US press: pick of the papers

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

1. The never-ending Cold War (New York Times)

Two decades after the end of the cold war, Mitt Romney still considers Russia to be America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," says this editorial.

2. We're not France, yet (Wall Street Journal)

Democracies always begin in liberty, but they don't always keep it. France is in economic decline today because the structure of its government is so severely centralized, says Daniel Henniger.

3. Ousting Syria's Assad through a "soft landing" (Washington Post)

It's a moment for realpolitik: The West needs Russia's help in removing Assad without a civil war, and Russia needs to broker a transition to bolster its future influence in the Arab world, writes David Ignatius.

4. Big labor in Little Italy (Wall Street Journal)

Mario Monti's proposed reforms to Italy's 1970 Workers' Charter would supposedly deliver a labor market so liberalized that it would be "not European, but American..." Even applying the standard political-rhetoric discount, these are overstatements, writes Anne Jolis.

5. Obamacare and the character question (Washington Post)

I wish Santorum would finally tell us exactly how he and his family get health coverage themselves -- the coverage he would perversely deny to millions of others "on principle," says Matt Miller.

6. Obama's "tax" lapse (LA Times)

To avoid the stigma of the word "tax," they included a requirement that everyone obtain health insurance or pay a penalty, writes Doyle McManus.

7. Romney's wrong about Russia (Politico)

Together, we fight international terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and human trafficking, writes Rep. Gregory Meeks.

8. World poverty in retreat (Chicago Tribune)

Economic growth, not redistribution, has been the surest cure for poverty, and economic freedom has been the key that unlocked the riddle of economic growth, says Steve Chapman.

9. Public deserves televised access to the constitutional fight over health care reform (Oregonian)

It's time for the court to follow its own lofty advice about transparency and openness. The justices can't hide forever behind a curtain, expecting citizens to be satisfied with televised sideshows instead of the real thing, says this editorial.

10. Time to re-regulate the airlines (USA Today)

We need a regulatory regime that provides balanced, reasonably priced service to metropolitan areas that don't happen to be hubs, writes Phil Longman.

Mitt Romney. 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.