Every four years around this time, political observers become breathless in anticipation of an “October surprise,” an event or disclosure or a gaffe that will change the dynamic of the upcoming US presidential election. And it is almost a given something will come up to shake things up.
2016 had two so-called “surprises”: Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, released on October 7, and the FBI reopening their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on October 28.
This year’s October surprise arrived a month early: the death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the impending political war over filling her vacancy on the court. Of course, everybody wants to know how this will affect November’s presidential and congressional elections, but the short answer is: nobody knows.
For the clearest sense of how this might all play out, cut through the noise of the politicians and talking heads and look closely at voters’ reactions in the coming weeks to Trump’s choice and the subsequent nomination battle.
Leading up to this moment, there has been little indication of how a Supreme Court fight might influence the vote. A Fox News poll released last week showed that likely voters trust Democrat Joe Biden over Trump, 52 to 45 percent, to do a better job with Supreme Court nominations.
The New York Times last week asked voters in three battleground states who are undecided or could change their minds who they preferred to choose the next Supreme Court justice – they preferred Biden over Trump 49 to 31 percent.
However, until voters are asked by pollsters what they think about this development and the subsequent fallout, all we can do for now is watch the political players.
Biden said if he wins the election, a Trump nominee for the court position should be withdrawn [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]
Their strategies will be calibrated not only for a long-term political advantage, as Supreme Court appointments usually are, but also for a short-term electoral advantage, something the US has never seen this close to a presidential election.
There is no question this is an opportunity for Trump to change the focus of the election away from voters’ negative reviews on his performance as president and his handling of the pandemic and racial justice issues.
It is almost certain he will make his choice and this process one of, if not the, main focus over the next six weeks. But what is not clear is which strategies he will adopt regarding his nominee and the subsequent fight over that choice.
Trump had announced a lengthy public list of potential nominees before Ginsburg’s death and said on Saturday he would nominate a woman. But will he choose one to placate his unwavering conservative base, promising them a 6-3 conservative-leaning court for the next generation?
Will he pick someone who will emphasize his divisive, us-versus-them, culture-war campaign strategy or someone he and Republicans can try to sell to voting blocs with whom he is underperforming, such as independents, suburban women and older voters?
Trump said he would nominate a woman to fill the Supreme Court vacancy [Alex Brandon/AP Photo]
As for the pace of the nomination process, will it be rammed through before election day or will Trump and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell try to hold a vote after the election to allow embattled incumbent Republicans fighting in Senate battlegrounds to defer making up their minds until the electoral pressure has eased?
Will Republicans even have the full support of their Senate ranks? It only takes a few out of their 53-47 majority to create significant problems for confirming Trump’s nominee.
As for Democrats, they have no immediate legislative or procedural tools at their disposal, so at this point, the focus will be on vociferously arguing that Trump and the Republicans are imperilling the country by trying to ram a nominee through.
They will talk about Republicans’ hypocrisy on blocking President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016 because the vacancy was too close to an election, though it was 9 months prior.
They will talk about how abortion rights, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ rights and civil rights will all be in jeopardy under a 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court.
And they will surely talk about how just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated this statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Ginsburg said she wanted a new president to be installed before her replacement on the court is selected [Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Berggruen Institute via AFP]
In their effort to honour Ginsburg’s wish, Democratic leaders escalated their rhetoric over the past two days, suggesting they are ready to strike back at the Republicans, maybe not immediately, but down the road.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer issued a direct threat to McConnell: If the Senate Republicans go forth with filling the vacancy, “nothing is off the table for next year”.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked if another impeachment of Trump could be used to prevent filling the vacancy, did not respond directly but did say: “We have our options. We have arrows in our quiver that I’m not about to discuss right now.”
With all the uncertainties Ginsburg’s passing and her vacant Supreme Court seat create, there is one certainty: every crucial decision and statement made by an elected official will be made while they ask themselves the question: “How does this affect me on election day?” It is the effect of those decisions and statements that will be closely watched to see how voters react to this early October surprise.
