The Politics of Replacing Scalia

Antonin_Scalia_Official_SCOTUS_PortraitJust when you thought the American political scene couldn’t get any more contentious, hostilities have suddenly broken out over a brand new issue. The unexpected death of U. S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend has thrown Washington into complete uproar.

Until this week one might occasionally hear mention of the fact that, considering the ages of the current members of the Supreme Court, the next president will quite possibly end up nominating two (or even more) new justices during their term of office. That is significant. Since the justices serve for life, these appointments could determine which way the Court leans for an entire generation.

But it was a distant possibility set within a vague time frame. Political watchers on both the conservative and liberal sides were aware of its importance, but it did not gain much public attention.

Now the choice of the next Supreme Court Justice has suddenly become an urgent matter. Everyone is talking about it and speculating about what will happen next.

Of course Republicans don’t want Obama to choose Scalia’s replacement. The addition of a liberal member to the Court would reverse the present 5-4 conservative split. It would prove disastrous to conservative hopes to use the Court to overturn Obama’s executive actions and rule in favor of conservatives on other matters.

Republicans are pinning their hopes on 1) delaying the appointment until after Obama is out of office, 2) winning the Presidency, and 3) retaining their majority in the Senate. That’s a big call. Should they fail to achieve any one of these objectives, their plans will be sunk. On the other hand, if the Democrats win the Presidency and the Senate (it only takes winning four seats), it will mean no possibility of turning back their suspected liberal agenda. So the stakes are certainly quite high.

US-Constitution_flagBut there are a few facts that must be kept in mind. First, the President has a constitutional duty (under Article II, Section 2) to nominate a new appointee to the bench to fill any vacancy. That is usually done within 60 to 90 days. For President Obama not to try and fill the vacancy would be a dereliction of duty.

Second, under the same constitutional article, the Senate has a duty to give its “advice and consent” for the nominee, after which the appointment can proceed. The Senate is not obliged to consent to every nominee, but they are obliged to review and advise the president on the nominee’s worthiness. They can reject the nominee. But for them to refuse to hold a hearing would likewise be a dereliction of duty.

Third, there is no justification for the argument that President Obama should not put forward a nomination since he is a “lame duck” in his last year in office. On no less than seven occasions during the 20th century a Supreme Court position became vacant (either through death, retirement, or resignation) during a president’s final year in office. In each instance, the president put forward a nominee to fill the vacancy, and most of the time that vacancy was filled.

The only time it was not filled was late in Eisenhower’s last year of office and Congress had already adjourned. Eisenhower made an interim appointment, which was quickly ratified by the next session of Congress.

It should also be remembered that President Ronald Reagan nominated Anthony Kennedy to fill a vacancy on the bench during his final year in office, and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed Kennedy by a vote of 97 to 0.

One has to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a time when a President left a Supreme Court position vacant for an entire year – and that was because the nation was … well, in the midst of a civil war.

President Obama has already announced that, in keeping with his constitutional duty, he intends to put forward a nominee to replace Scalia. According to the commentators, he has two main courses of action.

Sri_SrinavasanFirst, he can choose a nominee who, political posturing aside, everyone should be able to agree to. He could, for example, choose someone who was previously confirmed unanimously to a lower court position by the Senate. One name that keeps appearing in this regard is Sri Srinivasan, who has no political ax to grind, has worked for both the Bush and Obama administrations, and is seen as a brilliant jurist. Even Ted Cruz has called him “a longtime friend.” It would be awkward for the same Republican members of the Senate who confirmed him without hesitation to the D.C. Circuit Court in 2013 to now label him as unsuitable.

Loretta_Lynch,_official_portraitThe second option would be for Obama make a more contentious nomination, but one that would cost Republicans dearly in opposing during the presidential election campaign. The current Attorney General Loretta Lynch is frequently mentioned as one such candidate. She has outstanding qualifications as a prosecutor, and was recently successfully vetted by the Senate to become Attorney General. Should she as a woman and as an African-American be rejected by Republicans it could mean voters from both these demographic groups turning against Republicans and rallying to the side of the Democrats in the election this fall.

Mariano-Florentio-CuellarOr, in an even more pointed maneuver, Obama could nominate Mariano-Florentino [Tino] Cuéllar, a brilliant young Latino man who is an Associate Justice on California’s State Supreme Court. He was born in Mexico, but is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His perspective on immigration issues would be unique, and if Republicans should reject him for the Supreme Court it could alienate a vast swath of American Latino voters.

Who will Obama choose as his nominee? It’s anyone’s guess at this point. Will he try to find an acceptable moderate candidate, or act in a more politically partisan way? Perhaps that is not the most important issue.

What really counts now is how the Republican majority in the Senate will react. If it becomes clear that they are going to block any nominee that Obama puts forward, it will further polarize the American public, and may well mobilize Democrats and independents to show up at the polls and ensure that Republican attempts to control the nomination process ultimately fail.

Supreme_Court_US_2010In the meantime, The Supreme Court will be hamstrung with only eight members in a 4 to 4 liberal-conservative split for at least a year. National policy will fragment on a number of important issues such as immigration, abortion, birth control, unions, affirmative action and voter rights, as lower appeal courts decide on differing policies in their separate jurisdictions with no way of resolving these issues at the national level.

The crisis of a Congress that is incapable of doing its job will have spread to the Supreme Court, and the public will be in an angrier and more surly mood than ever.

I have a feeling that this is not going to end well … or quickly. This election is suddenly a whole new ballgame.

Stephen Harper’s Evaporating Legacy

Harperism bookIn his 2014 book, Harperism, veteran journalist Donald Gutstein argued that Stephen Harper, during his time as Canadian Prime Minister, sought to fundamentally change the course of Canadian political history. His goal was nothing less than to establish a permanent legacy under his own name similar to the economic and social policy legacies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

In maintaining careful control over his agenda, Harper kept his Ministers on a short leash. He insisted on unwavering party loyalty and strict adherence to the party line. He even went so far as to provide his Ministers with scripted responses to questions in Parliament and carefully vetted their statements to the press.

But since losing to the Liberals in the federal election last October and resigning as leader of the Conservative Party, Harper’s hoped for legacy seems to be rapidly evaporating. In their first few months siting in opposition, his former ministers, MPs and other party members have quickly distanced themselves from their former leader’s policies.

Rona AmbroseThe first sign of a break from Harper’s legacy came just two weeks after the election when Rona Ambrose, the newly appointed interim leader of the Conservative Party, announced her support for a public inquiry into murdered and indigenous women. CBC News described this as “a stunning reversal of the position taken by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper, who repeatedly rebuffed growing calls for a national inquiry.”

Tony_ClementMore recently Tony Clement, a prominent Minister in the Harper government and former candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party, forcefully called on the Liberal Government to make public the report on the recent controversial arms sale to Saudi Arabia that his own government had negotiated in secret and had refused to release to the public. When criticized for asking the Liberals to release the information that the Conservatives had steadfastly refused to release while governing, Clement replied, “the new leadership of the Conservative Party feels differently.”

cbc_radio_logoBut perhaps the most telling sign that Canadian Conservatives are seeking a dramatic break from the legacy of Stephen Harper and his policies, came to light in a panel discussion this past Saturday on CBC Radio’s current affairs program, The House. When asked whether Conservatives should mount a long or a short campaign in selecting their next leader, the Parliamentary Bureau Chief for La Press, Joel-Denis Bellavance, replied,

The strategy to have a long race is to encourage people from the outside to come up and join that race. Right now if you have a short race, only former cabinet ministers will be running. Some of them say right now to defeat Justin Trudeau, you need somebody who’s equal in terms of youth and generational change.

In other words, the emerging view is that if the Conservatives are to have any chance of governing again, they will need to choose a leader who is not strongly connected with the previous Harper government. They will need a fresh face and new ideas signaling a “generational change” within the Conservative Party.

Stephen Harper’s hoped-for permanent legacy is evaporating before our eyes.

Donald Trump’s Appeal

Donald Trump-1

I am not all that surprised to see an egotistical demagogue like Donald Trump run for the U.S. presidency. It has happened before, usually without any serious consequences.

The literal definition of a demagogue, by the way, is “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” The definition fits Donald Trump to a tee.

What has alarmed me to no end, however, is to see so many Americans enthusiastically supporting him and his rabid claims. Nothing he says ever offends them; it simply makes him more popular. It’s like throwing red meat to a pack of wild animals. He keeps ratcheting up the kind of rhetoric that in any previous election would have destroyed a candidate. But he seems to enjoy total immunity.

As Kevin Drum recently wrote for Mother Jones,

He started off slow with wild claims about immigrant Mexican rapists, knowing it would draw in the rubes. Then he laughably claimed that he’d get Mexico to pay for a border wall. Nothing happened. He insulted John McCain for being a POW. Nothing happened. He started telling obvious lies. Nothing. He lied on national TV and was called on it a few minutes later. Nothing. … He claimed that thousands of Muslims in Jersey City celebrated 9/11. Nothing. He mocked a disabled reporter in front of the cameras. Nothing. He suggested taking out terrorist families. Nothing. He appeared on the radio show of a crackpot conspiracy theorist. Nothing. [He then] insulted an audience of conservative Jews. [Still nothing.]

On Monday Trump called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States. The media has strongly criticized him for this, as have some other candidates, but Trump’s own audience responded with loud cheers.

