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US politics Looking ahead into 2020

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A man holds a sign in support of U.S. President Donald Trump before an impeachment vote on Capitol Hill in Washington Dec. 18, 2019. (CNS/Reuters/Tom Brenner)

Trying to predict what will happen in the political life of the nation in any year is more or less a fool’s errand, but in 2020 the task is even more perilous than usual. But I’m always happy to play the fool, so here is what I will be looking for politically in the new year.

The Senate trial of President Donald Trump commands the political landscape the way the dome of the U.S. Capitol dominates the D.C. skyline: It casts the longest shadow in town. Most analysts believe we already know the outcome, that Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will control the proceedings such that no further incriminating evidence will be forthcoming and the Senate will vote to acquit. As is, the polls show a divided nation, and McConnell and the Republicans believe they will face no blowback if they vote to acquit the president.

We also know that if anyone with additional incriminating evidence was going to come forward, they would have by now. Unless what has been missing is applied by the Senate: compulsion. It was one thing for acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to decline to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, and McConnell has indicated he does not intend to call such witnesses. But the Senate trial has one quality the House proceedings did not and which McConnell cannot entirely control: The chief justice of the United States will be on hand to make procedural rulings. If Chief Justice John Roberts orders Mulvaney to testify, or even more likely, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, their testimony could be explosive. Short of having something that bears a striking resemblance to a smoking gun, the Senate will vote to acquit, and the president’s decision to publish the actual smoking gun, the transcript of his call with the president of Ukraine, will have been vindicated.

His decision vindicated, yes, but not himself. The president likes to paint himself as a victim, and not just any victim but the most victimized president of all time, at least when he is not portraying himself as a victor, and not just any victor, but the winningest victor of all time. This discordance may not upset his base. The psychology of people who resent change and the success of others, and who also feel entitled to success, such people can easily embrace this strange victim/victor combination as their champion. Still independent voters decide elections, and I can’t imagine that they warm to this bifurcated personality.

If the impeachment saga is likely wound up by the end of January, the Democratic nominating process could well be completed by March 4. Super Tuesday, March 3, is really super this year, with the addition of California and Texas, meaning that more than a third of all delegates will be awarded on that day. If any candidate emerges with even a lead of 100 or so delegates, it will be hard to catch them given the proportional representation that distributes delegates evenly.

In order to win on Super Tuesday, a candidate needs to pick up some momentum in February when Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina Democrats go to the polls. Barring some unforeseeable event, there are four major candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg — and any one of them could win Iowa or New Hampshire. If anyone wins both, it will be hard to stop them. Iowa and New Hampshire are overwhelmingly white, but Nevada has a significant Latino vote, and African-Americans will be a majority of the electorate in South Carolina.

Potential Democratic voters tell pollsters that their No. 1 objective is to select someone who can defeat Trump in November. So far, the centrists have won that argument, even though you have to go back to the 1964 campaign of Barry Goldwater and the 1972 campaign of George McGovern to find an election where the winner was the person cast as a moderate facing an extremist. Ronald Reagan was considered extreme, and Democrats hoped he would be the nominee in 1980, a hope they lived to regret. In 2004 and in 2012, John Kerry and Mitt Romney won their party’s nod largely because they were viewed as the person best able to defeat the incumbent, and they both lost.

I predict that the polls are wrong, and that Democrats will embrace the person who does best in the debates immediately preceding the voting. I will venture one more projection in regard to the Democrats: No matter who wins, the nominee will embrace the wealth tax first put forward by Warren. It is popular even with Republicans.

Almost as important as the presidential contest will be the fight for control of the Senate. There are 35 seats up for election, two more than usual because there are special elections in Arizona and Georgia. Twenty-three of those seats are held by Republicans against only 12 by Democrats. Democrats need to pick up three seats for control of the Senate if they also win the presidency, and four if they don’t. Most commentators identify Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Maine as toss-ups. Michigan leans to the Democrats, but a Trump victory could flip that seat. Alabama and Iowa could flip the other way if Trump loses badly. It is far too soon to predict the outcome in these races.