Analysis: Diab was meant to fail. He did it well |NationalTribune.com
Beirut, Lebanon – “They” controlled the state. “They” blocked the government’s reform efforts. “They” were ultimately to blame for a catastrophic explosion that ripped through Beirut a week ago. In his resignation speech on Monday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said “they” more than two dozen times – but he never said who “they” were,…
Beirut, Lebanon – “They” controlled the state.
“They” blocked the government’s reform efforts.
“They” were ultimately to blame for a catastrophic explosion that ripped through Beirut a week ago.
In his resignation speech on Monday evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said “they” more than two dozen times – but he never said who “they” were, nor explained what exactly they had done.
As Lebanon reels in shock and anger over the August 4 explosion that killed some 200 people, analysts and government insiders say the political establishment that named Diab prime minister-designate in late January had baked in his failure from the beginning; that he was chosen for a role and that he played it well, wittingly or not.
Diab was picked by Hezbollah and its allies – the Free Patriotic Movement and the Amal Movement – amid an unprecedented protest movement railing against a ruling elite whose corruption and negligence led the country into deep economic and social crises.
After his designation as prime minister in January, Diab said he would form a government of “independent experts” who would rescue Lebanon from economic and social doom.
Bassel Sallouk, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, said it was a ploy of Lebanon’s establishment.
“The main aim there was to defuse the momentum of the October 17 protests – and they did that very brilliantly,” Salloukh told Al Jazeera.
“We saw the momentum of the protest movement die down after Diab came to power.”
‘Salvage the system’
Some parts of the political establishment chose to sit out of Diab’s cabinet, which won a vote of confidence in parliament in February.
Among them were the Future Movement of Saad Hariri – Diab’s predecessor who resigned in the face of the months-long anti-establishment protests – and the Lebanese Forces and Progressive Socialist Party of former militia leaders Samir Geagea and Walid Joumblatt.
But regardless of whether they were in or out, establishment politicians took to criticising Diab’s government and blaming it for the ills of 30 years of failed rule following the country’s 1975-90 civil war.
“Despite their internal differences, what these political actors will always agree on is to salvage the sectarian political system – this is what allows them to stay in power, to make money,” Salloukh said.
“In the end, we felt that they wanted to make us the criminals, that they wanted to put this all on us, and it was a major reason for the [government’s] resignation,” Ghada Shreim, minister for displaced people in Diab’s now-caretaker government, told Al Jazeera.
What’s behind Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades? Al Jazeera’s @timourazhari explains 👇 pic.twitter.com/TWAj2rzgZS
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 19, 2020
House Speaker Nabih Berri, one of the key figures of Lebanon’s unbudging political class, had called for a session on Thursday to question the government over the explosion, which also wounded 6,000 people and rendered 300,000 homeless.
“This was unacceptable to us,” Shreim said.
“It was theatre aimed at completing this story that we are the ones responsible for everything,” she added.
Calling it effectively a “lame-duck cabinet”, Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said Diab’s government was not allowed by the country’s political elite to take any important decisions.
“I think that it was already on its way out and the explosion basically accelerated the whole process, due to the absence of leadership in the response effort and the lack of state institutions,” she added.
Though government ministers point to the past when confronted with Lebanon’s deep crisis today, they proved unable to stop the country’s economic collapse during six months in power. Diab’s office was also informed of the presence of the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at Beirut’s port that fuelled last week’s explosion at least two weeks before it happened – but failed to act on time.
A general view shows the extensive damage at the site of the explosion in Beirut’s port area, Lebanon [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]
The government was not helped by the fact that Diab was “basically politically inept, and though he was a good guy he was in way above his head”, a government source told Al Jazeera.
Before becoming prime minister, Diab was a little-known academic and a vice president at the American University of Beirut, where he had taught for more than 30 years. He had been education minister for nearly three years (2011-14), after which he published a thick book full of his so-called achievements.
