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Pandemic continues to dominate all areas of politics – RTE.ie

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Tomorrow marks one year since Election 2020 and yet everything has changed.

The pandemic has transformed politics and eclipsed all other Government business with the virus dictating policy.

This time a year ago coronavirus was for most, a faraway problem, with no confirmed cases in the country.

The then administration of Fine Gael and Independents had been monitoring the situation but there was no sign of the virus becoming all-consuming.

The election itself was an earthquake, with a massive swing to Sinn Féin and disappointing results for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The Green Party and the Social Democrats also made gains while Labour lost one seat.

The final seat count was: Fianna Fáil 38, Sinn Féin 37, Fine Gael 35, Independents 20, Green Party 12, Labour Party 6, Social Democrats 6, Solidarity-People Before Profit 5 and Aontú 1.

Sinn Féin embarked on a victory lap around the country, making noises about forming a left-leaning government.

But the reality of the numbers dictated that two of the three now mid-sized parties would have to come together.

After some posturing, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael settled into talks and then approached the smaller parties with the Greens taking the plunge after some lengthy internal soul searching.

Looking back at party manifestos, one year on, it’s clear just how much the pandemic has blown everything off course.

Typically a party’s wish list of promises is heavily diluted in any Government and even more so in a three-way coalition. This time around, everything has been submerged by the urgency of the pandemic.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael promised income tax cuts. In the Programme for Government, this became a pledge not to hike taxes although ministers still profess that cuts may be possible in later budgets.

But as government formation talks dragged on, the pandemic transformed the usual business of politics.

While Leo Varadkar stayed on as Taoiseach, the other parties adopted more measured supportive positions as the country grappled with its first lockdown in the face of a new threat.

Normal sparring was suspended as most in the opposition rowed in with the public health advice, which at that stage was being adopted wholesale by Government.

The Dáil sat, at most, only once a week for March and April as TDs followed the same rules as everyone else.

By the end of June, the Government was formed and the redrawing of the Oireachtas was clear with a historic coalition from the old enemies and Sinn Féin leading the opposition.

But judging from a consistent pattern in polls, the arrangement has been better for Fine Gael than Fianna Fáil which seems to channel the blame for the tough restrictions while Fine Gael is still coasting on the memory of decisive early action.

All political observers agree that the next election is a long way off for several reasons. Normal politics remains somewhat suspended during the pandemic and despite early problems, the coalition has held together more firmly in recent months.

Each of the Government parties has had its own internal wrangles. Fianna Fáil had a torrid period early into the administration with the loss of two Cabinet members – Barry Cowen and Dara Calleary.

Fine Gael faced the heat over Leo Varadkar’s leaking of the GP contract and Justice Minister Helen McEntee’s handling of the Supreme Court appointment.

And the Green Party had a tight leadership contest followed by two ministerial wobbles over a Government bill.

But how are the main parties faring one year on?

Fianna Fáil is languishing in the mid-teens in the polls. There has also been some public bickering with one TD admitting: “The incessant cribbing damages the party – they need to put the same effort into supporting the Taoiseach”.

Some also fear being overlooked as Fine Gael and Sinn Féin take pot shots at each other. However, there’s a view that the message has been more cohesive recently with the Taoiseach hitting his stride in media outings.

Fine Gael has gone into Government for a record third time in a row. It had a bad election with lessons to be learnt about why it lost so many seats.

One TD says: “We have to move away from saying two things – that we inherited a broken economy and that we were hampered by confidence and supply”.

The party has clearly stepped up its attacks on Sinn Féin in a cultivated rivalry that ultimately suits both camps.

The Green Party parliamentary party

The Green Party has publicly lost many activists and has also faced accusations of bullying within it. But despite this, there’s a view that with such a massive glut of new members, it was inevitable that some activists would go overboard.

One issue remaining though is outstanding internal arguments over CETA, the trade agreement between the EU and Canada. This is despite several lengthy weekend meetings to trash out the issue.

However, the party is progressing the Climate Action Bill which is at the heart of its policy objectives.