Donald Trump-2

Many commentators have tried to explain Trump’s sustained appeal to such a large and enthusiastic audience. The best analysis that I have come across to date comes from Glenn Thrush writing for Politico. He put it this way:

The mystery of why Republican voters love Donald Trump more each time he makes up a story about Muslims dancing on rooftops after 9/11 or slimes a disabled reporter isn’t really very mysterious after all. All that engineered outrageousness isn’t about fact, or politics, or messaging, it’s about channeling the rawest emotions of his fans (and they are fans, not political supporters in a conventional sense). …

The base is seething, for real, with a recent Pew poll finding three times as many Republican voters describing themselves as anger-motivated compared with Democrats. Trump may be the ultimate it’s-all-about-me candidate, but the piercing paradox of 2016 is that it actually isn’t about him — but about his ability to capture the mood of his voters, and that, more than anything, explains his pundit-defying durability. …

Trump may not be telling the truth, but he’s sure as hell telling their truth. This allows him to shatter most conventions of presidential campaigning. … Trump has ridden up to 30 percent on almost unrelentingly negative, Reagan-on-downers message: Build a wall to keep out Mexicans; my opponents are fat, stupid, ugly, nasty, sweaty and poor; keep your “Morning in America,” I’m calling my campaign book “Crippled America.”

The question is no longer whether Trump can win the GOP nomination. He can. It’s whether his message will appeal to general election voters … who don’t share his anger or definition of the truth.

As I said at the beginning, I am not overly concerned with Donald Trump’s demagoguery. But I am absolutely appalled at the enthusiastic support his message has with such a broad swath of conservative American voters. A Bloomberg Poll released on Wednesday showed that

Almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.

Trump’s message to the masses is deliberately inflammatory, intolerant, xenophobic and racist. He is articulating a kind of populist vitriol and scapegoating that we have not seen since the rise of fascist Europe in the 1930s. And his base seems completely OK with that.

glenn_becks_white_nationalist_fansIt is not as if we are talking about a few out of touch radicals championing some marginal extremist cause. This is a broad groundswell movement endorsing the kind of virulent nationalism that was seen in Nazi Germany. It has been nurtured by a throng right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News, and by a broad network of committed local activists.

It has grown from an easy to dismiss fringe phenomenon into a successful “main stream” movement that now occupies center stage in the political arena. It is nothing less than a homegrown fascist, white nationalist populist movement.

It is extremely dangerous. And it has found its home within the Republican Party.

Photo credits: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images; Chalrie Lright/ Getty Images; Mike Mergen/AP

Revelations from the Republican Debate

On Tuesday evening I listened to the Republican candidates’ debate on economic issues hosted by the Fox Business network and the Wall Street Journal – two bastions of conservative economic ideology.

It felt rather strange to briefly enter the conservative bubble with the moderators giving tacit approval to the candidates’ views during the debate and the hosts applauding them for their views in the personal interviews afterward.

If one accepts the candidates’ premises (which in my view are quite erroneous), their proposed fixes to the economy look very sound.

Just lower taxes and magically create more employment and prosperity for all (hooray!).

Keep wages low and America can successfully compete with China and other countries (paying only $1 a day?).

Expel 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall to keep them out to solve … well basically, all of America’s economic and social ills!

Talk tough to Putin, flex some military muscle, and your opponents will back down (sure they will; nothing could go wrong there).

To me it all sounds alarmingly crazy.

Ted Cruz’ interview afterward was perhaps the most illuminating. He divided the field of Republican candidates into two categories – the remaining large number of ‘moderate’ candidates, as he called them, and the diminishing number of truly ‘conservative’ candidates like himself. I suppose that within the Republican feedback loop that might seem an accurate description. But that is certainly not the way many others see it.

As it happens, I had just a few hours earlier listened to a recent interview with the noted leftist linguist, philosopher, social justice activist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky. Here is a transcription from that interview as he described the current gamut of political positions in American politics:

The spectrum is broad, but in an odd sense. The spectrum is basically from center to extreme right – extreme right – way off the spectrum.

The Republican Party about 20 years ago basically abandoned any pretense of being a normal political party. …What happened is that the party – during the whole neo-liberal period [actually] both parties – shifted to the right … and the Republicans just went off the spectrum.

They became so dedicated to the interests of the extreme wealthy and powerful that they couldn’t get votes. So they had to turn to other constituencies which were there but were never politically mobilized: the Christian evangelicals, nativists [who] were are afraid that ‘they’ are taking our country away from us, people who are so terrified that they carry a gun into the coffee shop – and that’s their base essentially.

He went on to say that

The Democrats have shifted to the right as well. Today’s mainstream Democrats are pretty much what you used to call moderate Republicans.

Dwight_D._Eisenhower,_official_photo_portrait,_May_29,_1959Chomsky then paraphrased Eisenhower’s famous statement in a letter to his brother Edgar in 1954,

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Chomsky continued,

Well by now [Eisenhower’s position] is a left-wing program – basically Bernie Sanders’ program. … So the spectrum is – it’s true that it’s broad – but in a very strange sense.

