Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Res Publica

Some Bloodied Brits
I have to start by putting in my tuppence on the recent Parliamentary elections in Great Britain.

First, I have to congratulate myself on not putting forward any late predictions on the outcome, thus avoiding the general punditic fiasco.  My last words in this space on the subject were back in late February, in which I made the following guesses:
 Conservatives will have about 40-45% of seats, Labour 30-35%,  SNP and LD 15% combined, and Others (UKIP, Green, Irish parties) 5-10%
In the event, the results, with those groupings, were as follows:  Conservatives 51% of seats, Labour 36%, SNP (Scottish National Party) and LD 10%, and Others 4%.   The relatively large misses were on the Conservatives' and Liberal Democrats' percentage of seats (SNP and Labour were about as expected).

Clearly, the Conservatives were the big winners on the night:  the gains by the SNP were on target with near-term expectations, and with the Conservatives having an outright majority, SNP's leverage on the new Parliament will not be as strong as otherwise it may have been.

Now to list the losers, in order of the magnitude of their setbacks:
1) Liberal Democrats - This was a near-death experience for them, as they lost more than half their popular vote and over 80% of seats.  Participating as a junior member in the last Cabinet was, officially, a complete disaster for their political prospects. They wouldn't do it again, but then again, now they won't be asked.
2) The British polling industry - They suffered massive embarrassment for their pre-election polls (though the exit polls on Election Day were accurate).  Their polls converged on a set of numbers for overall nationwide party percentages, and this set was erroneous, near to the edge of their (95% confidence interval) margin of error.  They had it at 33-33% for Conservative/Labour, and it ended up about 37-30%   There will be some soul-searching about methods--I would expect there to be much greater effort to poll within individual districts ("constituencies") in the next elections, assuming the current election processes continue, and some renewed attention to composition of the polling (between land and mobile phone lines, and methods to get responses); however, I don't think we should all be so hard on them: 1 out of 20 elections, by definition, would be outside the margin of error, and I think there was a shift of opinion in the last days (which they did fail to pick up).
3) Labour - Labour's tactics failed, leading to a defeat of strategic significance (and inversely, Conservatives' tactical success led to strategic victory).  Nationally, Labour actually gained 1.5% in its vote, but lost about 10% of its seats:  the large losses in Scotland to the SNP exceeded some marginal gains elsewhere.  The party and its leader, Ed Millibrand, failed to provide a convincing reason to change, relying too much on the unpopularity of the Conservatives and their leader, David Cameron, both of whom are widely perceived as upper-class elitists.  Cameron had a strong case for maintaining the status quo, in terms of reasonably good economics, and creating fear of change.  Perhaps believing too much in the polls, Labour played for the tie (the hung Parliament most expected may have led to their leading the new government), when they had the chance for a win.
4)  Legitimacy of the British "first past the post" electoral system in a multiparty environment.  The other national third/fourth parties (U.K Independence Party--UKIP--and the Greens) suffered, as the UKIP increased its share of vote dramatically vs. the previous Parliamentary elections (from 3% to 13%) and the Greens went from 1.4% to 3.8%, yet each emerged from the election with only one MP. They have inherited the Liberal Democrats' old problem, which is that the national system is rigged in favor of a two-party system--nationally, and regionally.  In England, and nationally, it is Labour vs. Conservative with the others squeezed out; in Scotland, it's the SNP and Labour (though this year, that favored the SNP), in Northern Ireland, it's the Unionist parties vs. the primarily Catholic parties  (Wales is a bit of a four-party free-for-all, with areas that favor the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Welsh Cyru Plaid party). Overall, "national third parties" (UKIP, Greens, and the LibDems) had 24% of the votes and 1.5% of the seats, while the regional parties (other than Labour/Conservative) had 7.2% of the votes and 12% of the seats. And, of course, Conservative/Labour had 67% of votes and 87% of seats.   
Will something give here, leading to a change in the electoral scheme?  I don't see any reason; until there is a situation in which a third party has true leverage, Labour and the Conservatives have no reason to support change, and those two parties still get 60-70% of popular votes.  The LibDems managed to get the Conservatives to agree to a referendum on second-preference voting, which was presented without the government's endorsement a couple years ago and fell badly in a snoozefest turnout.