Sinn Féin has returned again and again to health and housing and has been pumping out policy on those areas.

But it too has been embroiled in controversies including the fallout from the Bobby Storey funeral and the comments of Brian Stanley and Martin Browne.

Some Government TDs feel the party started well, capitalising on its electoral success with the rallies.

However, there’s a perception that it has lost its footing recently, by being called out on changing positions on how to tackle the pandemic.

Social Democrats’ co-leaders Róisín Shortall (L) and Catherine Murphy

The Social Democrats’ four new TDs have impressed with high profile Dáil and media contributions.

Several rival party TDs also point to its successful social media operations although another says the party has become adept at virtue signalling.

Labour has a new leader in Alan Kelly who has made an impact in the Dáil although that hasn’t translated into a lift in the polls. And the pandemic is hindering his ability to rebuild the organisation around the country.

Solidarity-PBP’s five TDs have a high profile and Gino Kenny has progressed his own bill on assisted dying.

The party was also an early adopter of the Zero Covid strategy which has latterly gained some other converts.

The next year will inevitably also be dominated by Covid-19 but there’s also the hope in the form of the vaccination programme.

And as normal life resumes, so too will the cut and thrust of normal politics.

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B.C. Premier John Horgan to resign in the fall after leadership review

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VANCOUVER — British Columbia Premier John Horgan says he’ll resign as leader in the fall after the New Democrats hold a leadership convention because a second bout with cancer has left him with little energy for a job that’s been the thrill of his life.

“I wish I had the energy to do more, but I don’t,” he told a news conference Tuesday.

Horgan, 62, announced last November that he was diagnosed with throat cancer after being diagnosed with bladder cancer in his 40s.

He said that while he is now free of cancer following 35 radiation treatments, he will not seek re-election because he’s not able to make another six-year commitment to the job.

“I get tired and I come home and I fall asleep,” he said, adding he feels at peace about the timing of his “very difficult decision.”

Horgan said he and his wife Ellie, “the love of my life,” recently spent about 10 days in his constituency on the west coast of Vancouver Island reflecting on what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

The premier said he asked that question of himself before posing it to his cabinet colleagues at a retreat last week and concluded he couldn’t continue on as leader.

“There has been endless speculation as a result of my recent battle with cancer about what my plans would be. I want to put the speculation to rest so we can get back to what really matters, and those are the issues before British Columbia,” Horgan said.

Horgan said he will continue to work toward his goals to represent British Columbians in the next few months, including as leader of the Council of the Federation as he hosts his counterparts at a meeting next month in Victoria.

He said the No. 1 issue on the table is getting a commitment from the federal government to work with provinces to resolve the crisis in health care.

“I fully intend to carry on that battle to make the federal government stand up for the commitments they made to all of us and convene a meeting so that we can fix the most important social program, in fact, the most important program in Canada.”

Horgan has led the NDP since being acclaimed as leader in 2014 following the party’s defeat in the 2013 election.

In 2017, he formed a minority government after negotiating a so-called confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party, which held the balance of power.

Horgan called a snap election last October during the pandemic and won a majority government, taking 55 of the 87 seats in the legislature.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a message to Horgan on Twitter, thanking the premier for his many years of public service, for his “ambitious” climate action as well as his initiatives on affordable child care and COVID-19.

“Wishing you all the best, John,” Trudeau said.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said it’s no secret that he and Horgan “come from different political stripes.”

“But I’ve appreciated working with him greatly at the Council of (the) Federation table when I was chair a few years ago and this past year, now with him being chair. He’s served as an excellent chair. He’s a very, very capable and competent politician and I would say a friend in many cases as well.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said it had been a real pleasure to work constructively with Horgan on a range of issues.

“We come from different political traditions, but have always worked to find common ground.”

Sonia Furstenau, leader of B.C.’s Green Party, said Horgan led the government during a series of overlapping crises.

“Although we have not always agreed on policy, together our two parties created an era of unprecedented cross-party co-operation,” she said in a written statement, adding the legacy of their confidence and supply agreement lives on as a model for a similar deal between the federal New Democratic and Liberal parties.

