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December time crunch – variants, deadlines and wild cards

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Let’s look ahead to the end of the year in Washington.  There are enormous issues, tests, and challenges across the board.  There is no certainty of the outcomes

Bruce WOLPE ON TICKER NEWS

The variants

The eruption of Omicron is a rude shock to a world struggling to recover from the pandemic.  For President Biden, while the quantum of this new health threat itself is not yet clear, the political danger is clearly visible. 

More people have died from Covid in the United States this year than in 2020.  Americans are still dying at a rate of around 1000 per day. 

The vaccination crusade has stalled at about 70 per cent of the population fully vaxxed.  Even before Omicron, the difference between the US at 70 per cent and the most populous states in Australia at 90 per cent+ is the very visible difference in overall public health. 

BIDEN CALLING FOR CALM

America’s vaccine deficit has been fuelled by the rancid politics spawned in the Trump days.  Biden’s appeal on taking office was that he would bring Covid under control.  It is under control for the vaccinated but not for those naked to the virus.  

Biden’s message of reassurance to the American people that the US can face this new threat, and manage it successfully without lockdowns, is designed to counter the uncertainty, fear, and choppiness across an economy infected with inflation and clots in the supply chains. 

The new variant – and all the uncertainties it presents – poses further tests for any rebound in Biden’s approval in the short term 

And that means that for the moment he has less political capital in shaping public opinion to get his legislative agenda done this year.

The deadlines

Funding for the Federal government runs out on December 3.  Unless Congress approves money for government operations (“supply” in the Australian context) the government will shut down next Saturday. 

While President Trump and Senate Republicans in the Obama presidency saw some virtue in playing the government shutdown card, there are no winners from such an exercise.  

The logical outcome is to punt and extend government funding until next March. This is what should happen, will likely happen- but simple logic is in short supply in Washington these days.

The debt limit of the United States expires any time after December 15.  This is the ceiling authorised by law for the United States to pay its debts – to its citizens and to creditors worldwide. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the press after a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the Capitol on November 16.

The United States has never defaulted on its debt, but there have been many moments when this issue has been taken to the brink. Debt limit fights have in recent years been the played with the hardest of hardball tactics. 

Republicans have made clear there will not be any votes from their side on the debt limit; Biden and the Democrats have to own it all.  Tensions on this issue between the Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate this year have run extremely high. 

It may be that the only alternative to passing the debt limit is to include it in the Biden mega-package on social programs and climate, now pending in the Senate.

The Biden package offers universal prekindergarten, generous subsidies for childcare, expanded financial aid for college, hundreds of billions of dollars in housing support, home and community care for older Americans, a new hearing benefit for Medicare and price controls for prescription drugs.

On climate there is more than half a trillion dollars to migrate the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels

In the words of one of President Nixon’s aides, this is “the whole enchilada” – Biden’s defining social and climate legacy.

But the only way this legislation passes the Senate is if every Democrat – all 50 – vote for it.  And those votes are not yet assured.  At least two Democrats – Manchin of West Virginia and Sinema of Arizona – are yet to pledge they will vote for this bill. 

If Democrats remain divided, the legislation will fail with immense damage to both their president, their party and themselves.

Wild Cards

Israel’s war in Gaza suddenly exploded in May. Biden’s expert management of the Gaza crisis may be tested again.  There are other ticking foreign policy bombs. 

There are heavy indications that Russia’s Putin wants to move on Ukraine, possibly occupying the country and overthrowing its president.  And in Iran, the European powers and the United States are at a make-or-break point as to whether negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program will continue or end.  

By Christmas, either issue could lead to a real fear that there will be military confrontation for the United States – perhaps imminently with Russia, perhaps in 2022 with Iran.

All of this – the course of the pandemic, the ability of the US government to function and pay its debts, the strength of the Biden presidency, and the state of peace in the world – is at stake this coming month.

Everyone still says this Christmas will be better than last Christmas.  Let’s hope so.

Bruce Wolpe is a Ticker News US political contributor. He’s a Senior Fellow at the US Studies Centre and has worked with Democrats in Congress during President Barack Obama's first term, and on the staff of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He has also served as the former PM's chief of staff.