Labour got played in Scotland by the Conservatives' kept promise of the Scottish secession referendum.  Labour had to support the No vote (against separation), as it needed Scotland to stay in Great Britain for all kinds of reasons, some of which were self-serving.  Some Scots saw the Conservative/Labour/LibDems alliance against separation as a betrayal of their interests by the English, and Labour was the party that was punished for it.

This time, the Conservatives have promised a referendum on continuing in the European Union--that will come first, before any reconsideration of the SNP's desire for a new Scottish referendum, The Conservatives are badly split on the issue; Cameron's strategy will be to do his best (or at least appear to do his best) to get improved terms for Britain to remain in the EU.  If he fails to get concessions, he can go with his party's more extreme Euroskeptic elements and support withdrawal (which may win his party back much of the UKIP's support next time); if he gets them--the EU would compromise, even as far as allowing a bad precedent, but not to the point that it would break up the whole deal--his support, even lukewarm, could be decisive.  Then he can reopen the Scottish question and the wounds it causes Labour. (Scotland's voters strongly prefer remaining in the EU, so will surely want out if Britain removes itself from the EU).

There is a path Labour can tread--strongly in favor of remaining in the EU and of keeping Scotland in the Union--that will distinguish itself from the Conservatives'.  As for Cameron, he has said he will not run for Prime Minister again in 2020--current law ensures his party can hold power until then. We shall see about that.

TPP:  Trade Perishes before Politicians? 
Yesterday's vote in the Senate provided a rare political defeat to President Obama at the hands of his own party. The complicated backdrop to the debate on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being negotiated by Obama's administration with a number of nations on the Pacific Rim resulted in a test vote to end debate on a bill to give Obama the so-called "fast-track" authority.  If passed, this authority would ultimately lead to bringing the final negotiated agreement before Congress for a simple up-down vote, without amendments.

This kind of authority is always supported by the Executive Branch as being required in order to provide it the ability to negotiate terms with other countries for a trade deal, and President Obama is no exception.  The unusual aspect of this proposal is that Obama has the support of (most, but not all) Republicans in Congress for fast-track authority, and ultimately, would expect to have it for approval of the trade agreement.

The Democrats are split:  most would, in theory, support some sort of trade bill; however, what the majority of Democrats are doing is creating conditions which will ultimately make passage of the final bill difficult or impossible.  The most frequent objection from Democrats is that Obama is asking them to greenlight an agreement that most Americans have not yet seen.  This argument is appealing, but somewhat hypocritical:  those in Congress know what is likely to be in the final trade agreement (though details will remain to be settled).  Requiring public debate before giving fast-track approval negates the idea of fast-track approval:  if everything needs to be settled before the authority is given, then there is no authority. For the most part, those arguing against this measure will end up opposing whatever deal is finally proposed.

There is a group of Democrats who have leverage, though, and they applied it yesterday:  those who are in favor of the legislation, but want conditions on the fast-track authority.  They blocked the motion to end debate yesterday, and today they forced concessions from Obama's side:  there will be a separate vote on "enforcement provisions" within the authority for the draft agreement to penalize trading partners who break the rules.   This will be a very delicate issue for the US trade negotiators, a possible deal-breaker, but Obama has no choice but to agree to this now.

My view of the eventual outcome:  Obama will agree to what is necessary to get fast-track authority approved.  This will make the ensuing negotiations much more difficult; the trade deal that will result may not be finished during Obama's administration, which may make it easier for most Democrats to oppose it (it would either be picked up by a Republican administration or defended by a Clinton one which did not negotiate the agreement and may remain somewhat neutral on it, as she is at present). Even if it does come before this Congress for a vote, I think it will be unlikely to pass--the longer the debate and the longer the agreement is delayed, the less chance it will have, and this is the understanding which the "progressive" opponents of the trade deal have shown in this round of polemics.

