Those over a certain age are remembering where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon fifty years ago today. I was 13 and in London, where I had arrived the day before with my family (driving from Italy and France; we crossed the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate, in the hovercraft). We were staying with relatives, on Pennine Drive in NW2, all watching the telly. I remember the first live image of the spacecraft on the ground and, at 2:40 AM on the 21st, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerging from the vessel. My mother and I went outside and pointed up at the moon, me excited and probably saying “there they are!”

I likewise remember—as a snapshot image—when the three astronauts came to Ankara, Turkey—where I was living at the time—in October (three months to the day after the landing; it was a sunny afternoon), on their world tour, of them waving to the multitudes from an open-top sedan in the procession down Atatürk Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. A large part of the city turned out to see them.

On the subject, there’s the movie First Man, which opened last October and was nominated for four Oscars (in technical categories, winning one, for ‘best visual effects’). If one doesn’t know it, it’s the first feature-length non-documentary film on the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) at the center. I thought it very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The Right Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished in training and test flight accidents, not to mention the Apollo 1 disaster—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

Can Trump win in ’20?

[update below]

Since the Democratic candidate debates two weeks ago, a number of liberal pundits and Never Trump conservatives have been admonishing the Democrats that they are lurching too far to the left, and that this could be—indeed, will be—fatal to their chances of defeating Trump. Others—including at least two worrywart friends of mine—contend that only Biden can beat the idiot in ’20 and that the Dems are dead if they nominate Sanders, Warren, Harris, or anyone else presently polling over 2%. And then there are those who submit that it doesn’t matter who the Dem candidate is, as Trump is, as the normally smart political scientist Cas Mudde asserted last month, “cruising toward re-election.” This sentiment was reinforced by The Washington Post-ABC poll released July 7th (which FiveThirtyEight gave a grade of A+), that has “Trump’s approval rating [rising] to the highest point of his presidency” (for the WaPo-ABC poll). Echoing Professor Mudde, conservative WaPo columnist Henry Olson—who, unlike other right-wingers at the WaPo opinion page, is not a hack—thus concluded from the poll that “Trump is almost a lock to win [reelection].”

Last August 25th I wrote the following:

One should normally not speculate on an election outcome two years ahead of time—and I normally never do so—but, in this particular case, I will categorically assert that, barring major voter suppression in key swing states (emphasis added), Trump will not and cannot win in 2020.

I may have perhaps been getting ahead of myself but hold to my categorical assertion nonetheless, with maybe the proviso that it is unlikely that Trump will win. As his aggregate poll numbers at FiveThirtyEight were almost identical then—41.9% approval/53.4% disapproval—to what they are today (see above image), there is no objective reason for me to get cold feet now, particularly as Trump’s numbers have been remarkably stable over the past two years. Peoples’ attitudes about him are baked in and strongly felt; the intensity of sentiment is striking, and with a wide spread between those who just hate the S.O.B. and his adoring cult base—with the former some 15% higher than the latter. The fact is, Trump has not topped 43% approval at FiveThirtyEight since March 2017. If his numbers don’t spike between now and November 2020, it’s hard to see how he wins reelection.

That said, one obviously cannot totally rule out the unthinkable possibility that Trump could indeed win, particularly as he does have a few things going for him, namely:

  • The power of incumbency. This may not guarantee reelection (e.g. Ford, Carter, Bush 41) but it does help, as the POTUS can make sure he’s in the news daily and drive the political discussion—and which includes driving inconvenient stories or revelations out of the news cycle (and Trump is, as we know, a genius at this).
  • Trump will not face a serious primary challenger (the presence of one for an incumbent being an almost sure predictor of defeat in November). He owns his party, which fanatically supports him, voters and elected reps alike.
  • The core of Trump’s fanaticized base—the evangelicals—is highly organized and richly endowed, and will spearhead a ground operation to ensure maximum turnout of Trump’s electorate—and which will be an important factor in certain swing states, notably Florida and North Carolina, plus in red states where the Democrats have a shot (Georgia, Texas). Add to this the Republican propaganda machine (Fox News, etc) and social media army, which will go into overdrive, plus eventual covert ops by foreign actors.
  • The Trump campaign will have a huge amount of money, with America’s plutocracy pulling out all the stops to get him reelected.
  • The economy. It’s clearly more helpful for an incumbent to launch a reelection campaign with positive macroeconomic numbers than negative ones—not to mention a booming stock market, in view of how many voters’ retirement pensions depend on that.
  • For the moment at least, no foreign quagmire involving US soldiers—that the public is paying attention to—or major foreign policy fiasco.
  • The Electoral College, in which the Republicans now enjoy a structural advantage. Trump’s operatives know that he will lose the popular vote but are confident that he can repeat his 2016 Electoral College feat.

But then we come back to his poor poll numbers—which increasingly look to be etched in stone—and a few facts, namely:

  • With the exception of a few days after his inauguration—Trump’s ephemeral “honeymoon”—he has never reached even 45% approval at FIveThirtyEight. There is always a first time, of course, but no incumbent president has ever been reelected with a job approval rating of less than 48% in the average of election eve polls.
  • If an incumbent is running for reelection, the election is a referendum on him and his performance. The 2020 election will be about Trump, not his opponent. Period.
  • If the evangelicals will be fired up for Trump, so will liberals and progressives for the Democratic candidate, regardless of who s/he is. The Dems will likewise have a ton of money and a GOTV ground game like none in their history. The number of Democratic voters who will be knocking on doors and getting out the vote will be unprecedented.
  • The economy is going great for some Americans but not for many others—and certainly not for the 40% who struggle to pay their bills. As the FT’s Martin Wolf has explained, there’s a lot of “hot air” in Trump’s boom. And for even swing voters, all sorts of other issues may trump perceptions of the economy—and in this case, Trump himself.
  • The Electoral College: the Clinton campaign (and almost everyone else) was blindsided by Trump’s feat, having taken the three famous Rust Belt states—the Blue Firewall—for granted, and particularly Michigan and Wisconsin, where it consecrated few resources. One may be utterly certain that this will not happen again.
  • Trump has done nothing to expand his electoral base. His strategy is “base only.” Some 2016 abstentionists may come out of the woodwork to vote for him but it is unlikely that he will flip a significant number of Clinton voters. The Dem candidate, on the other hand, has a greater reservoir of 2016 abstentionists—of 2012 Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, notably persons of color and younger Millennials—and greater prospects to attract disaffected 2016 Obama-to-Trump voters. And the Democratic base is larger than Trump’s to begin with.

Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, in an interesting interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, “What the Democrats’ turn leftward means for the party’s chances in 2020,” argues that the election will be determined in six states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (of course), plus Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. This is correct. All were narrowly won by Trump in ’16. FL presently looks iffy and NC is a toss-up but the Dems will be well-positioned to win the other four, in view of the razor thin ’16 margins, current state polling, and the outcomes there in the 2018 midterms. The Trump campaign, with its boatloads of money, will target states narrowly won by Clinton—New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, even Virginia—but more to distract the Ds and make them spend money there, as it is most unlikely that he will win any. So if the Democratic candidate takes PA-MI-WI-AZ, plus the Nebraska 2nd CD (where it was close in ’16, so why not?), that’s 290 EVs. And the election.

Wasserman makes one critical observation that needs to be reiterated again and again, particularly with those who have a fixation on the famous white working class being the key to victory:

[W]hat five of the six [swing states that will decide the election] have in common are pretty robust African-American populations. And if I wanted to know the turnout rate for one demographic in 2020 for the sake of predicting the result, it would be African-American voters under forty.

