Picture: Stephen Crowley/NYT
Newt and Calista Gingrich ignore the elephant in the room.
Correlation between the Dow Jones and Happiness:
Note that when the index dropped unexpectedly, so did people's happiness - but once they adjusted to the new reality, happiness levels went straight back up. More happiness correlates here.
Newt Gingrich's bubble has burst rather quicker than anticipated. Perhaps 'burst' is wrong. He hasn't suddenly exploded or imploded. It's more that the air has steadily exited his campaign over the last week, as GOP voters took a step back and muttered "What the heck were we thinking?" or something similarly non-blasphemous.
Newt's fall is a reminder that establishment support - of which he has very little - still matters. Despite his ascendancy in the polls he hasn't raised much cash, and has therefore had to suffer a negative ad battering in primary states, including Iowa, from his opponents.
This is a pity, in a way, since Newt offers high entertainment value, and while I might have been slightly alarmed had he got anywhere nearer the White House I was looking forward to more classic Newtisms. We might still get some but they won't be as funny if he's not in the lead. We'll see; in the meantime, we'll have to make do with this, my favourite recent piece from the campaign, about one of the many passions of this most eccentric of politicians. Almost every line makes me laugh, but here's the intro:
On a day when other candidates were preparing for a major debate, Newt Gingrich spent the morning with Barnaby, an 85-year-old tortoise at a Des Moines zoo.
It might have been viewed as one more possible sign that the former House speaker isn’t serious about his presidential aspirations. Turns out it was merely Gingrich indulging in one of his favorite pastimes as he plodded his slow, steady course to the front of the Republican pack. Gingrich, it seems, is crazy for zoos.
(No wonder he enjoys himself so much in the debates.) Read the whole thing, it's brilliant. While you do, admire the skill of its author, Sandhya Somashekhar, who has mastered the art of the straight-faced piss-take:
Earlier this year, Gingrich took to Twitter to express his sadness at the untimely death of Knut, a polar bear with an eerily familiar name he had visited at the Berlin Zoo.
The Guardian's Jackie Ashley has written a defence of Ed Miliband's leadership. It's hard not to wonder if it was secretly written to undermine him. For instance, here's how Ashley describes Miliband's coolness under pressure:
He isn't flapping. He isn't ramping it up. He just blinks, listens, gives a long hard look, and patiently returns to what he was saying in the first place.
The "blinking" and the "long hard look" act as subtle reminders of Ed's unusual demeanour (even the flapping makes me think of his arms during a speech). But this isn't the worst of it. After acknowledging that it hasn't been a great year for the Labour leader, Ashley attempts to make the case that it hasn't been as bad as people say:
Let's start with the polling. This shouldn't be a major issue. Though in the wake of the Cameron veto and the Anglo-French row, the Tories got a six-point lead in the ICM poll, while YouGov had Labour three points ahead. In the west London Feltham and Heston byelection, where real votes were being counted, Labour's Seema Malhotra won with an 8.6% swing, which seems pretty good, and would in fact deliver Labour a general election victory if replicated at the next election. When it comes to personal satisfaction ratings, according to Mori, Ed has led Dave for six months of this year and Dave has led Ed for six months – even stevens then.
(If you're wondering how that third sentence is meant to read I really can't help you.) Ashley suggests that Labour's position, somewhere between neck-and-neck and slightly ahead of a government that is doing lots of unpopular things, and displaying considerable incompetence, is nothing to worry about. Hmm. The by-election point is a fair one, but by itself it doesn't tell us much about Ed's leadership. Then comes a remarkable claim: Ed and Dave are "even stevens" in polls of leadership satisfaction. The Guardian provides no link to the polling in question. This is unsurprising, because the claim is untrue. Miliband has been consistently behind Cameron, according to the very polling firm Ashley references. I can only think that she based her assertion on a half-remembered report without checking the source, and no Guardian editor thought to check it on her behalf.*
Ashley does then concede that perhaps Miliband ought to be doing better, but blames two groups for his problems: the media, and "vicious' Blairites:
(T)hose who attack him might reflect on the Twitter exchanges on Sunday, where one Ed supporter, Owen Jones, pointed out that some Labour people are doing the Tories' work for them.
