Stateside

A brief moment of unity

As the war left cities in ruin, we watched from afar, sad, horrified and angry. Even with the prospect of peace talks, we think and speak of little else. Glued to our televisions, we have covered our eyes but with fingers spread to grasp the level of savagery. Members of Congress wept last month when President Volodymr Zelensky showed videos of the carnage. 

Disastrous as it is for Ukraine, however, the Russian invasion has realised one notable achievement for America. It has unified voters as few issues have, with public opinion polls showing overwhelming support for standing with Ukraine. But the polls also show a mixed response on how America should help, and that has given Republican lawmakers yet another wedge issue to use against Democrats with Congressional elections later this year; they criticise President Joe Biden for not doing enough to get Ukraine ready for war and not providing enough support once it started. The combination, some conclude, enabled the onslaught. As one Republican senator said, “Slow, too little, too late.”

With a selective recounting of history, Republicans have linked Biden’s approach to Ukraine with policy decisions made during the Obama years when Biden was vice president: not responding to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people or impeding Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, thus emboldening Vladimir Putin to flex his military muscles in Ukraine. It also extends their evergreen assertion that Democrats are soft on crime.

What Republicans fail to mention is Donald Trump’s professed admiration for Putin, how he took Putin’s word over his own intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the 2016 election, how he weakened NATO by distancing the US and how he conditioned Zelensky’s request for military aid on doing Trump the “favour” of digging up dirt on Biden’s son, Hunter, related to his business dealings in Ukraine and China. Trump called the Putin invasion strategy “savvy” and “genius,” leading some in his party to insist Putin would never have invaded Ukraine had Trump been in charge. Further, as the Senate passed a $1.5 trillion spending bill last month that included $13 billion in aid for Ukraine, 31 of the 50 Republicans voted against it, complaining about extraneous spending for lawmakers’ pet projects. Democrats screamed hypocrisy, but what else is new in a country riven by divisions for years. 

And so past is prologue as another distant war plays into the calculus of US politics and elections, taking its place beside the entrenched economic, cultural and social divisions that account for so many other unpleasantries. All 435 House seats and a third of the 100-member Senate are on the ballot in November, and both chambers are so closely divided that any single Senate and House race could determine which party wins the majority. For now, Democrats hold slim margins in each chamber, but the landscape to maintain them is fraught. Why?

Let’s start with history. Midterm elections are usually tougher on the president’s party, especially in the House. They generally become a referendum on the first two years of a president’s term and often find the electorate in a sour mood. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, his Republicans lost 26 and five seats. George HW Bush lost eight in his one term. Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 before winning back four. George W. Bush won eight (after 9/11) before losing 32. Obama lost 63 (“a shellacking,” he called it), then another thirteen. Trump lost 40 in his single term.

Apart from pro-Ukraine sentiment spiking Biden’s public approval ratings as he increases military and humanitarian support, the sour-meter is flashing red for other reasons. Americans are angry and frustrated over high consumer costs and inflation run-amok. As always, voters need someone to blame, and it’s usually the president, never mind that much of the economic situation is beyond his control. To offset criticism, Biden is using a rhetorical pivot, attributing the higher fuel costs to “Putin’s price hike,” and polls show it’s working. Whether that continues into the fall election season depends on how the war ends and what the economy looks like. 

Meanwhile, other factors leave Democrat hopes wobbly. Independent voters and constituencies historically friendly to Democrats, particularly Blacks and Hispanics, are drifting away, drawn to the Republicans who they believe are more in tune with their everyday economic struggles and social concerns. That is prompting Democrats to retool their messaging. No more “Build Back Better”, Biden’s first-year legislative slogan that embraced the most expansive social spending agenda since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Now it’s something squishy like “we’re here for you”, setting aside much of the progressives’ wish list in Biden’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

Another wildcard for the Democrats is the stark number of their House members not seeking reelection – 31 so far, the most in three decades – compared with half as many Republicans. Most seats are safe for the party that holds them. But open seats create open opportunities, and Democrats’ losing the majority would almost guarantee failure for Biden’s priorities over this second two years. 

