Earlier this week moderate Henrique Capriles Radonski won a primary election to challenge Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez for the presidency in October. The New York Times notes that Capriles is the most popular opposition candidate in quite some time.
This popularity seems to have caused both Chávez and the Venezuelan state media to turn things up a notch. The Guardian's Rory Carroll explains:
President Hugo Chávez on Thursday called the opposition's presidential candidate a "low-life pig", signalling a caustic start to Venezuela's election campaign.
The socialist leader vowed to crush Henrique Capriles in October's vote, branding him an agent of imperialism and oligarchy hiding behind a mask of moderation.
"Now we have the loser, welcome! We're going to pulverise you," he told an audience of medical students. "You have a pig's tail, a pig's ears, you snort like a pig, you're a low-life pig. You're a pig, don't try and hide it." He avoided calling Capriles by name, referring instead to "el majunche", slang for "the crappy one".
The speech, which all radio and television stations were obliged to broadcast live, followed Capriles's victory last Sunday in opposition primaries. The state governor won almost two-thirds of 3m votes cast, a higher than expected turnout which jolted the government.
Since then state media have launched multiple accusations at the wealthy 39-year-old challenger, calling him, among other things, a mendacious gay Nazi Zionist (emphasis added).
Your humble blogger cannot confirm that last claim -- it's possible that the Guardian just mashed together a long litany of insults against Chávez. Still the hard-working staff here at FP needs to pause for a moment and gasp in awe at the bolded insult above. I mean, compared to "mendacious gay Nazi Zionist," calling Captiles a pig seems pretty tame. That combination of adjectives is just so... so... contradictory that, on some da-da level of absurdism, one has to admire it. The next thing you know, Chávez and his media cronies will accuse Capriles of being a "warthog-faced buffoon" or a "scumbag f***face d**khead" or having a father who smelled of elderberries or one of a hundred other insults.
One would hope that Capriles and the opposition would match Chávez's level of insults, but, alas, it appears that he is taking the "high road" and decided to talk about "issues" and stuff. So, for quality invective like this, we're going to have watch the Venezuelan state media more closely.
I'm worried, however, that the Chávezistas might have peaked too soon with "mendacious gay Nazi Zionist." In the interest of adding yet more priceless insults to the toolkit of over-the-top political rherotic, I therefore call upon all of my readers to help out the Venezuelan leader. In the comments, try to suggest insults that, somehow, can top what Chávez and his allies have delivered to date.
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
I also know that even if this turns out to be a big "wave" election, things aren't really going to change all that much on the foreign policy front. This is for the following two reasons:
1) Congress doesn't have too much sway over foreign policy. Sure, things like foreign aid and treaty ratification rely on the legislature, and the election results will affect those dimensions of foreign policy. But think back to 1994 and 2006, in which both houses of Congress turned over to the opposition party. Was there any real change in U.S. foreign and security policy? The Clinton administration was still able to send troops to Bosnia, and the Bush administration was able to launch its "surge" strategy.
Foreign economic policy might be an exception. After both of those elections, the president found it harder to get trade deals through Congress. Given that this president hasn't been all that keen about trade anyway, I don't think the midterms will matter all that much -- though the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) might finally be put to a vote with the hope of securing GOP support.
2) In a sour economy, presidents don't get much of a bump for foreign policy successes. The best foreign-policy president of the past four decades was George H.W. Bush. How many terms did he serve? [Hey, this sounds familiar! -- Ed. Click here to see why. The only things that have changed since that post simply reinforce my thesis.] See Aaron David Miller's FP essay for more on this point.
Enjoy watching the returns, poll-watchers -- I'll be going to bed early, secure in the knowledge that U.S. foreign policy will persist in its current form.
A revolt among big donors on Wall Street is hurting fundraising for the Democrats' two congressional campaign committees, with contributions from the world's financial capital down 65 percent from two years ago.
The drop in support comes from many of the same bankers, hedge fund executives and financial services chief executives who are most upset about the financial regulatory reform bill that House Democrats passed last week with almost no Republican support. The Senate expects to take up the measure this month.
