Saturday, November 4, 2006

Back into Brit-mode

Malcolm has returned to London, eight-miles-high, albeit jag-lagged and red-eyed, and is beginning to clear his thoughts about a month elsewhere.

Actually, he finds that not a lot has altered, except the length of the grass in his back-garden.

British politics are still deeply mired in triviality, egotism, and frustrated ambition—which about sums up the Leader of the Opposition. The really big issues, at home as well as away, remain the economy, employment, the health and the welfare of the nation. On all those topics, the Labour Government is doing fairly nicely, thank you, despite the sniping of the Daily Wail and the Daily Sexcess.

Meanwhile, in the former American colonies (and Malcolm has been based in New York and New Jersey for the last ten days), things are different. The General Election next Tuesday will clearly give the House of Representatives to the Democrats, should significantly increase the number of States with Democratic Governors, and may—just may—give the Democrats the Senate. [The State Governorships and the State governments should not be passed over too lightly: they will determine the re-apportioning of electoral districts, and provide the next generation of national leaders.] Gerard Baker's double-spread in today's Times seems to cover the waterfront more than adequately, though it's worth splurging for the print edition to get the graphics.

Here are the headlines of all that, for those incapable of reading the obvious, and to allow Malcolm to order his conclusions:

About a week ago, the Republican National Committee shifted its priorities. Money was pulled from a number of hopeless campaigns, and several sitting Republican Congressmen were left to face their fates. The Republican campaign continues to bang on with the theme of "America Weakly": how the Democrats were "soft" on terrorism, the menace of Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House (a very telling concession), the threat of Democrats hiking taxes (ditto), and general Bushery.

In reality, each of these themes is a non-event and the whole campaign has been a busted flush. The only strokes of luck going the Republican way are that the attrition in Iraq has not been worse, and a botched "joke" by John Kerry.

Keep in mind two key numbers: 2,973 and 2,801. The first is the number of service personnel killed in the Iraq campaign, and the second is the number killed on 9/11. Since the first is the cost of the "war on terror" and the second is the "cause" of that "war", the significance of that grim subtraction sum is evident. If the number of US casualties in Afghanistan, the other theatre of the "war on terror", is included, the milestone was passed on 22nd September.

The other black secret, assiduously avoided by the White House and its minions, is the cost in maimed and wounded. Gary Trudeau's wholly-admirable Doonesbury ought to be essential reading for those who miss this unpublicised and uncounted human cost: his The War Within, the anthology of the B.D. strips, is ten bucks well-spent. [If anyone is lost in that last sentence, shame on you.] By the by, the proceeds of the book go to Fisher House, a support organisation for military families.

As for Kerry's faux-pas, Malcolm finds it intriguing to note how the GOP-cheerleaders (e.g. Murdoch's New York Post and Fox News) tried to keep the story alive, while the respectable and responsible broadsheets (e.g. the New York Times and the Washington Post) gave it just one-day's passing attention. Kerry's difficulties, allegedly, were caused by one missed word. His prepared text read:
Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.
Actual delivery crucially omitted the word “us.” Malcolm suspects a generational Freudian slip here. Try the text, replacing the word "Vietnam" for "Iraq". It suddenly makes Kerry more, not less, humane and human. Kerry, surely, was subconsciously voicing the great truth about Vietnam: the rich and clued-up (think Bush and Clinton) avoided the draft, while the poor, blacks and hispanics disproportionately made up the unfortunate "grunts". A casual look at how and where the military recruit suggests that little has changed in forty years.

The Kerry moment was typical of the whole negative Republican campaign. The Nancy Pelosi thing is an even-more extreme model. Pelosi represents the California 8th district, which is San Francisco, minus its south-western corner. This is one of the most solid (80% of the vote) Democratic constituencies. Moreover, it is San Francisco liberal Democrat. The Republican attack ads focused on her, her liberalism, her location (the god-less West Coast!), and her gender. All of these are represented as anathema to the GOP heartland vote. The mystery is that the Republicans believe most Americans could recognise her, though perhaps that makes the stereotyping easier. Malcolm was shocked by the barely-implicit chauvinism on show. Pelosi was repeatedly linked to Hillary Clinton, making the inference even more obvious. Clinton, the blow-in for New York State six years ago, has served her ticket; and is now the shoo-in for the Senate seat—expect a 20-30% margin ... but the anti-feminist line is dismal, patent and constant.

The sadness of the whole business is that the Democrats ought to have a great and positive case to propose.

The American public is desperate for disengagement and a way out of Iraq: the Bush line is increasingly untenable. Even the neoCons are ratting in a big way (a must-read is David Rose's piece in the current Vanity Fair, based on interviews with Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelmann). A Democrat sweep, next week, of both Houses would make disengagement a political priority, and certain before the 2008 Presidential Election (meantime, Malcolm predicts, throwing the Republican rump into a fit of isolationism).

Then there is the American economy. Wages for most manufactures are stagnant. Job-insecurity is rife. House-prices are falling. Inflation is on the up.

Bush's "war economy" has pumped dollars into Big Business, especially the whole defence nexus. Moreover, someone has got to get a grip on the national security ramp. This currently costs the US taxpayer over $40B, and employs up to 200,000 directly, as well as a vast indirect but dependent workforce (look for the sub-contracted security firms at check-points). The three biggest US Government departments (Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security) are all military-related. This cost goes largely unquestioned and ill-reported. At some stage, if Democrats want to rein in the budget, all this must be reviewed and amended. Then we shall see what else, if anything, is keeping the US economy, and the deficit, afloat.

Alongside this is the inequality. Malcolm has already bitten on this one; but it needs constant nagging. Bill Clinton neatly side-stepped the blocking Republican majority by giving individual States the right to fix minimum-wage above the federal level. Six States, all across the South, have no minimum-wage laws, while in Kansas the state-mandated minimum remains at $2.65 (for a State-by-State summary, go here). This means it is legal to pay $5.15—about £2.70—an hour (the federal minimum), without any health benefits and precious little job security. Malcolm wonders, too, about enforcement in an un-unionised, regulation-lite job-scramble. Poverty wages and negligible benefits are being underwritten by the (goes without saying, inadequate) federal safety-nets. The San Francisco ordinance establishing a indexed minimum was, inevitably, another of the brickbats Republicans lobbed at Nancy Pelosi. Meanwhile, greed is good and endorsed by the Wall Street Journal and all points right.

Above all there is, or ought to be, the health issue. Medicare is a shambles, fraud-ridden, exemption-limited , and (according to its own Trustees) bound to run out of funds in a decade. Medicaid, a social-welfare programme not a health-service entitlement, varies from State-to-State, and is a disgrace to a civilised First-World nation. Even so, it provides minimal support for 40M Americans, nearly half of them children, and for well-over-a-third of all births. American health provision is the most expensive in the world, but the US languishes about 50th in the life-expectancy stakes.

So, what have the Republicans done for US health? Well, the gem is the Medicare Prescription Drug Law, passed two years ago. Congress out-lawed Government negotiation over drug costs, forcing up costs to individuals as well as to the federal budget, and has since been seizing private imports of generic and other drugs, especially those from Canada. This all amounts to a scandal of titanic proportions, including the boss of Medicare being issued an ethical-waiver to negotiate his future employment in private-enterprise pharmaceuticals while presenting the Drugs Bill to Congress! Don't believe Malcolm, go here.

Malcolm began this blog-entry with the opinion that "The really big issues, at home as well as away, remain the economy, employment, the health and the welfare of the nation." He might have included the environment, a topic which is gaining ground even in SUV-driving suburbia. On any of these issues, the Republicans deserve a caning. They will get one, but it will be for the other issue, the 600-pound gorilla in every American sitting-room: Iraq. So next Tuesday Malcolm will spend a fair bit of the night watching and waiting for the denouement of this national tragedy. Then the lame-brain may transmogrify into a lame-duck. Sphere: Related Content

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