Now, I read political commentators because I think, or like to think, that they are offering their honest views, even when sympathetic to one side or the other. Yet here Jackie Ashley more or less concedes that she's an instrument of the game rather than a commentator on it. That hardly enhances my already weak faith in her seriousness.
The closing section of this strange, shifty and rambling column begins like this:
Yet I'm conscious that this defence of Ed Miliband could start to sound like an apologia.
An apologia, in case you need telling, means a written defence of something. So this sentence reads, "I'm conscious this defence of Ed Miliband could start to sound like a defence". If only it sounded like a remotely convincing one. Trying to be helpful to Ed, Ashley sets out her own manifesto:
It clearly must revolve around two themes. The first is growth. The second is democracy, particularly in the European context.
I love that "clearly". Let's leave aside whether a white paper on European institutions is the thing to revitalise Miliband's leadership in the eyes of voters, and focus on Ashley's growth plan:
The plan for growth means getting out of overseas military adventures, longer-term nuclear fantasies and a tax system which lures rich, tax-allergic exiles here for no benefit. It means more help for the industries with a future, including high-grade manufacturing and IT, and a sense of urgency about education – and yes, getting away from the exam-obsessed, league table-fixated system criticised by Mehdi Hassan here last week.
I'm hardly an economist, but only someone with no economic literacy would write that paragraph and call it a "plan for growth". With the possible exception of help for industry, none of these measures would have any effect on growth, at least in the short to medium-term. Oddly, they are all supply-side initiatives. Ashley offers not a word about boosting demand and indeed some of these policies might be deflationary. We can search in vain for a rationale but basically this is just a random list of things Ashley would like to see happen, and nothing to do with economic growth.
All in all, this column is an embarrassment. It's badly written, poorly researched, factually inaccurate, and it displays a painfully shallow grasp of the issues. In the middle of it, Ashley takes a little swipe at her fellow commentator, John Rentoul of the Independent, namechecking him as a nasty Blairite and referring to him as a blogger (like a lot of political journalists from established media, including Ashley, Rentoul blogs and tweets as well as writing for his paper). That the term 'blogger' still works as a jibe is testament to the fact that journalists from mainstream media still offer a superior quality of work to that found only on the internet. How long that will stay true, I don't know - the distinctions are already collapsing. But it's ironic that Ashley should have recourse to this particular barb in a newspaper column of such poor quality.
Ed does need friends in the media. But perhaps not this one.
*UPDATE: I now understand where Ashley gets her six months vs six months statistic from. I apologise to her for assuming she'd misremembered something. However, her summary of the polling data is very misleading. If you look at the 2011 figures you'll see that Miliband has been consistently behind Cameron on the "Are you satisfied...?" question. In fact he's been behind every month, even during the glory weeks of News International. But it's also true that, for most months, Cameron has had a higher dissatisfaction rating than Miliband, even as he bests him on satisfaction. In other words, more people have an opinion on Cameron than Miliband - they care more, either way. But this allows Ashley to point to six months earlier in the year where Cameron's net satisfaction (satisfaction minus dissatisfaction) is lower than Miliband's. You can decide how significant that is. To get a fuller picture, though, note that Miliband has consistently trailed Cameron not just in terms of absolute satisfaction but on key leadership qualities: having a vision, being capable, good in a crisis etc. He is also less popular with his party than Cameron is with his. I doubt that anyone except Jackie Ashley would look at this picture and conclude that Cameron and Miliband are, as she puts it, "even stevens".