This fundraising free fall from the New York area has left Democrats with diminished resources to defend their House and Senate majorities in November's midterm elections. Although the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have seen just a 16 percent drop in overall donations compared with this stage of the 2008 campaign, party leaders are concerned about the loss of big-dollar donors.
And now Politico:
With the financial reform bill likely to hit President Barack Obama’s desk in coming weeks, Wall Street's top political players are warning Democrats to brace themselves for the next phase of the fight: the fundraising blowback.
Democrats who backed the bill are finding big banks far less eager to host fundraisers and provide campaign cash heading into the tightly contested midterm elections this fall, insiders say.
Some banks, in fact, have discussed not attending or hosting fundraisers at all for the next few months. Goldman Sachs is already staying away from all fundraisers, according to two sources. The company would not comment.
“I think at least in the short term there is going to be a great deal of frustration with people who were beating the hell out of us — then turning around and asking for money,” said a senior executive of a Wall Street bank.
Based on these stories,
when if the Democrats get hammered come November, expect a lot of pixels and ink spilled on the awesome power of the financial sector to get what it wants in Washington. And don't believe a word of it.
This is the lobbying equivalent of a good but struggling baseball club calling a team meeting right before they play the worst ballclub in the league. That is to say, sports managers often save their rousing speeches before a game they're pretty likely to win, so they can claim that their motivation was what led their team to victory.
As Charlie Cook notes, the Democrats are heading into a Category 5 political disaster come November. This has nothing to do with FinReg, and everything to do with a struggling economy, an ecological disaster in the Gulf, fired-up conservatives, and disaffected liberals. Wall Street antipathy is really the least of their problems.
I'm laying this marker down now -- unless we see some shocking upsets among the New York delegation (the real target of Wall Street's ire), analysts who proclaim the awesome political power of financial sector will be doing so with sloppy facts and sloppy argumentation.
In recent years, I've seen some very... let's say exaggerated arguments about the power of political lobbies in Washington. They do possess political influence, but much of that influence rests on the perception that they can make or break electoral fortunes. In Wall Street's case, however, they're pushing on a door that was already wide open.
Which is not surprising. Powerful interests tend to apportion their money to candidates they think will win. Indeed, to use a term of art, Wall Street's political preferences appear to be -- dare I say it -- pro-cyclical.
Over in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich's apparent narrow victory over the Yulia Tymoshenko has had the anticipated effect inside the U.S. foreign policy community -- there's been an exercise in massive navel-gazing. I'm therefore going to make things worse by engaging in meta-navel gazing (usually something I only consider doing with you-know-who).
Let's start with the Century Foundation's Jeffrey Laurenti:
Yanukovych's election yesterday, narrowly edging out prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the run-off, spotlights the folly of Washington conservatives who pressed single-mindedly to lock Ukraine (and Georgia) into the Western military alliance during the Bush administration. They discounted deep ambivalence among Ukrainians themselves and sought to override overt opposition from NATO's leading members in western Europe.
Like insects trapped in Baltic amber since dinosaur days, American conservatives remained frozen in a comfortingly simple cold-war view of the world: Russia is incorrigibly suspect and must relentlessly be hemmed in by American power.
That sounds like a cue.... yes, let's click over to The American Interest's Walter Russell Mead:
The apparent victory of Viktor Yanukovych in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election is yet another setback to the idea that the world is rapidly becoming a more democratic place....
In hindsight, the choice that we made to extend NATO farther east in gradual steps might have been a mistake. Russia hates NATO expansion and always has. To some Russians it looks like the inexorable approach of a hostile alliance that endangers the motherland; to others it is a constant humiliating reminder of Russian weakness and the west’s arrogant presumption after 1989. The expansion was annoying when it was limited to the former Warsaw Pact Soviet allies; it was maddening and infuriating when it extended to territories that were once part of the USSR like the three Baltic republics of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The prospect of a new wave of expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine, and push right up to the Russian frontier, was a worst case scenario nightmare for Russia.