Democrats can disagree, based on their priorities, whether the trade bill will ultimately favor the US (economically, probably so; labor interests, probably not), but they should avoid letting their political opponents use this as a wedge issue to divide the party--primarily by being decent to one another.  In that sense, I don't appreciate the tactics of the populist left, who are really opposed to any international trade agreement, and are using the tactic of attacking President Obama's credibility to get their way. Fast-track authority is a means to an end; any trade agreement would ultimately need to be approved in a public debate.

Clown-Car Tracking 
(I anticipate this will be a regular feature for the next 12 months.)
Although it is now clearly underway, nothing too dramatic is happening in the 2016 Presidential campaign lately:  various candidates announce (or semi-announce), get their bump of publicity and any possible bump of popularity, then the press bus and the spotlight move on.  (Excluding Hillary Clinton, of course; the spotlight never moves very far from her.) Recent polls of Republicans in the two states with the first contests, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, show no candidate above 20% support and a whole bunch in the 5-10% range.  And the list just keeps getting bigger, with many more (such as Governors Snyder of Michigan, Kasich of Ohio, even the highly doubtful Christie of New Jersey and the newly doubtful Pence of Indiana) still "on the fence" but not likely to see any obstacle that will dissuade them from entering.  Unless it's to avoid being on stage with candidate Donald Trump, an unpleasant but still unlikely prospect.

With the exception of a couple (Jeb Bush, maybe Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, or Rand Paul), they all seem to be hoping to benefit from an unresolved outcome and some kind of random brokering event. As it was for British Labour (and is usually in Sadistic Whist), playing for the tie is a losing strategy (unless, as might be the case with Kasich, Rubio, or Snyder, the real objective is the VP nomination). The path to nomination must be the following:  avoid embarrassment (below 2%) in Iowa (Feb. 1) and New Hampshire (Feb. 9), make a decent showing in South Carolina (Feb. 20) or Nevada (Feb. 23), then pick a state or two in early March to make a statement, and parlay that into "momentum" through having a strong multi-state organization.  The primary calendar is quite concentrated (in March/April/May) this time, so the organization will have to be built ahead of time, and not on the gains from the muddled early primary results.

To me, March 1 appears to be the key date on the Republican nomination calendar, with primaries in five southern states, plus Vermont, Massachusetts, and caucuses in Colorado.  If South Carolina hasn't already whittled it down to three or four legitimate contenders (eliminating several of the also-rans from the far right), that day will.  Then, after a few more tallies in the next 10 days (including three more southern states, plus Ohio, and Michigan) comes the Florida primary on March 15, and a possible Bush-Rubio showdown:  only one of them will walk out of there with nomination hopes still alive.

The Republicans can continue to not sort themselves out in a very public way for the next nine months or so; meanwhile. I continue to not see anyone tackle the various major third-party scenarios, so that will be the subject of my next post on the 2016 Presidential campaign.

Because of having five digits on two hands, we are in love with multiples of five, ten, fifty, 100, etc. Coincidentally, a lot of major events seemed to happen in years(Christian calendar) ending in ...5. Therefore, our historical attention this year turns to anniversaries.  Recently, there was the 150th of Lincoln's Second Inaugural, the end of the Civil War, and his assassination (I hope you didn't miss the "...we are indebted..." gaffe on the subject from the Republican Senate caucus).   There is the 50th of the Selma march for voting rights in the South.  This month, it's the 70th of  V-E Day for the Second World War; in August, there will be V-J day.  In Turkey, there were the conflicting demands of observing the 100th of the Gallipoli invasion and of obscuring the 100th of the beginning of the Armenian "genocide".  Next month will be the 200th of the Battle of Waterloo.

The one I'd like to call a little extra attention toward is the 70th of WWII.  It's actually a little less "round" a number than the other ones I mentioned, but its importance comes because of the age of the participants in that uniquely-important world event: the youngest surviving soldiers are in their late eighties, and their recollections and insights in the last Great War, including the uncovering of the Holocaust in Europe, are important for us to note while we still can.  Compared to that consideration, I give little weight to Russia's desire to show off this year (a celebration of its military widely snubbed by Western countries); though the USSR's role in defeating the Axis was unparalleled in its historical importance, Russia is not the USSR, and, in this case, 70 is just another number.


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