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What exactly is Kamala Harris’ border assignment?

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This is the March 31, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Vice President Kamala Harris was in the middle of a dream political assignment: Traveling the country to tell people that the government would be sending them checks.

But President Biden had another swell idea last week: Let Harris take on the immigration crisis, one of the administration’s biggest headaches.

From the start, administration officials have had trouble explaining what the assignment is about, and what it’s not. That’s a distinction with big political implications. They’ve tried to stress that Harris’ job is to coordinate diplomacy with Mexico and the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle — and that she’s not in charge of the border itself or the influx of migrants overwhelming U.S. officials there.

“There is some confusion over that,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki conceded Monday.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. Today, we will talk about Harris’ first solo assignment, and the trouble she is already having in explaining exactly what she is responsible for.

Handing out stimmies

In giving Harris the assignment last Wednesday, Biden noted that he had a similar job when he served as vice president under President Obama. It smacked of the type of thing high school seniors tell freshman when they’re hazing them: I had to do it, now it’s your turn.

Biden spoke of the money he distributed to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in 2014 in hopes of reducing poverty, corruption and lawlessness — the factors that drive families there to make the dangerous trek north, or to send their children alone.

The fact that he was sending Harris on the same mission — seven years later — suggests the futility of solving those issues from the White House, which has limited control over the behavior of governments and people in other countries.

The writers at NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” may have summed it up best over the weekend. “Such a fun, solvable problem,” Maya Rudolph, in the role of Harris, deadpanned, shaking her fist with faux excitement. Alex Moffat, as Biden, gloats that he will be busy, meanwhile, handing out “stimmies.”

“Make it rain,” he says, flicking his hands.

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Patience? In Washington? You must be new here.

Harris and her staff have pleaded for patience.

“This is not work that will be addressed overnight,” Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokesperson and senior advisor told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Friday, as Harris was headed to Connecticut to celebrate the COVID-19 relief package. “This is a challenging situation.”

Sanders, asked by reporters when Harris would travel to the border, said she had no trips “planned in the near term.”

“I will just reiterate that the vice president is not doing the border,” she said a few minutes later, trying again to make the distinction with Harris’ diplomatic duties.

You can see where this is headed politically. Republicans have been eager to saddle Harris with responsibility for the entire border, including the images of overcrowded rooms with children sleeping on mats and foil blankets, which has the potential not only to drag down Biden’s popularity but also to tarnish Harris’ future prospects. Meanwhile, she’s trying to stay far away from the scene, literally and figuratively.

“So now that Kamala Harris is in charge of the border crisis, can we finally get an answer on when she’ll visit the border? Or is she still laughing about it?” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted Saturday.

Building the airplane while trying to fly

Harris also has yet to schedule trips to the Northern Triangle countries, though she has begun getting briefed on the diplomatic issues. On Tuesday, she held a call with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, in which the two “agreed to explore innovative opportunities to create jobs and to improve the conditions for all people in Guatemala and the region, including by promoting transparency and combating crime,” according to her office.

When I asked a Harris advisor last week how the administration would define success, she conceded the team was still figuring that out.

Even if Harris convinces many people that she is not directly responsible for the border plight, she will still own at least a part of it, given her argument that she is trying to solve the “root causes” of migration that send people from their home countries.

“I don’t think Republicans are going to let people make that distinction,” said Jose Dante Parra, a former advisor to Senate Democratic leaders who advises immigration advocacy groups. “They’re going to keep messaging that she’s in charge of the border situation.”

Parra, who is based in Florida, noted that Republicans are also spreading their message in Spanish-language media, reflecting the party’s belief that it can win over some Latinos with restrictionist immigration arguments — as former President Trump did in carrying Florida and Texas in last year’s presidential election.

Parra generally agrees with the Biden administration’s approach at the border — which includes speeding up asylum seekers’ processing and placing unaccompanied minors with guardians — but says the politics are tough.

“They have a challenge that they’re basically trying to fly the airplane as they’re building it,” he said, “and that’s difficult to message.”

I posed similar questions to some of Harris’ former advisors last week, granting them anonymity in hopes of some candor.

Here’s how one summed up her new role: “High risk. Very low reward. But she is passionate about it.”

Another was less concerned for Harris, believing the “risk is limited here” because few would blame her for the problem she and Biden inherited.

“A leader seizing control of any crisis comes with political risk,” the former advisor said, “but that’s the job they signed up for.”

The view from Washington

Mike Pence 2024? The former vice president is steadily reentering public life as he eyes a potential run for the White House. He’s joining conservative organizations, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and launching an advocacy group.

— And in a rebuke of how its predecessor attempted to recast and limit the defense of human rights, the Biden administration on Tuesday issued an annual global report that promises to renew focus on women’s issues and reproductive rights, writes Tracy Wilkinson.

— The idea was a bait-and-switch: Give people searching online for terms like “join Oath Keepers” or “bomb instructions” an alternative to extremism. But that alternative turned out to be an anarchist with anti-Semitic views, report Anita Chabria and Evan Halper.

— Biden’s first slate of judicial nominees aims to put a diverse cast on the federal judiciary. His choices place a 50-year-old federal judge in position to potentially become the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, David Lauter writes.

— Biden announced steps Tuesday to protect Asian Americans from discrimination and violent attacks, including establishing a Justice Department initiative to address a rising number of hate crimes, reports Chris Megerian.

The view from California

— A majority of likely California voters would keep Gov. Gavin Newsom in office if a recall election were held today, according to a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. The poll was conducted as vaccinations in the state increase and the Democratic governor ramps up his campaign to fight the effort to remove him.

— Skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine has fallen steadily in California as inoculations increase. But according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, resistance still remains particularly high among one group: Republicans.

For the Record: Friday’s newsletter incorrectly stated that after Frances Perkins in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, no woman headed a Cabinet department until 1975. Oveta Culp Hobby served as the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Eisenhower from April 1953 to July 1955.

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Mail-in delays and recounts: Canada’s election tallying drags on.

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Three days after Canada‘s federal election, the final tally of seats remained unclear on Thursday, with mail-in ballots still being counted in some regions and at least one electoral district facing an automatic recount.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were handed another minority mandate late on Monday, in an election that ended with all the major parties holding virtually the same number of seats they had before the vote was called.

A handful of seats remain too close to call, as election workers across the country continue to count ballots. Those tight races will not meaningfully impact the overall outcome.

“We’re on pace to have all results within five days of polling day, and the majority should be in by the end of today,” said Natasha Gauthier, an Elections Canada spokesperson.

The count is taking time due to both coronavirus protocols and the fact that votes are being counted locally while being monitored by political party representatives.

Trudeau will not speak to media until the results are all in, a Liberal spokesman said.

As of 1:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday (1730 GMT), the Liberals were elected or leading in 158 of the 338 seats. The official opposition Conservatives were leading in 119, the left-leaning New Democrats in 25 and the Greens holding just two. The Quebec-focused Bloc Quebecois looked set to take 34.

Graphic: Canada‘s provisional election results:

One electoral district faces an automatic recount, which occurs when the race is decided by less than 0.001% of all votes cast. Parties can also request recounts in very close races after the count is finalized.

(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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Ocean politics, DNA history and the climate experiment: Books in brief – Nature.com

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To Rule the Waves

Bruce D. Jones Scribner (2021)

The oceans are the key zone for potential military confrontation; some 85% of global commerce relies on them; around 90% of global data flows along undersea cables; oceans are central in the global fight over climate change. Those four simple facts are analysed in this penetrating historical and political study. Author Bruce Jones, director of the project on international order at Washington DC think tank the Brookings Institution, fears future oceanic conflict, especially now that COVID-19 has amplified existing international tensions.

The Secret of Life

Howard Markel Norton (2021)

The 1953 discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure might be one of science’s most fascinating and oft-told stories. Yet much about it is still contentious — even who termed it “the secret of life”. Historian of medicine Howard Markel’s fine book focuses on the role of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray crystallography image of DNA — crucial to Francis Crick and James Watson’s breakthrough — was used without her permission. A hesitant Watson tells Markel that he was “honest but … you wouldn’t say I was exactly honorable”.

A Biography of the Pixel

Alvy Ray Smith MIT Press (2021)

Pixel is short for ‘picture element’: a misleading etymology, writes computer scientist Alvy Smith, who co-founded Pixar Animation Studios in 1979. Pixels are invisible, like computer bits, and not to be confused with “the little glowing areas on a screen, called display elements”. Hence this book’s technical core: how the former is converted to the latter, and the thinkers who paved the way. These range from Alan Turing to the undersung graphics mathematicians involved in the films Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Finding Nemo and more.

Our Biggest Experiment

Alice Bell Bloomsbury Sigma (2021)

Climate campaigner and science writer Alice Bell’s nuanced and accessible history of the climate crisis describes the legacy of scientists including Eunice Foote, the first to warn that increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide would affect global temperatures, at an 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By ignoring Foote’s insight for so long, “we’ve inherited an almighty mess”, concludes Bell. But “a lot of tools” can alleviate the effects of global warming, if used wisely.

Being a Human

Charles Foster Profile (2021)

Vet and barrister Charles Foster won an Ig Nobel Prize for living in the wild as various animals, as described in Being a Beast (2016). In his latest book — controversial, yet oddly compelling — he lives as if in the upper Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Enlightenment periods, and compares human consciousness in each. Ancient hunter-gatherers, he argues, were superior to modern urban-dwellers for their “cosmopolitanism” and “motion”. He savages written language, invented post-Neolithic, for its “wholly spurious authority” over experience.