Thank you. As I’ve been insisting forever, if black voters turn out in the same percentage as they did in 2008 and ’12, the Dems will win. Period. To help insure this, the Dem ticket will, as I’ve been incessantly repeating, need to have an Afro-American (Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Stacey Abrams are obvious candidates).

On the WWC, plus Joe Biden, Wasserman has this to say:

[T]he idea that Joe Biden could return a lot of those white working-class voters to the Democratic fold could turn out to be a mirage. These voters have become culturally loyal to Trump. They are much likelier to live in places where local news is declining—in other words, places that are more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns. Trump’s popularity has not waned much in those places. (…)

[W]hat I think 2016 proved was that doubling down on the evolution of your party and its base can pay dividends. We saw in 2012 that Mitt Romney, who represented the last vestiges of the country-club wing of the Republican Party, simply could not excite the voters that Trump could excite in 2016. I see the same potential scenario on the Democratic side, where Joe Biden might be the last vestige of a certain kind of Democratic Party that failed to excite the future of the Democratic Party.

Wasserman sees pitfalls in an Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris nomination, which could, he contends, reinforce the image of a Democratic Party “dominated by coastal élitists” (Massachusetts and Harvard for Warren—malgré her Oklahoma roots—and San Francisco for Harris). He undermines his argument on this, however, in his assessment of Barack Obama:

[P]art of why Obama appealed in those [Midwestern] states was that he was a Midwestern candidate. He was someone who had experience going to fish fries in rural counties of Illinois, which, culturally and economically, are a lot like the parts of Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa where Democrats’ fortunes have fallen recently.

Wasserman is way wide of the mark here. Apart from the fact that Obama had possibly never even set foot in the Midwest—or anywhere in “flyover country”—before age 22, he lived his entire time there on the South Side of Chicago, which is as culturally “Midwestern” as is NYC’s Upper West Side, the Occidental College campus in L.A., or Honolulu, where he had resided prior. He may have attended a few fish fries and county fairs downstate during his brief stint as senator but that hardly made him a fils du pays.

The fact is, the mixed-race Obama, with his exotic, Muslim-sounding name and background, Hawaii and Indonesian childhood, professorial demeanor, residence in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood (which is so different a neighborhood from any in Middle America), having lived his entire life in global cities, et j’en passe, was, for a sizable portion of the (Republican) electorate, culturally alien and suffused with elitism and Otherness—and far more so than Warren or Harris today. The Republican attack machine will certainly try to affix the elitist/culturally out-of-touch label to both but I don’t think it will work.

On the supposed electoral dangers of the Democrats moving too far left, Never Trump conservatives, plus a few liberal pundits, seem to think that 2016 Obama-to-Trump or soft Hillary voters in the aforementioned six swing states will, hearing that the wild-eyed leftist Elizabeth Warren wants to take away their private health insurance, stay with or defect to Trump. Objectively speaking, there is no reason to think this. First, voters—and particularly low information ones, which is what the tiny number of persuadable Trump voters are—do not read policy papers or make their choice after carefully weighing the issues, and particularly in a highly partisan, politically polarized environment. There is of course some single-issue voting but mainly over cultural or identity markers (e.g. guns, abortion) and by voters who are otherwise highly ideological and partisan. Second, Democratic positions on health care, college tuition, student debt, and other such issues that impact on peoples’ pocket books are largely popular. These do not appeal solely to the hardcore Democratic base. Third, the Dem candidate—whether it’s Biden, Warren, Harris, or any of the others with a shot (N.B. I am discounting Sanders, who I simply do not believe can or will get the nomination)—is not going to take away peoples’ existing health insurance, drive up their taxes, and then impose socialized medicine on them. No Democratic nominee will pledge to do this. It’s a red herring.

Now it is indeed likely—indeed nigh certain—that the Republican propaganda apparatus will nonetheless frame the Dem position this way—as “socialist”—and hammer away at it. The Dems will just have to fight back. À propos, the erstwhile Republican Bruce Bartlett tweeted this trenchant comment:

Keep in mind that no matter how “moderate” the Democratic nominee is, he or she will be painted by Fox and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber as far, far left. I think someone who is actually a lefty might be better at parrying these charges than a moderate.

On the Democrats’ moderates vs. lefties conundrum, there are two recent must-read articles: one by Alex Pareene in TNR, “Give war a chance: In search of the Democratic Party’s fighting spirit,” the other by Ryan Grim in The Washington Post, “Haunted by the Reagan era: Past defeats still scare older Democratic leaders — but not the younger generation.” Both observe that Democrats over a certain age—who were around in the 1980s—were permanently traumatized by Ronald Reagan, his landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, the near-landslide by the otherwise hapless George Bush over Michael Dukakis in ’88, and with the Democrats only winning back the White House by embracing the center with Bill Clinton. Older establishment Democrats are tetanized by Republican dominance during this era and have thoroughly internalized the notion (false) that America is politically a center-right country. So while it is okay for Republicans to take far-right positions (e.g. on abortion, guns, taxes) and pay no electoral price, the Democrats feel they have to tread very carefully on their issues (immigration, health care, etc), even though public opinion may be with them, and not move too far to the left.

Wherever the median voter is situated today, it is not on the center-right as this was understood three decades ago. And today’s electorate is not what it was during the Reagan-Bush era.

One of the stranger critiques of the Democrats inching left is by the otherwise smart and incisive Matthew Ygelsias, in a Vox piece entitled “Democrats are learning the wrong lesson from Donald Trump: He ran as a moderate — and it worked.” Nonsense. Trump ran in the primaries as an anti-GOP establishment populist, not as a “moderate,” and while his rhetoric was centrist-sounding on some issues, such as health care and taxing billionaires (though not himself, évidemment)—demonstrating that the GOP base is not necessarily on the same page with the party’s plutocrat donor class—this was not why he rose to the top of the heap and won the nomination. And his discourse was far-right on matters of utmost concern to his voters: to wit, nativism, nationalism, race, and demonizing the opposition (liberals, the media, etc). Mussolini and Hitler may have sounded “moderate”, or almost leftist, on this or that question during their political ascent but they remained fascist or Nazi. Likewise with Trump. Moreover, Trump has made good on none of his moderate-sounding campaign pledges, but which has led to no appreciable loss of support in his voting base.

One liberal pundit who has critiqued the Dems’ left-tilting rhetoric is the WaPo’s Richard Cohen, who informed the Ds the other day that they “are on a losing streak.” Cohen discussed two issues: busing and reparations for slavery. He needs to chill out. On busing, which Harris brought up against Biden, this will not be a campaign issue in 2020, I promise you that. Cohen’s WaPo colleague Jennifer Rubin, who is the best of the Never Trump media commentators—she strikes me as more of a Rockefeller Republican than a bona fide conservative—had a worthwhile column on Harris and the busing issue. On reparations, the Democrats are also most unlikely to make this a campaign issue. As it is, the only candidate—or “candidate”—who mentioned it during the debate was Marianne Williamson.

One of the more vitriolic reactions to the Dem debate—and with a mean-spirited title—was by the NYT Never Trumper columnist Bret Stephens, which earned him a salutary shredding on Twitter by Cornell history professor Lawrence Glickman. One issue that Stephens attacked the Democrats on—as did other commentators and critics—was immigration. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

UPDATE: David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment, who served in the Clinton administration, had pertinent piece recently entitled “Hey Dems, take it from this ex-centrist: We blew it.” The lede: “New Democrat ideas are past their sell-by date and old labels are meaningless. Time to listen to voters.”