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Sneak peak: Republican presidential field 2024

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Let’s start the New Year off right:  classy political gossip

The Democrats are already into it, with columnists suggesting President Biden should dump Kamala Harris and take on Liz Cheney as his VP (Tom Friedman in the New York Times), and that there are likely more than a dozen contenders for the Democratic throne (per Perry Bacon Jr in the Washington Post):  Kentucky Governor Any Beshear, Senator Corey Booker, former Montana governor Steve Bullock, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (WI), Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. Oh yes, according to two New York politicos, Hillary Clinton is for sure coming in.  (Spoiler alert:  No she won’t. Trust me on this)

That sounds as exciting as the 2020 Iowa primary.  But we don’t have to go there. 

Instead, let’s look at the Republicans. The initial cut at their field looks like this:

Donald Trump.   Numero Uno. El Jefe-in-Chief.  Everyone who talks with Trump comes away with the absolute impression he is running.  Which is exactly the impression Trump wants to leave.

Trump

He dominates the Republican Party as no one has since Ronald Reagan.  He is purging Republicans from their seats in Congress who voted to impeach him or support the January 6 House Select Committee.

He is endorsing not only candidates for governor, the House and Senate, but also for state government offices where the votes are counted in key states, like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona. 

He wants to make sure that no matter what the ballots say, he wins those states. Money is no issue for Trump. Demanding complete and utter loyalty is – not only to him but to his belief that the 2020 election was stolen, and that he is the legitimate president, and that the record of the stolen election has to be corrected.  

So the interesting question is:  who has the spine, the temerity, the courage, the foolhardiness, the fearlessness, the crazy imagination, the guts, after seeing what Trump did to the field in 2016?

That they actually think they can go mano-a-mano against Trump and beat him in the Republican primaries  – to have the stamina to remain standing after Trump unloads on them and calls on his base to eviscerate their candidacies?

Who indeed? Who gets up in the morning, puts their pants on one leg at a time, looks at themselves in the mirror and says:  Yes, I can beat  and I can beat that you-know-what and become President of the United States?  

Right now, that field is composed of five white men:

Mike Pence, former Vice President.  Pence, a man with enormous ambition, was serving as governor of Indiana in 2016.  He desperately wanted to be Trump’s VP because it would mean he could become the P.  Pence still hungers for it. 

Mike Pence

But there is one problem:  Trump hates him for his disloyalty in not overturning Biden’s election when the Electoral College votes were counted. 

Pence stood up to withering pressure from Trump to be loyal, and Pence did his constitutional duty instead.  Trump never forgives. Trump has made no secret that he hates Pence.  And Trump’s base knows it, and they will not vote for him.

Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State.  Pompeo, who also served as head of the CIA under Trump, was hardline loyal to Trump’s foreign policy objectives.

Mike Pompeo

Wherever Trump wanted to go on Russia or China or dealing with the Taliban to get out of Afghanistan, Pompeo was there.  Pompeo is sharp, articulate, and fierce.  He can bring a focus on Trumpist policies that work with the base. He has also lost over 40 kilos – a sure sign he is running.

Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey.  After years of dealing with Trump and being in his good graces (Trump wanted Christie to be his chief of staff in the White House), Christie has broken with Trump. 

Chris Christie

Christie believes the party needs to move on, and that Trump’s obsession with the 2020 election is a cancer on the party.  And they don’t play beanbag in New Jersey. Christie can take any knuckledusters Trump wants to throw.

Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland. A super longshot.  Hogan is a moderate Republican and extremely popular in Maryland, a Democratic state.  He too believes in a post-Trump Republican party and wants to take his call to conscience on the road. His prospects are zero.

Larry Hogan

Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida.  A bigger threat to Trump than Pence or Pompeo.  DeSantis has all the Trumpist policy swagger – but not Trump’s character flaws.  In other words, 100% Trumpism without Trump. 

MIAMI, FL – JUNE 08: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is seen during a press conference relating hurricane season updates at the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations Center on June 8, 2020 in Miami, Florida. NOAA has predicted that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season will be more active than usual with up to 19 named storms and 6 major hurricanes possible. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

So what is the governor doing in Florida right now?  Passing a law to outlaw abortion after 15 weeks and making sure racial equity is not taught in Florida schools  and ensuring Florida health policy is against everything Dr Anthony Fauci is for in terms of dealing with Covid.  DeSantis is pugnacious and defiant.  He has immense belief in his political skills and strength. To paraphrase Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront,  “He is a contender.”