Among the public, he was known for his verbose speeches that blended populism with tortured metaphors.
In one 20-minute speech, which he began with a two-and-a-half-minute metaphor involving a sinking ship, Diab claimed the government had achieved 97 percent of its goals three months in.
“He gave academics a really bad name – ‘technocrat’ or ‘independent’ has become a swearword,” Salloukh said, referring to Diab’s initial assertion that his was a government of independent experts.
The failure of a government headed by self-described independent technocrats worked in favour of a political class who have sustained themselves for decades on a clientelistic relationship with their supporters – a relationship based on the provision of services in exchange for loyalty.
In the end, “it was clear that nothing could be done without obstacles being put in the way by those with hidden interests”, the government source said.
Diab had said as much in his final address.
“I said previously that the system of corruption is deeply rooted in all parts of the state, but I found that the regime of corruption is bigger than the state.”
Analysis: Trump’s push to reopen the US economy backfires |NationalTribune.com
President Donald Trump’s gamble on reopening the United States economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation has backfired, leaving the president in a losing political position just four months before the US election. Trump cast himself as the cheerleader-in-chief and has pushed US governors and business leaders to reopen the economy…
President Donald Trump’s gamble on reopening the United States economy in the face of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation has backfired, leaving the president in a losing political position just four months before the US election.
Trump cast himself as the cheerleader-in-chief and has pushed US governors and business leaders to reopen the economy with the hope that the virus would wane. That has not happened.
Now, infection rates are exploding throughout the South and West of the US, and the virus is returning to states that had previously peaked. Trump has refused to acknowledge the rising risks, claiming case numbers are a function of more widely available testing and instead pushed to reopen schools beginning as soon as next month.
The talk of reopening schools, as the virus resurges, has unsettled parents and families nationwide and left governors and local officials in the difficult position of having to make plans without adequate resources or guidance.
“Trump has clearly lost his footing,” said Shibley Telhami, a pollster and professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland.
“He is losing the narrative. If you can’t get the pandemic under control, you can’t reopen the economy,” Telhami told Al Jazeera.
Trump’s handling of the pandemic is not winning over the American public. Opinion polls suggest Trump is trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden by an average of more than eight percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com. Biden leads in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida that are likely to turn the election.
“The president has a governing problem that has become a political problem,” said Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“He has failed to stop the spread of this disease. The United States is the worst in the world among developed nations,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.
Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about his plans for tackling climate change during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, July 14, 2020 [Leah Millis/Reuters]
Biden leads Trump in support among Americans by 49 percent to 40 percent, according to a survey of 1,500 adults by The Economist/YouGov taken July 12-14.
“If his poll numbers look this way on election day, he is almost certainly going to lose,” Kondik said.
Indeed, for weeks Republicans who could lose control of both the White House and the US Congress to Democrats have been expressing alarm at the president’s weakened political position.
After low turnout at a much-hyped Trump rally in Oklahoma, Karl Rove, the Republican mastermind behind former President George W Bush’s winning campaigns, told the television outlet Fox News that the president needed to hit the “reset” button on his campaign.
In late June, after Black Lives Matter protests had rocked the US, the number 2 Republican in the Senate, John Thune, called for a “change in tone” from the president.
Trump is losing independent voters and needs to deliver a new “message that deals with substance and policy”, Thune told reporters at the US Capitol.
But the president has stayed his course, appealing to his base of partisan Republican voters, advancing a tough “law and order” posture towards the protests, and escalating tensions with China, which he blames for the virus’s spread.
The president has abandoned his once-daily briefings on the coronavirus, sidelined government scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and waged a whisper campaign of criticism of Dr Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci has been a leading voice for social distancing and shutdown measures to control the spread of the virus. He called the White House’s attempts to discredit him “bizarre” and in a series of interviews this week, called for stepping back from reopening the economy.
