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Why political journalists should imitate Ron Brownstein

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The man who is perhaps the sharpest observer of America’s political divides lives not in Washington but Los Angeles. He has never interviewed Donald Trump. His recent book was not a tell-all about the Trump or Biden White Houses but an account of how musicians, actors and other creative types who lived in the L.A. area in the early 1970s reshaped American culture.

Ronald Brownstein, who writes separate weekly columns for the Atlantic and CNN and appears regularly on the cable news network, isn’t in the mold of other top political journalists of this era. And that’s unfortunate. News organizations need to rethink how they cover elections and government — and Brownstein is an exemplar of a better way.

What’s so great about Brownstein? First and most important, he focuses on long-term patterns instead of daily gossip, and he understands that politics isn’t just what happens in Washington.

There is more to political reporting than ever before, with publications that didn’t exist a decade ago producing numerous articles daily. But so much of that coverage is limited to two subjects: what the president and Congress are doing that day or week and the next national election.

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Brownstein writes and comments on those subjects, too. But often he homes in on other kinds of political stories: the recent rightward shift in Democratic-leaning cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, driven by residents’ frustration with rampant homelessness and a broader sense of disorder; the moves by Republican-dominated states across the South, Midwest and Great Plains to adopt similar restrictions on abortion, transgender rights and teaching about racism in public schools; the campaign by red states to fight America’s transition from fossil fuels.

And when Brownstein is covering Washington or the campaign trail, he’s not fixated on the obvious. For example, in the wake of this November’s elections, political journalists quickly coalesced around the idea that voters punished Republicans for trying to limit abortion rights. Not quite, Brownstein pointed out in a postelection piece. There was such a backlash in some blue and purple states such as Michigan. But in Florida, Texas and other states, including purplish Georgia, Republican governors signed strict abortion limits into law and still won resoundingly.

In an interview over Zoom, Brownstein described his approach as “outside-in,” as he tries to show “how the parties’ agendas and messages are intersecting with the country around them.”

“In D.C., everything is very tactical. The coin of the realm is knowledge of the tactics. … But the way in which political actors intersect with the trajectory of change in the country is more important than which ad you put on,” Brownstein told me.

Brownstein has spent most of his career in Washington, but he moved to the Los Angeles area in 2014 and says that has helped his reporting.

“I’m not only trying to learn what the party’s strategies are, I’m giving those strategies a stress test through my own understanding of how the country is changing,” he said. “It makes it less necessary to be in Washington.”

The second reason that Brownstein is a model political journalist is the depth and insight he brings to the work. Brownstein is not a data journalist, but his stories are full of polling and statistics that validate his arguments. He’s not known as a “whisperer” to any given politician, but his articles and television commentary often include references to his conversations with top officials in both parties. Many journalists are great at explaining the electoral part of politics but miss the policy part, or get the politics and policy but not the race and identity element. Brownstein captures it all.

Brownstein popularized many ideas that political observers, including myself, refer to regularly: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as part of a “blue wall” of states Democrats must carry in presidential elections; the division in Democratic primaries between “wine track” voters (those with college degrees) and the “beer track” (those without degrees); the notion that the electorate is divided into “a coalition of transformation” (people of color, college graduates and other groups who lean Democratic) versus a “coalition of restoration” (White Christians, older Americans and other groups who lean Republican).

Brownstein is prescient — strikingly so at times. In an interview in late 2018, when it wasn’t at all clear whom the Democrats would nominate to take on Trump in 2020, Brownstein predicted that a ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would be a winning one. In the run-up to this year’s elections, Brownstein didn’t rule out a potential “red wave,” but he repeatedly explained why a Republican sweep might not happen, noting the large number of people in polls who were saying that they disapproved of Biden but were leaning toward Democratic candidates.

Finally, Brownstein is frank about the radical direction that the Republican Party is headed, without being overtly ideological or partisan. He writes columns, but his work is more analysis and explanation than opinion. Brownstein does not advocate positions on issues or back particular candidates or parties, as I do. At the same time, he has not made the mistake so many other non-opinion journalists have made in the Trump era: being so eager to portray themselves as nonpartisan that they downplay Republican extremism.

“The red states are moving social policy sharply to the right within their borders on issues from abortion to LGBTQ rights and classroom censorship, while simultaneously working to hobble the ability of either the federal government or their own largest metro areas to set a different course,” he wrote earlier this year. Such language is not flattering to Republicans, but it is more descriptive than judgmental.

Brownstein isn’t perfect. He acknowledges that in the years after Barack Obama’s election as president he understated how many Americans were resistant to the increasingly multicultural nation that Obama and his supporters embodied and therefore the potential of someone like Trump to be elected president.

And in some ways, Brownstein’s approach isn’t replicable by younger journalists. Brownstein is very knowledgeable about national politics in part because he has been on the beat since 1982, with long stints at National Journal and the Los Angeles Times before joining CNN and the Atlantic. Brownstein first met Biden in 1985.