While this is the view of a noted leftist, it echoes the consensus of a broad range of recent academic scholarship on American political history [detailed my previous post, The Demise of Moderate Republicans]. Chomsky’s language may be a bit sharper than others, but he forms the same conclusion.
By their measure and historically speaking, Barack Obama occupies a space slightly to the right of Eisenhower and Nixon.
And Bernie Sanders – the “radical socialist” from Vermont – is the sole remaining advocate of the kind of liberal New Deal programs that for more than a generation defined the standard for American economic and social policy.

In contrast, the small but determined insurgent “New Right” of the Goldwater campaign which lost so badly in 1964 finally triumphed in 1980 with the election of their chosen candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan subsequently became the “patron saint” and standard bearer for the New Right.

However, after George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush disappointed conservatives in not carrying forward Reagan’s economic policies strongly enough, the new “New Right” has pushed the ideological standard far beyond that of Reagan.

Emboldened by right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News commentators and under the guise of opposing Obama’s “left-wing” policies (really?), this new insurgency backed nativist Tea Party candidates espousing much more radical views in the 2010 midterm elections. They have also supported a large field of extremist candidates in both the 2012 and 2016 primaries. This is where, in Chomsky’s words, the Republican Party “went off the spectrum.” These are some of the same extremist candidates that the staunch traditional conservative John McCain called “wacko birds” in 2013.

Heaven help us if any of these candidates win the presidency in 2016.

Photo credits: Associated Press; Reuters/Gary Cameron; Reuters/Jorge Dan; AP/Andrew Harnik

A New Era in Canadian Politics

ballot boxThe federal election on October 19 dramatically changed the political map of Canada. Click here to see two overlapping maps of Canada, one showing the seats held by each party following the 2011 election and the other showing the results for 2015. In moving the cursor over the maps one sees the shift from one election to the other.

The Liberal Party under its new (and untested) leader Justin Trudeau, swept the Atlantic provinces, made major gains in Québec and Ontario, established inroads in the main urban centers across the Canadian prairies, and finished strong in British Columbia.

As a result, the Conservative Party has been confined to its traditional strongholds in Southern Ontario and the Canadian Prairies. It no longer represents all regions of Canada. And that is significant. Here’s why.

In Southern Ontario there used to be both “Blue Tories” and “Red Tories.” The Blue Tories (also known as “small ‘c’ conservatives) stood for lower taxes, small government, embraced neo-liberal economic policies, and leaned toward libertarian ideals.

The Red Tories, on the other hand, were knows as “progressive conservatives,” and argued that the wealthier members of society had a special responsibility (a noblesse oblige) to contribute to the common good. They endorsed broad social programs to assist the poor, fund education, and provide public health care. Both wings were housed within what was at that time called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

KimCampbellBut in the 1993 federal election the Progressive Conservative government under Kim Campbell (Canada’s first female Prime Minister) imploded with the PCs going from 169 seats in Parliament to just 2 seats and losing their official party status. Replacing them on the conservative spectrum was the upstart Reform Party under Preston Manning based in Alberta, which went from 1 to 52 seats in Parliament.

The Reform Party was, generally speaking, a populist party representing Western conservative interests. By 2000 it had morphed into a decidedly right-wing populist party briefly known as the United Alternative, then the Canadian Reformed Alliance Party (until they realized that it spelled CRAP) so it was quickly changed to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, and finally just the Canadian Alliance. In the 2000 federal election it campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, ending the federal gun registration program, and traditional “family values” (largely opposing gay rights and abortions).

After severe infighting within the party, Stephen Harper emerged as the leader of the Canadian Alliance party in 2002 (he had previously been its chief strategist). In December of 2003 it merged with the (eastern based) Progressive Conservative Party (which at that time held just 12 seats in Parliament), becoming known as Conservative Party of Canada in what some easterners viewed as a “hostile takeover.” In March 2004 Stephen Harper became the new national party’s leader.

Harper_2004Stephen Harper can be credited with building up the Conservative Party from the ground up; it is his creation and bears his personal stamp. Ever the strategist, and vigilant against the kind of inner-party dissidence that had plagued the earlier Canadian Alliance Party that he had headed, Harper held tight control over the party’s MPs. Everyone spoke from prepared scripts approved by Harper himself, and no one deviated from the official party line. Harper was widely seen as an impersonal calculating micromanager, and he certainly lived up to that reputation.

However, through calculated tactics, thoroughly managed messaging, and more than a bit of luck, Harper was able to revive the Conservative Party’s fortunes. After two short-lived minority governments in 2006 and 2008, he was finally able to win a majority in 2011, and began implementing his aggressively conservative platform.

Needless to say, Harper’s conservatism was very much in turn with present Republican conservatism in the United States. So closely was Stephen Harper aligned with the policies of his contemporary, George W. Bush, when he took office that some commentators have called his election loss the defeat of the last surviving Bush-era government in the West.

