LABOUR LED BY ED: “Iraq was an issue that divided our party and our country…. I criticize nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions, and I honor our troops who fought and died there. But I do believe that we were wrong.” With those words to the Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband announced the arrival of a new generation in British politics. Elected by a wafer-thin margin over his older brother, David—who voted for the war as an MP and as foreign secretary fought efforts to expose British complicity in torture—Ed urged his party to be “humble about our past.” The former Nation intern now faces a triple challenge: to introduce himself to the country at large, to heal the wounds of a hard-fought leadership contest and to revive a party that has lost 5 million voters since 1997 and that still bears the scars—and the grudges—of a decade of infighting between supporters of rivals Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
He began with the saga of his parents—two Jewish refugees who arrived in Britain “with nothing. This country gave them everything.” They taught him to “never walk by on the other side of injustice.” And he ended with a slightly awkward echo of a political brother act from another time and place: “Let the message go out—a new generation has taken charge of Labour.” He wants “a grown-up debate” about “the kind of country we leave for our kids.”
Will he succeed? Opinion polls showed Labour ahead of the Conservatives for the first time in months. Ladbrokes bookmakers, a slightly more reliable indicator, shortened the 13-to-8 odds on Labour to 6-to-4 odds. But the Tory/Liberal coalition remains in firm control of Parliament, and the agenda. Miliband will need more than a good story—or a good speech—to loosen its grip. D.D. GUTTENPLAN
MIXED MONEY BAG: Recent weeks have brought a mixed bag of news for campaign-finance reformers. First, the positive: on September 23 the House Administration Committee passed the Fair Elections Now Act, which incentivizes candidates to seek small donations and helps break the corporate stranglehold on our democracy. Fair Elections is a central plank of MoveOn.org‘s “Fight Washington Corruption” pledge, which has garnered more than 500,000 signatures. Groups like the Public Campaign Action Fund are pressing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote in the House before the November election, and they believe they have the support to pass the bill. Polling by Celinda Lake shows that nearly two-thirds of voters support the legislation, including 56 percent of Republicans.
Now the bad news: on the same day, the Senate once again failed to approve the DISCLOSE Act, which would require a wide array of political groups to list their donors and identify themselves in ads before the election. Fifty-nine senators voted for it, which in a normal democracy would assure passage; but in the increasingly dysfunctional Senate, where sixty votes are now necessary to pass anything, it was another defeat.
The necessity of passing both of these measures keeps growing, as money gushes into the political system following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Conservative groups are already spending millions of dollars to buy a Republican victory in the midterms, with shadowy pro-Republican groups massively outspending Democratic groups on TV ads, $23.6 million to $4.8 million. ARI BERMAN
CHANGE THEY CAN (STILL) BELIEVE IN? Speaking to student journalists during a September 27 conference call, President Obama urged students to re-engage in democracy. “Change is always hard in this country,” the president reminded the students, adding that “it doesn’t happen overnight.” While Obama’s message was about long-term change, the impetus has a lot more to do with short-term calculations. A recent national poll of 18- to 29-year-olds by Rock the Vote suggests that the “enthusiasm gap” between young Republicans and young Democrats, while slight, is a factor that could affect the outcome in crucial swing districts in this fall’s elections.
The poll found that young Republicans are paying more attention to the midterms than young Democrats are (63 percent to 58 percent). But the results aren’t all grim: 46 percent of youths still have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while only 36 percent have a favorable view of the GOP.
To capitalize on their relatively high favorability and to close the enthusiasm gap, Democrats held a series of youth-oriented events, including a rally featuring Obama at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and another rally at Pennsylvania State University headlined by Vice President Biden, both on September 28.
Whether the last-minute outreach will work remains to be seen. Adrian Zamora, president of Texas State College Democrats, thinks that “all the new voters in 2008 are a little weary of voting Democrat again, because of the deflated economy, controversial legislation and a president who, at times, seems to not want to put his foot down.” Rock the Vote president Heather Smith sees similar challenges ahead but also a silver lining: “There is perhaps some cynicism, but there is also incredible optimism,” she said. “We found that 83 percent of young people stated that as a group, young people have the power to change things in this country.” JOANNA CHIU
THE $4 TRILLION WAR: Nobel Prize winner and Columbia University economics professor Joseph Stiglitz, in advance of his September 30 testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, announced that he and Linda Bilmes, co-authors of The Three Trillion Dollar War, were revising their 2008 estimate of the total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We were grossly conservative,” he said, noting that the number of veterans seeking care from the VA system since October 2001—about 600,000—far exceeds his earlier projection.
Soldiers injured on the battlefield now have a 95 percent survival rate, higher than any in history—but there are also more personnel with gravely serious injuries, who require expensive treatment.
“I think we would easily be in the $4 trillion range,” he said of the wars’ aggregate cost, which factors in lifetime medical care, disability compensation and Social Security for wounded veterans. MICHAEL C. TRACEY