Beltway Briefing

The top stories from US politics today.

Tina Brown is working her magic on Newsweek. After last week's "Diana at 50" piece, in which Brown asked what the world would be like if Diana hadn't died in 1997 (The answer? Better, as it would be a world without Brown's "Diana at 50" piece and the terrible accompanying photoshop), Brown has this week splashed with a literally glowing picture of Sarah Palin. Last year, Newsweek ran a cover showing a scantily dressed Palin about to go running (perhaps because she was running for vice president, not because she had a good pair of pins). This time, it's slightly less sexist. But would a male politician be photographed in the same way? Actually, scratch that. Would a serious politician be photographed in this way? I doubt that Newsweek will do a glossy Tim Pawlenty photo gallery.

Newsweek

Away from Palin's pretty face, the Newsweek interview was enthralling, as anything to do with Palin generally is. Palin laid down a pretty thick hint that she may run. Discussing the fact that she is often brought up as a potential candidate (along with Gov Rick Perry of Texas), Palin says:

"It suggests that the field is not set. Thank goodness the field is not yet set. I think that there does need to be more vigorous debate. There needs to be a larger field. And there's still time. There's still months ahead, where more folks can jump in and start articulating their positions."

Oh, Palin, you tease.

Bachmann Bingo has taken a strange twist. Beltway Briefing readers will be aware of the frequency with which Bachmann mentions a few key facts about herself - and if she mentions all four ("five children", "23 foster children", "tax lawyer", "tea party") in one go, it's bingo! One of the four tenets of Bachmann Bingo, however, has come under scrutiny. Bachmann protrays herself as a warrior for low taxes, via her past as a tax lawyer. She was indeed a tax lawyer, but - according to the National Journal - she worked for the Inland Revenue Service from 1988 and 1993. Rather than helping citizens avoid paying their taxes she was - deep breath - collecting taxes. Oops. How this will go down with her anti-tax base will be interesting to watch.

$134,000,000,000. Remember that figure because you will be hearing it a lot in the next few months. $134bn is the hit that the US economy will take if the US government fails to agree on an increase in the US debt ceiling by 2 August, according to Jay Powell, who served as undersecretary of the Treasury in George H.W. Bush's administration and who authored a comprehensive study on the topic. If it happens, voters will blame someone - whether it will be Congress or the President who bears the brunt of voter annoyance, however, remains to be seen.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.