[update below]

This post, which is a couple of days late, is my first on the Democratic Party’s 2020 campaign, which is well overdue in view of how closely I’ve been following it. I’m periodically asked what I think by those who don’t see me on social media (Facebook, Twitter), where my views are well known: in short, I’m supporting Elizabeth Warren, though am fine with most of the candidates, as they largely agree on the major issues—differing on the details or at the margins—and that each one has as good a chance as the other to defeat Trump. As for the latter consideration, I dismiss the silly preoccupation of many over a given candidate’s “electability,” as Trump-hating D voters will vote for their party’s nominee no matter what. As for the vanishing number of truly independent/swing voters in key swing states—who are not a homogeneous bloc—one cannot know at this stage what will drive their choice in November 2020. It’s a waste of time to be worrying about it—and all the more so as we know with utter certainty that Trump and the Republican attack machine will ruthlessly set out to destroy the D candidate regardless of who s/he is.

Watching the full four hours of last Wednesday’s and Thursday’s debates on YouTube over the weekend confirmed my positive sentiments—with an exception or two—of the Democratic field. Historian and FT contributing editor Simon Schama expressed it well in a post-debate commentary, “Kamala Harris and faith in democracy won this week’s US debates: Democratic presidential contenders bubble over with passion for decency and justice.” He begins:

If Vladimir Putin was watching the debates among contenders for the US Democratic party’s presidential nomination, the Russian leader’s cynical belief that liberal democracy has had its day might have been shaken.

Here was the noisy, exhilarating, living proof that whomever Winston Churchill was quoting in 1947 to the effect that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” was correct. Instead of a semi-literate tweet, there was informed debate; instead of self-serving lies, something startlingly like the truth.

And Schama concludes:

But there is a more important lesson to take away from the debates. Contrary to premature assumptions that populist nativism is sweeping all before it, American democracy is still very much alive with moral intelligence, unapologetic freedom of opinion, and the passion for decency and justice that are its proper claims to respect.

The debate confirmed that the Democratic Party is the ‘smart party’, in which a premium is placed on being intelligent, articulate, well-informed, and wonkish (the other party is the 180° opposite, which we know all too well). And the debate further confirmed—if confirmation were needed—that the D party has moved to the left. There can be no doubt about this. The US Democratic Party is (finally) resembling European social democratic/democratic socialist parties (okay, many of these are presently in crisis, but that’s another matter). E.g. the parameters of the debate on health care, with building on Obamacare via a public option now being the most moderate position a D candidate can take, whereas a decade ago, centrist D senators who were crafting the ACA took the public option off the table, And Medicare-for-All and single payer were too far left for serious consideration. Likewise on the immigration issue, about which more later (I’ve written about the politics of this within the D party here; see in particular the Vox piece in the update).

Some pundits and friends lamented that the candidates—particularly in the Thursday debate—had formed the infamous “circular firing squad” but I didn’t perceive this at all. While the first debate was thoroughly civil, the second was rowdier and with candidates interrupting or talking at the same time—which can happen when people are exuberant and have things to say; it’s not a big deal—but the only real attack moment was when Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden—which was inevitable and, in point of fact, needed to happen. And it will happen again, one may be sure of that.

Here’s my brief evaluation of each candidate, of his/her debate performance and political qualities more generally, in the order of their ranking in the YouGov Blue–Data for Progress poll released July 2nd:

Joe Biden (23%). His poll numbers have taken a hit since the debate, which is not surprising given that his performance was certainly the worst of the twenty candidates, highlighting the numerous weaknesses of his candidacy. This was on display from the get-go, when he was asked about his recent fundraiser with Wall Street billionaires, where he assured them that they would have nothing to worry about if he’s elected POTUS. He avoided the question altogether, giving a boilerplate response from a campaign stump speech. And when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if their health care plans would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants, Biden timidly half-raised his, and then gave a mealy-mouthed response. There were other such moments, and in addition to the one with Kamala Harris. I don’t dislike Biden or hold against him positions he’s taken in past decades—which, I contend, won’t necessarily guide his action if he’s POTUS; he’s an opportunistic politician, after all—but feel strongly that his time has passed. As one journalist put it, “Joe Biden is old.” Period. He’s a has-been and whose establishment centrism is out of sync with where the party is headed. It’s akin to Alain Juppé or Laurent Fabius running in the 2022 election in France. Moreover, Biden has offered no rationale for his candidacy other than “electability”—which is not an argument (see above)—and the delusional promise that he will restore bipartisan “comity” in Washington. Not only is this disconnected from reality but D base voters do not want to reach across the aisle to Republicans. They want to combat the Republicans. And then there’s his wistful nostalgia for the deals he made with segregationist Southern senators back in the good old days. To call this tone deaf is an understatement. More concerning, though, is that it may well be calculated, a cynical strategy that sees older voters as the key to winning the D party nomination; a centrist “silent majority,” white and black both. If this is Biden’s gamble, it’s a risky one, as if he is seen as dismissing the Gen Yers and Millennials in the D party base—who are the party’s present and future—it will create divisions and bad feelings, which will not help in assuring the maximum turnout of D party voters that will be essential to victory in November ’20. For these reasons (and there are others), I do not see Biden as the Democrats’ strongest candidate. Au contraire. And I shudder to think of what Trump would do to him during the campaign (“Sleepy Joe,” etc). The earlier Biden’s candidacy fails and he quits the race—and I’m banking on this—the better.

Elizabeth Warren (22%). What to say, she was excellent. I’ve been supporting her pretty much from the outset and for the obvious reasons: she has progressive, well-thought-out positions on just about every kitchen table domestic policy issue—she has a plan, as everyone knows by now, and explains how it will be passed by Congress and paid for—is a fighter for her convictions (which I share)—she’ll destroy Trump in a debate, you may count on that—and comes across as a good, decent person (and how nice it would be to have someone like that in the White House again). Now there are issues she is not overly focused on, such as immigration and foreign policy. In regard to the latter, I was not entirely satisfied with her article in Foreign Affairs, not for what it said, with which I agreed, but for the subjects it glided over or didn’t mention at all (Iran, Israel-Palestine, the European Union). But that’s okay. A politician can’t be knowledgeable about every last issue. She’ll get up to speed when she needs to. Certain pundits reproached her debate pledge to do away with private health insurance, opining that this was a risky position and could come back to haunt her in the general election campaign. My response: she will have plenty of time to clarify her position, that it’s a long term objective and only concerns for profit private insurance, and that many health care systems (including France) based on affordable, universal coverage have supplementary non-profit private insurance schemes, and that this is okay. In late April I posted a comment on Facebook saying that Warren was manifestly the best of the Dem candidates and that I was puzzled as to why she was underperforming in the polls. This provoked a torrent of reaction, some of it negative toward Warren, from lefties and centrists alike, and particularly women. One was an Ivy League sociologist who said that Warren “comes across as a ‘scold’ and smug” and felt that “if I met her she would wave her finger at me and tell me to clean up my room and put my toys away.” What an image. I will wager that the good sociologist said much the same about Hillary Clinton. Women—plus men, of course—are so severe toward other women in politics, particularly if they are ambitious, self-confident, and play the game like men. The gaslighting of Warren seems to have passed in any case, as has her ill-advised misstep with the Cherokee heritage business. She’s been playing the long game, with Democratic voters now taking her seriouslyWorried corporate interests likewise. Her surge in the polls over the past month—and mainly at Bernie Sanders’ expense, whose voters she’s competing for—has been both striking and gratifying. In lieu of further extolling her qualities, one may read with profit the recent portraits by Sheelah Kolhatkar in The New Yorker, Emily Bazelon in the NYT Magazine, and Joan Walsh in The Nation.

