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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.