If we were going to expand NATO eastward, we probably should have done it all at once, making agreements in principle and establishing basic interim security treaties with those countries whose actual entry might have to be delayed. What we’ve done instead is like pulling a bandage off tiny bit by bit, endlessly prolonging the agony. We should have ripped the whole thing off twenty years ago. (We should have also thought much more seriously than we ever have about the likelihood that expanding NATO probably ultimately entailed bringing the Russians in as the only way to stabilize the security situation across Europe.) Now the combination of Russian opposition (which, among other things, reduces European enthusiasm for expansion), geopolitical instability (do we want to get sucked into a new Russia-Georgian war?) and the general decline of US interest in Europe make a strong new push for expansion unlikely — even if the Yanukovych government wanted to join NATO.
So here we are: stuck with a security fault line in Europe, while the Russians will continue to fish where there aren’t any signs.
Both of these posts suggests way too much focus on the immediate implications of the election -- a president more favorably disposed towards Moscow.
I think this is one time when the mainstream media actually brings greater value-added to the table. The New York Times' Clifford Levy makes an intriguing suggestion in this news analysis -- that the process of Ukraine's election is more significant than Yanukovich's victory:
[T]he election won by the candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovich, was highly competitive, unpredictable and relatively fair — just the kind of major contest that has not been held in Russia since Mr. Putin, the prime minister, consolidated power.
On Monday, for example, European election monitors praised the election that was held Sunday, calling it an “impressive display” of democracy. Ukraine's election, in other words, did not follow the Kremlin blueprint and, if anything, seemed to highlight the flaws in the system in Russia. As such, it presented a kind of alternative model for the former Soviet Union....
[Analysts said] that while the public ousted the Orange government, it did not want to do away with all aspects of the Orange democracy. They said a backlash would occur if Mr. Yanukovich tried to crack down.
The Ukrainian model may have particular resonance now with recent rumblings of discontent in Russia.
Late last month, antigovernment demonstrations in Kaliningrad, a region in western Russia physically separate from the rest of the country, drew thousands of people and seemed to catch the Kremlin off guard. Some protesters chanted for Mr. Putin’s resignation, complaining about higher taxes and an economy weakened by the financial crisis.
And last week, a prominent politician from what had been perceived as a puppet opposition party unexpectedly turned on the Kremlin and lashed out at Mr. Putin’s domestic policies. “Is opposition and criticism dishonest?” said the politician, Sergey Mironov. “In a civilized society, this is the duty and goal of the opposition.”
It is highly unlikely that Russia will soon have Ukrainian-style openness. The question now is, what will be the long-term impact across the former Soviet Union if Ukraine can follow its successful election with a relatively peaceful transition to a Yanukovich administration?
That's far from guaranteed, if Tymoshenko's latest actions are any indication. And the past is not necessarily encouraging -- Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko won free and fair elections the one time they were held in Belarus, back in 1994.
Still, this is an outcome that should have democracy activists pretty pleased with themselves -- and members of the foreign policy community less obsessed with the international relations version of horse race politics.
Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons -- anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain't in the giving mood.
I don't really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they're missing something important: with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile. Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements -- particularly of the non-military kind -- during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser. Why? Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.
Think about it. The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush. That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush. I won't swear to this, but my impression is that Obama's standing has taken a hit whenever he's gone overseas in the past year.
On the other hand, during a recession presidents can tell the rest of the world to go f*** themselves and they won't lose much in the way of popularity.
Just a glance at the December 2009 Pew survey shows the extent to which Americans are looking inward. And who can blame them -- it's a pretty bad economy and there's double-digit unemployment. This tendency is exacerbated by something that Kaplan does point out:
In the post-Cold War world, with the fracturing of power and the decline of influence by any one country or bloc, the problems that he faces are simply harder—more impervious to military, economic, or diplomatic pressure—than they would have been 20 to 50 years ago.
