Beltway Briefing

1. The House of Representatives is set to vote against a bill authorising the US action in Libya in a further blow to Barack Obama's authority. Republicans and Democrats are furious that the US President failed to seek congressional authorisation before the start of the mission as required under the 1973 War Powers Resolution. "The war in Libya is illegal, unconstitutional and unwarranted. It must end," Democratic representative Dennis Kucinich said.

The House will also vote on a bill to cut off funding for US military attacks in Libya. "The president has ignored the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution, but he cannot ignore a lack of funding," said Republican Tom Rooney, the sponsor of the bill. "Only Congress has the power to declare war and the power of the purse, and my bill exercises both of those powers by blocking funds for the war in Libya unless the president receives congressional authorisation."

The measure would allow US forces to remain engaged in non-hostile actions in Libya such as search and rescue efforts, intelligence, surveillance and refueling. The bill is expected to pass in the House but it is almost certain to fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

2. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video entitled "Obama's Misery Index: Ryan's Story". In the video, Ryan King of Midland, Michigan, reflects on the woes of unemployment: "I buy bologna and bread, commonly, because it's cheap - what I eat."

The Misery Index, an unofficial chart totalling unemployment and inflation rates, is at one of its highest levels in 28 years. In a sign of how fragile the US economic recovery is, the Index is set to register at 12.7 for May - 9.1 per cent for unemployment and 3.6 per cent for inflation.

3. A new Sarah Palin documentary will premiere in Iowa next week, according to reports. The Undefeated , directed by conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon, chronicles Palin's rise from Alaska governor to vice presidential candidate.

Palin, who has yet to announce whether she will enter the 2012 presidential race, has been invited to attend the premiere. A preview of the film can be seen below.

4. Republican hopeful John Huntsman has opened his campaign office in the bellweather state of Florida. Huntsman, who officially entered the presidential race on Tuesday, said he chose Orlando for his campaign's headquarters because his wife, Mary Kaye, grew up in the area.

In an address to staff and volunteers, he pledged to avoid personal attacks on his opponents. "I want people who work in this office to remember that civility means something," Huntsman said. "I believe that you don't have to run down another human being to run for president of the United States."

5. Barack Obama is to visit Iowa on Monday as part of his "Winning the Future" tour of companies and manufacturing plants. The US President will tour a Davenport Alcoa plan to highlight the role of advanced manufacturing in American job creation and exports. Obama's visit will follow that of Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann, who is due to officially launch her presidential bid in Waterloo, Iowa, on Monday. Obama won the state in 2008 by 54 per cent to John McCain's 45 per cent.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit