the US.

Harry_Reid.jpgThis is why the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid - a Nevada senator for 24 years - may well lose his seat when America votes on 2 November. It's a fate that may befall many of his less illustrious colleagues as well.

For Nevada is not alone. All over the United States, you pass the depressing sight of boarded-up homes and businesses. A recent government report showed the recession ended in the summer of 2009. All over the US I have heard the same baleful joke: "Shame no-one told the economy!"

"It's the economy, stupid" is perhaps the most overworked cliche in politics. But it still counts as an insight here because politicians, particularly those on the right, have often focused on cultural issues - abortion, guns, homosexuality, evolution, Islam - instead of the bread-and-butter ones.

But the Republicans may capitalize on the mood of economic unease because of the boiling enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement. Its members have a sense of anger, a disgust that they've been let down and a near-absolute distrust of government. And they know it's the economy, stupid.

This vibrant, anarchic and furious ginger group of conservatives has pushed the Republican Party to adopt their people and their policies. One activist did not demur when I compared their tactics to Trotskyites who attempted to take over the British Labour party in the 1980s. "Exactly," he said. And when you look at them gathered for one of their big rallies, with their hand made placards, they can look, well, a bit nutty - their opponents, of course are eager to make them look complete fruitcakes! But they are more serious than that.

The core of what the Tea Party is about is smaller government, less spending and as a consequence, lower tax. But it is Big Government that is the real enemy. It isn't just the bad policies but a feeling that government here in itself is almost evil, an assault on freedom. So here there is a great paradox: a movement that boasts its theoretical love of America and democracy but which hates its real life institutions. It's not their fairly mainstream economic theories I strain to understand, but the passion; a passion which means that political discourse has become increasingly uncivil, filled with vitriol and abuse.

So why is the Tea Party boiling?

Some say it's racism. Those I've met are not racist but I do wonder if for some there's a sense of lost superiority. For all their lives there's been a white man in the White House. It's not just that Obama isn't in this image, he does not fit any stereotype of a black person that they know. Cool, cosmopolitan, calm and aloof. There is a sense of disconnect for what ought to be their view of the natural order.

A woman who told me that Obama was a socialist and her country was sliding into Marxism said when he was elected president she drew the curtains for three weeks and couldn't answer the telephone. Only the Tea Party saved her.

America is changing fast and some in the Tea Party people don't like the loss of the assumption that white, European, 1950s America is the norm, the benchmark.

Americans bang on a lot about being American. There is an intense patriotism, a belief the United States has a unique place in the world and that its actions have (just about) always been for the good.

cars.jpgThere is perhaps today a somewhat puzzling lack of self-confidence in this, the richest and most powerful country the world has ever known. Perhaps it is because, for many, it is a country that was born with a purpose, a mission, a dream. And if their particular notion of that dream is questioned, it feels as unnatural and artificial as that Venice sky in Vegas, stopping the yellow balloon from rising.

The British can look far back into their past history, to Alfred the Great, perhaps, or even King Arthur but American history has very shallow roots. To the rest of us, America looks robust, but American conservatives believe they are nurturing a fragile dream. The American novelist of the moment, Jonathan Franzen, perhaps sums it up aptly in his new
best-seller when he says: "The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage."

You can listen to the audio from my visit to Las Vegas on the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent page.

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