Kamala Harris (17%). There is a near-total consensus that she was the breakout star of the debate, via her now-famous exchange with Joe Biden but also supremely self-confident, in-charge demeanor. She showed herself to be the prosecutor that she once was. In a debate with Trump, she’ll cut him into little pieces. Some think that her attack on Biden was too calculated—as if politicians on the campaign trail don’t calculate—or overly aggressive (a charge that would likely not be leveled if she were male). But not only was it inevitable that Biden would be taken to task for his gratuitous public declarations on busing and the segregationist senators, Harris also needed a hook to peel off older black voters who have been reflexively supporting Biden’s presidential bid. And it manifestly worked, witness her surge in the post-debate polls—and entry into the top-tier of the field—and Biden’s consequent drop, much of which looks to be due to black voters switching. As for her positioning within the D party, she’s somewhere between the progressive and establishment/centrist wings. She’s waffled on issues or quickly adapted her position (e.g. on health care). The left is wary of her on account of her record as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General, with a NYT op-ed from January by law professor Lara Bazelon slamming that record—as not progressive—being widely circulated by lefties on social media (also here and here). Harris will need to respond to the critiques. I assume, or at least hope, that she acquits herself well and quels the left. It will not be good if her candidacy hits a wall, because if Warren doesn’t make it, we must have Harris. [UPDATE: Since posting this, I have come across two pieces that have further increased my esteem for Harris, one on her personal history, “13 trailblazing facts about Kamala Harris,” the other defending her record as prosecutor, “‘The research on her record: Why Kamala’s time as a prosecutor and Attorney General are a damn good thing’.”]

Bernie Sanders (15%). His debate performance was competent but unremarkable. Bernie was Bernie. He performed an invaluable service to the D party in 2016 in giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money, which she needed, and in pulling both her and the party to the left. Watching his campaign launch speech last March, he didn’t say a thing I didn’t agree with. Bernie expresses my values and I can only entirely adhere to his vision of where he wants to take the country. And he’s good on foreign policy too. That said, I am opposed to his candidacy, wish that he weren’t running, and am hoping that he falters early—e.g. comes in behind Warren in the New Hampshire primary—and quits the race. First, he’ll be 79 on Inauguration Day in 2021 (one year older than Biden). He is simply too old to be running for president. It is not reasonable for him to be doing this at his age, even if he’s mentally 100% (but who knows in four years, let alone eight). Second, he continues to call himself an independent. I think it’s a problem that he refuses to declare himself a member of the party whose nomination he is seeking, and for the second time now. This signifies, at minimum, that he has no loyalty to the Democratic Party. And this likewise suggests—and this is my third objection—that he will be less helpful to down ballot Democrats in November 2020 than a top of the ticket candidate would normally be. Insofar as it is imperative that the Democrats take the Senate and keep the House, this could be a big problem indeed. Fourth, Bernie is carrying a lot of baggage, as it were, from his past, making him a particularly rich target for the Republicans (in addition to the “socialism” label, which he would be relentlessly hammered on; on Bernie’s vulnerabilities, see the post-2016 election Newsweek piece by Kurt Eichenwald). I still think he’d beat Trump but the attack barrage against him would be a big distraction. He would be permanently on the defensive. Fifth, his message in 2016 was new and fresh but is not now. He’s saying the same thing. He’s become one-note. And while Elizabeth Warren “has a plan”—and explains how she’ll pay for stuff—Bernie does not so much. I fear that Bernie in the White House would have a difficult time implementing his program even if the Ds control Congress. Disillusionment could set in, which would not auger well for the 2022 midterms. Sixth, D primary voters in 2016 who didn’t want Hillary only had Bernie. For progressively-inclined voters today, there’s an embarras de choix. And particularly Warren. Seventh—and this is subjective—Bernie’s grouchy persona—his almost permanent scowl—may not wear well. One prefers a man of his age in high public office to be avuncular (e.g. Reagan, Biden), not a curmudgeon. For these reasons, I don’t want Bernie. He and Biden—two old white men—should get out of the way and leave the final stretch to Warren and Harris.

Pete Buttigieg (7%). He’s definitely one of the smartest, most articulate presidential candidates we’ve had in a long time and proved that on Thursday. He had good responses to the questions put to him, notably on college tuition—free for lower and middle income students but not the wealthy—and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. And what he said about the Republicans and religion was brilliant. I like Mayor Pete—how can one not be well-disposed toward a US pol who speaks la langue de Molière?—and think he’d be a great POTUS. In 2028 (when, at age 46, he’ll still be a spring chicken). In the meantime, he should run for senator or governor of his state.

Cory Booker (2%). He’s impressive on form, largely so on substance, though I didn’t much like his equivocal response on the Iran deal. But no big deal. He’ll be an ideal running mate for Elizabeth Warren.

Beto O’Rourke (2%). He was the Dems’ star during his run in Texas last year against the ghastly Ted Cruz but that star has faded somewhat, as one learns about his palling around with the fossil fuel, real estate, and other moneyed interests down his way. I thought he was okay in the debate, though didn’t like him beginning his first response in Spanish. We know he speaks it so what’s the point? Julián Castro also clearly got the better of their exchange on immigration. I can see why Beto might not have wanted to run for the Senate in ’20 against incumbent GOPer John Cornyn—to do the whole thing all over again—but it’s still too bad, as the Senate is where Beto belongs. One doesn’t see the raison d’être of his presidential candidacy, particularly as he jumped in the race when the field was already crowded.

Andrew Yang (2%). I didn’t know a thing about him and had not seen his face before the debate. He is manifestly smart and with some good ideas, e.g. on instituting a VAT. He’ll be a good cabinet secretary (pick your department), if that’s what he’s angling for.

Julián Castro (1%). If Warren and Harris weren’t in the race and he were a little higher in the polls, I could easily jump on his bandwagon. If nothing else, he has entirely justified his candidacy on the sole immigration issue, on which he has the best, most thoroughly thought-out position of anyone in the field. And he performed a salutary service to the Democratic Party—and America—in bringing up Section 1325 of the US Code: Title 8, calling for its repeal, and then challenging the other candidates (the Wednesday ones) to support him on it. Good. He’ll be an impeccable pick for Secretary of Homeland Security come January 2021.

Amy Klobuchar (1%). She is smart and sensible, and gave well-considered responses to the questions put to her. Some of her positions may be a tad centrist for my taste but that’s okay. It’s fine that she stays in the Senate.

Jay Inslee (1%). He has the merit of having made climate change his centerpiece issue and the equal merit of being—believe it or not—the only candidate during the debate to bring up unions and collective bargaining. And he specifically mentioned the SEIU, a union with growth potential and a membership that is largely female, minority, and/or immigrant. It’s too bad he’s not polling higher.

Tulsi Gabbard (1%). I thought she came across well in the debate but that’s neither here nor there with her. When elected to the House from Hawaii in 2012, she was apparently seen as a rising star in the D party, including by President Obama, and with a possible national future (this passed under my radar screen at the time). That didn’t last long, as she has come to be strongly disliked by large sectors the left—I see this on social media whenever her name is invoked—for her foreign policy stances, notably her support of the Syrian Ba’athist regime—she has met with Bashar al-Assad, as one may know—and the Hindu bigot Narendra Modi in India. And then there was her past opposition—now opportunistically dropped—to LGBTQ rights. As for nutty hard-leftists who support Bashar (and Russia), they are turned off by the Fox News-compatible manner in which she talks about “radical” Islam. Pat Buchanan likes her but on the left, Tulsi is toast. And one other thing: her Hinduism—or “Hinduism”—which does not come from a South Asian ethnic heritage but rather an offshoot of the Hare Krishna cult, of which her father (half-Samoan) was a follower. I remember the Hare Krishnas from the mid-1970s in suburban Chicago, proselytizing on street corners along with the Scientologists and adepts of the Guru Maharaj Ji (I engaged all in discussion on occasion). They were nuts. Or, rather, a cult. That does not belong in the White House.