“I sincerely hope that the premier enjoys health, rest and time spent with his family,” Furstenau said.

A date for the leadership convention has not yet been set.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.

 

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

 

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Federal Green Party launches leadership race, will pick new leader in November

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OTTAWA — The beleaguered federal Green Party launched a leadership contest on Tuesday with the hopes of announcing a new leader on Nov. 19.

The Greens will take applications for the job until Aug. 5 and announce a list of candidates at the end of August, with a view to beginning the first round of voting in October.

People who want to vote on the party’s next leader will have until Sept. 7 to become registered members of the Green Party, which is currently represented by two MPs on Parliament Hill.

The approved rules for the race acknowledge a “critical need to remain within the boundaries of our current financial and staff restraints.”

The party was rocked by financial issues and internal conflict ahead of a disappointing election result in 2021, and outgoing leader Annamie Paul, a Black woman, accused some in the party of racism and sexism.

Paul’s runner-up in the 2020 contest, Dimitri Lascaris, has written that he will not run again — and Amita Kuttner, the current interim leader, has said they do not want the job.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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The Political Strategy of Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill – The New Yorker

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The Political Strategy of Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill

Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, addresses attendees at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference, in Orlando.Photograph by Paul Hennessy / Sipa / AP

In April, the conservative activist Christopher Rufo flew from his home, near Seattle, to Miami, to meet with Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, and to take part in the public signing of the Stop WOKE Act. A former documentary filmmaker and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Rufo was the lead protagonist of last year’s furor over the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools and helped advise the Governor on the Florida law, which aimed to limit discussion of racial history and identity in schools and workplaces. Rufo was especially taken with how personally invested DeSantis seemed in the policy. “He shows up to the tarmac at 6:30 A.M. with a Red Bull energy drink, ready to roll through the policy papers,” Rufo said. The bill had not come from the Governor’s advisers or the grass roots: “It’s driven by him.”

Rufo also came to think that the issue he helped spark—the national conservative outcry over progressive teaching and training on race and gender—was reaching a new, more potent phase. The same legislative session had produced the Parental Rights in Education bill, denounced by its Democratic opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits schools from teaching anything about sexual orientation and gender identity to students below third grade, demands that any such instruction at any age follow requirements to be set out by the state’s board of education, makes parental permission a prerequisite for a range of mental-health counselling and interventions, and gives parent groups broad latitude to sue school districts if they believe teachers or administrators are not complying. On Fox News, the story of Lia Thomas, a transgender swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania, was airing non-stop; for members of the conservative education movement, such as Rufo, the pivot from issues of race to those of gender—which combine the rhetoric of parental control with an old-fashioned sex panic—seemed to offer immense political promise.

The parental-rights movement took root before the Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn Roe v. Wade. But the same pattern within social conservatism that has shaped fights about educational control—namely, a willingness to push ahead with deliberately confrontational legislation, even if poll numbers oppose it—is likely to reappear in the post-Roe battles over abortion. Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, said that Florida’s bill “is going to be the calling card for conservative reform efforts in education” and described Rufo as “the icon of this movement.” A spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the political-advocacy-action arm of Roberts’s think tank, told Reuters that, among the base, this issue had generated the “highest energy (among Republicans) since the Tea Party.”

After the Supreme Court affirmed marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, in 2015, the general political wisdom was that issues around gay rights were more or less settled. Even Donald Trump largely avoided the topic. Religious adherence is steadily falling in the United States, the portion of the country that is both white and Christian is plummeting, and there is no organization like the Christian Coalition of yore. In other words, this pattern is a little different: the politics of social conservatism are surging, without a discernible cultural movement toward traditionalism.

Writing in the Times recently, Nate Hochman of National Review argued that figures like DeSantis, Rufo, and Tucker Carlson were building a new brand of social conservatism, one that has risen from the ashes of, and materially departed from, the religious themes of a generation ago. “Instead of an explicitly biblical focus on issues like school prayer, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the new coalition is focused on questions of national identity, social integrity and political alienation,” Hochman wrote. “We are just beginning to see its impact. The anti-critical-race-theory laws, anti-transgender laws and parental rights bills that have swept the country in recent years are the movement’s opening shots.”