I'd say "post-Great Recession world," but that's quibbling. If Americans are fed up with how long it takes for anything to get done in Congress, wait until they pay attention to foreign affairs. The Doha round is on year nine and counting. With important exceptions, the United States has military forces in practically every country it's intervened in since 1945. Who knows how long a global warming treaty -- or the reconstruction of Haiti -- will take.
Are there exceptions? Sure, but they're ephemeral. I suspect the follow-on to START-II would get through the Senate, because, really, is now the time to pick a fight with Russia? Osama bin Laden's head on a pike would probably warm the cockles of most Americans. But they wouldn't stay warm for long.
No, it's the economy, stupid. The healthier the economy, the more political capital for Obama, and the less likely he will be punished for taking an interest in foreign affairs. If Obama has any political self-preservation instincts at all, international relations will be done on the DL for a while.
It's unfair, and very problematic for foreign policy wonks, but no one said life is fair.
The problem is that the squigglys may give thirty random strangers from Bumbleweed, Ohio just too damned much power to influence public perception. The squigglys influence the home viewers, the home viewers participate in the snap polls, the snap polls influence the pundits, the pundits influence the narrative and -- voilà! -- perceptions are entrenched.... What I'd suggest is that the CPD ask the network to refrain from including focus-group reactions in their live broadcasts of the debates. If the networks want to include the squigglys in their re-broadcasts of the debates, or perhaps on their Internet streams, I'd be all for that. But I think the viewer should be entitled to formulate her own, independent reaction to the debate, rather than having to share her television with Joe the Plumber and some guys from his neighborhood.Be sure to check out this old-school post from Mark Blumenthal on why these dial-testers are not a representative sample. Now, here's the thing: Silver's basic argument is that watching these dial-testers creates peer effects among voters -- and voting should be an independent decision of the individual. I concur. But shouldn't this logic extend to the actual voting process as well? I bring this up because of the astonishing rise in early voting. If this New York Times story by Kirk Johnson is correct (and let's concede that the story is impressionistic), then a lot of early voting is taking place collectively rather than individually:
The presidential debate had barely ended Wednesday night when Kristin Marshall had her ballot on her lap, pen in hand, ready to vote. Three friends, all supporters of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, had their ballots, too. “Obama’s the second one down — don’t accidentally pick the first,” said Ms. Marshall, 27, a reference to the ballot placement of Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican opponent, as her living room of Obama supporters erupted in laughter. The traditional American vote — a solitary moment behind a black curtain in a booth, civics in secret — was never thus.... The Obama campaign made a big effort this week to encourage debate-and-vote parties like the one at Ms. Marshall’s home here in Larimer County, another pivotal county with a lot of mail-balloting.... In coming up with strategies to get out the mail-in vote in Colorado, both campaigns have focused on making the mail-in voters feel part of a bigger movement. The Obama campaign’s debate-and-vote parties, for example, were intended to create a feel of civic participation. Republican efforts to hand-deliver packets create a support structure for voters who might feel put off by the lack of Election Day traditions, volunteers said. “We’re a friendly face at the door,” said Jim Kepler, a real-estate broker and Republican volunteer in Greeley who has assisted in delivering the information packets. “We’re there to help them, and they like that.”Again, call me old school, but I like the tradition of going to the polling place, because it's a unique combination of civic community and the rights of the individual. You go with your fellow citizens to a common locale, maybe you chat up a few of them before and after you vote -- but once you're in the booth, it's just you and your conscience. If you read Johnson's piece, you can see some counterarguments in favor of early voting, but they all revolve around the point that the Voting Day process can be cumbersome and problematic. But the answer to this is not to encourage early voting, it's to fix the Election Day process. There are many aspects of campaigns and elections that are social -- as they should be. But the action of voting itself should not be made by the individual. For all the good intentions that are used to justify it, I worry that early voting undercuts that individual decision. I eagerly await all the younglings to tell me that I'm clueless on this one. UPDATE: Daniel Davies weighs in against Nate Silver. I will concede that his idea of having the dialers hang around after the debate and respond to CNN's commentators would be awesome.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.