The writing has been on the wall for some time for Stephen Harper. When he first formed government in 2006 he made sure to appoint some leading Progressive Conservatives to key positions within his cabinet to keep peace within the party. By the time he had called the election at the beginning of August this year, his last remaining Progressive Conservative cabinet minister had resigned. Other incumbent former Progressive Conservatives declared that they would not be candidates in the election. They realized that they no longer had any place in Harper’s Conservative Party. Former Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers Bryan Mulroney and Joe Clark have been fairly scathing in their assessment of Harper’s leadership and policies.

In the wake of the election it became clear that the only long-term conservatives re-elected in Ontario were former Blue Tories; the Red Tory faction was not to be found. Overall, the moderate conservative faction has now disappeared from Canadian politics just as it has in the U.S.

During his time in government, Stephen Harper fought hard to crush his main political opponent – the Liberal Party of Canada – and he nearly succeeded. It plummeted from having 135 seats in Parliament in 2004 to only 34 seats in 2011, dropping to third-party status. The Liberal comeback under Justin Trudeau in this election was therefore all the more remarkable.

Justin_Trudeau-3After Trudeau was elected as party leader in 2013 he set about giving the party not only a new public face, but also a redefined identity. He was criticized for being absent from Parliament much of the time, but he spent that time travelling the country meeting constituents, listening their concerns, and consulting with a broad range of interested parties.

Trudeau’s strategy as leader has been to redefine the party, working from the ground up, and also to redefine how it operates, just as Stephen Harper did with the party he was elected to lead. But Trudeau has chosen a very different model than Harper. Instead of tight management and strict ideological control, Trudeau has initiated a process to make the party more open and transparent, more consultative and inclusive, and more cooperative and engaging.

In speaking with Canadians from across the country over the past two years, Trudeau has worked hard to develop a new consensus around core policy issues and fresh policy initiatives. He has shown a keen political sense (in the best meaning of that term) for identifying the chief concerns of the majority of Canadians and then shaping them into policy positions that are positive, unifying, and non-polarizing.

This was especially seen during the election campaign. During the campaign Trudeau refused to engage in negative advertising (no personal attacks on candidates or leaders – just stick to the issues) or to exploit the “politics of fear” that defined Harper’s campaign. Instead, he presented a positive message of “hope” and “change” (one which had worked quite effectively for Obama in 2008).

Whereas Harper talked about constraints and what could not be done – warning of economic dangers, the threat of terrorism, and the need to cut social programs while maintaining military strength – Trudeau’s campaign capitalized on the phrase, “This is Canada. And in Canada we can always do better.” (Sounds a lot like Obama’s 2008 refrain of “Yes, we can!”) In fact, many are saying that with Justin’s election victory Canadians are now enjoying their own kind of “Obama” moment.

Can Justin deliver?

Justin_Trudeau-2Since the election results came in a week ago, many people have been asking, “Will Justin be able to deliver on his election promises?”

Just look at the uphill battle that Obama has faced in getting his legislative agenda through congress. Look at the refusal of the Republican-controlled House (and now Senate) to pursue the initiatives he has spelled out in his State of the Union addresses. Look at the ongoing efforts to repeal (or cripple) even the programs he did manage to get through Congress before the 2010 midterms. Could the same thing happen to Trudeau?

The answer, simply put, is NO. Not a chance. And to understand why, one needs to understand a bit about the Canadian parliamentary form of government.

Like Americans, Canadians have an Executive branch of government, a Senate, and a House, but they all operate quite different from the American system.

The first thing to do in comparing the two system of government is to forget about the Executive branch. The highest-ranking Canadian official is the Governor General, who acts as the Queen’s personal representative in Canada. This person is not elected, but is appointed (normally for a five year term) by the Prime Minister. They are to be strictly non-partisan, and they fill what is largely a ceremonial role in greeting foreign heads of state, and providing royal assent to all legislation passed by Parliament. Only then does it become law. But the Governor General neither proposes this legislation, not will he or she ever attempt to amend it. They simply give final assent, acting for the Queen who is the constitutional ruler of Canada.

Next, forget about the Senate. Members of the Canadian Senate are also not elected, but are appointed to their positions for life by the Prime Minister. (It’s kind of a Canadian adaptation to the British House of Lords.) Senators do not initiate legislation; only the House does that. Senators merely receive the bills passed by the House and review them (as the chamber of “sober second thought”) with the ability to suggest amendments and return the bill to the House if needed. Most of the time they do not do that, but simply ratify the bills, so that they can be passed on to the Governor General to be signed into law.

House of CommonsThat leaves only the House of Commons, which actually does function a lot like the House of Representatives in the United States. And this is the most important thing to know about the Canadian parliamentary system. The Canadian Prime Minister operates most closely like the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress.