Amongst the Hitchens appreciations and depreciations floating around at the moment is a 2008 piece by Jonathan Freedland, in the New York Review of Books. It's a review of a collection of essays about Hitchens and Iraq (extraordinary that one journalist should be thought worthy of such a volume but there you are, he was an extraordinary figure). Freedland tries to get to the heart of why Hitchens (in Freedland's view), got the Iraq war so disastrously wrong, and he does so with his customary intelligence and flair. I don't want to engage with the whole piece so much as draw attention to two paragraphs that drew mine:
(Hitchens's) starting point is a wholly sound moral revulsion at both Islamist extremism and Baathism. Both are to be defeated swiftly and violently. Any objection to that goal could only, therefore, be rooted in a failure to see the moral evil these forces represent. To be against either Bush’s war on terror or invasion of Iraq is to be “soft on fascism.” What he does not consider is that his opponents might be just as repelled by jihadism, just as determined to defeat it, as he is—and yet, in good faith, believe that Bush’s tactics would not weaken the bin Ladenist enemy, but strengthen it. Which in the case of Iraq is exactly what has happened.
The crucial distinction here, barely addressed by Hitchens, is between the hard-core jihadists themselves and those they would recruit, between the nineteen hijackers of September 11 and those millions around the world who cheered as they saw the Twin Towers fall. It is the difference between Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in their Waziristan cave and the well of angry Muslim opinion from which they draw. Make the wrong move—torture prisoners or lie your way into the invasion of a Muslim country—and you will deliver recruits to al-Qaeda in their millions.
I think the criticism of Hitchens here is basically fair. What pulled me up short was the argument Freedland makes about jihadism. It was one that critics of the Iraq war made over and over again. The 'recruiting sergeant' became one of the most familiar figures of the whole debate. With hindsight, it's not at all clear that the sergeant did his job.
Did the war really strengthen the "bin Ladenist" enemy? Did it deliver recruits to al-Qaeda "in their millions"? Yes, there were the 7/7 attacks in Britain. Other than that, jihadism doesn't really seem to have taken off here, or in America. Globally, Al-Qaeda is the weakest it's been since 2001. There is plenty of anger amongst people in Islamic countries but it is mainly directed at their own repressive governments. The anti-Western militant Islamist threat survives and may yet thrive, but predictions that it would be massively inflated by the war simply failed to come true.
There are of course, other grounds for thinking the war was a mistake. But the 'recruiting sergeant' argument hasn't stood the test of time.
I would say 'RIP' but he would have hated that for about three different reasons.
As he scorned hagiography so consistently, let's start with the bad stuff. His prose style, frequently and rightly praised, sometimes degenerated into pomposity and bombast, particularly in his later (pre-cancer) years. His enmity for certain people - Clinton, Kissinger - verged on obsessional, and meant that he failed to see or portray them as they really were. He brooked no uncertainty, even - especially - on big questions, such as the invasion of Iraq, where uncertainty was the only reasonable or responsible attitude to take. I've watched him, on one or two occasions, bully people in the audience, from the stage, in an unpleasant, jeering, deeply unattractive manner ('Listen, darling...').
Yet for all this, he was a great and hugely likeable man, at least from afar. 99% of what he wrote was better phrased than 99% of his contemporaries. This was an even greater achievement than it sounds, since he wrote 100% more than anyone else. He wasn't just a wonderful writer, he was a masterful talker (the two rarely go together). Anyone who listened to him speak extemporaneously - which seemed to be the only way he knew how -was enthralled, particularly because, glugging from a glass of red, he only appeared to get more eloquent the more he drank. Actually, 'eloquence' doesn't quite do it, because it wasn't the spinning out of elegant sentences that impressed so much as the command of his subject, whether the subject was the Middle East, World War II, or the poetry of John Milton. He seemed, as his friend Ian McEwan remarked, to have everything he'd ever read neurologically available to him at any one time. And he'd read an awful lot.
The fundamental things that made the Hitch an inspiration to me were these:
- His knowledge. Every column he wrote and every speech he gave was deeply rooted in history of some kind, whether it be Indian politics or the Enlightenment or the Vietnam War. When he destroyed an opponent in a debate it was usually because he knew more - and could more easily summon his knowledge into speech - than they did. And this is an amazing and admirable thing: his talent for writing and speaking fluently didn't make him lazy, as it might have done. He didn't only write and talk better than anyone else, he worked harder too.