In American politics, ideology is often a smoke screen for individual ambition. We have movements, but really we have movers. The situation is especially pronounced in the right wing of the Republican Party, where the post-Trump chaos has left few permanent factions, and allegiances are being constantly remade. Even the most basic questions were foggy in Florida, including whether this sort of campaign against indoctrination struck most voters as necessary. One nonpartisan poll conducted by the University of Florida found forty per cent of voters in favor and forty-nine per cent opposed. But another, by the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies, found a wildly different result: sixty-one per cent in favor and twenty-nine per cent opposed.

In such a situation, the particular steps that DeSantis took were important. One was obvious from afar: he and his allies described their political opponents not just as leftists, but as “groomers”—a watchword deployed to suggest that the Democratic Party is somehow complicit in pedophilia. On March 4th, while debates were still under way, DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.” In an official statement, DeSantis celebrated the bill’s signing by saying, in part, that parents “should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.” (The rhetoric has since spread: Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third-ranking member of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives, tweeted that the “usual pedo grifters” had failed to respond to the infant-formula shortage.)

Since there is no evidence to support claims of a widespread surge in sexual abuse in the schools, and since DeSantis and his allies described the problem in such general terms, there wasn’t really anything specific for Democrats to refute. To even argue that claims of grooming were baseless seemed in some ways to raise their profile. Some Democrats saw only a collection of familiar interest groups: as the progressive Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani told me, “The school-choice movement is, like, a hundred per cent invested in this kind of stuff, because they benefit from public education being attacked as extreme or inappropriate, because that leads parents to take their children away.”

As a result, the statements from Democrats tended to be very general, too: calling DeSantis’s program one of “authoritarianism and censorship”; suggesting that it was the program of a “homophobe”; or that the campaign against grooming in schools amounted to “gaslighting.” Meanwhile, the specific rhetoric of grooming was growing louder. Referring to a new conservative grassroots group involved in the fights over schools, Carlos Guillermo Smith, a progressive legislator from the Orlando area, told a reporter, early in April, “Every single day, I am bombarded by baseless accusations of pedophilia by Moms for Liberty-type advocates that say I need to stay away from children. It’s unhinged.”

A familiar way to view the allegations of widespread grooming is that they operate as signals to adherents of the QAnon conspiracy, which alleges a broad, secretive pedophilia network organized by leaders of the Democratic Party. Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist affiliated with the Never Trump movement, told me that the grooming claims solved a more mundane political problem for Republicans, too. “There’s a very important psychological aspect to how one defends Donald Trump if you’re a Republican, and that means the Democrats have to be worse.” Trump’s attempted coup against the government on January 6th, Longwell said, had raised the stakes. “You have to believe the Democrats are worse than trying to overthrow the government, and, if they’re worse than that, it means they want men to play women’s sports and that they are grooming little kids.”

DeSantis made a second significant move during the debate over the bill, one that Rufo in particular emphasized: the Governor escalated. The C.E.O. of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Chapek, told shareholders during an annual meeting early in March that he opposed the bill and had called DeSantis to say so; DeSantis retaliated with a new bill that stripped Disney (Central Florida’s largest taxpayer) of certain special legislative benefits that it had enjoyed since its establishment, a half century ago. “At the time, I remember some conversation, ‘Oh, DeSantis will never be able to vanquish Disney, Disney’s too powerful, too beloved,’ and at the time Disney had a seventy-seven per cent favorability rating with the public,” Rufo told me. He credited the Florida Governor with two insights: “A, that the bill is popular, and B, that though Disney is an economic and cultural power, it is really a novice political power, and, as many people are saying lean out of it, he leans into the fight, I think, brilliantly.”