Like the Speaker of the House, the Canadian Prime Minister is historically chosen by his own party members to lead the affairs of the legislative chamber. (In recent years this has been widened to a convention of party members rather than being limited to sitting parliamentarians.) Like the Speaker of the House, the Prime Minister chooses what legislation will be introduced on the floor of the House (and what will not be considered). The PM shepherds that legislation through its successive stages of debate (first and second readings) and through its final passage. All government-sponsored bills must go through committee (to be costed out and to establish their final wording) before being voted on, and the Prime Minister makes those committee appointments. So really, he holds all the cards.

One important difference between the Canadian and American systems of government is that in Canada whenever the party in power has a majority of the seats in Parliament, the opposition can do very little to hamper its operation. Neither the Senate nor the Executive branch can counter its will. This is much different than the American system.

The American founding Fathers, wary of the dictatorial dangers inherent to the British parliamentary system of government, designed an elaborate system of “checks and balances” to limit the power of any one branch of government. Canada follows the British system and does not have any such system of checks and balances. This means that the Prime Minister has far greater political power than either the Speaker of the House or the American President. On the plus side, it means that there is no danger of congressional gridlock as in the American system. On the negative side, it means that the Prime Minister is free to operate in a near-dictatorial manner if he or she wishes to do so.

A year ago I published a blog entry entitled “A Real Dictator?” comparing criticism from Republican ranks that Obama was acting as a dictator with the much more sweeping “dictatorial” powers of the Canadian Prime Minister (having in mind the way Stephen Harper operated). In that blog I summarized the powers of the Prime Minister as follows:

The Canadian Prime Minister appoints the Senators who give all legislation a “second reading” and can either approve the legislation or amend it and send it back to the House for reconsideration. He appoints the Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada) who provides the final signature passing any bill into law. The Prime Minister appoints members of the Supreme Court and all Federal Court judges. He appoints the ministers in his Cabinet, every Deputy Minister, and all parliamentary secretaries and committee chairs. In addition, he appoints the Governor of the Bank of Canada, the heads of all major crown corporations (national public utilities, etc.), and the Chief of the RCMP (the national police force). Even the (supposedly) independent officers of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, the Information Commissioner and the Privacy and Ethics Commissioners, are all appointed by the Prime Minister. These appointments are not subject to opposition, debate, or review. The decision is solely the Prime Minister’s.

So, returning to the question of whether or not Justin Trudeau will be able to make good on his election promises, the answer is – there is little to stop him.

He will, of course, face the same financial constraints in implementing some of his desired programs that any Prime Minister would face. He will have to face vocal opposition from his political opponents across the aisle (with no real power to alter his plans, however). And he will have to face the press and deal with public opinion. But basically, he is free to do whatever he wants (within constitutional limits) between now and when he chooses to face the electorate again in four or five years to ask for a renewed mandate.

Justin_Trudeau-1Judging from the leadership style that Justin Trudeau has consistently demonstrated in leading the Liberal Party for the last two years, I doubt that he will abuse his powers in the way that Stephen Harper was often accused of doing. Instead, I look forward to seeing him continue to operate in a manner that emphasizes openness and transparency, inclusiveness, and cooperation.

We shall see over time whether or not he lives up to the role model he has established for himself.

Photo credits: Canadian Press; Sean Kilpatrick/CP; Riziero Vertolli – Burlington Post

Crisis in Congress – Who Will Be the Next House Speaker?

Kevin McCarthyThis week Republican wunderkind Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the race for House Speaker just before the vote was to be taken.

His boast on Fox News about the Republicans putting together the special committee on Benghazi to discredit Hillary Clinton seems to have done him in. Opposition to his comments by Republican leaders was swift and severe.

McCarthy would need to receive a majority of 218 votes in the House to be elected as Speaker. The Democrats can all be counted on to cast their votes for Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader. With 247 Republicans in the House, that leaves a margin of less than 30 dissenting votes on the Republican side to achieve a majority. (Remember that John Boehner narrowly survived a leadership vote earlier this year when 25 fellow House Republicans voted against him.)

Daniel WebeterBut on Wednesday the House Freedom Caucus (with appx. 40 members) announced that it was backing Daniel Webster for speaker, with one of its members, Rep. Paul Labrador, informing CNN that the group would be voting as a block for their candidate instead of for McCarthy. Sensing that he could not unify the party behind him, McCarthy quickly withdrew his name.

But there is more to the story than that. It is possible that McCarthy was blackmailed into withdrawing from the race.

The previous day (Oct. 6) Rep. Walter Jones of N. Carolina sent a letter to the Republican Conference Chairman

asking that any candidate for Speaker of the House, majority leader and majority whip withdraw himself from the leadership election if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican Conference, and the House of Representatives if they become public.