- His internationalism. It wasn't really until I read Hitchens that I understood what it meant not to be parochial. He was deeply English in manner and yet deeply global in his thinking. His points of view were enriched and strengthened by first-hand knowledge of the place and people he was writing about, as well as by his reading of history. He hardly ever wrote about a country he hadn't visited, even if it was North Korea or a war zone in Bosnia. His views on the Iraq war were formed by his visits there and by his friendship with Iraqi dissidents, particularly amongst the Kurds. He made most commentators seem small-minded and timid of the world.
- Of course, his vigilance against received wisdoms, lazy habits of language and thought.
- Above all, his - and I can't, right now, do more than use a cliché he wouldn't have entertained - his appetite for life. I've only seen him up close a few times, at speaking events and once at a party, when he immediately told me some frivolous gossip about Gordon Brown's student days, not so much out of malice as mischief. He would always have a lit cigarette in his hand (often that meant rushing out of the theatre as soon as he'd finished talking) and would always be surrounded by a huddle of friends, acquaintances and admirers, to whom he freely dispensed stories, jokes, encouragement, and his email address. He loved being in the thick of others, just as his great bête noire Bill Clinton does.
That is what Hitchens's thin-lipped disapprovers never quite got. One could disagree with him about many things, but in the end what made him special weren't his opinions. It was the fierce pleasure he took in being free. That is what tied together his writing, his fecundity, his endless energy, his curiosity, his boisterous contrarianism, his drinking, and his hatred of fascism and fundamentalism. The Hitch worshipped no god but life itself.
Since Newt Gingrich's unlikely and sudden rise to the top of the Republican pack, the Obama campaign's smartest brains will have been doing a lot of brainstorming sessions. Until recently they would have been fairly confident that their opponent would be a methodical, cool-headed technocrat with an authenticity problem. They are now preparing for the possibility of facing somebody very different indeed.
The best presidential campaigns lock on to a weakness of their opponent and hammer at it ruthlessly and relentlessly. There can be sub-plots and variations but the core theme remains the same. The two major conditions for picking this theme are that (a) It provides a contrast with their candidate, and (b) It is rooted in truth.
In the most impressive re-election campaign of modern times, Bush overcame an unpopular war and a slowing economy by painting Kerry as weak and himself as strong, at at time when the country was fighting a "war on terror". Obama beat Clinton in 2008 by identifying her as the embodiment of old politics and himself as representing something new. In both cases, the contrast was rooted in truth: Kerry was prone to vacillation, and the Bush campaign cleverly made a virtue out of their candidate's stubbornness. Clinton, cautious by nature, had been around too long and done too much not to have made a long list of unpopular compromises (including her vote for the Iraq war) which allowed the Obama campaign to make a virtue out of their own candidate's inexperience.
If Obama goes up against Romney, the strategy, which the DNC is already laying down, is clear: Romney is a flip-flopper who doesn't know what he thinks. Obama knows his mind, even if you don't agree with him. In other words, a kind of economy-focused re-run of Bush vs Kerry.
The strength of this strategy is that Romney really does change his mind on everything and finds it hard, as a person, to convey authenticity. Its weakness is that the contrast isn't strong. Obama isn't Bush-like in his single-mindedness. His problem is that he can seem weak and ineffectual, and that is how Romney would seek to portray him. This would be a finely balanced contest.
How would Obama run against Newt? Ah, so many choices. They could portray him as an extremist. If he wins the nomination it will be because he's the hero of the conservative grass-roots. That will push him into taking up extreme positions (indeed he's already done so) and it will also bring him a lot of nutty followers. It may be difficult for him to tack back to the centre, where most elections are won.
They could paint him as the ultimate Washington insider - somebody who has spent the best part of his long life in that city, and who has made a fortune from lobbying.
