Beltway Briefing: Top stories from the US today

Herman Cain's gospel album | Torture during the Bush years | Bachmann flakey fans | Why US voters ha

A question: what do US voters hate more than Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and tax increase put together? Congress. Just 18 per cent of US voters approve of Congress, according to the latest Gallup poll.


As Congress is currently responsible for letting the US teetering on the edge of default, the lack of love for the legislative body is understandable.

Anyone else given up hope that Obama will follow through on his electoral promises to address war crimes committed during the Bush years? Human Rights Watch certainly have. The leading US human rights organisation has today released a report, "Getting Away with Torture", calling upon foreign governments to have a bash at prosecuting Bush and his cronies, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth makes it clear that double standards are not acceptable, pointing out that while it's right that the US speaks out against serious international crimes in places such as Libya, more attention should be paid to the crimes committed on America's own land/doorstep.

Michele Bachmann says that she is not flakey - but her support sure is. A poll for the Iowa Republican found that, under an alternative vote, half of Bachmann's support disappears.

In the poll's alternative ballot, Romney leads the field in Iowa with 18 percent, followed by Bachmann at 15 percent, and Chris Christie with 13 percent. Herman Cain and Sarah Palin tie for fourth at 7 percent, ahead of Perry and Pawlenty at 6 percent, Paul at 5 percent, Gingrich 3 percent, Giuliani 2 percent, and Santorum and Huntsman with one percent.

The second ballot shows that Bachmann's support, while still impressive, is rather soft. When other candidates enter the race, Romney hangs on to 76 percent of his vote, Ron Paul holds on to 80 percent of his support, but Bachmann only hangs on to 44 percent of her support. Even Herman Cain, who holds on to 65 percent of his voters, appears to have more solid support than Bachmann.

Voters like her, but they don't love her.

When running for President, voters need a few identifiable facts about you, so that they can distinguish you from the crowd. Mitt Romney? "Businessman!" Michele Bachmann? "23 foster kids!" Jon Huntsman? "The other Mormon guy!" Herman Cain? "The, err...". Now, however, Hermann Cain can be the candidate who has just released an album of gospel songs. If that doesn't make you stand out from the crowd, nothing will.

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US election 2016: Trump threatens to deny democracy

When asked if he would accept the result of the election, the reality TV star said that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

During this insane bad-acid-trip of an election campaign I have overused the phrase “let that sink in.”

There have been at least two dozen moments in the last 18 months which I have felt warranted a moment of horrified contemplation, a moment to sit and internalise the insanity of what is happening. That time a candidate for president brought up his penis size in a primary election debate, for one.

But there was a debate last night, and one of the protagonists threatened to undermine democracy in the United States of America, which throws the rest of this bizarre campaign into stark relief.

It was the third and final clash between an experienced if arguably politically problematic former senator and secretary of state – Hillary Clinton –  and a reality TV star accused of a growing number of sexual assaults – Donald Trump – but the tone and content of the debate mattered less than what the latter said at one key, illuminating moment.

That statement was this: asked if he would accept the result of the election, Donald Trump said that he was going to “look at it at the time,” and that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, you have responded correctly. The candidate for the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, declined to uphold the most fundamental keystone of American democracy, which is to say, the peaceful transition of power.

Let that sink in. Let it sit; let it brew like hot, stewed tea.

This election has been historic in a vast number of ways, most important of which is that it will be, if current polling is to be believed, the election which will bring America's first female president to the White House, almost a century after women's suffrage was enabled by the 19th amendment to the constitution in August 1920.

If the last near-century for women in America has been a journey inexorably towards this moment, slowly chipping away at glass ceiling after glass ceiling, like the progression of some hellish video game, then Donald Trump is as fitting a final boss as it could be possible to imagine.

For Trump, this third and final debate in Las Vegas was do-or-die. His challenge was near-insurmountable for even a person with a first-class intellect, which Trump does not appear to possess, to face. First, he needed to speak in such a way as to defend his indefensible outbursts about women, not to mention the increasing number of allegations of actual sexual assault, claims backstopped by his own on-tape boasting of theoretical sexual assault released last month.

This, he failed to do, alleging instead that the growing number of sexual assault allegations against him are being fabricated and orchestrated by Clinton's campaign, which he called “sleazy”, at one point to actual laughs from the debate audience.

But he also needed to reach out to moderates, voters outside his base, voters who are not electrified by dog-whistle racism and lumbering misogyny. He tried to do this, using the Wikileaks dump of emails between Democratic party operators as a weapon. But that weapon is fatally limited, because ultimately not much is in the Wikileaks email dumps, really, except some slightly bitchy snark of the kind anyone on earth's emails would have and one hell of a recipe for risotto.

In the debate, moderator Chris Wallace admirably held the candidates to a largely more substantive, policy-driven debate than the two previous offerings – a fact made all the more notable considering that he was the only moderator of the three debates to come from Fox News – and predictably Trump floundered in the area of policy, choosing instead to fall back on old favourites like his lean-into-the-mic trick, which he used at one point to mutter “nasty woman” at Clinton like she'd just cut him off in traffic.

Trump was more subdued than the bombastic lummox to which the American media-consuming public have become accustomed, as if his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had dropped a couple of Xanax into his glass of water before he went on stage. He even successfully managed to grasp at some actual Republican talking-points – abortion, most notably – like a puppy who has been semi-successfully trained not to make a mess on the carpet.

He also hit his own favourite campaign notes, especially his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but ultimately his intrinsic Donald Trumpiness couldn't stop itself from blazing through.

Remember the Republican primary debate when Trump refused to say that he would accept the party's nominee if it wasn't him? Well, he did it again: except this time, the pledge he refused to take wasn't an internal party matter; it was two centuries of American democratic tradition chucked out of the window like a spent cigarette. A pledge to potentially ignore the result of an election, given teeth by weeks of paranoiac ramblings about voter fraud and rigged election systems, setting America up for civil unrest and catastrophe, driving wedges into the cracks of a national discourse already strained with unprecedented polarisation and spite.

Let it, for what is hopefully just one final time, sink in.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.