John Delaney (1%). He’s the kind of centrist Democrat who has no chance of breaking out of the single digits in today’s D party. In addition, he has not succeeded in becoming household name despite having been on the campaign trail for over a year. In the debate, I wasn’t impressed with his support of Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to pursue impeachment and implying that the American people aren’t interested in this. If Trump has manifestly committed crimes and misdemeanors, he needs to be impeached for this, regardless of what people may say at a public meeting or tell a pollster.

John Hickenlooper (1%). His name has been advanced over the past decade as a moderate, pragmatic governor from a purple state with possible presidential stature. It looks like 2020 won’t be his year.

Kirsten Gillibrand (<1%). I find her to be a smart, compelling candidate, and who does not lose an occasion to bash Trump. As for her erstwhile right-leaning positions on certain issues (e.g. guns) before entering the Senate—after which she had to appeal to D voters outside her rural upstate NY CD—she has explained to my satisfaction her (manifestly opportunistic) conversion and tack to the left. But her opportunistic jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon and then leading the charge against Al Franken—who was hounded out of the Senate largely thanks to her—left a bad taste. I cannot forgive Senator Gillibrand for that. And then she piled it on with her opining that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair. That added to the bad taste. In view of her standing in the polls, I'm clearly not the only one to feel this way.

Tim Ryan (<1%). Didn't know much about him before the debate. His selling point seems to be that he represents a CD in northeastern Ohio chock full of white working class voters who make politicos and pundits swoon, and whom the D party establishment is so eager to woo. But they're lost to Trump and aren't coming back. Dems need to accept that. As for Ryan, he should run for the Senate in 2022, join Sherrod Brown, and keep Ohio purple.

Bill de Blasio (<1%). If he were serious about running for POTUS, he should have declared six months ago, not six weeks, when the field was already full. His candidacy is self-indulgent and irrelevant. Moreover, it's unserious, as his campaign doesn't even have a website!

Michael Bennet (<1%). First time I've seen him. He was quite good, I thought, giving well-informed, well-considered answers to the questions posed. I particularly liked his take-down of Joe Biden's extolling partisanship and ability to get things done with Republicans, reminding the former vice-president that the 2012 tax deal with the congressional GOP was a victory for the latter, as it made the Bush tax cuts permanent. Biden did not have a snappy comeback to that one.

Eric Swalwell (<1%). He was unknown to me before this past Sunday (when I watched the debate online) and still pretty much is. I liked his proposal on a mandatory government buy-back of assault weapons.

Marianne Williamson (<1%). I had no idea who she was or what she was doing on the stage, though that probably says more about me than her, as she is, so I now learn, a best-selling author for over two decades now—of books I have not heard about, let alone read—and has a fairly high public profile (particularly among people who are not riveted to politics). So she's running for POTUS. I found her interventions during the debate to be quirky and/or amusing. Out of the box. But a journalist whom I highly regard is admonishing us to "take Marianne Williamson seriously,” adding “laugh all you want, then remember who the president is.” To which I respond that it’s too bad she isn’t running in the Republican primaries against the idiot. Depending on the state of the D race, I would consider crossing over to vote for her…

One thing I’ve been insisting on: the Democratic ticket must contain a woman and an Afro-American. If there’s going to be a white (or Latino) man, Kamala Harris (or Stacey Abrams) will have to be on the ticket.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Here is a clever, funny, and spot-on take of “The Democratic primary field as a history department,” by historian Jason Tebbe, who blogs at Notes from the Ironbound.

Credit here

I’ve been off AWAV for a while, which a few have noticed, in part as I was away from the banks of the Marne—and on or near the shores of the Aegean—earlier this month. There’s also been too much news to follow. So much to write about, so little time. Actually, I do have some time now. One never-ending story that continues to capture attention is the Brexit psychodrama, which has entered an ever crazier phase, with the descent into insanity of a Tory party that is increasingly resembling its unhinged conservative counterpart outre-Atlantique—just take a look at the YouGov poll released last week (image below)—and the seemingly inevitable accession of Trump wannabe Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street. That BoJo does not belong there goes without saying, former Daily Telegraph editor and well-known historian Max Hastings being the latest to remind us, in a June 24th opinion piece in The Guardian, “I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.”

The most fascinating explanation of how a clown like BoJo could rise as high as he has—in the world’s oldest, most stable, and, so we thought, most serious democracy—may be found in a terrific “long weekend read” essay by Simon Kuper in the FT (June 21st), “How Oxford university shaped Brexit — and Britain’s next prime minister.” Kuper, an Oxford alum himself and contemporary of BoJo and other top Tories, knows the institution, its culture, and personalities comme sa poche, and offers a unique insight into the us et coutumes of the British ruling class (in the vein of the pieces by Pankaj Mishra and Joanna Scutts that I’ve linked to on the subject). It’s a must-read.

If one has lost the thread on Brexit and needs a refresher, see Ian Dunt’s “Short guide to Britain’s long attempt to leave Europe.” And if one needs a refresher on BoJo’s inveterate lying and mythomania—rendering him utterly untrustworthy by his future EU partners and not to be taken seriously—see the post-2016 referendum pieces by Martin Fletcher and Jean Quatremer.

On a subject having nothing to do with Brexit or the Tory party, but merits posting here in view of the Oxbridge/British elite angle, take a few minutes to read the obituary (here) of the well-known historian and journalist Norman Stone, by fellow historian Sir Richard J Evans, I can’t remember the last time I read an obituary like this, at least in a mainstream publication. Sir Evans really didn’t care for Professor Stone!

[update below] [2nd update below]

In 2014 it was a disaster, as I wrote back then. This time it wasn’t. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National may have finished in first place but this was pretty much expected. And there were some bright spots—from my standpoint at least—in the scores for all the principal lists. I’m not going to give a full-blown analysis here, just flesh out some instant thoughts I posted on social media on Sunday night.