Republicans have their own problems. Nit-picking Biden’s Ukraine policy neatly dovetails with opposition to the rest of his agenda – and they continue to live in fear of Trump, who is almost certain to run again in 2024. Republicans know they cross him at their peril. Trump fever persists like covid with loyalists such as Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, the youngest member of the House aged 26, who called Zelensky “a thug” and his government “incredibly evil” and “incredibly corrupt”. Then there are the provocateurs Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who heckled and mean-tweeted Biden throughout his State of the Union speech last month.

Yet other Republicans are peeling away. Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are weighing 2024 presidential primary challenges. Two other members of the former president’s administration – Nikki Haley, the UN ambassador, and Mick Mulvaney, a one-time chief of staff – are supporting a South Carolina House incumbent (the state the two men come from) rather than a challenger Trump endorsed. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has barely spoken to Trump over his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

Splits are also evident on which domestic issues to highlight. Some Republicans are keen to fight the culture wars that resonate with the most conservative of voters. They favour undoing protections for transgender people, removing books and ending classroom discussions that deal with racism and sexual preferences, and repealing Obamacare, the popular health care program they’ve tried to kill 70 times since 2010. Others prefer sticking to family-based concerns like consumer costs, school choice and painting Democrats as soft on crime. 

The future of the Senate is a more difficult read. With a third of the seats contested every two years, Democrats this time are defending fourteen, Republicans 21, but handicappers rate only five seats as competitive. The rest are safe, which means control of the chamber could turn on a handful of votes in a single state. 

Despite the public support for Ukraine, much of the current political landscape has obscured a remarkable first year of success for Biden that included a $1.9 trillion COVID economic relief bill, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, reengagement with world bodies, high vaccination rates and low unemployment. Yet critics beat him up for the botched pullout from Afghanistan, high energy costs, mixed messages on masks and vaccines and, now, a reluctance to take on Russia more aggressively. Party leaders are urging Biden to return to emphasizing issues Democrats once owned, like strengthening the middle class, raising taxes on the wealthy, supporting unions, lowering prescription drug costs and expanding voting rights. And probably he will.

Meanwhile, it’s been all Ukraine all the time, dominating the airwaves and newspapers. At some point peace will return, turning voter attention back to the divisive issues that will likely decide the elections. It’s a safe bet that no matter which party prevails, both sides will emerge wondering what in the world would it take to unify the country. It’s a scary question.

Transgender rights under siege

Your child is not comfortable in his/her body. He/she believes he/she was born the wrong sex. It’s an agonising situation for the parents, who desperately want their child to be happy and comfortable in any circumstance. So they do what any loving parents would to keep their child mentally stable. They arrange for medical care that enables the child to live in his/her preferred mode.

Not if some states can help it. Transgender rights is bubbling up as another major issue on America’s political agenda. On one side is the growing number of young people desperate to live as they wish, often in a manner apart from the sex of their birth. On the other side are those who believe people are immutably male or female, full stop.

Despite a 2019 report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that found that two per cent of American high school students identified as transgender and 35 per cent of them attempted suicide the previous year, several Republican-led states remain unmoved. Last month, Texas joined nearly a dozen other states attempting to punish parents who would help their child choose their own gender.

The Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, gave an opinion that any procedures facilitating sex change or the prescribing of drugs that block puberty qualified as child abuse under state law – exposing the parents to arrest and prosecution. Acting on that opinion, Governor Greg Abbott directed the state agency for families and protective services to investigate “any reported instances of these abusive behaviours” in the state. Texas had already passed a law earlier this year that banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy – a stage when many women don’t even know they are pregnant – with bounties offered to anyone reporting an infraction. Idaho recently did the same and other states are preparing to.

In the Texas gender case, two civil rights organisations – the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal – sued, and a state judge temporarily blocked the governor’s directive, saying it had “given the effect of new law or a new agency rule despite no new legislation, regulation or even stated agency policy.” A hearing in July will determine the merits of the governor’s directive.

And at least one state is fight back. California state lawmakers are drafting legislation that would welcome out-of-state transgender young people and their parents. “They have a safe place to go if they’re threatened with prosecution,” Senator Scott Weiner told the Associated Press. “California will not be a party to this new wave of deadly LGBTQ criminalisation.”

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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