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.

Gerald Wiener
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From the Kindertransport to Dolly the Sheep: a New Statesman subscriber's story

Gerald Wiener's life has now been turned into a biography. 

In 1997, Gerald Wiener, an animal geneticist, gathered with a group of friends in Edinburgh to celebrate the cloning of Dolly the sheep by one of his former colleagues. He was a respected scientist, who had contributed to the developments in research which led to this ground-breaking development – and a New Statesman reader.

It could have been very different. Gerald was born Horst, on 25 April 1926, to a German Jewish family. Raised in Berlin by his mother, Luise, he grew up under the shadow of the Nazi regime. He was forced out of his school, and left increasingly alone as friends and family fled to the United States and Britain. After Kristallnacht, when Nazis looted and vandalised Jewish-owned businesses, his mother was desperate for her son to escape. She managed to get him included in the last-ditch organised rescue of German Jewish children, which became known as the Kindertransport. At twelve, Wiener arrived in the UK, alone.

For many years, Wiener did not talk much about his past in Germany. Instead, he embraced a new life as a British schoolboy, and later travelled the world as a scientist. But when he met his second wife, the teacher and writer Margaret Dunlop, she began noting down some of his stories. Eventually she encouraged him to share so many details it has become a book: Goodbye Berlin: the biography of Gerald Wiener.

“I was moved by some of the stories, like his mother putting him on a train in Berlin,” Dunlop tells me when I call the couple at their home in Inverness. “I thought - what a terrible thing.”

“I rejected Germany totally for a long, long time,” Wiener, now 91, says. His mother, with whom he was reunited after she also managed to escape to Britain, threw herself into a wartime career as a nurse. “I had one friend from my school days in Berlin, and he was more like a sort of brother to me, but they also left Germany way behind.”

It was during this period of his life that Wiener first picked up a New Statesman. He spent the war years in Oxford, mentored by the Spooner cousins Rosemary and Ruth, related to William Spooner, who gave his name to the speech error.

Then, in the 1960s, his work took him to Germany, where he met fellow researchers. “They all detested the Hitler years,” he recalls. “I started feeling they are no different to me. I no longer felt bitter about Germany.” 

Still, the Nazis' atrocities had left Wiener almost completely without family. He lost his grandfather, aunt and uncle in the Holocaust. His paternal family fled to the United States. By the time Wiener found them again when taking up a fellowship to study in the US in 1956, his father, who survived the concentration camps, had died of a heart attack.

The next decades were spent patching his family together, and also reclaiming a connection to Germany. Wiener’s half brothers, who were born in Shanghai continue to visit. His American nephew, who works in the music industry, has a German girlfriend and lives in Berlin.

Wiener, too, went back to Berlin. In the early 1990s, the city invited former refugees to visit the city, all expenses paid. With some reservations, Wiener and Dunlop took up the offer. “It was quite exciting to go and see places that had been in my childhood,” he says. He also found the old people's home his grandfather had sought refuge in, before being taken by the Nazis.

Meanwhile, his career was taking him around the world, from India to North Korea. His belief in academic collaboration helped to build the momentum for the Roslin Institute, whose scientists eventually cloned the sheep known as Dolly. 

Wiener, who votes Liberal Democrat, wanted to remain in the EU, and he feels “very angry” that 48 per cent of voters have been ignored.

He adds: “I would be surprised if there was a single university or college who was in favour of Brexit.”

As for another of the great challenges of the present, the refugee crisis, Wiener feels a deep empathy for those living in wartorn regions. “Obviously I feel very, very sympathetic to refugees from more or less wherever,” he says. He sees the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who acted decisively on this matter, as “a bit of a beacon”. At the same time, he believes that in order to fully integrate, refugees must make learning English a priority. “When I go down the street, and I hear people who still don’t speak English, that is the one thing that upsets me,” he says.

If Wiener, a successful scientist, is an example of how Britain can benefit by continuing to offer sanctuary to the world’s desperate, there is, however, a dark undertone to his integration. As a teenager, he knew there was no way back to the Berlin of his childhood. “There was no young generation,” he says of that time. “There was no future.”

Goodbye Berlin is published by Birlinn Books.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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