When Brownstein was starting out, editors were largely hiring White men for prestigious political-writing jobs. So he is a bit of a unicorn, both having made race, identity and demographics a big theme of his work (unlike many of his older White male peers), and having so much experience (unlike many female political journalists and those of color, like myself, who emphasize the intersection between identity and politics but are in their 40s or younger.) And Brownstein’s ability to write critically about the Republican Party without being cast as too liberal by Republicans or fellow journalists is likely enhanced by the fact that he isn’t a person of color, a woman, young or gay.

So, we can’t create carbon copies of Ronald Brownstein. But covering politics beyond the campaign trail and Capitol Hill, using data, reporting on both policy and electoral considerations, and describing the Republican Party honestly are all things that both individual political journalists and news organizations can and should embrace.

“How would Ronald Brownstein cover this story?” is a question that political journalists should have at the top of their minds. He’s doing the job the way it should be done.

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Uyghur refugee vote by Canada MPs angers China

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OTTAWA –

The Chinese government says a motion MPs passed Wednesday to provide asylum to persecuted Uyghurs amounts to political manipulation by Canada.

MPs including Prime Mister Justin Trudeau unanimously called on Ottawa to design a program that would bring 10,000 people of Turkic origin, including Uyghurs, to Canada from countries other than China.

They passed a motion that acknowledges reports that Uyghurs outside China have been sent back to their country of birth, where they have faced arrest as part of Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim groups.

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Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in Beijing that people in the Xinjiang region live in peaceful harmony, contradicting widespread reports of forced labour and sexual violence.

An English translation by the ministry said Canada should “stop politically manipulating Xinjiang-related issues for ulterior motives,” and Ottawa is “spreading disinformation and misleading the public.”

The non-binding motion said the government should come up with the outline of a resettlement program by May 12 that would begin in 2024 and meet its target within two years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.

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Republicans push to remove Ilhan Omar from foreign affairs panel

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Washington, DC – In one of his first moves since becoming speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy is leading an effort to block Congresswoman Ilhan Omar from serving on the chamber’s Foreign Affairs Committee over her past criticism of Israel.

On Wednesday, the Republican majority in the House advanced a resolution to remove Omar from the panel. Democrats opposed the move, accusing McCarthy of bigotry for targeting the politician – a former refugee of Somali descent who is one of only two Muslim women serving in the US Congress.

A few Republicans initially opposed McCarthy’s effort, casting doubt over his ability to pass the resolution against Omar, given the GOP’s narrow majority.

But on Wednesday, all 218 House Republicans present voted to move forward with the measure, as Democrats remained united in support of Omar with 209 votes. A final vote is expected on Thursday as progressives rally around Omar.

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) defended Omar, calling her an “esteemed and invaluable” legislator.

“You cannot remove a Member of Congress from a committee simply because you do not agree with their views. This is both ludicrous and dangerous,” CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal said in a statement on Monday.

The resolution

The resolution aimed at Omar, introduced by Ohio Republican Max Miller on Tuesday, cites numerous controversies involving the congresswoman’s criticism of Israel and US foreign policy.

“Congresswoman Omar clearly cannot be an objective decision-maker on the Foreign Affairs Committee given her biases against Israel and against the Jewish people,” Miller said in a statement.

Omar retorted by saying there was nothing “objectively true” about the resolution, adding that “if not being objective is a reason to not serve on committees, no one would be on committees”.

While the Republican resolution accuses Omar of anti-Semitism, it only invokes remarks relating to Israel, not the Jewish people.

For example, the measure calls out the congresswoman for describing Israel as an “apartheid state”, although leading human rights groups – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have also accused Israel of imposing a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

Early in her congressional career in 2019, Omar faced a firestorm of criticism when she suggested that political donations from pro-Israel lobby groups – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – drive support for Israel in Washington.

Omar later apologised for that remark but Palestinian rights advocates say accusations of anti-Semitism against Israel’s critics aim to stifle the debate around Israeli government policies.

In the past two years, AIPAC and other pro-Israel organisations spent millions of dollars in congressional elections to defeat progressives who support Palestinian human rights, including Michigan’s Andy Levin, a left-leaning, Jewish former House member.

‘Different standards’

Although the Democratic Party is standing behind Omar now, the Republican resolution prominently features previous criticism against the congresswoman by top Democrats.

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, an advocacy and research group, said Republicans are trying to validate their talking points against Omar by using the statements and actions of Democrats.

“They own this,” she said of Democrats who previously attacked Omar. “They made a decision in the last few years to jump on board and score political points at Ilhan’s expense … And that decision is now the basis for the resolution that is being used to throw her off the committee.”

Friedman added that Omar and her fellow Muslim-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib are held to “different standards” when it comes to addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both legislators were the subject of racist attacks by former President Donald Trump who in 2019 tweeted that they, along with other progressive congresswomen of colour, “should go back to the broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

Omar in particular became a frequent target of Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2020 elections. At one rally in 2019, Trump failed to intervene as his supporters chanted “send her back” in reference to Omar.