  • First, the marked increase in the participation rate, which broke 50%, the highest for a European election since 1994. Late polling indicated that turnout would be up compared to last time, but it wasn’t expected to this extent. I was an assesseur titulaire in my bureau de vote on Sunday, so could observe this throughout the day. Salutary this sursaut citoyen, even if the veritable impetus had less to do with Europe than national considerations (to sanction Emmanuel Macron or deny first place to Marine Le Pen). That said, the increased turnout—and in other EU states as well—signals in increasing interest in the European  Union—and for many, a support for the European project.
  • The RN may have come in first place but, at 23.3%, its score was lower than in 2014 (24.9%). And as it will have two fewer seats (22) in the European Parliament, this cannot be seen as a hands-down victory for Le Pen. The RN drew votes from Gilets Jaunes—up to 44% of GJs voted RN, according to one poll—but they were likely RN/FN voters anyway. The RN has consecrated its status as one of the major poles in French politics but this result does not, in itself, point to RN gains in next year’s municipal elections (as for 2022, that’s a ways away). So long as the RN remains in its ghetto, with no major party willing to ally with it, it will not be able win a national election. And in the European Parliament, one may be sure that it won’t do a thing—i.e. its MEPs won’t participate in the work of the parliamentary committees (where they’re congenital no shows)—and will only undermine the influence of France in EU institutions.
  • I wrote on Sunday night that Macron took a hit (and a well-deserved one) with the République en Marche-MoDem list finishing in second place, though think I need to attenuate that. It would have obviously been preferable from Macron’s standpoint to finish first, but the close second—and with 22.4%—should not be viewed as a setback, all things considered. E.g. with Macron’s unpopularity—he’s at 27% approval/68% disapproval in the latest IPSOS baromètre—and the endless weekend GJ manifs, it could have been worse for him, cf. the more marked votes de sanction against the party in the Élysée in almost all past European elections (2009 a notable recent exception). Exit polling has shown that the REM benefited yesterday from the defection of moderate right LR voters in its direction, confirming that Macron will most surely govern from the center-right for the rest of his term. This will be majorly consequential for the ongoing recomposition of the French political spectrum heading toward 2022.
  • Europe Écologie-Les Verts’ 13.5% is quite simply stunning, as no one expected it, Yannick Jadot’s list polling at 9% tops. Given the momentum of Green parties in Germany and elsewhere, and the increasing importance attached by voters to climate change and other environmental issues, such electoral progress can only warm the heart. And the increased size of the European Greens political group in the European Parliament can only be welcomed. This said, EELV’s excellent score does not augur anything for the future, as we’ve seen this before. E.g. in the 1999 European elections, Les Verts, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, reached almost 10%, but which did not send the écolos into orbit nationally, nor did its amazing 16.4% in the 2009 Euro elections (close on the heels of the PS, led by Martine Aubry at the time). The écolo spikes in past elections have been sans lendemain, with European election Verts voters returning to other left or centrist parties/candidates in national elections. And this will likely remain the case, with almost all parties outside the hard right having integrated environmental themes into their programs, The fact is, EELV remains a small formation, permanently rent by factional infighting, and with, at present, almost no high-profile elected representatives. And if it tries to go it alone electorally—presenting candidates on its own, outside of any alliance or pact with the PS or anyone else—which has been its reflex in recent years, it will bite the dust, as it always has in two-round elections when it does its cavalier seul act. So despite EELV’s brilliant score yesterday, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to become the leading force on the French left.
  • The catastrophic 8.5% of Les Républicains, which not a single poll came anywhere close to predicting—LR was seen going as high as 15%, if not more—is the big story of this election. No one could have ever foreseen the longtime standard-bearer of neo-Gaullism and la droite parlementaire sinking into the single digits, and despite the party’s increasingly hard right turn over the past decade (recalling the rightward progression of a certain conservative party outre-Atlantique). The cerebral tête de liste François-Xavier Bellamy seemed to be catching on with the LR base, and despite—or perhaps because of—his very conservative, Catholic views on questions de société, and came across as friendly and open-minded to boot (quite unlike the cynical, insufferably arrogant LR secy-gen Laurent Wauquiez). E.g. even Benoît Hamon, among other lefties, enjoys conversations with Bellamy, so one reads. But this finally didn’t matter to LR voters, particularly the more moderate among them, who found Bellamy too conservative—and Wauquiez’s identitarian rhetoric too extreme—so defected to the REM and Macron. And on LR’s right flank, réac voters decided to go for the real thing—Marine LP and the RN—rather than the wannabe. As for where LR goes from here, it would be nice if this calamitous result brings moderate rightists like Valérie Pécresse or Xavier Bertrand back to the fore, but I’m not optimistic. The core of the LR base remains the “Trocadéro right,” and despite the REM having realized some its best scores in Paris’s most upscale arrondissements (6th, 7th, 8th, 16th), plus wealthy western banlieues (Neuilly-sur-Seine et al)—which have been fiefs of the right since the dawn of time—finishing way ahead in first place and with 45-48% of the vote. With the REM now occupying the center-right and the RN formally abandoning its pledge to quit the EU, the space for a significant conservative party between these two is narrow indeed.
  • The paltry 6.3% of La France Insoumise list was the most gratifying surprise of the election. This catastrophic, utterly unforeseen result for LFI was not a failure of tête de liste Manon Aubry, who is sympathique and acquitted herself well in the campaign, so I thought, but of LFI caudillo Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was aiming for the double-digits and to consecrate LFI as the uncontested nº 1 force on the left, but instead barely avoided being overtaken by the convalescing PS, which would have been the supreme humiliation for him. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. With this score, JLM is K.O., both politically and personally, the latter because his trash-talking, scowling personality is not wearing well, including among his voters. I personally know people who are otherwise supportive of LFI’s line but simply cannot stand JLM (the televised spectacle of him blowing his fuses with the judicial police last October turned off more than a few). And within LFI, there is increasing exasperation at JLM’s authoritarian style and of his solo leadership—in informal tandem with his significant other—of the party. On the political level, LFI’s counter-performance signifies the limits of JLM’s populist discourse, of trying to appeal to categories of the electorate who don’t necessarily have the same world-view, e.g. the couches populaires—of the Gilets Jaunes variety—and urban, educated left-wing millennials. Both may share an allergy to neoliberalism but they sharply differ on other matters (e.g. immigration, identity). The couches populaires are attached to the nation and are reflexively suspicious of the European Union; with educated millennials, it’s the reverse. With the latter, JLM’s nationalism and Euroscepticism—when it comes to the EU, he is fundamentally not so different from Marine Le Pen—will not fly. There is a bitter truth that a lot of lefties over a certain age have a hard time accepting, which is that the working class unmoored from trade unions leans much more to the right than the left. JLM knows this—I’ve heard him say it up close, that it’s a myth that the WC has always monolithically voted for the left—but he underestimates the numbers. Left-wing parties can craft an appropriate economic message—that’s what makes them left-wing—but insofar as identity and nationalism trump economics for atomized WC voters, the latter are out of reach for the left. And a party of the left that tries to address the cultural anxieties of WC voters will not only fail in the effort but lose sizable numbers of its educated supporters. There is a space on the political spectrum for an LFI-type party but in the single digits. If LFI were to become the leading party of the left—which is now not too likely—it would consign the French left to permanent opposition in the same way the PCF’s domination did in the three decades following the end of WWII. Hopefully JLM will wake up, smell the coffee, and abandon his ambitions for 2022. As for who could take his place as the porte-drapeau of the radical left, I have my ideas.
  • The Parti Socialiste-Place Publique’s 6.2% was cause for satisfaction, as, according to the final polls, the list was in danger of falling under 5%, and thus sending no deputies to the European Parliament. As I wrote in the previous post, such a result would have likely meant the end of the PS. That the PS came close to matching its calamitous score in the 2017 presidential election is hardly a cause for rejoicing—which Raphaël Glucksmann made clear on Sunday night—but at least we know that the Socialists have touched bottom and can only go up, particularly in view of LFI’s failure. If Benoît Hamon had responded favorably to Glucksmann’s unity initiative and not run a list of his irrelevant micro-party, Génération.s—which received a predictable 3.3%—the “Envie d’Europe” list could have gone as high as 9%. So now that the PS has sauvé les meubles, it can now look to rebuild, as the positioning of Macron and the REM on the center-right has created a wide open space on the center-left that cannot and will not be filled by EELV alone. Or even primarily. The PS still has an infrastructure of militants and élus—which is rather larger than EELV’s—and, with the next elections being the municipals in March 2020, can realistically aim to recover some of the ground it lost in the 2014 debacle, particularly if it can forge single slates with EELV. Also, the REM controls not a single mairie—the party not existing in the last municipal elections—and most of its eager beaver marcheurs of the 2017 campaign have fallen by the wayside. If Macron remains unpopular into next year—which is likely—the REM will not be entering the municipal election campaign with a head of steam. Likewise with LR, in view of its current state. So things may indeed be looking up for a rejuvenated PS after next March. In this respect, some history: (a) In the 1969 presidential election, as everyone remembers, the Socialists hit rock bottom with Gaston Deferre’s 5%. Two years later was the Epinay congress and François Mitterrand, followed by the Union de la Gauche and the cliffhanger 49.2% loss in 1974; and then there was 1981… (b) After the victories of 1981 the PS suffered one major electoral setback after another and by 1986 the right looked to be in the drivers seat; but Mitterrand recovered and was easily reelected in 1988;  (c) The catastrophic 1993 legislative elections saw the PS lose 218 of its 275 incumbent deputies, followed by the rout of Michel Rocard’s list in the 1994 European elections; the PS looked to be out of it for the foreseeable future; four months before the 1st round of the 1995 presidential election, the party didn’t even have a candidate, but then Lionel Jospin rose from the ashes, losing to Jacques Chirac with a respectable 47.4% in the 2nd round; and then there was the 1997 early legislatives and the brilliant victory of the PS-led Gauche Plurielle; and if it hadn’t been for the accident of the 21 avril, Jospin would have likely defeated Chirac in the 2002 presidential election. (d) After its miserable result in the 2009 European elections, the future of the PS looked somber, and with the high-profile pundit BHL proclaiming in a banner headline in a Sunday newspaper that the party would soon be “dead.” But it came back in the 2010 regionals and, by mid 2012, was the dominant party in France (okay, that didn’t last long but still). The lesson: when it comes to the French Socialist Party, it ain’t over till it’s over…