Then, just after 8 am on Thursday morning (the morning of the vote) McCarthy received an email from Steve Baer, a well-known conservative GOP donor with the subject line: “Kevin, why not resign like Bob Livingston?” (a reference to the Republican candidate who was set to replace Newt Gingrich as House Speaker in Jan 1999 until it was revealed that he was having an extra-marital affair; he resigned from Congress a few months later). The email contained a series of links to stories alleging that McCarthy was having an affair with Rep. Renee Ellmers of N. Carolina, and was copied to 91 influential conservatives both in and outside Congress.

Although both Ellmers and McCarthy have stated that these accusations are unfounded, it may nevertheless explain McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the Speaker’s race without further explanation.

YoungGuns_Cover_DV_20100831125157Until McCarthy’s now infamous statement on Fox News, he was seen as one of the fast-rising stars within the Republican Party. He was one of the celebrated “Young Guns” who, along with Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan in the book they co-authored in 2010, became the standard-bearers of a new generation of conservative Republican leaders.

McCarthy rose rapidly through the ranks of party leadership. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, served as Republican Chief Deputy Whip from 2009 to 2011, then as House Majority Whip from 2011 to 2014.

Eric Cantor became House Majority Leader in 2011, but lost his seat in 2014 to a more radical Tea Party ‘outlier’ in the primaries who then replaced him in the House. McCarthy took over Cantor’s vacated #2 position as House Majority Leader in August 2014, and was until this week poised to assume the top position as Speaker of the House.

But much like Cantor, McCarthy has had his political future torpedoed by a discontented, vocal, and more radically conservative faction within his own party. It was the House Freedom Caucus specifically that took the lead in orchestrating McCarthy’s leadership demise.

Capitol Hill Re-Groups One Day After Surprise In Speaker's RaceMembers of Congress have historically divided into different party caucus groups to work together in promoting specific agendas. In 1973 the Republican Study Committee was formed as part of a rising conservative movement within the Republican Party to oppose the moderate Republicans who dominated the House at that time.

With the Republican Party’s swing to the right in recent years, more than three-quarters of House Republicans (some 170 members) now belong to the RSC, far outstripping the less than 50 House Republicans belonging to the moderate Main Street Partnership.

But many of the recently elected House members (largely from the Tea Party faction) have come to see the RSC as not conservative enough for their taste. After many months of planning, in January of this year they formed a splinter group called the House Freedom Caucus to pursue a decidedly right-wing agenda.

The HFC keeps its membership list secret, but is known to number around 40 members. With such a large voting block, they exert considerable weight, and can keep any proposed legislation in the House that does not have Democratic support from passing. A month after its formation, members of the HFC pushed the House majority close to a partial government shutdown in opposing President Obama’s executive order on immigration.

An angry John Boehner struck back, relieving some HFC members of their House duties. This led to near open warfare between the HFC and Speaker. Over the summer one of the affected HFC members, Rep. Mark Meadows of N. Carolina, filed a motion to oust Boehner from the speaker’s chair. Boehner ended up announcing his resignation before the motion could be voted on.

Now that the House Freedom Caucus has achieved Boehner’s resignation, and has turned against Kevin McCarthy as the front runner to replace him, Republicans are scrambling for a new candidate who can receive the required majority – which means satisfying both the conservative and extreme right-wing factions within the party. With the House Freedom Caucus holding the decisive block of votes, that appears to be a near impossibility.

Paul_RyanSome party conservatives have pleaded with Paul Ryan, the remaining “Young Gun,” to stand for nomination, but he has steadfastly refused. He knows that the speaker will face enormous pressures in the weeks to come. As Alexander Bolton noted this week in The Hill,

Congress has less than a month to raise the nation’s debt limit and only two months to find a deal to avoid a government shutdown.

If the new speaker cooperates with Democrats or the President to avoid a shutdown, he will face the wrath of House ultra-conservatives who will likely demand his immediate resignation. And if he allows a government shutdown to take place, he and other Republicans may incur the wrath of the entire nation. Either way, such a step could easily ruin Paul Ryan’s political career.

The House Freedom Caucus is playing a strong hand. On Thursday Politico published a “questionnaire” distributed by the HFC that seeks a commitment from any new speaker that any increases in the debt ceiling would be tied to cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Cutting these benefits is viewed negatively by the public at large and even by some Republicans. But so would be refusing to increase the debt ceiling and causing America to default on its debts.

The questionnaire also asks,

Would you ensure that House-passed appropriations bills do not contain funding for Planned Parenthood, unconstitutional amnesty, the Iran deal and Obamacare?

In other words, it asks the House Speaker to commit to not funding the government unless Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, Obama’s immigration orders and the Iran deal are all defunded in the process. As Judd Legum notes in an article in ThinkProgress,

This is essentially the Ted Cruz strategy which prompted at 16-day shutdown in 2013. This would now be enshrined as the official policy of the Speaker Of The House.

