Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Jon Huntsman has become the second Mormon millionaire (the first being Mitt Romney) to announce his bid for the Republican candidacy for the 2012 presidential election.

Unusually for a Republican, he has worked for President Barack Obama, who appointed him as ambassador to Beijing. Obama's praise for Huntsman can be seen from about 30 seconds into this news report:

  

Huntsman's candidacy worries the Democrats. Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe said he felt "a wee bit queasy" when he floated the idea of running early in 2009. However, over at Hot Air, Jazz Shaw notes that this might not be a good thing:

All of the video clips making the rounds showing President Obama praising Huntsman will certainly be widely employed ammunition for the rest of the GOP field. But in the unlikely event that he somehow nabbed the nomination, those same clips would hobble the president in the general election. It would be fairly hard to start questioning the man's credentials after heaping that kind of praise on him.

2. Just hours before Huntsman announced his bid, Rick Santorum, a rival for the Republican nomination, released a video criticising him for not signing an anti-abortion pledge.

The video parodies the web videos of a man riding a motorbike through a dessert that the Huntsman team have put out over the last week to trail their candidate's formal declaration. In this spoof video, the character crashes at the end.

 

The Huntsman team was quick to respond, telling CNN:

People who rely on pledges usually don't have a record. Fortunately Governor Huntsman, a life-long, no flip flops pro-lifer, has actually signed anti-abortion legislation into law -- that's a signature that makes a difference.

3. The Texas governor Rick Perry's team is gearing up for unsubstantiated rumours about his sexuality to resurface if he runs for president. Back in 2004, it was reported that he was gay and that he and his wife planned to divorce. At the time, he blamed his political opponents, saying that the rumous "are not correct in any shape, form or fashion."

Speaking to Politico, his top strategist Dave Carney said:

This kind of nameless, faceless smear campaign is run against the Perry family in seemingly every campaign, with no basis, truth or success. Texas politics is a full contact support, live hand grenades and all; unfortunately there are always going to be some people who feel the need to spread false and misleading rumors to advance their own political agenda.

Dirty tricks and smear campaigns are not unusual in US politics, as the recent furore over Obama's birth certificate showed.

4. Reggie Brown, the comedian who was pulled off stage after racially questionable jokes about Obama at the Republican Leadership Conference last weekend, has defended his routine ("My mother loved a black man, and no she was not a Kardashian," he quipped, saying that while Michelle Obama celebrated all of black history month, Barack only celebrated half).

Although RLC President and CEO Charlie Davis told CNN that he was pulled because "we have zero tolerance for racially insensitive jokes", Brown suspects another motive:

I was at the Republican Leadership Conference, and I was just entering my set where I was starting to have some fun with the Republican candidates. I do believe that I was over my time by a few minutes, and I also believe that the material was starting to get to a point to where maybe they started to feel uncomfortable with where it was going.

He also denied that the racial content of his jokes had anything to do with it:

I didn't hear any boos on any of the racial jokes. The president, like myself, shares a mixed background. My mother's white, my father's black, and I feel very safe delivering content like that. And the president himself has poked fun at his heritage.

5. Michele Bachmann has been rather silent after performing unexpectedly well in a debate with Mitt Romney last week. This is surprising, given that Bachmann has been one of the most outspoken members of the House simce being elected to Congress in 2006 (who could forget her suggestion that Obama might be "anti-American"?)

According to the Washington Post, this is a "calculated strategy aimed at building message discipline within the ranks" ahead of 2012. Reportedly, this decision was made before the debate, and is being carried through to avoid trampling on the momentum created. Silence must certainly be a new experience for the Minnesota republican but some message discipline wouldn't go amiss. Several weeks ago, she castigated her campaign manager Ed Rollins' for saying that Sarah Palin is not been "serious".

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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