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 problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt