Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Thomas Fina's Letter From Washington, 16 March

Note to readers: DA Switzerland merely passes on the excellent, monthly analysis of the Washington political situation, by the ex-Executive Director of Democrats Abroad, Tom Fina. We hope to post this each month. If we forget, bug us about it! Enjoy.

To Democrats Abroad
16 March 2014
Tom Fina
Executive Director Emeritus

Now, at mid-March, there are two looming threats to our peace and well-being.

In one of those ever-surprising Political Acts of God, the Ukraine conjures up an unplanned and unpredictable test of wills and power. Notwithstanding the assurances of pundits, no participant in the Second World War, or son of one in the First, can dispel the nightmare of reciprocal mis-calculation.

At this delicate moment of post-war history, we need a fully functioning government enjoying the support of the public. Yet, we are embroiled in a national political struggle that could paralyze government for another two years. Democratic loss of the Senate to the states’ rights, nihilist, libertarian austerians in November seems increasingly possible.

Responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine lies, in part, with the encouragement given by the United States to extend the European Communities and NATO to the western fringe of the former Soviet Union. As Putin has steadily consolidated his autocratic control of Russia, it was almost inevitable that he would react at some point to the next perceived loss of territory in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine was that goad. The presence of our Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, among the overthrow demonstrators must only have fueled Putin’s reflex to hit back.

The United States has no vital interest in Ukraine. It does have one in the stability of Europe that is threatened by the de facto Russian re-annexation of Crimea. The referendum this week-end is already rigged to that end. All efforts by the US and Western Europe to stop that annexation have failed.

What next? Obama has warned Putin from the outset that annexation or worse, would lead to retaliation short of war. He has already invoked authority to impose a variety of sanctions ranging from denial of visas and freezing of foreign accounts to barring Russia from the world banking system. He has rallied an indecisive Western Europe, the UN and the IMF to this program of sanctions. This is serious stuff. If, as appears likely, this tourniquet on the Russian economy is progressively tightened, Russia is bound to retaliate.

Beyond this expectation, I will not venture. It is enough to try to assure that Americans abroad, however remote from Crimea, are aware of its looming threat.

The prudent performance of Obama and of Kerry throughout this crisis is a credit to them and fortunate for us. The President has been on top of the problem ab initio and been a very active player in personal conversations with Putin and our Western European allies. He has made every effort to find a modus vivendi with Putin to avert annexation and confrontation. He has rallied European leaders to join us in trying to deter Putin. He has apparently been willing to risk progress in reaching an accommodation with Iran and the ouster of Assad to prevent destabilization in Europe.

Kerry’s performance as Secretary of State has shown that he would have been an exceptional president – one who would have avoided the war in Iraq. He is relentless in his efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian compromise, to reach a nuclear deal with Iran, to remove Assad and, latterly, to leave no solution untried to keep Russia from upsetting post-war stability and slowing world economic integration. His years of Senate experience have given him an unmatched command of the issues that, paired with the President, has given us a powerful position in this unwanted confrontation with an increasingly autocratic Russia. Yet, I am bewildered that he permitted his Assistant Secretary of State to join those demonstrating to overthrow the pro-Russian government in Ukraine.

However foreboding our confrontation with Putin, our national attention is concentrated on the mystery of Malaysia Flt 370. Nevertheless, we face no greater issue and no greater threat to our well-being than the outcome of the mid-term elections in November.

Democrats are running scared and Republicans are whooping it up chasing them. We Democrats are terrified that we will lose the Senate. Republicans, when not cutting each other up, are contemplating the redecoration of Harry Reid’s office.

After the Republican led government shutdown last year (October 1-16) and before the problems of the roll-out of Obamacare (October 1) became evident, it looked like Democrats would hold their own or gain in November. That bright hope faded as anger and frustration over the rollout grew and was enthusiastically stoked by Republicans of all stripes with the powerful campaigns of outside groups unleashed by the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court. Today, the President’s approval rating is just short of 43%. Using one statistical model (Nate Silver has not yet spoken), at that level of approval, Democrats would lose between 10 and 13 seats in the Senate. Republicans need 6 to oust Reid. Election day is seven months distant. Can Obama get back to 51% giving Democrats a very good chance of losing only 4 to 8 seats?

The pessimism about Democratic performance this year derives not only from statistical projections but also from past experience. A president’s party loses seats in mid-term elections and especially in mid-term elections of a second Presidential term. Voter turn-out is usually a fraction of that in Presidential races.

All of this was underscored by a Democratic defeat in a special election in Florida on March 11. Obama had narrowly carried the district in both presidential elections. The Democrat, Alex Sink, had excellent state wide name recognition, was a good campaigner and had all the money she could use. Her opponent raised less money but got all that he needed from outside groups. He won 49 to 47. The Republican attack issue was Sink’s support for Obamacare which she argued should be perfected rather than repealed. The prevailing take-away is that Obamacare sank Sink. But, the more likely cause was the low turnout (40% compared to 74% in 2012) and the failure of women, minorities, gays and Hispanics to go to the polls. Therein lies the greatest threat to Democrats in November. Mid-term turn out is only about 2/3 (40% rather than 60%) of that in Presidential elections. And, older white voters are more likely Republican and vote at a higher rate than younger voters in midterm elections : 64% to 36% in 2010. But, in presidential elections, more young voters go to the polls: 55% older to 45% younger in 2012.

The President and Democratic Party are now obsessed with the danger of losing the Senate. Many Democratic senators are hopping mad that the President is not doing more to help them. Which is one reason that Obama is pushing an increase in the minimum wage, expanding overtime eligibility, stressing the widening income and mobility gap, trying to rein in Hispanic deportations, while the Attorney General is encouraging state officials not to enforce gay marriage bans, while calling for less punitive sentences for small drug offenders and bringing suit to block Republican state voter repression measures. Reid is carrying out a sustained campaign against the Koch brothers who are pouring prodigious sums of money into right-wing candidates and causes. He is trying to awaken and arouse the Democratic base. At the same time, Democratic senators are deserting the President on his appointments opposed by the right: the nominee to be Surgeon General who favors gun control, opposed by the NRA; the NAACP’s former Legal Defense Fund nominee to head the Civil Rights Division in Justice. Liberals want to block two of his nominees to the Federal Courts for their being too conservative. Obama is poison in close Senate races.

The President and Democrats have 7 months to rouse their coalition of the young, women, minorities, gays, seculars, college educated and post-grads to overcome the expected Republican advantages. Will Obama’s handling of the Ukranian crisis raise his approval rating? Will the continuing improvement in Obamacare enrollment make it less of a Democratic burden? Will the steady improvement of the economy improve Obama’s numbers? Or, will Russian retaliation for the economic squeeze being put on it backfire and set back European and our recovery?

It is too soon to know. But, it is not too soon to shift to campaign mode to save the Republic and to demonstrate to the world that democracy can work.