“Trump continues to be, frankly, irrationally indifferent to the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic,” said James Henson, a politics professor at the University of Texas.
“The Trump administration and the Trump campaign are gambling that in states like Texas – where the pandemic is just burning out of control – he’ll survive it,” Henson told Al Jazeera.
In a speech at the White House on July 14, Trump gave a preview of the campaign ahead by claiming the number of deaths from the virus are going down. The president drew distinctions between himself and Biden on rebuilding the economy, stopping immigration and getting tough on China.
But his performance was rambling, many of his claims were not backed up by facts and his use of a ceremonial space at the White House to deliver a partisan speech drew criticism.
Campaign manager for the Trump 2020 reelection campaign Brad Parscale has been replaced [File: Carlo Allegri/Reuters]
The next day, Trump replaced his campaign manager Brad Parscale, who had delivered his unlikely 2016 win, with Bill Stepien, a political consultant and former operative for former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
Whether Stepien can reinvent Trump’s campaign is an open question. Trump has been forced to cancel planned events in New Hampshire and Alabama because of the virus.
“Trump’s political position is precarious at this point,” said James Lance Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
“He has to run on the pandemic response and the economy, but he can’t. His response to the crisis has been inept,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
“He’s going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat,” he said.
Attendance at the Republican National Convention, scheduled for August 24-27 in Jacksonville, Florida – where Republicans will formally nominate Trump for a second four-year term – will be curtailed as the state suffers the US’s worst outbreak.
And without firm national leadership coming from the president on the pandemic, state and local leaders have been left to devise their own strategies leading to a patchwork of policies and uncertainty about what the future holds.
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi criticised President Trump during a weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, July 16, 2020 [Tom Brenner/Reuters]
“The president has made so many bad executive decisions,” said House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the number 1 Democrat in Congress.
“He is like the man who refuses to ask for directions,” Pelosi said.
“The answers are there. The scientists have the answers. The answers are testing, tracing and treating,” Pelosi told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
Analysis: Israel set for ‘dangerous, right-wing’ coalition gov’t
Just hours before Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz reached an agreement to form a unity government. The deal, agreed on Monday, broke a political impasse that saw three elections taking place in less than a year, all of them rendering inconclusive results. More: Israeli coalition deal keeps…
Just hours before Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz reached an agreement to form a unity government.
The deal, agreed on Monday, broke a political impasse that saw three elections taking place in less than a year, all of them rendering inconclusive results.
Israeli coalition deal keeps Netanyahu in power
Israelis demonstrate against Netanyahu amid coronavirus pandemic
Israel’s president asks parliament to choose prime minister
Despite the bribery and corruption charges he has been indicted for, head of the right-wing Likud party Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, managed to extend his reign for another 18 months under the agreement.
Gantz, head of the centre-right Blue and White alliance, whose election campaign ruled out the possibility of a coalition government with Netanyahu, will become defence minister and deputy prime minister before taking over from Netanyahu for the second half of the government’s rule.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had given Gantz the mandate to form a government. But when he failed before the deadline, Rivlin authorised the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, with the task.
The pair now has 21 days to form the government with a majority of 61 votes. Failure to do so will mean that the Knesset will dissolve on May 7 and an unprecedented election will take place by August 4.
Netanyahu vs the legal system
The unity government agreement includes the ability of Netanyahu, with the support of the United States, to advance legislation to annex parts of the occupied West Bank starting from July 1.
Gantz had expressed similar views on the annexation, which, under international law, is considered illegal.
On Monday, the more contentious issues finally ironed out revolved around the legal system within Israel and the committee to appoint judges.
Netanyahu now has to power to veto the appointments of the next attorney general and state prosecutor. His trial, in three corruption cases, will start on May 24 at the High Court of Justice.
Israel’s Supreme Court will now have to deal with a tough question of whether Netanyahu will be eligible to lead the country as prime minister, according to Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist for Al-Monitor.