It would be dangerous for any untested Speaker to shepherd such radical legislation through the House. There is sure to be an enormous backlash as well as some unforeseen casualties.

But right now the House Freedom Caucus holds all the cards. And it will be difficult to elect a new speaker without their cooperation.

Interesting – and perilous – times lie ahead.

Photo credits: Scott Applewhite/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dead Cat and Dog Whistle Politics

ca_election_2015The Conservative Party of Canada has just mounted a strategic ploy to try and salvage a win in the closing days of the federal election campaign.

Throughout the first half of the campaign the Conservatives were regularly on the defensive, with the media giving extensive coverage to three contentious issues: First came the Mike Duffy hearings and the Senate scandal (very bad for the ruling Conservative Party). Then came non-stop coverage of the drowning of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi and Canada’s appalling record in taking in refugees (another black eye for the Conservatives). This was followed by the economic news that Canada had just recorded its second consecutive quarter of negative growth and was technically in a recession (again, bad news for the Conservatives who were campaigning on experienced fiscal management).

But behind the scenes important changes were taking place.

LyntonCrosbyIn September Stephen Harper hired an Australian political consultant, Lynton Crosby (the so-called “Wizard of Oz”) who masterminded the political campaigns of the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson. Crosby has fine-tuned the art of “dog whistle” politics in securing his political wins. He is said to be especially skilled at finding issues that voters can suddenly seize upon to turn around a flagging campaign.

In 2013 Boris Johnson described one of the key campaign tactics he learned from Crosby.

Let us suppose you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and, the more people focus on the reality, the worse it is for you and your case. Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate.”

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table—and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words, they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.

In the French language debate last Friday Harper threw “the dead cat” on the table. Suddenly everyone is taking about “the niqab issue.” As Evan Solomon reported in a feature article in McLean’s (Canada’s national news magazine),

The NDP, which was once riding high on polls that showed Quebecers were ready to turf Harper, have whiplash. It has lost control of the agenda. It’s all niqab, all the time.

So, what is the niqab issue?

In 2011 the Conservative government implemented a policy stating that candidates for citizenship must remove any kind of face covering that could conceal their identity when taking the public citizenship oath. Since then precisely two people have declined to go through the citizenship ceremony under those conditions. (So this deserves to be a major issue?)

niqab-citizenship-zunera-ishaqOne of these people is Zunera Ishaq, a Pakistani woman and devout Sunni Muslim who is seeking Canadian citizenship. Based on her religious beliefs, Ishaq wears a niqab, or veil, to cover most of her face when out in public.

She has stated that she is quite willing to remove her niqab in private before the ceremony for a female citizenship officer to verify her identity, but that she is opposed to appearing immodestly without the niqab for the lengthy public citizenship ceremony.

Ishaq took the federal government to court over the ban, and a Federal Court judge struck the ban down. The federal government applied for a stay of the ruling to prevent her from taking her citizenship oath and thus become eligible to vote in the October election. On September 18 the Federal Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s decision, saying there was no basis for issuing a stay, and cleared the way for Ishaq to take her citizenship oath. The Conservatives threatened to take the case to the Supreme Court, to once again prevent her from voting in this fall’s election.

Now the Conservative Party has made the ban on the niqab a major campaign issue. They have pledged that legislation will be introduced within 100 days of a re-elected Conservative government that will require one to show one’s face while swearing the oath of citizenship.

Chris AlexanderIn a news conference on Friday, The Conservative’s Immigration Minister, Chris Alexander, stated, “Let’s be clear. This practice of face covering reflects a misogynistic view of women which is grounded in medieval tribal culture.”

In this news conference Alexander also reminded voters of the Conservative government’s Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act passed last November. Alexander promised more government resources to uphold the act if re-elected, and also proposed a RCMP tip line where people could report “information about incidents of barbaric cultural practices in Canada.” 

As Edward Keenan pointed out on Saturday in The Star, when Stephen Harper refers to “barbaric culture,” that is dog-whistle terminology for “Islam,” and he is hoping that this appeal to Islamophobia will turn the election around and solidify his conservative base.

nun : niqabBut most Canadians are not Islamophobic, and outside that base, this tactic has resulted in an explosion of Twitter memes pointing out the hypocrisy of singling out face coverings worn by Muslim women as misogynistic and grounded in medieval tribal culture, but ignoring similar accepted face coverings worn by women in Western societies.

In addition, a host of satirical sites have sprung up such as http://www.reportyourneighbour.ca/ accusing the Conservative government itself of promoting “barbaric cultural practices in Canada.”

The majority of Canadians are able to see through this rather desperate diversionary tactic being mounted by the Conservatives. Let’s hope the debate soon returns to real election issues that the Canadian public actually wants to debate.

Photo credits: Rex Features; Patrick Doyle/CP; Canadian Press