President Newt Gingrich?

The former Speaker of the House of Representatives sees unlikely poll surge after gaffes from Cain a

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives and White House hopeful, has been considered a dead loss in the Republican field -- until now.

With just seven weeks to go until the state caucuses in Iowa (the first seat to select the Republican presidential candidate), the latest poll has put Gingrich in the lead with 28 per cent. This compares with 25 per cent for former businessman Herman Cain, 18 per cent for front-runner Mitt Romney, and 6 per cent for Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. A CNN poll released on Monday showed similar results, putting Gingrich just two points behind Romney, with 22 and 24 points respectively.

The sudden hike has come after both Cain and Perry appeared unable to remember their own policies in extraordinary gaffes. Cain, in particular, was already struggling after a series of sexual harassment allegations. All of this has apparently made Gingrich look like the only viable alternative to Romney -- the former Massachusetts governor who has failed to excite Republicans. Several pundits have suggested that Gingrich's sudden rise is due to an "anyone-but-Romney" mindset.

The televised debates -- the downfall of Michele Bachman, Perry, and Cain -- have allowed Gingrich to shine, mocking the press, refusing to attack other candidates, and (crucially) having a clear grasp of domestic and foreign policy. Generally, Republicans perceive Gingrich as the candidate who will most effectively take the fight to Obama in televised debates.

He's certainly an unlikely winner: he is the only Speaker of the House ever to be disciplined for ethics violations, and has admitted being unfaithful to two of his three wives. He also has a reputation for arrogance (so much so that New York Magazine has posted this excellent slideshow of Gingrich looking at people condescendingly). His high self-regard can be seen in his assessment of his own campaign:

Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do.

While Gingrich is clearly confident, however, it's important not to read too much into this survey. As Mike Smithson points out at Political Betting, at this stage last year, Rudy Guiliani was way ahead in the polls, with the eventual winner, John McCain, trailing in third place.

The overwhelming impression from the polls remains that Republican voters are not particularly enthused about any candidate. "Things can change very rapidly," Gingrich said of his sudden turnaround in the polls at a campaign stop in Sheffield, Iowa. "In my case, a lot of news media said I was dead in June and July." In a race defined so far by gaffes and scandals, a lot could still happen between now and January.

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

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Stephen Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising space makes him almost as bad as Trump

The physicist's inistence on mankind's expansion risks making him a handmaiden of inequality.

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves,” Stephen Hawking has warned. And he’s not just talking about surviving the UK's recent run of record breaking heat. If humanity doesn’t start sending people to Mars soon, then in a few hundred years he says we can all expect to be kaput; there just isn’t enough space for us all.

The theoretical physicist gave his address to the glittering Starmus Festival of science and arts in Norway. According to the BBC, he argued that climate change and the depletion of natural resources help make space travel essential. With this in mind, he would like to see a mission to Mars by 2025 and a new lunar base within 30 years.

He even took a swipe at Donald Trump: “I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen.”

Yet there are striking similarities between Hawking's statement and the President's bombast. For one thing there was the context in which it was made - an address to a festival dripping with conspicuous consumption, where 18 carat gold OMEGA watches were dished out as prizes.

More importantly there's the inescapable reality that space colonisation is an inherently elitist affair: under Trump you may be able to pay your way out of earthly catastrophe, while for Elon Musk, brawn could be a deciding advantage, given he wants his early settlers on Mars to be able to dredge up buried ice.

Whichever way you divide it up, it is unlikely that everyone will be able to RightMove their way to a less crowded galaxy. Hell, most people can’t even make it to Starmus itself (€800  for a full price ticket), where the line-up of speakers is overwhelmingly white and male.

So while this obsession with space travel has a certain nobility, it also risks elevating earthly inequalities to an interplanetary scale.

And although Hawking is right to call out Trump on climate change, the concern that space travel diverts money from saving earth's ecosystems still stands. 

In a context where the American government is upping NASA’s budget for manned space flights at the same time as it cuts funds for critical work observing the changes on earth, it is imperative that the wider science community stands up against this worrying trend.

Hawking's enthusiasm for colonising the solar system risks playing into the hands of the those who share the President destructive views on the climate, at the expense of the planet underneath us.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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