“There is no precedent to this in the entire democratic world,” Eldar told Al Jazeera.
“The unity agreement, which Netanyahu formed to immunise himself from the high court’s ruling, states that if he is ruled ineligible to be prime minister, neither anyone from his Likud party or Gantz can become leader. It’s either Netanyahu or a fourth election.”
The unity government, Eldar added, is set for a head-on collision between the government and the high court.
Israel’s Netanyahu, Gantz sign unity government agreement
Gantz lacks ‘political skill-set’
Gantz, a former Israeli military chief of staff, has little political experience and has disappointed some of his followers by agreeing to a coalition government with Netanyahu, who has been in power for the last five years and 14 years in total.
“Gantz was presented as the anti-Netanyahu, a man who was supposed to replace a corrupt prime minister,” said Amjad Iraqi, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network think tank.
“Because Gantz has flip-flopped on what was effectively his core platform, he has shown his supporters that he’s not a real politician by not keeping to his campaign pledges and effectively being played by Netanyahu to agree to a unity government.”
The decision to enter a coalition government with Netanyahu has been in the works since last month, causing Gantz’s alliance of three parties to splinter only 13 months after it was formed to bring Netanyahu’s reign to an end.
“Gantz has shown he doesn’t really have the experience or the skillset to play the political game, as shown by his own political party breaking up into three,” added Iraqi. “So his reputation as a political leader no longer has that kind of credibility.”
Netanyahu had previously led the most far-right government in Israel’s history, relying on the support of ultra-nationalist and extremist parties. But, according to Haggai Matar, the executive director for +972mag, the majority of the government parties within the Knesset are still far right.
“Gantz and Netanyau basically approve the annexation [of occupied Palestinian territories] and the continued assault on the Supreme Court,” said Matar.
“The one thing we might see, with Gantz as defence minister and Gabi Ashkenazi as foreign minister, is an attempt to create an outward-facing nicer facade to these policies, which won’t change.
“The public sees Gantz as the more ‘moderate’ right-wing person who might be able to shift the right-wing camp away from the more extremist nationalistic groupings like the ones headed by Naftali Bennett,” said Iraqi. “But in the end, all of this is operating exclusively within the right-wing camp. So it’s more about the presentation of right-wing policies and the language used.”
Aida Touma, member of the opposition Palestinian-Israeli Joint List party in the Knesset, described the new coalition as “the dangerous and right-wing” government.
“Gantz has entered [the political process] to replace Netanyahu, and now he is backing him and his racist and anti-democratic approach,” she said in a tweet.
Stability in time of crisis
While Gantz’s supporters operated under the banner of “Anyone but Bibi” – referring to Netanyahu’s nickname – the betrayal felt by Gantz’s decision to enter in a coalition has been superimposed by the coronavirus pandemic, said Yizhar Be’er, an Israeli journalist and social activist.
“Many Israelis are tired of Netanyahu, but in the coronavirus era, they want stability,” said Be’er.
“The bad news is that the democratic face of this government will not recover, particularly if Netanyahu uses his power to stop any changes in the legal system.”
In light of the current domestic and international state of affairs, Matar said that the general public is happy with the government outcome.
“In terms of the economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and the political deadlock for the past three elections, what was needed was unity and most of the people are happy with that,” he said.
And while those who felt betrayed by Gantz’s reneging on his campaign promises, others in the same camp – who still do not want Netanyahu as prime minister – have relented “due to being in a time of crisis”.
“They say they’ll be able to affect and minimise the damage Netanyahu does from within,” Matar said.
“Many Israelis view Netanyahu as a brilliant politician and consider that he has contributed many positive things in the past 10 years,” Iraqi said. “Netanyahu has enjoyed a lot of support and popularity for his handling of the situation during the coronavirus pandemic.
“For other Israelis, they are indifferent to who is in the driving seat as long as the government is functioning and things are carried out as they should.”
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