Hillary vs…?

Hillary2016Which two movies provide the best insight into how the coming US Presidential Election will play out? This was the question posed by Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor of The National Interest, at a recent Legatum Institute discussion.

Political movie fans might suggest Primary Colours, the anonymously authored account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against George H. W. Bush. Or perhaps The Ides of March (2011), the tense political thriller which sees an idealistic Ryan Gosling get caught up in the dirty side of politics while working for a presidential candidate played by George Clooney. But Heilbrunn offered neither of these.

Instead, Heilbrunn cited Election (1999), the little-known indie movie that sees a tenacious and devious Reese Witherspoon running unopposed for school president, stopping at nothing to get what she wants. This, said Heilbrunn, provides insight into what Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency might look like.

The second movie, for Heilbrunn, is the recent Kingsman (2014) in which an elite spy agency recruits a young, unrefined, untested street kid into their training programme (think James Bond mixed with Johnny English). The agency mirrors the GOP while the established central character (Colin Firth) represents Jeb Bush—the safe and obvious choice. The young, untested recruit could be any number of Republican candidates including the like of Ted Cruz, the maverick libertarian Senator from Texas who, among other things, wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and introduce a flat tax rate.

Following Hillary’s official announcement earlier this month, it would seem inevitable that she will secure the Democratic nomination, potentially unopposed (very few Democrats will want to stand in front of the Clinton juggernaut). When it comes to predicting who will secure the Republican nomination the smart money is on Jeb Bush. Bush has huge fundraising capability combined with a formidable infrastructure of advisors, supporters, and donors—the Bush ‘machine’ is perhaps only rivalled by the organisational infrastructure of the Clintons, which makes for a potentially fascinating showdown, one which will be very well-funded on both sides.

But is Jeb Bush a shoe-in? Not necessarily, says Heilbrunn. Another likely option is Scott Walker, the current Governor of Wisconsin. Walker is most well-known for facing-down the labour unions in his state and for surviving a recall vote in June 2012, only the third vote of its kind in US history.

Another reason why Bush is not a certainty comes down to a complexity of the US Presidential election process in which would-be candidates have to appeal to two separate groups of voters.

On the one hand there is the party “base” (what in the UK we’d refer to as the grass-roots). The Republican base tends to be very socially conservative and more activist in its approach and holds a lot of power when it comes to selecting the party’s nominee. “The lunatics aren’t quite running the asylum but they are very close to the keys”, explained Heilbrunn.

Then there is the national electorate who are less conservative and more populist in nature. This presents a conundrum for GOP candidates who, if they want to secure their party’s nomination, need to present themselves as ultra conservative in order to win the base, only to row-back to the centre ground thereafter. This is a problem that former Republican nominee Mitt Romney knows well after struggling to convey authenticity on several high-profile policy issues during his own campaign.

The same problem exists for Jeb Bush. He advocates policies which don’t sit comfortably with the base of his party, most notably in education where Bush advocates Common Core—the introduction of national academic standards which requires an active role for the state in education—and on immigration where Bush wants to offer immigrants a path to legal status if they “work … don’t break the law, learn English, and contribute to society”. In light of this, Heilbrunn was asked how he thinks Bush is planning to win over the base of the party with policies like these tied around his neck? Simply put, he’s not, was Heilrunn’s surprising answer: “Bush’s aim is to survive the primaries…mauled.” And this certainly reflects reality given how Bush is showing no sign of amending his positions on some of these more unpopular issues.

Back to Hillary. Heilbrunn discussed how a Hillary Clinton Administration may differ from the Obama Administration in which she served for five years, as well as how much she would differ from the man who sat in the Oval Office between 1993-2001 (with whom she shares a surname). Heilbrunn offered a suggestion of a divide within the Democratic Party with those who favour a return to the ideals of the first Clinton Administration marked by a robust foreign policy, traditional social values and, of course, a strong economy. This group stands in contrast to those Democrats who are generally more socially liberal; favour a reduced role for the US abroad in terms of foreign policy, and who played such a vital role in electing Barack Obama in 2008.

One of the most intriguing questions about a Hillary presidency is what role Bill Clinton would play in her administration in his capacity as First Man (or is it First Gentleman…or perhaps just Mr President…?) To this, Heilbrunn offers a tongue-in-cheek response: if Hillary becomes president, one thing will certainly be true: “Bill will have a greater role than her staff would like”.

This article first appeared here.


What the Electorate Really Wants

Cam-MiliThe Conservatives and Labour are fighting polar opposite campaigns. In the blue corner, the focus is on the strength of the economy. The red corner has prioritised the importance of the NHS. One common theme unites both parties: both David Cameron and Ed Miliband want to be placed in charge of Britain’s future prosperity.