There’s a lot more to say but that’s it for now.

UPDATE: The image below illustrates the point made above about the REM doing particularly well in Paris’s beaux quartiers on Sunday (h/t Angelo Pardi via Guillaume Duval).

2nd UPDATE: Libération editor-in-chief Laurent Joffrin’s “lettre politique” of May 28th, on LFI and JLM, is absolutely worth reading. He totally nails it.

28 mai 2019
La lettre politique de Laurent Joffrin

La France insoumise a «un problème»

Clémentine Autain est sortie du bois la première. Il y a, dit-elle, «un problème de ligne et de profil politique» à La France insoumise, qui a trop misé sur «le ressentiment, la haine, ou le clash permanent». Nostra culpa : «Sans doute avons-nous pris trop de distance avec un discours de gauche.»

«Problème» il y a, de toute évidence. Sur une ligne dégagiste, LFI a divisé par trois en deux ans le score de Jean-Luc Mélenchon à la présidentielle (de 18% à 6%). C’est l’effet des innombrables sorties de route volontaires des insoumis, toutes justifiées par la culture de l’anathème : agressivité permanente, dénigrement constant du reste de la gauche, procès en sorcellerie contre Jadot, «haine» assumée contre les journalistes de tous bords, vociférations grand-guignolesques contre une perquisition judiciaire, invocation rituelle d’un «raz-de-marée» populaire qui n’a jamais eu lieu, sauf avec le mouvement des gilets jaunes, parti tout seul, quand LFI n’appelait à rien ; déification compensatoire de certains leaders gilets jaunes aux options pour le moins ambiguës, discours européen incompréhensible consistant à prévoir une «sortie des traités» qui ne serait pas une sortie de l’Union, alors que l’Union est justement bâtie sur un traité, etc. A force de considérer que l’enfer, c’est les autres, tous traîtres, soumis ou vendus, on reste seul avec ses certitudes.

Problème plus large, d’ailleurs : le recul de la gauche radicale est général en Europe. La débâcle la plus spectaculaire a frappé le parti dégagiste Podemos, miné par les divisions, tombé à 10% en Espagne, après avoir perdu la plupart des villes conquises dans la foulée du mouvement des «indignés», dont Madrid et Barcelone, excusez du peu. Il n’est pas le seul. Au total, le groupe d’extrême gauche au Parlement européen est passé de plus de 50 sièges à moins de 40, représentant tout au plus 5% de l’électorat. Gauche radicale, gauche marginale. A force de dire non à tout, les énergies militantes se lassent et passent chez ceux qui disent oui à quelque chose. Elles ont gonflé le mouvement écologiste, qui se bat sur un programme positif de réformes immédiates et, au lieu de dénoncer mécaniquement tous les compromis, cherche des alliances européennes pour y parvenir.

C’est l’essence même du dégagisme qui est en cause. Le peuple d’un côté, les élites de l’autre : sommaire et faux. Les élites ne sont pas toujours réactionnaires ni le peuple progressiste. C’est en bâtissant une coalition «interclasses» qu’on réunit une majorité ou, à tout le moins, qu’on impose des réformes de progrès. C’est avec des civils qu’on fait des militaires, et donc avec des gens qui ne pensent pas comme soi qu’on élargit son influence. Sans quoi on reste au balcon à distribuer les excommunications. Le dégagisme a marché un temps. Il est usé, ou alors il profite aux nationalistes. LFI en avait fait un dogme, un leitmotiv, un ADN. Effectivement, il y a «un problème».

Polls, 2019 European elections, France (credit: Huffpost)

[update below]

The European election campaign in France has been a sad spectacle. The level of public interest is typically low, the pro-Europe left is weaker than ever, and the extreme right-wing ex-FN—renamed the Rassemblement National—will likely finish in first place as it did in 2014, with a quarter of the vote and Marine Le Pen exulting. Emmanuel Macron likely thought that anointing the non-politician Nathalie Loiseau—unknown to the public and who is as much a caricature of the énarchie as he—to head the REM list—called Renaissance, which will join the centrist ALDE in the European Parliament—was a deft move, but she hasn’t worked out too well as a candidate. Macron’s political skills are nul; as a politician, he’s hopeless. If his list finishes behind the RN, he will rightly be seen as the election’s big loser—particularly as he has implicated himself in the campaign to a greater extent than his predecessors in the Élysée—which will further weaken him in Brussels. And with the RN set to win up to a third of France’s 79 seats in Strasbourg, this will only increase the marginalization of France in the EU, as Le Pen’s party, in addition to many things, barely participates in the work of the European Parliament. The RN is a party of grifters. Triste France.

There have been a number of televised debates, the latest one last night on BFM, with the 11 leading têtes de listes and which went for three hours. I didn’t see it. Too long, too many people, too much cacophony. I did, however, catch on replay Wednesday night’s first debate on France 2, with candidates or representatives of the six lists polling over 5%, which went for an hour-and-a-half (it was followed by a second debate, with nine lesser candidates, which I didn’t bother with). The participants were Marine Le Pen, standing in for the no. 1 on RN list, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella; MoDem‘s François Bayrou, who is allied with Macron and REM, taking the place of Mme Loiseau; the hard-rightist Laurent Wauquiez, replacing the youthful conservative egghead François-Xavier Bellamy, who heads the LR list; the engaging newcomer Manon Aubry, all of 29 years of age, whom Jean-Luc Mélenchon has put in charge of LFI‘s list; Yannick Jadot of EELV; and Place Publique‘s Raphaël Glucksmann, who is leading the PS’s effort (more on him and that below).