Both these themes will get some play. But they will be sub-plots. The main story, I suspect, will be one of temperament. The Obama campaign, in a million subtle and unsubtle ways, will paint Gingrich as a volatile, unstable, deeply eccentric character who represents a real risk of calamity, at a time when the nation is already struggling to get out of its economic doldrums. As even conservatives agree, there's a lot of truth in that. It also plays to a genuine strength of Obama: his cool head, his reassuring predictability, his steadiness.
The Republicans nominated a fiery character last time, and that didn't go so well. Gingrich makes John McCain seem like George Bush Snr. If Newt is the nominee, 2012 will look like 2008, but more so.
The oddest thing about Romney's $10k bet in last night's debate is that it didn't seem to be a gaffe, made on the spur of the moment. It seems to have been pre-meditated. Somebody must have told him, this is a really good idea, Mitt. That person, presuming they're still on staff, must be feeling pretty stupid today.
I'm not actually convinced it was as devastating a moment for Romney as some are suggesting, but it's become the main talking point of the post-debate analyses, and that's not good for him. Not because it reminds voters that he is rich - they know that, and generally aren't resentful of wealthy politicians - but for two other reasons.
First, it means people are talking about a negative moment for Romney in a debate, for the first time, (while Newt came through unscathed). The air of invulnerability he carried with him into each debate has been dispelled.
Second, and more fundamentally, it has turned a cruel spotlight on Romney's biggest weakness: his reputation as a flip-flopper. That's why Huntsman's ad, above, is so effective (and see Perry's here). The mistake wasn't so much the size of the bet as the fact that by attempting to create a 'moment', the Romney camp have only ended up drawing attention to their candidate's fatal flaw.
(Useful round-up of debate reactions here.)
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America
As regular readers will know, David Brooks is my favourite columnist. Yes, he is frequently wrong about things, as every columnist should be, yes, he is occasionally guilty of over-interpreting or misrepresenting the social science material he draws on, and yes, he does quite a lot shifty manoeuvring to stay in favour with whoever's in power. But his columns are deeply rooted in wide reading and first-hand reporting, he is exceptionally funny, and above all, he has mastered the fine art of saying big things in 800 words.
This week's column, on Newt Gingrich, is a beautifully executed assassination, a masterpiece of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger demolition. Brooks begins by explaining why, "Of all the major Republicans, the one who comes closest to my worldview is Newt Gingrich." Gingrich, unlike most leading Republicans, doesn't believe or pretend to believe that all government is bad. He has long been an advocate of limited but active government - a government that acts as a spur to private enterprise and pursues the wider public good. But his wonkish enthusiasm can take him too far:
He has no Hayekian modesty to restrain his faith in statist endeavor. For example, he has called for “a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the Moon’s resources.” He has suggested that “a mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways.”
I’m for national greatness conservatism, but this is a little too great.
But then Brooks really sticks in the shiv. The real problem with Gingrich isn't his policies, it's his character:
In the two main Republican contenders, we have one man, Romney, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1950s, and another, Gingrich, who seems to have walked straight out of the 1960s. He has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with ’60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance. He just has those traits in Republican form.
Link to column.
Not a single Republican vote has yet been cast in this year's primaries - the Iowa caucuses are on January 3rd - and yet we've already seen enough twists and turns of fortune to fill a potboiler by Dan Brown (the quality of debate has certainly been a good match for Brown's prose).
Every time a new front-runner bubbles to the top of this volatile brew, we - that is, observers and commentators - reach for the familiar vocabulary of political campaigns to explain it. Perry has 'momentum'. Romney hasn't 'sealed the deal'. Gingrich is in touch with the voters' anger. Huntsman hasn't made his case properly. We find the familiar causes and effects, make our diagnoses, and put together a narrative.
I wouldn't have it any other way, but it's worth remembering, as we head into voting season, that much of what we're describing is random fluctuation. Candidates rise and fall, sometimes, for no reason other than that they are rising and falling. Small rises in poll ratings can be measuring effects, rather than significant events. Much of what happens during the campaign will be irrelevant or unnoticed by all but us nerdy few, who will proceed to make more of it than it deserves.
