Making the most of the Obama backlash

The Republican Party is celebrating success after two of its members won House seats in New York and

The Republicans are having a moment. And that's despite the fracas over Monday's presidential debate - when the would be candidates seemed intent on ripping shreds out of front runner Rick Perry.

Today the GOP must surely be popping open the champagne, after trouncing Democrats in not one, but two special elections for the US House of Representatives.

The Republicans had expected a win in the largely rural district in Nevada -- but not the size of the win, which was a landslide. And it's a state that's seen as key to Barack Obama's re-election hopes. And the Democrats suffered a rare defeat in one of their heartlands, New York -- as retired television executive Bob Turner triumphed in the seat formerly held by Anthony Weiner, forced out over a Twitter sex scandal.

Before the vote, House Speaker John Boehner had declared "This is not a district that Republicans have any right to believe that we can win" - in fact, it's the first Democratic loss in Queens or Brooklyn in a generation. Their 70 year-old candidate, whose career highlight was creating the Jerry Springer show, ran for the same seat two years ago, in his first electoral foray, and came a distant second to Weiner. This time, though, it was different: a triumphant Turner telling supporters "We're ready to say, Mr President, we are on the wrong track".

Although the more measured commentators are cautioning against a rush to judgement, these twin defeats are inevitably being interpreted as a backlash against President Obama, among voters fearful about the state of the economy, and sceptical about his leadership.

In New York, the figures could hardly be starker: the President's approval rating was a meagre 30 per cent -- and although the Democrats began with a financial advantage, pro-Republican groups poured cash and energy into their campaign, focusing on the decision to legalise gay marriage, a policy deeply unpopular with the seat's large population of Orthodox Jews.

But is it really possible to use special election results as a prediction of what might happen to Democrats across the country next year? Possibly not. Essentially they're snapshots of the popular mood, rather than reliable indications of a trend, and as Nate Silver, from the five-thirty-eight blog, warns -- "special elections are always difficult - they are low turnout, high intensity races."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Steve Israel was keen to play down the New York result, insisting they were "not reflective of what will happen in November 2012 when Democratic challengers run against Republican incumbents who voted to end Medicare and cut Social Security while protecting tax loopholes for big corporations and the ultra wealthy."

But according to Politico, the mood in a conference call among top campaign aides last night, was 'awful', quoting a source who said that "people feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted, hopeless". No punches pulled there, then.

On the record, House democratic whip Steny Hoyer was slightly more measured: "Do I think it's an overall statement on the president alone? No. Do I think it will be interpreted as being a statement on Obama? That's probably correct." And in more bad news for the party - labour unions were pretty much disengaged from the race, even in this heavily blue-collar district. Mirror that on a national scale, and the party really would be in trouble.

There's a glimpse of blue sky though, for worried Democrats: Obama's new jobs act - and the prospect of a reinvigorated President with a coherent message to sell. New York Rep Eliot Engel welcomed the reappearance of "the feisty Barack Obama, the one that we knew and loved and voted for in 2008".

The party will be hoping voters will start thinking likewise, and that the snapshot revealed in last night's special elections can be eclipsed by the political campaign ahead.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”