Rufo himself was a central player in the fight with Disney. A few days after the bill passed, Rufo published a “shocking new report on Disney’s child-predator problem,” as he termed it—a re-airing of a 2014 CNN report that had found thirty-five Disney employees with histories of sexually abusing children. He also published clips from a leaked webinar that Disney had conducted for its staff, in which an executive producer at Disney Television Animation mentioned her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda” and executives pledged to introduce more L.G.B.T. characters and to greet visitors without describing them as “boys” and “girls” but with less gender specific terms, such as “friends.” These were distinct things: one, an investigative report from years ago about actual sexual abuse; the other, a pro-forma corporate-diversity campaign. But on social media they bled together. “These videos did billions of impressions over three weeks,” Rufo told me. “We got ‘Disney’ trending, ‘Disney groomer’ trending, all these popular hashtags for about three weeks straight.”

By the end of this campaign, Rufo said, Disney’s favorability ratings had dwindled to about thirty-three per cent. Its stock price is down nearly fifty per cent from a year ago. On Twitter, Rufo celebrated DeSantis’ shock-and-awe strategy: “The way to win the culture war is to demonstrate strength, blast through fake taboos, and play for keeps.”

When I asked Republican activists and operatives about the rise of the school issues, they told a very similar story, one that began with the pandemic, during which many parents came to believe that their interests (in keeping their kids in school) diverged with those of the teachers and administrators. As Roberts, the Heritage Foundation president, put it to me, parents who were in many cases apolitical “became concerned about these overwrought lockdowns, and then when they asked question after question, there was no transparency about them, which led them to pay more attention when their kids were on Zoom. They overheard things being taught. They asked questions about curricula. They were just stonewalled every step of the way.” The battles regarding the COVID lockdowns, Roberts told me, opened the way for everything that came after. “This is the key thing,” he said. “It started with questions about masking and other aspects of the lockdowns.”

Both parties right now are trying to answer the question of how fundamentally COVID has changed politics. “From 2008 to 2020, elections were decided on the question of fairness—Obama ’08, Obama ’12, and Trump ’16 were all premised on the idea that someone else was getting too much, and you were getting too little, and it was unfair,” Danny Franklin, a partner at the Democratic strategy firm Bully Pulpit Interactive and a pollster for both Obama campaigns, told me. But the pandemic and the crises that followed (war, inflation, energy pressures) were not really about fairness but an amorphous sense of chaos. “People are looking for some control over their lives—in focus groups, in polls, once you start looking for that you see it everywhere,” Franklin said.

Both parties had shifted, in his view. Biden had sought to reassure Americans that the government, guided by experts, could reassert its control over events, from the pandemic to the crisis in energy supply. Republicans, meanwhile, had focussed on assuring voters that they would deliver control over a personal sphere of influence: schools that would teach what you wanted them to teach, a government that would make it easier, not harder, to get your hands on a gun. A moral panic about gender identity might seem anachronistic, but it served a very current political need. Franklin said, “It’s a way for Republicans to tell people that they can have back control of their lives.”

At first, these curricular concerns centered around race, and the teaching of critical race theory became a defining issue in the Virginia gubernatorial election, won last November by the Republican Glenn Youngkin. Rufo had been a central figure in that fight, but as he watched the conflicts in local districts unfold he came to think that, for the conservative base, the pull of racial issues paled in comparison to those that invoked gender. “Put yourself in the shoes of an average parent,” Rufo told me. “You’re looking at critical race theory and thinking, The maximum damage that can be done is that my child will be taught that America is a racist country. Perhaps if it’s a white family, our skin color will be called into question as some sort of marker of oppression. But really it’s limited to an intellectual plane. There’s a ceiling on it.” With gender, he went on, there was “essentially no ceiling”—the emotional reaction was “much more visceral and deep-seated.”

Rufo recounted a story that he said he’d heard from a mother on the Upper East Side, who told him that her daughter was transitioning, with the help of an online community, and felt that this community “had essentially taken her away from me.” The mother, he said, told him that she knew half a dozen other Upper East Side parents with similar stories. “It’s not just that we’re going to teach your child that the country is evil,” he went on. “It’s really the fear—and I think the legitimate fear—that my child will essentially be recruited into a new identity.”

