Friday, October 18, 2013

2014 Senate Elections, Part II

I’m late with this, but here goes: the second part of the 2014 senate landscape:

Iowa: Senator Tom Harkin is retiring next year, leaving an open race in the state. Democrats have largely coalesced around Representative Bruce Braley, while Republicans have vague “no-name” candidates in the running. This is looking increasingly likely to be a democratic hold.

Electorally, Iowa is a very unique state. It is a very white state, yet it is always more democratic than the rest of the nation. In fact, it was the only state outside of New England where Barack Obama won a majority of the white vote in 2012. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, Iowa has a heavily unionized history, similar to neighboring states Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The eastern portion of the state is culturally similar to Minnesota, in that many Iowans vote democratic because of the labor union influence. The first settlers in Iowa also arrived from the Midwest, giving it a closer connection to those states.

Finally, Iowa democrats tend to have a populist streak, as evidenced by Senator Harkin and to a lesser extent Representative Braley. They tend to not talk about social issues that much, but focus on economic issues, such as unions, the social safety net, and higher taxes on the rich. So, despite the fact that Iowa has one of the whitest populations in the nation, it still is comfortably democratic for the moment.

In addition, republicans faced a recruitment fail this year. Their top possibility was Representative Tom Latham, a popular, politically savvy establishment republican. However, early polls showed him losing in the primary to firebrand tea party representative Steve King, and so dropped out. King also declined to run, and so currently there is a 6-way primary amongst mostly no-names.

Iowa republicans dug themselves into a deeper hole by adopting a rule saying that if no candidate gains 35% in a primary, then a convention will automatically be held to determine the nominee. This is risky for the republicans because the Iowa GOP is largely controlled by libertarians in the mold of Ron Paul, who will probably select one of their own as the candidate to face Braley. This would probably be attorney Matt Whitaker, far from the most electable candidate in the primary.

Ultimately, barring a republican wave, it is safe to say that Representative Braley will be the new junior senator from Iowa next year.

Kentucky: This will be a very important race to watch. Current senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is facing a challenge from Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

McConnell is a fixture in Kentucky politics much as Harry Reid is a fixture in Nevada politics: he is very much disliked, however he runs a powerful machine and is adept at bringing home pork barrel spending to the state. He is also known as a powerful fundraiser and a ruthless campaigner: most of his opponents have not re-entered politics after losing to McConnell.

However, Grimes is a significantly stronger candidate than most previous McConnell challengers, and appears to be a money magnet (she outraised McConnell in the last fiscal quarter). In addition, she is another red-state democrat with a family name: her father was Jerry Lundergan, former president of the Democratic party and one of the foremost power brokers in the state. Coupled with the fact that McConnell’s favorability ratings have rarely broken the 44% mark in the past few years, and that McConnell himself is facing a wealthy and well-funded tea party challenger for the primary, means this will probably be a close race.

Ultimately, McConnell is slightly favored. He has been much quieter this year than in previous years, and indeed helped craft a negotiation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to end the government shutdown. He has formed an alliance with Libertarian power-brokers in the state, including senator Rand Paul, who in 2010 upset McConnell’s protege Trey Greyson for the GOP nomination. If the national environment shifts against the Republicans next year, perhaps due to another government shutdown McConnell may very well lose. However, the powers of incumbency are very strong, especially for someone as entrenched as McConnell, so it would be foolish to underestimate his chances.

Louisiana: In my opinion, I think this is going to be the bellweather, the most important senate race next year. The incumbent is democratic senator Mary Landrieu. She is a prominent “blue dog” or conservative democrat, and has made a name for herself by breaking with the party on certain issues, notably oil subsidies. She is also an extremely savvy campaigner, and is one of the few blue dogs who I feel is intelligent. She was elected in 1996, and faced tough reelection campaigns  in 2002 and 2008.

Her most likely opponent is Bill Cassidy, a GOP representative from West Louisiana. It appears that Cassidy however has not consolidated support; he is facing at least two primary challengers.

Louisiana is notable for holding a jungle general election. This is similar to California’s jungle primaries, where all candidates are placed on the same ballot, and the top two candidates advance. In addition, if no candidate reaches 50% of the vote, there is a runoff between the top two finishers.

These two rules will probably have a large effect on which side is victorious. Since multiple republicans will be competing against Landrieu, the chances that one of the less electable candidates pushes past Cassidy to the runoff with Landrieu. However, runoffs tend to have more conservative electorates as solid democratic groups such as African-Americans and young people stay home. Thus, it is quite possible that Landrieu would lose the runoff while winning a plurality in the jungle election.

My gut feeling is that Landrieu will barely survive. She has won three elections already, including a runoff in 2002, and has a famous last name (both her brother and father served in politics). Cassidy is a strong challenger, but he will likely be hobbled by overzealous challenges from the right. Of course, Landrieu’s chances decrease if she is forced into a runoff, but even then she could possibly count on a coalition of New Orleans blacks along with whites from Acadiana to beat a conservative opponent.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Iran's new president, and implications forthe nuclear community.

I was originally going to write about free-trade this week. However, the spectacle at the UN General Assembly offered instructive hints about a thawing between Iran and the Western nations.

Historically, the beginning of tensions between Iran and the United States began when the United States orchestrated a coup to overthrow Iran’s elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh and the consolidation of power by the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi was then overthrown in 1979 during the Iranian Revolution, which installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of Iran. Iranian-American tensions have been tense since the Revolution, such that until Friday, the president of the United States and the president of Iran had never communicated by phone.