If DeSantis is not muscled out of running by Trump, he will likely prove to be Trump’s fiercest competitor. 

One hitch for Trump:  he can’t get DeSantis out of the way by offering him the vice presidency. 

The Constitution effectively stops the president and vice president from being from the same state.  (The 12th Amendment reads in relevant part:  “The electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves.”)

So, who will be on the Republican ballot to carry Florida in 2024?  Trump or DeSantis?

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The first real test on 2o22 – Russia vs US

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While the United States got bogged down in the Middle East, Russia, like a middle child wanting to play with its older siblings, has been doing anything it could to gain global attention. But just how far will Vladimir Putin go?

Russia has convinced itself its sovereignty is under threat from NATO, a defensive alliance.

Its actions over the past two months, amassing 100,000 troops on the border of Ukraine, have been designed to ram home its intentions – give us what we want or we will create a headache in Eastern Europe which will rival anything China could do.

Putin is a man with a mission. Since he came to power, he has tightened control and punished those who defy him. What’s happening in Kazakstan is an example of how easily Putin will use force to force what he wants. The art of his power is that he waits for Kazakstan to ask him for help. Genius.

However, getting the Russian troops out after they deal with the protesters will be another story, but not a story the United States will be comfortable being compared to.

This latest Russian revolution began the moment the Berlin Wall came down. If the past 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that democracy only thrives in countries that want it.

Russian citizens have never enjoyed the benefits of real democracy, and you only have to walk the streets of Moscow to see how Russia’s version of democracy has failed the people.

Why is Russia misbehaving?

Citizens who were once looked after by the state now live homeless, in scenes reminiscent of poverty in many western cities, including the US and Australia.

In Soviet Russia, you just weren’t allowed to be homeless on the street. You could never be fired from a job. “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us”. But no one was homeless.

It’s an important representation of why so many Russian citizens still support the tight control of Vladimir Putin. For centuries, Russians have tolerated, even supported, strong leadership.

You might call it a dictatorship, you might call it authoritarian – but the Russian’s call it theirs.

Just ask a cab driver how he feels about Mikhail Gorbachev.

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev

The more the US celebrated its success in crippling the Soviet Union, the more the Russians missed it in the years that followed. It’s always seems easier to go back to your ex when you get tired of searching for a new partner.

It’s the economy

But just like democracies in the west, it’s all about the economy. And Russia’s economy, despite its glamorous space program and aviation revival, is still a pittance compared to the nations it compares itself to.

So like any good leader in the face of economic realities, Putin went into his dance.

Threatening, or perhaps promising, to get the old Soviet band back together, as shocking as that song would sound.

Which is where Ukraine finds itself in a difficult spot. Having spent the past decade trying to woo the West, and being wooed by the West.

The mere suggestion is enough to make the Kremlin see red (as if there were any other colour). The Kremlin has called NATO membership for Ukraine a “red line.”

US/Russia talks

So now the stage is set, the stakes are high for the talks which kick off this week in Geneva.

The outcome of the meetings, and how Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to view them, will have enormous consequences for the safety of Ukraine, as well as the future of NATO and the EU.

Fears of an escalation of the war in eastern Ukraine will be in the air as Western and Russian officials meet first in Geneva, then in Brussels, and then in Vienna to discuss, among other things, Russia’s demands for what it calls security guarantees.

But its demands will almost certainly fail. Which is exactly the game of chess the Russian leader likes to play.

US. and NATO officials have have already called out some of Russia’s demands, such as a bar on NATO expansion and the withdrawal of NATO infrastructure from Central and Eastern Europe, are nonstarters.

Any dismissal of his terms could give him the excuse he wants to invade Ukraine, though Napoleon and Hitler never found it too easy to launch an invasion in a European, let alone a Soviet winter.

Neither Biden nor Putin will be attending the meetings in Europe over the coming weeks. They have held numerous phone calls recently.

How to keep Russia inside the tent

So what does Russia want? Well, it didn’t take well to being kicked out of the G8 when it annexed Crimea. It took revenge by undermining anything its hackers would gain access to.

Like any kid with middle child syndrome, perhaps all Moscow needs is to feel like they are welcome back inside the tent The problem is, the West doesn’t know how to discipline Moscow when it inevitably tries to burn the tent down again.

