Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

Michelle Bachmann

1. Michele Bachmann is just as well-known for her gaffes as fellow Tea Party icon Sarah Palin. This morning, she defended herself on CNN's American Morning show.

"People can make mistakes and I wish I could be perfect every time I say something, but I can't," she said. "But one thing people know about me is that I'm a substantive, serious person and I have a strong background."

She also explained her recent slip up, when she said of her hometown that "John Wayne was from Waterloo" and "that's the kind of spirit that I have, too." The actor was born nearly 150 miles away, although the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr. lived in Waterloo at one point. She told CNN that these comments "were just misspeaking", and she meant she identified with his patriotism.

Unfortunately, she also managed today to claim that John Quincy Adams was a founding father on ABC's Good Morning America (he was a president, but not a founding father).

2. Mitt Romney's Utah advisers are reportedly attempting to get the date of the state's Republican presidential primary next year moved from late June to earlier in the spring, because it might play a bigger role in the nomination process.

The Salt Lake Tribune's Robert Gehrke writes: "If the Romney camp is successful, it could set up an early showdown between Romney, chief of the 2002 Olympics in Utah, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman in Huntsman's old backyard -- and it is a contest that, according to recent statewide polls, Romney would likely win."

However, he also notes that it could also end up costing taxpayers between $2.5 million and $3 million to stage the primary. Holding it on 26 June 2012 as planned would mean it could be held on the same day as the statewide primary election for other Utah offices. Despite this extra cost, the change has not been ruled out.

3. Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois and one-time presidential hopeful, has been found guilty of corruption. After 10 days of deliberation, a jury found him guilty of 17 charges, including trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and attempting to shake down executives for campaign cash. He was acquitted of another bribery charge, and the jury was undecided on charges of attempted extortion. The convictions carry a combined maximum prison sentence of around 300 years, although the judge is expected to sentence him for around 10.

As governor of Illinois, it was Blaojevich's responsibility to name a senator to replace Obama after he was elected president in November 2008. He planned to sell the seat. Federal agents were tipped off and recorded hundreds of hours of tapes. He was arrested two years ago, but an earlier trial ended in deadlock.

4. Bristol Palin said today that her mother "definitely knows" whether she will run for president next year. "We've talked about it before," the 20 year old told Fox and Friends. "Some things just need to stay in the family."

 

This comes on the same day as the older Palin travels to the key primary state of Iowa for the premier of Undefeated, a documentary about her time as governor of Alaska. This has renewed speculation about whether she will put herself forward for the presidency.

5. The powers of social media have long been something that those at the top of the political game wish to harness. Tim Pawlenty has become the latest to try, with the somewhat bizarre Pawlenty Action.

PawlentyAction

Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post is unimpressed:

See, back in the day, the average voter might sign up with a presidential candidate because of values they had in common and the shared belief that grassroots action could facilitate sweeping political change. But the Pawlenty campaign understands that deepening the connection between campaign and volunteer requires much more. That is, it requires points and badges!

You get 10 free points for signing up to help "T-Paw" (yes, the website really refers to him as that), 10 for connecting your Facebook, five for connecting your Twitter, and so on. It's not clear exactly what you can do with all your points, but perhaps that is besides the...point.

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

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”