Yet, however hard they try, neither side can break the deadlock as poll after poll shows the two parties neck and neck in the race to Downing Street.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. This is certainly true of election campaigns. It’s “the economy, stupid” is the infamous phrase issued by Bill Clinton’s chief strategist, James Carville, during Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential campaign. And this mantra seems to have been adopted by Tory strategists who are hoping that the economy will be the issue that convinces voters to back David Cameron on 7th May.

Labour, on the other hand is pinning its hopes on the health service. The NHS is a national icon and is – if you believe the polls – the single most important issue on the doorstep. By committing to increase the number of nurses and decrease GP waiting times, Labour is hoping this will be the issue that convinces voters to back Ed Miliband.

Without doubt, a flourishing economy which leads to more jobs and higher wages is a key part to the future prosperity of the country. The state of our healthcare system is also extremely important. But part of the problem for Cameron and Miliband is that neither leader has quite understood what prosperity means to people.

That is why the Legatum Institute asked leading pollsters YouGov to ask the public what prosperity means to them. The results that are published today are startling and could go some way in explaining why neither of the main political parties will be able to win a majority in two weeks.

Firstly, it is clear that the British public do not think economic growth is the be all and end all to a prosperous nation. Nearly half of people questioned (forty-five per cent) think public safety is more important than GDP. Only eight per cent of people – and remember this is a poll of 2,000 people of different ages, income groups, and voting intentions – think a stronger economy is more important than feeling safe. Yet crime, personal safety and security have barely featured in this election campaign.

The same is true of education. Forty-one per cent of voters think that a good quality education system is more important than economic growth in determining the UK’s future prosperity. Interestingly, there is a big gap here between the views of Conservative and Labour voters. Only a quarter of Conservative voters say that the quality of the education system is more important than economic growth, compared to fifty-five per cent of Labour voters.

The poll also found that fifty-one per cent of people thought the ability to start your own business was more important to the prosperity of the nation than economic growth. The numbers rose to fifty-seven per cent when you look at how would-be Conservatives answered the question. There is little doubt that the Conservatives have made a lot of noise when it comes to their record on job creation – two million new private sector jobs is a fantastic achievement – but the public want to know how a future government will enable people across the country to become their own bosses.  The long term economic plan aside, we haven’t heard a huge amount of detail when it comes to encouraging a new generation of entrepreneurs.

The results of the Legatum Institute survey should provide food for thought to all of the main parties in this election. Voters of all stripes want to hear about more than the economy. They want a positive vision of how schools and hospitals will help shape our country’s future prosperity. They want a government that will prioritise public safety and encourage aspiring entrepreneurs.

With most opinion polls showing a deadlock between Labour and Conservative and with only two weeks to go until the nation votes, time is running out for either of the major parties to distinguish itself from the other. Maybe, just maybe, a change of tactic is required – one that takes account of how the electorate defines prosperity. This could determine whether it’s Cameron or Miliband who is given the keys to Number 10 on the morning of 8th May.

This article first appeared here.

JFK’s Right Hand Man

I’ve just finished reading Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, the memoir of Ted Sorensen, one of JFK’s closest advisors. It’s a superb book, beautifully written offering an insight into the mind of a truly brilliant man who Kennedy described as his “intellectual blood bank”. Here are a few thoughts on Sorensen, JFK, and a quite superb political autobiography.

On the morning of Friday 20th January 1961, after a night of heavy snowfall and in the shadow of a close-run election, John F Kennedy stepped on to the inaugural platform and spoke words that both defined and inspired a generation. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” This was more than rhetoric. His words ushered in a new era of optimism and a new generation of political awareness. Kennedy’s inaugural address is perhaps the most famous, most replayed, most quoted piece of political rhetoric from the past 60 years. Reading it afresh today, more than half a century later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its impact.

JFK’s inaugural address might be the closest thing you’ll find to political poetry. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is the best known line but the speech includes other gems such as “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” and “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. These words, although spoken by JFK on that cold January morning, almost certainly originated from the pen of Ted Sorensen.

Counselor CoverAlthough Ted Sorensen is often credited as JFK’s “speechwriter”, he was a lot more than that. Finding the appropriate description of Sorensen’s role in Kennedy’s life is difficult, such was the closeness of the two. His job title in the White House was the rather generic “Special Counsel to the President” which can mean anything and everything. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, who served as JFK’s Attorney General, says simply: “If it was difficult, Ted Sorensen was brought in”, while the New York Times obituary of his life describes Sorensen as JFK’s “political strategist and a trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy”.

Counselor is the story of Sorensen’s life rather than JFK’s presidency, although the years spent campaigning for and then serving in the White House certainly dominate the pages. The book breezes through Sorensen’s early life providing some detail about his somewhat sheltered upbringing in Nebraska, including earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska, and then graduating first in his class at law school. By the time he first made the journey to Washington in 1951, at the age of 23, Sorensen says of himself: “I had never drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car.” Less than 10 years later he was, the Wall Street Journal notes, “the third most powerful man in the American government.”

