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.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.