Candidates during the first official Democratic 2020 presidential primary debate in Miami June 26, 2019: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio; U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio; Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey; U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii; Washington Gov. Jay Inslee; and former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland. (CNS/Reuters/Mike Segar)

The next major political development will fly beneath the radar screen. Sometime in June or July, attitudes about the economy will begin to solidify. Back in 2012, Nate Silver addressed the problem of using economic data when devising models to predict voting behavior, noting that there is a lag time between when voters get the information and the impact it has on voting. Revised economic data is not useful if the revisions happen after voters have formed their judgment. (NB: Read the entire article to learn about the complicatedness of devising these models.)

In 1992, it turns out the economy was not nearly as bad as Bill Clinton painted it. Silver writes:

The initially reported data, meanwhile, is also what is available to candidates and voters at the time of the election. Some econometric models score the 1992 election as a “miss,” because revised economic data shows roughly average growth during that year, when the incumbent, the elder President Bush, was defeated. However, the data was still quite poor as it was reported during 1992 itself.

It is shocking that Trump’s approval ratings are so dismal when the economy is firing on all cylinders. If it slows down, or is perceived to be moving in the wrong direction, those numbers could really tank.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, pounds the gavel to open the session to discuss rules ahead a vote on two articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington Dec. 18, 2019. (CNS/Reuters/House TV)

We also can expect GOP efforts to restrict voting and remove people from the voter rolls to intensify in the summer, with a series of court battles that could be frightening. We also will get a Supreme Court ruling in the case June Medical Services v. Gee regarding a Louisiana law that will restrict abortion access in that state. None of us knows if the court will decide the case narrowly or, as it did in Citizens United vs. FEC or Janus v. AFSCME, decide to overturn a long-standing precedent. But the one thing they will not do is expand abortion rights. The decision, whatever it is, will be seen as a win for pro-life legal advocates and it will push the Democrats into hardening their opposition to any restrictions on abortion even more. The backlash will be enormous, and it gives me no joy to predict that it will energize the angry pro-choice groups more than it does the satisfied pro-life groups. If the Democrats win in November, pro-choice groups will take the credit even if the nominee is someone like Sanders or Warren who wake up in the morning eager to take on economic interests, not to fight culture wars. No matter how it all plays out, the country will continue to be divided on the issue.

In the summer, we all get to take a break as the party conventions have turned into snooze-a-thons and the Tokyo Olympics, which runs from July 24 to Aug. 9, can potentially provide a bit of national uplift and unity. Some tiny gymnast or big pole vaulter or swimmer will bring all Americans to their feet. I hope Trump doesn’t crash them and, therefore, spoil them.

Autumn will bring the debates and the election. There is one irony to Trump’s divisiveness that shows how little we humans grasp our circumstances. For years, Democrats have pledged to energize more voters and get them to the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, have tried to make it harder for people to vote. But it is Trump who has energized the electorate even as he has divided it, and we can look for a record turnout in November. I hope he loses, but I also hope he loses big. What scares me more than him winning a second term is the prospect of him losing narrowly, and how he might react. That could be the constitutional crisis of 2020, not the impeachment that kicks off the new year.

So those are the political items I will be looking at in the year ahead, and I hope you, dear reader, will join me. Tomorrow, what to look for in the church in 2020.

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Why neither party has a sustainable political majority – CNN

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(CNN)Let me tell you a little story. Nine years ago, Barack Obama won a second term in office, and there was talk of an emerging Democratic majority in presidential elections. Then came Donald Trump, the least liked major party nominee of all time, who won the 2016 election — albeit without winning the popular vote. 