According to IPSOS’s Brice Teinturier, the four most important themes for the French electorate in this election are purchasing power (i.e how much money people have in their figurative pockets), protection of the environment, France’s place in Europe and the world, and immigration (slipping to fourth place). So the questions revolved around those, which included ones on whether or not diesel cars should be banned in the EU by 2040, if the VAT should be set at 0% for “produits de première nécessité” (not precisely defined), what degree of protectionism should be imposed by the EU, should national border controls be reestablished, and if there should be obligatory quotas for EU member states in receiving asylum-seekers and refugees.

As one knows, form is as important as substance in debates, particularly in televised political ones, and all the more so when there are many undecided voters faced with multiple options to choose from that, on substance, hardly differ from one another—and in a proportional representation election where le vote utile (voting strategically) does not factor (except if a list is close to the qualifying threshold). E.g., even in this particular debate, with just six candidates, large numbers of voters (myself included) could, strictly on the issues, vote for two, or even three, of them (like a Democratic or Republican primary in the US). When the two debates ended, Teinturier announced the result of IPSOS’s instant poll as to which candidates were “convincing”—I knew it about beforehand, having watched the debate en différé—which had Le Pen in first place, with 39%. I regret to say that I can understand why persons even somewhat open to her rhetoric would say this. MLP spewed her usual bullshit but not with the aggressiveness for which she is wont. She toned it down. And as her party has changed its line on quitting the euro and the EU—the FN/RN, ceding to French public opinion, no longer formally advocates this—she could not be attacked on this score. She also skillfully avoided answering the environmentally-related question by weaving, dodging, and bringing up irrelevant issues. She was likewise fortunate to have Wauquiez—standing to her right on the stage—as a foil. Wauquiez, who leads the LR party, is not a stupid man but, like Macron and Loiseau, is almost a caricature of the arrogant énarque—he graduated first in his class at ENA (promotion Mandela, 2001)—who thinks he’s brilliant and everyone else around him is, at best, a nitwit, at worst an outright idiot. Wauquiez is, moreover, surely one of the most cynical men in French political life. E.g., he started his political career under the tutelage of the late Jacques Barrot, as a pro-Europe centrist and liberal in the classical sense, but tacked to the identitarian hard right, and with a soft Eurosceptic stance, when he detected that the base of the LR party was increasingly aligned with the FN on practically every issue. And he comes across as antipathique—he really does seem like a nasty person utterly full of himself—which cannot be a merely subjective opinion on my part in view of his poll numbers (in the May IPSOS baromètre politique: 17% approval, 62% disapproval). Wauquiez had at least two sharp exchanges with MLP in the debate, and with the latter getting the better of them. It was a mistake not to have sent Bellamy, who is equally smart, comes across rather better, and has become popular with right-wing voters to boot.

Aubry, Jadot, and Glucksmann all acquitted themselves well IMHO, but Bayrou did not so much. His participation in the debate was almost incongruous. A renewal of the French political class has been underway for the past several years, and which accelerated with the 2017 election of Macron and his REM in the National Assembly. Bayrou is a throwback to a bygone era. He’s a smart man, very well spoken, and with interesting, valid things to say—and, at 67, is not that old—but he seemed out of place on the stage. An almost has-been. And in responding to the question on migration, he specified that he was expressing his personal viewpoint. But, hey, he was there as the representative of the REM-MoDem list! A big mistake. And also for Macron to have sent him.

On Raphaël Glucksmann and the PS list, this is the one I will be voting for. The PS, as one may be aware, has been a champ de ruines—a rubble heap—since the 2017 elections. First Secretary Olivier Faure has struck me a good man and well spoken, though he doesn’t have much of a public presence and may or may not be the right person to revive the PS from its pitiful state. When Glucksmann announced the creation last year of Place Publique, whose objective was to unite the moderate left—i.e. everything between REM and LFI—into a single list for the European elections, it wasn’t taken too seriously, as Glucksmann is a mere writer and intellectual (his late father, André, had more notoriety). Personally speaking, I’ve listened periodically to Glucksmann’s weekly Saturday afternoon debate on France Inter with the contrarian souverainiste talking head Natacha Polony—I’ll take him over her any day—but that was it. But Faure, fully cognizant of the PS’s calamitous state, decided to take up Glucksmann’s offer—and for him to head the list—and got his skeptical party to go along (with the smaller Parti Radical de Gauche and Nouvelle Donne; Benoît Hamon, to his discredit, refused to commit his Génération.s movement—and for specious reasons—and there was never a chance that the écolos would join).

But the list, called Envie d’Europe, hasn’t taken off, needless to say, hovering around the 5% threshold, below which is elimination and no MEPs elected, and one of the reasons being Glucksmann’s difficult transition from the Parisian intellectual world to partisan politics. Last Saturday, at the marché in my neighborhood, I ran into a local PS tract-distributing militant, who, when I asked if the PS was having any rally at all in Paris in the final week of the campaign, informed me that one would be happening the next day at a venue called the Cabaret Sauvage, in the 19th arrondissement, which I had never heard of. And so I went, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The place—tucked away in the Parc de la Villette complex, along the Canal de l’Ourcq and off the Boulevards des Maréchaux—is hard to find if one doesn’t know it. My, how far the PS has fallen, I told myself, to have its final Paris election rally in such an obscure venue, and with there having been almost no publicity, not even online (there was a Facebook page but that was about it). And the sentiment was reinforced when I got there, as the thing was beginning (toward 4:45 pm); the place was packed, most standing room, but held a maximum of maybe 800, almost all manifestly card-carrying PS militants (as they cheered wildly at the mention of PS politicos present I hadn’t heard of, and I am fairly well-informed as to who is who in French politics; the event was, in effect, a pep rally for the hard core). Not too good for the once great Parti Socialiste. But my attitude evolved as the event progressed. There was a succession of speakers, all holding to their clearly allotted 10-15 minute speaking time. Faure was good. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who, with no elective mandate, has taken a break from the political arena—she presently works for IPSOS and Fayard, and teaches at Sciences Po—gave one of the keynotes. She’s hugely popular with PS activists, and with me too. She was followed by Anne Hidalgo, who was sure to be a hit with the crowd—she’s mayor of Paris, after all—though while impeccable on substance she needs to work on delivery IMHO. She’s not a great speaker. Mais peu importe. Glucksmann spoke last, for half an hour. The reception was rapturous and he rose to the occasion. He was laid back but serious. In short, he aced it, on both form and substance. It was all about Europe, and with few references to the opposition (and no mention at all of rival left-wing lists). I didn’t disagree with a thing he said.

Leaving the venue I felt reasonably good about the PS for the first time in a long while and am encouraging undecided friends and family to vote for Glucksmann’s list. One of the arguments: as retiring PS MEP Pervenche Berès wrote in a text message to a friend of mine earlier this week in regard to incumbent MEPs Sylvie Guillaume and Éric Andrieu—who are in the 2nd and 3rd positions on Glucksmann’s list (and were at Sunday’s rally)—they “did a great job on migration and asylum for her, and fight against Monsanto and GMO, glyphosate, health, and sustainable agriculture for him.”

It will be terrible if the PS fails to break 5% on Sunday. The French Socialist Party absent from the European Parliament is unthinkable. I don’t think this will happen but if it does, it will possibly be the PS’s death knell. And with that, any chance of the French left credibly contesting elections for the foreseeable future. The specter of another presidential 2nd round confrontation between Macron and Le Pen is not something I want to contemplate. Crossing fingers.

UPDATE: See the reflection (May 23rd) by Alternatives Économiques editor-in-chief and friend Guillaume Duval, “Pourquoi la France ne débat pas de l’Europe.”

Paris, 19 May 2019

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