Ukraine will be off the agenda when Russia and US diplomats meet. As absurd as it sounds at first, given Kiev is the reason the talks are taking place, it may turn out to be the beginning of something long needed: An ongoing conversation between the US and Russia.

For both countries have more in common than they care to admit. Every nation needs an enemy, whether it’s a democracy or an autocracy. But the jousting from both sides for supremacy, has led the world down a dangerous path.

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2021: A look at some of the biggest stories of the year

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2021 has been a year that many people would rather forget than remember, but for others it was the year that was

Many of us went into 2021 full of hope and ambition. Coming off the back of 2020 – the year when COVID was born – there was hope that a global vaccine rollout would allow people to get on with their lives and do the things we love.

But, as the world learnt about the different strains of COVID-19, and we began to see how rapidly a single variant such as Delta spread like wildfire, it became evident to us that 2021 was pretty much 2020, part two.

Besides the fact that the pandemic was dominating the headlines around the world, there were plenty of other big events that will be remembered.

COVID continues to dominate much of the world / Image: File

January 6 Capitol Riots

On January 6, 2021, as Congress convened to certify Joe Biden’s electoral victory, hundreds of protesters who were in Washington DC for the “Save America” rally violently breached the U.S. Capitol building – storming it in protest.

Rioters made it as far as the Senate Chamber, killing one Capitol police officer, and injuring more than 140 others.

The insurrectionists, comprised largely of pro-Trump supporters, caused roughly $1.5 million in damages, according to The Washington Post.

At the time, then-President Donald Trump took to social media to claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him, after losing to Joe Biden.

Rather than encouraging a peaceful transfer of power—a fundamental tenet of American democracy – President Donald Trump stoked the flames of insurrection with rhetoric about the election being fraudulent, stolen, and called on supporters to take action.

Those actions quickly saw Trump blocked off social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which many say he used as a platform to ‘incite the January 6 violence.’

Since the riot, ongoing investigations remain, as well as a Congressional Committee Hearing, which heard evidence provided by close allies of former President Donald Trump.

On January 13, with one week remaining in his term, Trump was impeached— for an unprecedented second time—for “incitement of insurrection.”

More than 700 people involved in the riots have been charged with various crimes so far.

Hundreds took to the Capitol on Jan 6 / Image: File

President Joe Biden’s Inauguration

The inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20 marked a transition of power, following the 2020 U.S. election.

The transition of power changed the political rhetoric from “America First” to “America is Back.”

Former US President Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory of 306 electoral votes. That’s when his supporters – with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud – used as a rallying cry for the Capitol insurrection one week prior.

Vice President Kamala Harris makes history

Biden’s inauguration was historic, not only because a transition of power was achieved despite efforts to subvert this democratic norm, but also because Kamala Harris became the first woman and first person of African-American and South Asian descent to serve in the role of vice-president of the United States.

Myanmar coup

Mass protests have been taking place across Myanmar since the military seized control on 1 February.

Elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her National League for Democracy party had been among those detained.

Hundreds of people, including children, have since been killed as violent protest against the military junta poured onto the streets.

The military is now back in charge and has declared a year-long state of emergency.

It seized control on 1 February following a general election which Ms Suu Kyi’s NLD party won by a landslide.

The armed forces had backed the opposition, who were demanding a rerun of the vote, claiming widespread fraud.

The election commission said there was no evidence to support these claims.

The coup took place as a new session of Parliament was set to open.

Suu Kyi has since been jailed after being convicted with multiple offences.

People stand on a barricade during a protest against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

Supply chains halt as the EverGiven ship gets stuck

In March, a massive cargo ship carrying more than 18,000 containers of consumer goods, got suck in the Suez Canal after over-turning.

For a long six days, the EverGiven ship blocked the passage of more than 400 other ships, stalling an already-tenuous global supply chain.

Analysts have estimated that the ripple effect was 60-day shipping delays for roughly $60 billion worth of products.

Many experts say that the costly error shone a light on the outdated infrastructure of freight shipping.

A short time after the ship was freed, it was seized by the Suez Canal Authority and held for more than 100 days as compensation negotiations ensued.

The sum demanded by the Canal Authority was initially $900 million, but that total figure was later lowered to $550 million.