Now, there is talk of Democrats potentially being locked out of a Senate majority for a time to come because of trends in the electorate. 
I am skeptical of this — at least over the long term. History tells us that parties adjust messaging and tend to find the best pathway to a majority, leaving this to be a 50/50 country on average.  
Political scientist David Hopkins articulates the idea of this nation being a 50/50 one well. He notes that since the 1980 elections, Democrats and Republicans have won control of the House, Senate and presidency about the same number of times. They have controlled all three for about the same time, including for the Democrats at this point. 
This shouldn’t be surprising. As political analyst Sean Trende posited in the book “The Lost Majority,” history is filled with examples of majorities falling apart and the parties coming in and out of power. The book was published before the 2012 elections and has held up quite well.  
Obama won a second term with a decent economy in 2012. Despite Trump being unpopular as he was, we saw the presidency change hands after 2016 as it often does when one party has been in the White House for more than a term. Then we saw a president lose in 2020 with a weak, though not terrible, economy and a pandemic unlike anything the country had experienced in more than a century. 
All of these election results were predicted to a fairly accurate degree by fundamentals based political science models.
So why would the future be any different when it comes to the Senate? Well it comes down to two pretty simple points. 
First, Democratic power is more concentrated than Republican power in terms of geography. You can see this in the 2020 results with now-President Joe Biden reaching a clear majority in the Electoral College and popular vote, but only winning 25 states. Trump, on the other hand, took 30 states in 2016, despite losing the popular vote and winning with a similar number of electoral votes. 
Second, and this is key, presidential and Senate voting patterns are more closely aligned than at any point in recent history. Just one state (Maine in 2020) voted differently in the Senate and presidential races that were on the ballot in the last two presidential elections
And since each state has an equal number of senators, a nation that votes 50/50 in the popular vote on the presidential level will have more Republican senators over the long-term because that translates into winning more states. 
To be clear, the idea of Republicans having a structural advantage in the Senate isn’t a new one. It’s one I made in 2013 when I was trying to rebuff the talk of an emerging Democratic majority, which is why I take the point so seriously. 
But I’m not sure I was correct eight years ago. The thing I didn’t take into account is that this hasn’t been a 50/50 nation in the presidential popular vote over the last three decades. 
Democrats have earned more votes nationwide in seven of the previous eight presidential races. That’s the most popular vote wins in eight presidential elections for either party since the Democratic Party was founded in the first half of the 19th century. 
Republicans, of course, have still managed to win three of the last eight presidential elections. Recently, the party has adjusted to win elections with fewer votes by having their votes are concentrated in the right places. This is something some Republicans note openly
Indeed, the nomination of Trump was a tacit acknowledgment of that strategy. You put someone on the presidential ticket whose support comes disproportionately from White voters without a college degree, which is a group that has a disproportionate amount of power in the Electoral College (in large part because of the Great Lake battleground states). In doing so, you’re losing more voters overall, but allowing you to win with fewer votes because they’re in the right places. 
Over the long term this has come out to being close to a wash in states won. Since 1992, Democrats have won 25.5 states in the median election. Republicans have won 24.5. On average, Democrats have won 25 states to Republicans 25. 
In the last three presidential elections, Democrats have won 25 states in the median election and 24 on average. I point out the last three because the strong correlation between presidential and Senate results really only started in the 2010s
If you play out these Senate elections over and over again, you’d probably end up with pretty equal power in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans assuming straight ticket voting between Senate and presidential voting. 
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that Republicans won’t end up winning the Senate more times than Democrats. If voters are prone to balancing power (which they usually do), Republicans will do well in midterms and that could carry over to more wins overall because only one-third of the Senate is up for election every presidential cycle. Republicans could easily take back control of the Senate in 2022, which I think is the most likely outcome. 
It’s that the default isn’t as pro-Republican as one might assume. 
I’ll end by saying we have no idea if the current degree of straight ticket voting will stay the same, pick up or even shrink in years to come. We don’t know what the coalitions will look like. Just like Trump came on the scene and exacerbated the educational divide, another candidate may change the electoral calculus in the future. Parties and their messages aren’t stagnant. 
Just this past election, Biden actually performed better by a few points among White voters without a college degree than Hillary Clinton. At the same time, the gap between Whites and people of color (which used to be growing) shrunk, something I don’t think most thought would happen given Trump’s rhetoric. 
During the Biden presidency, that racial divide in voter preferences may be going down even more, as The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump has called attention to.
The bottom line is no one knows where voter opinion and election outcomes will go from here.

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FIRST READING: British MP killing brings a chill to Canadian politics – National Post

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Everybody hates Doug Ford but he might win reelection anyway

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First Reading is a daily newsletter keeping you posted on the travails of Canadian politicos, all curated by the National Post’s own Tristin Hopper. To get an early version sent direct to your inbox every Monday to Thursday at 6 p.m. ET (and 9 a.m. on Sundays), sign up here.

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British MP Sir David Amess was brutally stabbed to death Friday during a meeting with constituents in a Methodist church east of London . This is the second time in five years that a British MP has been murdered while in office, which surprisingly makes the current era one of the most dangerous in which to be a British parliamentarian . In 2016, Labour MP Jo Cox was shot and stabbed in a West Yorkshire street by a far-right extremist. For context, in the 108 years from 1882 to 1990, only six U.K. MPs were killed by political violence – and every single one was due to targeting by Irish nationalists.

