How Mickey Mouse dominated Republican debate

In-fighting wins out as the presidential race accelerates.

I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing 'Mickey Mouse games'.

So said Newt Gingrich last night after FOX News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked the man whose presidential campaign is more than one million dollars in debt whether, quite honestly, he might agree that his attempt to win political election had been a "mess so far".

Mickey Mouse games were indeed the name of the game in Ames, Iowa on Thursday evening, when eight candidates came head to head in round two of the Republican presidential race, all desperate to prove themselves worthy of taking on Obama in next year's presidential elections.

The two-hour debate cranked up the pace several notches after the much more bland affair two months ago, which saw only five of the candidates bother even to turn up. Last time, notable absences included Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michelle Bachman, generally considered to be the more "heavyweight" candidates.

While May's debate saw candidates on their best behaviour, uniting against Obama in a false show of solidarity, Thursday night saw the candidates turn on their fellow Republicans to pull one another's policies apart in a bout of in-fighting that left no clear winner by the end of it all.

The repeated bickering between former governor Tim Pawlenty and congresswoman Michele Bachmann stood out. The two Minnesota candidates exchanged curt criticisms, with Pawlenty gesturing at Bachmann as he accused her record of accomplishment and results of being "non-existent".

Not one to mince his words, he moved on to address her directly with "please stop, because you're killing us". Bachmann held her own, accusing her challenger of taking a stance more in line with Obama than a conservative Republican, a big put down from the Tea Party champion.

Foreign policy took its place in the spotlight for a time. Congressman Ron Paul received strong support after putting forward his pragmatic anti-war position, pointing out that the US can no longer afford to fund wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "the threat from war in Iran is overstated", he said with gusto. Bachmann was having none of it.

The next stage in this ongoing battle will be Saturday's Ames straw poll, the most prominent of the Iowa straw polls running up to the presidential candidacy elections and a good early indicator of voter enthusiasm. Although non-binding, the poll gives a good indication of which candidates are faring particularly badly, in turn affecting their likelihood of winning Iowa in January and so potentially discounting them from the rest of the race.

The fact that some candidates are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to win over tomorrow's voters indicates just how important they think this poll is. With Texan Governor Rick Perry -- the "invisible presence" at the GOP debate last night -- expected to join the campaign this weekend, Mitt Romney's front-running status looks precarious.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem