US press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Elephants down under (New York Times)

In New Zealand and Australia, you could almost fit their entire political spectrum -- from conservatives to liberals -- inside the US Democratic Party, writes Thomas Friedman, from Christchurch, New Zealand.

2. Republicans are causing a moral crisis in America (Washington Post)

The real crisis of public morality in the United States doesn't lie in the private decisions Americans make in their lives or their bedrooms; it lies at the heart of an ideology -- and a set of policies -- that the right-wing has used to batter and browbeat their fellow Americans, writes Katrina vanden Heuvel.

3. A small step forward for Earth (LA Times)

To really make a difference, the EPA should crack down on existing coal plants. But during an election year, when short-term economic concerns are trumping long-term ones, we'll take what we can get, says this editorial.

4. Could defeat in court help Obama win? (New York Times)

If the new health care law's individual mandate to purchase insurance is upheld, it will be hailed as a big win for the administration. But the White House might actually reap more political dividends from defeat, says Ross Douthat.

5. The rich are different; they get richer (Washington Post)

A middle class enduring prolonged stagnation isn't likely to fund projects the nation needs to undertake -- such as rebuilding our infrastructure or increasing teacher pay -- or, ultimately, to retain its faith in the efficacy of democracy, writes Harold Meyerson.

6. Europe's firewall follies (Wall Street Journal)

This editorial says: As best we can tell, the world did not end (as widely predicted) when Athens was forced to restructure its debt, despite the benefit of previous bailouts. So why does Europe now need to double down on the same bailout medicine that so expensively failed to save Greece?

7. US foreign policy tries to lock up loose nukes (San Francisco Chronicle)

Neither of two major sources of worry - Iran and next-door North Korea - attended a recent summit. The get-together underlined the ostracized, outsider status of the two nations, which have refused to divulge the extent of their nuclear buildup, writes this editorial.

8. Streamline the federal government (Politico)

It is in the national interest to approve the president's consolidation authority, so that we can bring Washington into the 21st century by making it tech savvy and agile, a true partner for U.S. companies, small and large, that will be the source of jobs for years to come, write Jeff Zients and John Engler.

9. Ripping out Obamacare by the roots (Washington Examiner)

We are only beginning to scratch the surface of Obamacare. Never before has a piece of legislation empowered an unaccountable, unelected official, in this case the secretary of health and human services, to wield such enormous regulatory power, writes Rep. Michele Bachmann.

10. Income inequality does matter (USA Today)

Some think the problem is one of relative deprivation, that folks in the middle are doing OK. It's just a matter of envy. Not so, says Philip Meyer.

Symbols of the Democratic and Republican parties on display in Washington, D.C. in 2008. Credit: Getty Images
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.