Sunday comment round-up -- 16 November 2008

A good week for Gordon Brown but why is the commentariat still unconvinced?

With a colossus-like Gordon Brown still striding around the globe, tributes being paid by world leaders and nobel prize winners alike, it would only seem right that the Sunday political commentators hail the great unelected one.

But for some reason it isn't working out like that. The scale of the the Brown bounce depends on whether you believe the Independent on Sunday's ComeRes poll, which has the Tories 11 points in the lead and heading for victory or the Sunday Times YouGov poll which has them at just five points ahead. But there is, on the face of it, every reason to marvel at the Prime Minister's astonishing comeback.

John Rentoul does his reasonable best. As he points out, governments can win elections in downturns and polls can be wrong, as the election of 1992 showed. But his endorsement is not exactly ringing:

Already the scales are more evenly balanced than they have been for most of the past year.

For the second time in three weeks, Rentoul's colleague, Alan Watkins, is deeply critical of Brown. What on earth can the Prime Minister have done to this elder statesman of British journalism? Surely even the most thuggish of the Brownites wouldn't have been daft enough to rough up this old gent of the liberal intelligentsia? Two weeks ago Watkins explained why Brown didn't deserve to win the next election, this week he predicts victory for Cameron, despite his shadow chancellor's difficulties. Now he says:

The last three Conservative Prime Ministers who attained office for the first time around were all surrounded by doubts. Edward Heath was regarded as outgunned; Margaret Thatcher, an inexperienced woman; John Major sure to lose because of the recession.

Iain Martin provides a fascinating analysis of why neither Labour nor the Tories are ready for an early election. In passing he notes Brown's impeccable Democratic Party contacts book, but suggests the veteran PM has more to learn from the novice President-elect than the other way round.

The most surprising dissident is Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer, the chronicler of New Labour. His analysis is pretty balanced, recognising the breathtaking nerve of Gordon Brown in ripping up the rule-book of prudence. But he is not prepared to condemn George Osborne for "talking down" the pound when it was already in a state of freefall. For Rawnsley, Osborne is playing a long-term strategy, waiting for the Prime Minister to tumble from the tightrope he has strung for himself over the chasm of the economic collapse.

Martin Ivens, the on-form political commentator of the moment, notes the chilling inhumanity of the Brown's performance at PMQs on Wednesday - failing to show any genuine empathy over the death of Baby P and wrongly criticising David Cameron for scoring political points (which he wasn't). How does this socially awkward individual who finds it so difficult to give a straight answer to a straight question manage to command such respect on the world stage? I do wonder myself sometimes. Maybe he has really good interpreters.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496