Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney has released a new video on unemployment a day after he was criticised as "out of touch" by the Democrats for telling a jobless crowd in Florida that he too was unemployed.

The video, titled 20,000,000 Bumps In The Road, attacks Barack Obama's claim that "there are always going to be bumps on the road to recovery." A seies of unemployed figures in the film declare: "I'm an American, not a bump in the road."

The Romney camp calculated that "President Obama's 20 Million Bumps In The Road Would Stretch From The White House To Los Angeles".

2. Rising GOP star Michele Bachmann has received a poll boost after her impressive performance in Monday's debate. A poll of New Hampshire voters had Bachmann tied for second place with Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination.

The survey by Magellan Strategies put frontrunner Mitt Romney on 42 per cent, followed by Paul and Bachmann at 10 per cent each. Sarah Palin is on 7 per cent, with Rudy Giuliani on 6 per cent, although neither has confirmed whether they will enter the race.

Tim Pawlenty received 5 per cent in the poll, followed by Newt Gingrich with 4 per cent, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman with 3 per cent each, and Rick Santorum with 2 per cent.

28 per cent of those surveyed said that Bachmann gave the strongest performance at this week's debate, with 39 per cent preferring Romney.

3. Sarah Palin has made her first TV appearance since the release of 14,000 emails from her time as Alaska governor.

"It certainly shows the priorities in what was once a respected cornerstone of our democracy, our mainstream media and we see that priorities are quite skewed," said Palin on Fox Business Network's "Freedom Watch". "I hope folks who read the emails learned a lot about energy independence, fish and game conservation, protecting second amendment rights, why I opposed Obama's stimulus package." The emails were released in response to freedom of information requests filed by the media during the 2008 presidential election.

Palin also commented on the downfall of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned his seat after posting lewd photos of himself to women online.

"Anthony Weiner, from henceforth after his personal indiscretions were disclosed, he was going to be rendered impotent basically in Congress and he wasn't going to be effective," she said. "So obviously [resigning] was the right thing to do. Day late dollar short, though. I think he should have resigned when all of this came to light."

4. Republican challenger Tim Pawlenty has admitted that he was wrong not to challenge Mitt Romney over his support for health-care reform at Monday's debate. Pawlenty, who coined the term "ObamneyCare" on Sunday to describe the similarities between Obama's plan and Romney's, told Fox News's Sean Hannity: "I should have been much more clear during the debate ... I don't think we can have a nominee that was involved in the development and construction of ObamaCare and then continues to defend it. And that was the question. I should've answered it directly. Instead I stayed focused on Obama."

The former governor of Minnesota acknowledged his mistake in a tweet on Thursday night.

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5. Barack Obama has said that he and his wife Michelle have no plans to have another child in addition to their two daughters. The US President told ABC's Good Morning: "I think Michelle's general view is 'we're done' ".

Obama joked that he's prepared for a crisis in the White House next month - his eldest daughter becoming a teenager. He said: "I understand that teenage-hood is complicated. I should also point out that I have men with guns that surround them, often, and a great incentive for running for reelection is that it means they never get in a car with a boy who had a beer."

Commenting on Anthony Weiner's resignation, Obama said: "I wish Representative Weiner and his lovely wife well ... Obviously, it's been a tough incident for him, but I'm confident that they'll refocus and he'll refocus, and they'll end up being able to bounce back."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.