Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

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1. Will Rick Perry put himself forward for the Republican candidacy? The Texas governor is said to be very close to announcing his bid. As a mainstream conservative who is also well liked by the evangelical and Tea Party factions of the party, he has the potential for widespread appeal. At the end of his speech at the Republican spring conference this weekend, he received a standing ovation and the audience chanted "Run, Rick, Run!"

Perry, a former air force pilot, is a good speaker and was even better received than other popular figures at the conference, including Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, who has already announced her candidacy. Known as an all-American tough guy, he jogs with a pistol in his belt and shot a coyote during a run last year.

The Wall Street Journal reports that his aides are currently looking at the problems he would face as a late entrant, such as raising sufficient funds. Romney and Bachmann: live in fear.

2. Ron Paul is celebrating his victory in a straw poll taken at the same weekend conference. The Texas congressman -- who at 75 says he is not too old to be president -- gained 612 votes, despite not matching this success in nationwide polls. This rating put him far ahead of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who got 382 votes in the straw poll and is expected to join the race later this week.

Here is Paul on NBC's Today, saying that his victory shows that he appeals to people who are fed up with US involvement in "endless, undeclared, unwinnable wars dumped on the young people", and concerned about the economy.

3. Bachman has cemented her reputation as a formidable fundraiser. Her latest filing with the Federal Election Commission, the Republican presidential hopeful had $2.8 million cash on hand. By comparison, the veteran politician Paul has $1.6 million. She took in $13.5 million in the 2010 election cycle, making her the most prolific fundraiser in the House.

Interestingly, the vast majority of this is from individuals making relatively small donations, which is in keeping with her position as the grassroots, Tea Party candidate. Of the $1.7 million she reported raising last quarter, all but $1,500 came from individuals. The average donation was just $619.34. Her individual contributions are now nearly 100 per cent of her total funds, compared with just over half in 2006.

The Washington Post attributes this to "money blurts", which create excitement and attract a high volume of small donors:

[Bachman has] made a specialty of raising money in the wake of bold and well-placed remarks. Shortly after accusing President Obama of having "anti-American views" during one cable-news appearance, for example, Bachmann took in nearly $1 million.

Will other candidates be inspired to make similarly lucrative, controversial statements?

4. A study by a Facebook advertising firm appears to suggest that the best bet for Republican candidates trying to attract online clicks is to focus their ads on President Barack Obama, rather than on issues such as the economy.

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It also showed that Sarah Palin is still a bigger magnet for online page views than any of the other announced or potential Republican presidential hopefuls -- although this could be because she has greater recognition. The Huffington Post has more details on the data.

5. Senator John McCain angered the Latino community by claiming yesterday that illegal immigrants were responsible for starting some of the huge fires that have devastated Arizon in recent weeks. He said there was "substantial evidence" that migrants set fires to keep warm, signal to others, or distract border guards, although he didn't say what this evidence was.

This is good news for the Obama administration, which is engaged in an aggressive push for Hispanic support ahead of 2012. After successes with increasing black voter turn-out in 2008, Obama's team is trying to raise historically low rates of Hispanic registration and turnout in at least six swing states.

However, according to Politico, Obama has angered one national Hispanic organisation by missing their annual conference for the third consecutive year, despite promising before his election in 2008 that he would return as president.

Juan C. Zapata, a Florida Republican and chairman of the group's educational fund, told Politico: "He sent a very clear message to the Hispanic community that, 'I want your support on the campaign, but I am not willing to do anything to earn it'."

 

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

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war