People who identify as trans are growing in number and visibility: in 2019, the C.D.C. found that nearly two per cent of high-school students identified as transgender. The political debates over whether trans high-school athletes should compete according to the sex they were assigned at birth or according to their gender identity arise naturally from that increased visibility, and conservative media has aggressively amplified those cases. But the law in Florida and the rhetoric accompanying it make more ambitious claims: that school staff are at least partly responsible for these changes and that trans people have—as Rufo put it—been “recruited into a new identity.” (This is an especially insidious allegation to make, in that it implies that trans people’s gender identity should not necessarily be understood as reflective of their own volition.) The idea that school counsellors are responsible for that recruitment is what connects the increase in trans visibility to the preëxisting conservative campaign for control of schools. I found a few cases in which parents alleged in lawsuits that school staff had held conversations with their children about transitioning without informing them—but nothing at all widespread. I asked Roberts, the Heritage Foundation president, about whether there was reason to believe that such “recruitment” was happening. “I think you ask the right question, the prevalence question,” Roberts said, adding that he would disagree with me “with a smile.” He went on, “It’s not on the verge of being undocumented from the perception of eighty per cent of Americans, even if they haven’t seen it firsthand at their own child’s swim meet.”

Of course, we were talking about somewhat different things. I had expressed doubt that teen-agers were really “recruited” into a new gender identity, and Roberts was talking about the conservative political reaction to activism on behalf of trans youth. Parents’ perceptions, Roberts went on, are shaped by events such as those in last fall’s session of the Texas legislature, when pro-trans-rights groups organized protests and testimony in opposition to a bill requiring student athletes to compete in alignment with the gender on their birth certificate. “In Texas of all places, this agenda—and I’m putting this as delicately as I can—of advocating for gender ideology, of allowing young men to compete in women’s sports has been pushed by the other side, by several dozen—if not a few hundred—activists who have showed up to testify in the Texas legislature.”

Really, political power in Texas is on the side of the Governor, not those few hundred activists. Despite the trans-rights groups’ fervent objections, Texas’s Governor, Greg Abbott, signed the bill. In Florida, DeSantis has moved to exclude certain medical treatments for transitioning people from Medicaid. Despite this momentum, there isn’t much evidence that anti-trans politics broadly are popular. Shortly after Roberts and I spoke, a new poll, funded by the Wall Street Journal, appeared: sixty-five per cent of Americans had said that being transgender should be accepted by society while just thirty-two per cent discouraged it.

But those numbers suggest a reckoning for conservatives that may never come. One of the costs of President Biden’s low standing in the eyes of American voters is that Republicans can campaign on some unpopular ideas without much risk of losing votes in the midterms. David Shor, the Democratic strategist and election analyst, compared the Republicans’ current position to where Democrats were in 2018, when President Trump was viewed with similar disdain by the public, and progressive candidates pushed transformative approaches to immigration, such as decriminalizing border crossing, without much fear of reprisal. “The reality is people are really mad about inflation and the economy and crime and all these other things,” Shor said. “The issues that people care the most about are the issues that people don’t trust Democrats on right now. And the only issues that people do trust Democrats on right now are issues that people don’t care about.”

In other words, Americans haven’t suddenly become traditionalists; DeSantis has simply seized a political opportunity. The school issues have solidified his standing with socially conservative voters, and elevated him as the main alternative to Trump. Longwell, the strategist, told me, “One of the things I marvel at is that, in focus groups with Trump voters all over the country, I ask, ‘Who would you want to run in 2024?’ Usually about half the group says Trump, and the other half says, ‘Eh, I don’t know. He’s a little old. Maybe some new blood—Ron DeSantis!’ And the idea that a guy in Texas or Alabama actually knows who the Governor of Florida is is stunning.” As I write this article, the betting market PredictIt puts the chances that Trump wins the Presidency at twenty-six per cent and DeSantis at thirty-two per cent. (Biden’s odds are at twenty-two per cent.) The more extreme parts of the parental-rights campaign—the talk about groomers, the singling out of educators—are being pursued not because they are popular, but because they don’t need to be. ♦

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