Romney has much to gain from a deal with Ron Paul

Paul could aid Romney's attempt to win over sceptical conservatives.

We have now entered the stage of the presidential election season in which reporters are getting bored. They have started playing a game called Find the Gaffe.

Here's how you play: When a candidate speaks publicly, pay attention to every sentence, phrase and clause that could be used against him by the opposing campaign.

For instance: Last week, President Barack Obama was explaining why the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 per cent in May, thus raising fears that the recovery is stalling and talk of a dip into another recession. His conclusion was that the public sector has seen significant job loss while the private sector has shown incremental gains. "The private sector is doing fine," he said.

Blammo!

"Are you kidding?" said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The private sector is not doing fine. "Did he see the job numbers that came out last week?"

Mitt Romney rejected the idea increasing the size of government by creating more public-sector jobs:

"He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Fire the beloved firemen! Blammo!

"I would suggest [Romney]'s living on a different planet if he thinks that's a prescription for a stronger economy," said David Axelrod, the president's senior political adviser.

And on it goes. It's enough to make you forget there are other people, other candidates, involved in the election.

You don't hear much about third parties inside or outside the US, but they exist. They are tiny compared to Republicans and Democrats yet they can be game-changers by pulling votes from one of the other candidates. The Green Party's Ralph Nader is perhaps the most famous example. In 2000, he peeled enough Florida votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the win.

Gary Johnson is another. He's the former Republican governor of New Mexico and current nominee for the Libertarian Party. He couldn't gain entry into an over-stuffed roster of GOP candidates, because, well, except for fiscal matters, Johnson isn't much of a Republican: He's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. He supports the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. But! He does want to slash the federal government's annual budget by $1 trillion. For this and (hopefully) other reasons, the Libertarian Party tapped him last month.

When it was clear he wasn't going anywhere as a Republican, Johnson launched a bid for the Libertarian Party's nomination. That meant notifying the Secretary of State of each state in the union that he'd no longer pursue the GOP's nomination. In Michigan, he missed the deadline for withdrawal by three minutes, thus violating a law that bars candidates who lose primaries from switching parties so they can run in the general election.

As of now, Johnson won't appear on the ballot. That's why the Libertarian Party of Michigan is poised to file a lawsuit next week alleging that Republicans in Michigan are reading the law too narrowly (three minutes!) in order to keep Johnson off that state's presidential ballot. The reason, they say, is that Romney fears a libertarian candidate will siphon off votes in a swing state where the margin of victory is likely to be slim. They might be right.

***

Meanwhile, another libertarian has set off a firestorm by endorsing the candidacy of Mitt Romney. That would be US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Ron Paul. The endorsement came on Fox News when Rand Paul called for greater "kinship between our families." That was kinda weird but kinda weirder was that Rand's announcement occurred while Dad Paul was technically still running for president. The Revolution was not pleased.

But unlike Obama's saying the private sector is doing fine and unlike Romney's saying the American people want fewer firefighters, Rand's endorsement wasn't a gaffe.

Ron Paul has a history of breaking from GOP ranks when he believes the party is going in the wrong direction. He did it in 1988 when he ran on the Libertarian Party ticket (as Johnson is now) against the Republican Party's Anointed One, George H.W. Bush. This time, it's an inside fight where Paul has captured gads of delegates in caucus states even though he didn't come close to winning the popular vote in those states. With the delegates, Paul hopes to influence the party from its libertarian flank, though no one is sure how he plans to do that. More certain is that Paul has much to bargain with and Rand's endorsement may be a signal that Dad is ready to deal.

Romney, for his part, stands to gain a lot from an association with Paul. For one thing, Romney continues to struggle with conservatives. He can't sway independent voters without getting hammered by conservatives sceptical of his bona fides. No one, however, doubts Paul's conservatism. For another, Romney does not inspire voters, even Republicans. Paul, on the contrary, has built a voracious following.

Time will tell, of course, and the national convention is still a long way off. Meanwhile, it's good reminder that sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, except when it isn't.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.