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An anti-green backlash could reshape British politics – The Economist

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WHATEVER A British voter’s natural political hue—Tory blue, Labour red or Liberal Democrat orange—these days it ends up green-tinged. The Tory government talks effusively about “building back greener”. Labour wants a “green industrial revolution”. Liberal Democrats have used their position as the third party to argue for everybody to go further and faster. And then there are all the people who want to raze the carbon economy to the ground the day after tomorrow: not just the Green Party but also extremist groupuscules such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.

Which leaves a gap in the market for something different: anti-green politics. Brexit transformed Britain by tapping into ordinary people’s resentment of distant elites, and anti-greenery could do the same. Environmentalism is driven by populists’ two big bogeymen, scientific experts and multilateral institutions. Green campaigners vie to befuddle the public with acronyms and jargon. Multilateral institutions override democratic legislatures in order to co-ordinate global action. In the public mind, greenery is coming to mean global confabs that produce yet more directives, and protesters who block city centres and motorways.

Greenery suffers from the classic problems of technocratic policymaking, namely offering distant rewards in return for immediate sacrifices and imposing uneven costs. Over-50s, the most reliable voters, won’t be around to see the world boil. Poorer people are likely to suffer more than richer ones from the green transition, not just because they have less disposable income but also because they are more likely to work in the dirty economy. The impression of injustice is reinforced by the fact that many of the most vocal green activists have a material interest in the green economy as bureaucrats, lobbyists and entrepreneurs.

A fuel-price rise in 2018 inspired France’s gilets jaunes; Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Finland’s Finns Party have lambasted green hysteria. In Britain, by contrast, anti-greenery is still nascent. Some on the Tory right have complained that their party is in the grip of the green lobby. A few MPs in the “red wall”—once-safe Labour seats in northern England that turned Tory over Brexit—have warned that green levies on driving could see those voters switch back again. The closure of some London streets to through-traffic has sparked protests.

But such rows are about to get a lot louder. Turbulence on the global energy market is drawing unflattering attention to British energy suppliers, which are struggling with the transition from coal- and gas-fired plants to renewables. The more the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, says about there being “absolutely no question of the lights going out”, the more consumers will worry. And other environmental policies on the horizon will also hit them hard. From 2030 the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned. The electric cars that will replace them are rapidly improving, but not yet as cheap or as convenient. For city-dwellers it is hard enough to find parking without having to look for a charging-point too, and long journeys require planning.

Since the discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965, most British homes have used the fuel to heat their homes. But the government plans to take gas-fired boilers off the market in the coming years, to be replaced by hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. The date for the switchover is slipping, since neither technology is ready for mass roll-out. Air-source heat pumps are larger than gas boilers, produce lower temperatures and cost much more. People’s enthusiasm for greenery may reach its limits if familiar, well-functioning products are replaced by more expensive, inferior ones.

In the past decade climate-change denialism has given way to something cannier and harder to pin down. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and a major force behind Brexit, claims that he is as green as the next man—indeed that he voted for the Green Party back in the 1980s—but that he’s in favour of “sensible environmentalism” rather than the establishment kind that taxes “poor people to give money to rich people and big corporations while China’s going to ignore it all”.

Anti-greens are also seeking to reshape politics indirectly: not just by creating new parties, but by changing the hue of the established ones from inside. For neither of Britain’s biggest parties is as deep-dyed green as they appear to onlookers. The Conservative Party certainly has big names who preach environmentalism, like Zac Goldsmith, an aristocratic Brexiteer. But it has always also been the party of homeowners who care about their energy bills, motorists who want to get the last mile from every gallon and older people who don’t want to change their ways. More recently, they have been joined by red wall voters with little spare cash. Labour, for its part, is an uneasy coalition of graduates, who cheer every green initiative, and lower-paid workers, who are nostalgic for the days of well-paid jobs in heavy industry and primarily concerned with making ends meet.

Hot air emissions
How to avert an anti-green backlash? Politicians need to avoid unforced errors, such as making everyone rip out perfectly good boilers before replacements are ready. They need to shield vulnerable groups from the costs of the energy transition, remembering how the mood turned against globalisation when politicians failed to honour promises to compensate the losers. They need to see the world through the eyes of people who accept that climate change is a problem but must ceaselessly struggle to get by in the here and now. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, won easy applause at a UN round table on climate action this week by expressing frustration that the “something” the world is doing to limit global warming is “not enough”. The audience he really needs to convince is the one that laughed along to his provocations before he re-entered Parliament in 2015, such as mocking wind power as too weak to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

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