Pro-reform presidents have been elected in Iran, most notably Mohammad Khatami, who was in office from 1997 to 2005. Unfortunately, none have been able to break fundamental deadlock in Iran-American relations. Ultimately, the current Ayatollah Ali Khameini took negotiating power away from Khatami, and ultimately Khatami was replaced by the fundamentalist, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

What we have now is a situation where both Iran and the United States want peace and stability, but neither quite trust the other to deliver, and with both sides containing anti-detente factions. In the United States, President Barack Obama definitely wants normalized Iran-US relations. However, Obama is proceeding cautiously to avoid angering opposition Republicans, who could accuse him of being soft towards the Iranian regime. In addition, Obama’s quest for peace has been complicated by Israel, most notably Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since Obama’s ascension to the presidency, his relations with Netanyahu have been strained, and Netanyahu has publicly voiced cynicism regarding possible negotiations with the Iranian government.

Before discussing the political situation Hassan Rouhani, the new president of Iran, finds himself in, I’ll briefly describe the election that brought him to power. Rouhani was one among eight candidates “approved” by Ayatollah Khameini to run in this year’s presidential election. Originally one of two “moderates” running; the other moderate, Mohammed Aref, dropped out early and endorsed him. Rouhani went on to win a surprise 51% majority in the first round of balloting, enough to avoid a runoff. This result indicates that perhaps Iranians have had enough of the current norm of economic sanctions and inflammatory rhetoric, and wish to be more open to the country. Iranians as a whole are more affluent and better educated than other areas in the Middle East outside of Israel. They also are more moderate towards Western culture than many other areas in the Middle East.

That said, the main reason I think Rouhani can bring about negotiations in a way Khatami did not is that he is overall a better political strategist. He has spent several years inside the government, most notably as head of a negotiating team in charge of working in the West to halt the Iranian nuclear program. while Khatami fell from favor, thus paving the way for Ahmadinejad to take power, Rouhani has maintained close cooperation with Khameini. As such, he will be able to make politically more risky moves than Khatami was.

Of course, the problem with this scenario is this: the office of president has relatively little power in Iran; most power ultimately resides with Khameini. And there is no guarantee that Khameini wants better negotiations with the West and with Israel. But consider this: the value of the Iranian rial dropped 80% between 2011 and 2012, and oil exports have similarly plunged. Sooner or later Khameini would end up cooperating, lest he fall as the Shah did due to political discontent. We may be seeing the fruits of the economic sanctions that took effect 2-3 years ago.

Of course, there are still hard-line factions within the Iranian government, such as the Revolutionary Guards, who are still staunchly opposed to improved relations with the West. It will be Rouhani’s job to maneuver through the hardline elements of the Iranian government to set up better relations. Early indications are that he is succeeding.

Of key importance in the negotiations with the new government of Iran will be Iran’s nuclear program. Despite Iranian claims that their program is solely for nuclear power, political leaders in both the United States and Israel will still insist on a halt of uranium enrichment operations by the Iranian government.

It is really hard to determine conclusively whether or not Iran is in fact trying to manufacture a nuclear weapon. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian centrifuges have only produced a handful of 20% enriched uranium,  well below the 80-90% required to synthesize a nuclear weapon. In addition, much of the uranium they do have is being converted into uranium oxide rods, which cannot be easily enriched.

The proposition Rouhani made at the UN General Assembly meeting last week is interesting- he called for Israel to enter into an accord with Iran where both sides would agree not to develop nuclear weapons. Israel still has not “confirmed” that they have nuclear weapons, but it is very certain that they do. Along with Iran, they have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a smart debating point for Rouhani, knowing that the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, will be forced into a spot. Netanyahu is loath to weaken his bargaining position with Iran (he has repeatedly threatened to bomb Iran should they continue with their nuclear program), yet at the same time should he reject this olive branch, he will look overly hostile to the new government.

One argument made is that Israel should not make nuclear concessions to Iran. Frankly, I think this attitude is silly. Netanyahu has made threats to bomb Iran, and it would make sense for Iranians to fear a preemptive Iranian strike. Deterrence seems to be a reasonable argument, until you realize that each side wants to deter the other. This has the potential to lead to a cold-war type conflict, with each country developing increased nuclear capability. this would leave both countries vulnerable either to some sort of breach of intelligence or to a terrorist group gaining weapons.

Ultimately, I do not see the need for Israel to maintain nuclear weapons. As of now, I do not see any necessity for Israel to even use nuclear weapons. First off, Israel has already proved itself quite dangerous with conventional weapons. Secondly, any nuclear attack upon Israel would almost certainly result in the full annihilation and overthrow of the government of the perpetrating country. Thirdly, if Israel was foolhardy enough to preemptively strike via nuclear weapons, they would become a pariah state, even more than North Korea is. A deterrent force should not require 2-3 weapons. Each one is capable of annihilating a city. There is absolutely no need for Israel to develop more, let alone keep  most of the weapons they currently own. It would be a massive image-building move in the international community, and would put the onus on Iran to follow through with their pledge to not make nuclear weapons.

What is my solution to the Iran situation? Make it very clear that the US will continue sanctions until the Iran nuclear program has been dealt with. However, we must also do everything possible to come to a solution to the nuclear situation. Let Netanyahu know that if he becomes the extreme party he will be treated as such. And let Rouhani and Khameini know that the US does not expect to be hoodwinked.