Don’t be surprised if the murder of Amess has a chilling effect on public life all across the G7. After a terrorist gunman attempted to storm Parliament Hill in 2014, the result was an immediate ramp-up of parliamentary security everywhere from Australia to the U.K. In the U.K., the Conservative Party has already ordered a stop to all campaigning until a security review can be completed. Here in Canada, news of the murder has been particularly haunting for MPs who just wrapped up an election campaign that was particularly heavy on threats and security worries. “This last campaign, for me, I have never felt so unsafe,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner told CBC .

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A photo released by David Amess after his 2015 knighthood. Of the many photos of Amess shared by friends and colleagues over the weekend, this was one of the most widely circulated.
A photo released by David Amess after his 2015 knighthood. Of the many photos of Amess shared by friends and colleagues over the weekend, this was one of the most widely circulated. Photo by Handout

You can add “laughter” to the list of things that the Royal Canadian Navy isn’t good at . Last year, the second-in-command of HMCS Calgary was dismissed for disabling the warship’s smoke detectors so he could have a cigarette. In response, some anonymous navy wag wrote up a parody song about the incident entitled Smoking in the Wardroom, based on the 1973 hit Smokin’ in the Boys Room. While sailors across Canada had a good laugh at a performance uploaded to YouTube, navy brass absolutely lost their minds and initiated a nationwide manhunt to root out the satirist . According to Postmedia’s David Pugliese, the singer – identified by some fans as an “ Esquimalt legend ” – remains undiscovered.

One of the only known images of the creator of Smoking in the Wardroom, who has identified himself in Reddit forums using the pseudonym “Ryan McRyan.” He removed his video after becoming aware that navy higher-ups were on his trail.
One of the only known images of the creator of Smoking in the Wardroom, who has identified himself in Reddit forums using the pseudonym “Ryan McRyan.” He removed his video after becoming aware that navy higher-ups were on his trail. Photo by YouTube.com

Meanwhile, the military arguably has much bigger problems to address. Earlier this year, the Canadian Armed Forces’ chief of military personnel was placed on leave while he was investigated regarding an allegation of sexual misconduct. And now his replacement is also under police investigation for sexual misconduct. This happened in the same week that the incoming commander of the Canadian Army also became subject to a police investigation involving an allegation of sexual misconduct.

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It looks like Doug Ford might remain premier of Ontario for another term . The province is required to hold a vote by at least June of 2022, but as we all know, Canadian parliaments have a habit lately of getting dissolved early. Although Ford is one of the most unpopular premiers in Canada, polls show that he’s apparently still the best Ontario has. A new Leger survey has the Progressive Conservatives polling at 35 per cent, more than five points ahead of the second-place Liberals.

Only days after the release of the two Michaels from Chinese detention, B.C.’s Minister of State for Trade George Chow was a VIP guest at a Huawei-sponsored event in Vancouver celebrating the Chinese Communist Party. He even waved a tiny five-starred Chinese flag. Lest his appearance be seen as an official B.C. endorsement of Beijing, however, Chow’s spokespeople helpfully cleared up the matter this week. He wasn’t wearing his cabinet minister hat while at the pro-Beijing event , his office told Glacier Media . Rather, he was just attending the event as a regular civilian who may or may not have a senior position in the provincial government that directly deals with China on a regular basis.

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The House of Commons will be getting back to work on Nov. 22, more than two months after the Sept. 20 vote . While that may seem like a long time after an election that was repeatedly framed as an urgent necessity, it’s pretty standard for Canadian parliaments. One of the longest gaps still belongs to Joe Clark; after winning the 1979 election he waited more than four months to convene parliament .

COVID

This week, Alberta’s top doctor announced that a 14-year-old had become one of the province’s latest COVID-19 fatalities. There’s just one problem: The 14-year-old did not die of COVID-19. After the announcement, family members of the deceased teen took to social media to say that the 14-year-old actually died of brain cancer. Although he had an 11 th hour COVID-19 diagnosis, it was ultimately immaterial to his demise . Health Canada stats show that since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has contributed to the deaths of only 17 Canadians under the age of 19 , far less than the same number who were killed by drowning.