I was reminded of this when reading a wonderful piece by Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, on Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who has spent a lifetime detailing the various errors we all routinely make as we attempt to make sense of the world. Lewis was leafing through the papers of Kahneman's long-time research partner, Amos Tversky, when he came across this letter from Bill James, a baseball expert, maverick thinker, and big influence on Billy Beane, the subject of Lewis's book:
“Baseball men, living from day to day in the clutch of carefully metered chance occurrences, have developed an entire bestiary of imagined causes to tie together and thus make sense of patterns that are in truth entirely accidental,” James wrote. “They have an entire vocabulary of completely imaginary concepts used to tie together chance groupings. It includes ‘momentum,’ ‘confidence,’ ‘seeing the ball well,’ ‘slumps,’ ‘guts,’ ‘clutch ability,’ being ‘hot’ and ‘cold,’ ‘not being aggressive’ and my all time favorite the ‘intangibles.’ By such concepts, the baseball man gains a feeling of control over a universe that swings him up and down and tosses him from side to side like a yoyo in a high wind.” It wasn’t just baseball he was writing about, James continued. “I think that the randomness of fate applies to all of us as much as baseball men, though it might be exacerbated by the orderliness of their successes and failures.”
Link to Lewis.
Matt Ridley discusses some of the latest research into what dreams are for:
In another experiment, people were asked to remember a series of words, such as nurse, ill, patient, etc. Some hours later, they were asked to recall if certain words were in the list. They correctly rejected most of the wrong words—except the word "doctor," which was not in the list but sounds as if it should have been. Here's the surprise: The people who made this mistake most were the ones who had been to sleep in the meantime. Dreaming sleep had extracted the "gist" of the list.
According to this theory, dreaming is a symptom of such memory processing. Contrary to popular belief, dreaming occurs throughout sleep, not just in rapid-eye-movement sleep. But the dreams reported by people woken from non-REM sleep tend to be literal and straightforward recitations of recent experiences stored in the hippocampus. The later dreams of REM sleep incorporate more distant memories, becoming more fantastic and more emotional as the new memories get mixed with old ones in the cortex.
This week, U.S election-watchers are rubbing their eyes, shaking their heads, slapping their faces. They can't believe it, but it's true: Newt Gingrich is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He is topping national polls and has an eight-point lead in Iowa, a month before the caucuses.
I still think the chances are high that he will self-destruct, but the lateness of his surge gives him a good chance of riding it all the way. With typical modesty, Gingrich himself has declared that he will be the nominee. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if, this week or next, he calls for the party to cancel the primaries and nominate him by acclamation, for the good of the country.
Spare a thought for Mitt Romney. He has planned longer, spent more, worked harder than any other candidate. He has been the most impressive participant in every debate so far, and by some way. He is, by any objective measure, the candidate most likely to beat Obama in the general. He must have hoped and expected that by now the Republicans would have overcome their doubts and consolidated around him. Instead, they chase after every implausible alternative and absolutely refuse to accept him as their standard-bearer.
The danger for his campaign now is that he starts to resent the whole thankless process, and lets it show. I think you can see the signs of that in this teeth-grindingly bad interview with the excellent Bret Baier of Fox News (scroll down for a sampler). It's a reminder of everything least likeable about Romney: his icy assumption of superiority, his petulance, his robo-pol persona. Above all, he seems impatient. Romney can't believe that he hasn't sealed the deal, and he blames everyone but himself.
Let's also imagine what the Obama camp is thinking: something along the lines of Yay! It's looking increasingly likely that the GOP will nominate either a very damaged Romney or a verging-on-unelectable Gingrich. A president who would otherwise be in very deep trouble might be saved by his opponents.
Iowa is a key swing state in the general election, and though it went for Obama last time around he is much more unpopular there this year. The same poll showing Gingrich ahead there also found that Obama's approval rating is underwater. Yet (with the odd exception of that anomaly, Ron Paul) Obama is leading all the GOP challengers in hypothetical match-ups. He leads Romney by seven, and Gingrich by ten.
And there, in a nutshell, is what may be the story of 2012.