EverGiven’s owners as well as its insurers, and Egyptian authorities reached a settlement on July 7, the terms of which were not disclosed.

The ship was suck for almost a week / Image: File

COVID vaccines rollout across the world

By May 1st – a year-and-a-half into the COVID pandemic – much of the world was beginning to receive shipments of the COVID vaccine by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

Nations like the United States, Israel, UK and much of Europe began administering jabs, as the rollout quickly began the ticket back to normality.

The technology behind the vaccine was highly praised. Both Pfizer and Moderna use a novel mRNA technology to create their vaccines, while AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine uses more traditional, pre-existing information-delivery technology.

It was a milestone in the pandemic that many met with hope, relief, and, for some, hesitancy.

With the introduction of the COVID jabs, reported cases slowly began to decline as well as the hospitalisation and death rate across many parts of the world.

Mary Lou Russler receives a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during a community vaccination event in Martinsburg, West Virginia, U.S., March 11, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The billionaire space race

Who could forget the billionaire space race – an event which made history and looked to the future of space travel.

Billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson all jockeyed for headlines relating to private space travel and astro tourism this year.

On July 11, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson became the first civilian aboard his own rocket ship to reach space.

Mr Branson reached an altitude of 53 miles above ground.

Tokyo Olympics

Who could forget the biggest sporting event of the year.

After being postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics finally went ahead in Japan in July through to August.

It was a revolution in the way people consumed the Games – with more viewers streaming the event than ever before – some even reporting more eyes on mobile than TV free-to-air screens.

Spectators weren’t allowed to attend the Games in-person due to COVID.

Lamont Marcell Jacobs took out the blue- ribbon event, the 100m Mens Final as well as the high jump having two gold medallists.

It was the first joint-Olympic podium in Athletics since 1912.

Tokyo Olympics
Tokyo Olympics / Image: File

US withdraws from Afghanistan

On August 31 – US President Joe Biden, along with his administration withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan, following on with a deal reached by the Trump Administration to end the 20-year war.

The decision copped mixed emotions. Reports state that while the majority of Americans  agree that withdrawal from the country was the right decision, 40% of people believe it was handled poorly.

The withdrawal of the US military saw the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan in just under 10 days – even before American troops had completed their evacuation.

The militant group seized control of Kabul on August 15.

In a White House Statement, President Joe Biden adamantly defended the decision and the withdrawal operation.

Taliban regained control of Afghanistan / Image: File

Violent protests erupt in world’s most locked down city

In September, Australia’s second-largest city, Melbourne turned into a city of protest.

Police and demonstrators clashed following an announcement by the Victorian state government that construction workers will be required to have a COVID-19 vaccine in order to continue working.

A protest outside the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) headquarters in Melbourne turned violent.

https://twitter.com/AnthonyLucas30/status/1440517957575004165?s=20

Protesters smashed glass windows, threw projectiles and caused damage to the building, prompting the deployment of riot police.

In particular, the Victorian headquarters of Australia’s major construction union, the CFMEU was vandalised.

The protests went on over multiple days, and saw thousands of police deployed to the city – including officers from the riot squad.

Construction workers protest in Melbourne over vaccine mandate / Image: File

Tennis tournaments in China scrapped amid concern for Peng Shuai

In November, the Women’s Tennis Association announced that it will immediately suspend all tennis tournaments in China as concerns grew for the safety and wellbeing of Peng Shuai.

The tennis star went missing after posting a sexual assault allegation against a top Chinese government official.

FILE PHOTO: A file photo of China’s Peng Shuai serving during a match at the Australian Open on January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

Ghislaine Maxwell trial

British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell began her trial after being arrested in 2019 in relation to sexual abuse allegations involving herself and Jeffrey Epstein.

Maxwell, 59, is accused of recruiting and grooming four teenage girls for Epstein to abuse between 1994 and 2004. She has pleaded not guilty to six counts of sex trafficking and other crimes.

The federal court jury in Manhattan began deliberations late on Monday December 20 after three weeks of emotional testimony from four accusers.

Maxwell’s lawyers have argued that she is being “scapegoated” for Epstein’s crimes because the globetrotting investor – Maxwell’s former boyfriend and employer – took his own life in a Manhattan jail cell in 2019 at the age of 66 while awaiting trial on sex abuse charges.

British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell / Image: File

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