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In a pandemic that has seen an awful lot of politicized decisions from public health officials, there is one group that has consistently hewn very close to the evidence, even when it’s unpopular. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) was the one who recommended taking Pfizer instead of AstraZeneca – even as the entire political establishment yelled at them . And now, the National Post’s Sharon Kirkey notes that NACI has gone curiously dark : No press briefings and no interviews, even as Canada gears up for a mass-vaccination of children.

DATA NERD

Setting aside the fact that people vote differently in elections held under proportional representation , if Election 44 had been conducted under a European-style PR system, it would have resulted in a dead tie between the Liberals and Conservatives , both of whom would have gone to Parliament with 109 MPs each (the locked-out People’s Party of Canada, meanwhile, would have scored a caucus of 21). According to a new Angus Reid Institute poll, 61 per cent of Canadians would have preferred the PR outcome .

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The average price of a Canadian home rose by an incredible 21.4 per cent over the last 12 months , according to the latest Royal LePage House Price Survey . It’s a surge way beyond anything else seen in the G7. The only thing that comes close was a wacky few months in 1989 Italy when housing prices briefly spiked at a faster rate. As to why this is happening, Royal LePage has a very simple answer: Canada isn’t building nearly enough homes .

An empty commercial district in China. Ironically, China currently has the exact opposite of Canada’s real estate problem. The latest data from the China Household Finance Survey determined that the country had 65 million vacant homes; that’s more than enough to give two Chinese homes to every single Canadian household.
An empty commercial district in China. Ironically, China currently has the exact opposite of Canada’s real estate problem. The latest data from the China Household Finance Survey determined that the country had 65 million vacant homes; that’s more than enough to give two Chinese homes to every single Canadian household. Photo by Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

SOLID TAKES

Ottawa isn’t the only one on a debt binge lately. On the eve of the pandemic, Canada’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 101.3 per cent. Now, it’s at 119.6 per cent. Writing for the Financial Post, David Rosenberg and Julia Wendling note that it’s kind of hard to restart an economy when everybody’s up to their eyeballs in debt.

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Ken Boessenkool is among the handful of former Stephen Harper hacks who can say whatever they want now that they’re out of politics. Writing for The Line , this former Reform Party stalwart had a piece of extremely controversial advice for the Conservative Party: Embrace a carbon tax or die . Of course, Boessenkool’s Tory carbon tax would be counted as a 100 per cent credit against the income tax, rather than its current role of being a convenient new revenue stream.

In the wake of Chinese-Canadians running screaming from the Tories last election , Rupa Subramanya noted that it’s not unprecedented for Canadian diaspora communities to decide elections based on foreign policy issues that are virtually invisible to the rest of the electorate. She pointed to the example of 1998, when thousands of Indo-Canadians lost favour with the Liberal government of Jean Chretien after he criticized a series of recent Indian government nuclear tests. “Most Indo-Canadians were supportive of India’s nuclear ambitions … for most other Canadians, however, it was a non-issue,” she wrote .

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In recent months, several international outlets have begun referring to Vancouver as the North American epicentre of anti-Asian hate crime . Vancouver Sun columnist Douglas Todd isn’t so sure . The moniker is based entirely on the fact that reported incidents of anti-Asian hate crime rose from 12 to 98 in 2020, but Todd highlights a few holes in the data – as well as some not tremendously ingenuous actors who are highly invested in the image of Vancouver as a racist backwater.

We bring this up a lot in this newsletter, but the Liberals remain hell-bent on a plan to usher in the most censorious internet in the free world . Chris Selley writes in a recent column that if the Conservatives can’t rally Canadians against a draconian crackdown on freedom of speech, it would be a pretty big black eye both for them and the country at large.

Get all of these insights and more into your inbox every weekday at 6 p.m. ET by signing up for the First Reading newsletter here

Editor’s note: This post has been updated from its original version to correct the description of the nature of the investigation into the recent appointee to the Canadian Forces’ chief of military personnel.

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UN envoy says has agreement on drafting new Syrian constitution

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The United Nations Special Envoy said on Sunday that the government and opposition co-chairs of the  Syrian Constitutional Committee agreed to start a drafting process for constitutional reform in the country.

Geir Pedersen, speaking to reporters in Geneva after meeting the Syrian co-chairs ahead of week-long talks, said they had agreed to “prepare and start drafting constitutional reform.”

The talks will be the sixth round in two years and the first since January.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

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