Friedman said attacks on Omar appeal to the Republican base and play well for the party politically.

“It’s a really handy way to embarrass and corner Democrats because when Democrats vote against this tomorrow, the Republican argument is going to be: ‘I don’t get it. You said all these things [against Omar]. Why are you not holding her accountable?’ Politically, this is just fantastic for them.”

For her part, Omar has remained defiant, calling McCarthy’s effort to remove her from the committee, against initial opposition from his own caucus, “pathetic”.

Yasmine Taeb, legislative and political director at MPower Change Action Fund, a Muslim-American advocacy group, praised Omar’s commitment to a “human rights-centered foreign policy”.

“Rep. Omar speaks truth to power – a rarity in Congress. And House Republican leadership would rather waste time by attacking a progressive Black Muslim woman and pushing a far-right agenda than working on addressing the needs of the American people,” Taeb told Al Jazeera in an email.

Omar has been a vocal proponent of human rights and diplomacy in Congress. While her comments about Israel often make headlines, she criticises other countries too – including those in the Middle East – for human rights violations.

Still, critics accuse her of perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes in her criticism of Israel and even allies have described some of her comments as “sloppy”, if not malicious.

On Thursday, Win Without War, a group that promotes diplomacy in US foreign policy, decried the Republican push against Omar as an attempt to strip the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a “progressive champion and skilled legislator who challenges the political status quo”.

“Rep. Omar has helped raise the bar for progressive foreign policy in Congress. She has steadfastly advocated for cuts to the Pentagon budget, held US allies accountable for human rights abuses, and confronted the racism and Islamophobia present in US foreign policy,” Win Without War executive director Sara Haghdoosti said in a statement.

Committee wars

Congressional committees serve as specialised microcosms of Congress. The panels advance legislation, conduct oversight and hold immense power over the legislative process.

Usually, the party in power appoints the chairs and majority members of committees, while the opposition party names its own legislators to the panels.

But back in 2021, Democrats voted to remove Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from her assigned committees for past conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments.

That same year, the Democratic House majority also formally rebuked Paul Gosar, another far-right Republican, for sharing an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, Greene is an outspoken proponent of removing Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“No one should be on that committee with that stance towards Israel,” Greene said earlier this week. “In my opinion, I think it’s the wrong stance for any member of Congress of the United States – having that type of attitude towards our great ally, Israel.”

After Greene was stripped of her committee assignments, McCarthy had openly promised payback against the Democrats if they became the minority in the House, an event that came to pass in the 2022 midterm elections.

“You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think,” McCarthy said at that time.

The newly elected speaker has also blocked Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from joining the intelligence committee. Schiff was the former chair of the panel.

Meanwhile, Republican Congressman George Santos, who is facing calls to step down for lying about his heritage and professional and personal history, “temporarily recused” himself from committee assignments as he is being investigated over his campaign conduct.

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Former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen steps down as MP

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Member of Parliament and former interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen has resigned her seat in the House of Commons.

Bergen, 58, has represented the Manitoba riding of Portage—Lisgar since 2008. She served as interim leader of the Conservatives and leader of the Opposition from February to September 2022. Prior to that, she served as deputy leader of the Conservatives.

In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Bergen said she has submitted a letter of resignation, “ending an incredible and very fulfilling 14 years.”

Bergen thanked her constituents, family, volunteers, staff and political colleagues “on both sides of the aisle, regardless of your political stripe.”

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Bergen announced in September of last year that she would not seek reelection. Pierre Poilievre replaced her as Conservative leader that month.

Bergen did not give a specific reason for her resignation and did not mention any future plans.

“I’m choosing to leave now not because I’m tired or I’ve run out of steam. In fact, it’s the exact opposite,” she said in the video.

“I feel hopeful and re-energized. Hopeful for our strong and united Conservative Party, and our caucus, under the courageous and principled leadership of my friend, Pierre Poilievre.”

Bergen ended her goodbye message on a hopeful note.

“With God’s grace and God’s help, I believe that the best is yet to come. Thank you so much Portage—Lisgar, and thank you Canada.”

The Toronto Star was the first to report the story.

“On behalf of the Conservative Party of Canada, thank you Candice for your leadership, your devotion to our Conservative movement and your service to the people of Portage—Lisgar, and all Canadians,” Poilievre said in a tweet Wednesday.

The news means there will be a byelection in Portage—Lisgar to replace Bergen.

Manitoba Finance Minister Cameron Friesen announced last week that he’d step down as an MLA to seek the federal Conservative nomination in the riding.

The death of MP Jim Carr late last year set up a byelection in another Manitoba riding — Winnipeg South Centre. The Alberta riding of Calgary Heritage and the Ontario riding of Oxford are also up for byelections later this year.

“I thank her for her many years of service,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said of Bergen in a media scrum Wednesday.

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