Sorensen and JFK first met in 1953 when, eighteen months after making the journey to Washington DC from his home town of Lincoln Nebraska, Sorensen was hired as a researcher by the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

Sorensen pic

Ted Sorensen

Although the book is a little light on Sorensen’s early life, it provides more detail about his post-Washington years in which he spent four decades as a successful international lawyer for New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. This work took him all over the world and included encounters with an eclectic cast of charismatic and inspiring world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, former President of the DRC, Mobutu Sese Seko,  Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat (whom Sorensen describes as the “most intriguing” person he’s ever met), and Israel’s former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom he described as the “most visionary”.)

Counselor also documents Sorensen’s own experience as a political candidate in 1970 when he ran as a democrat in the New York Senate seat previously held by Robert Kennedy. But Sorensen admits this was “a mistake”, describing how he believed (naively, it turns out) that by seeking public office he could simply continue the JFK legacy. “Frankly, it was an act of hubris on my part”, concedes Sorensen.

The pages of Counselor are soaked with loyalty and admiration towards JFK (it’s even been described as a “love story” by one reviewer). Sorensen’s loyalty remained undiminished long after JFK’s presidency was brought to a tragically premature end in Texas in 1963. In one candid section towards the end of the book Sorensen asserts that none of the nine people who have held the office of the Presidency since 1963 come close to his former boss.

In another example of both loyalty to JFK and ambivalence to those who followed, Sorensen admits for the rest of his life whenever he referred to “The President” in writing, in conversation, or otherwise, there was only one person he meant.

Ever since JFK delivered his inaugural address in 1961, questions over its true authorship have been raised. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that Sorensen is the source and inspiration behind all of Kennedy’s finest rhetoric. Sorensen addresses those questions head-on in Counselor and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains loyal to his former boss referring to the speech “a collaboration” and even insisting Kennedy was the “true author”.

Sorensen remained active and intellectually alert into old age although his latter years were dominated by health issues following a massive stroke in 2001 that took away most of his sight – and could have been worse. Writing Counselor seems to have been a cathartic exercise for Sorensen who admits that it helped keep him alive for the six years it took to write following the stroke (he died two years after publication). It seems to have also brought closure: in the final pages of the book, Sorensen says that he believes the writing of the book signifies the conclusion of his service to JFK.

Ted Sorensen has been described as the speechwriter’s patron saint. This is an appropriate epithet. It’s certainly true that for aspiring writers, Sorensen’s name towers above others. But even a cursory look at his professional life shows that he was far more than a speechwriter. Counselor is a fine account of his distinguished life. Moreover, it offers an authoritative behind-the-scenes assessment of a presidency that electrified the nation. I have no doubt that Counselor will stand through the ages as one of the definitive accounts of JFK’s presidency, written by someone who lived and breathed every minute.

One of the endorsements on the back cover is from Barack Obama who states that “Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” I happen to think he’s right. I hope he is.

Sorensen’s life of service, idealism, and loyalty provides a shining example for aspiring politicians and political advisors. I can’t help thinking that US politics – characterised as it is by gridlock, partisanship, and short-sightedness – would be a far better place if there were a few more Ted Sorensens around today.

Marriage, Illegitimacy, and Social Norms

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a discussion as part of the annual Charles Street Symposium. The discussion was based on three essays, which considered the question, Why Do Societies Prosper? David Ruffley MP acted as the discussant for the session.

The first essay was titled More on the What and Less of the Why, by Bernardo Fazendeiro1. Bernardo argues that we are asking the wrong question and before considering why societies prosper we must first consider what we mean when we talk about prosperity. He concludes by stating that “taking a step back is more necessary than ever, so that we can deliberate on versions of the good, whatever that may be…”

The second essay titled The Ethics of Disutility was by Mats Ekman2. Mats’ considers whether it is morally right to force a person to maximise his/her own utility, ultimately concluding that it would be wrong to do so, arguing that “right” and “good” are separate qualities.

The third (and most provocative) essay titled Social Norms, Illegitimacy, and Liberty was by Carissa Mulder3. Carissa argues that “America is suffering from an illegitimacy crisis.” Drawing on evidence that compares the life outcomes of children from married families versus children from unmarried families, the essay argues that people from higher socio-economic groups are more likely to marry before having children compared to those from lower socio-economic groups due to the presence of social norms/expectations, which are absent among the lower class (note: the essay uses US data and focuses solely on the US).

Social norms can only exist if there are consequences for violating them” argues Carissa. “Conforming to these behaviours results in societal approval. On the other hand, people must experience negative consequences for violating these norms if they are to be effective.

In an issue as complex as this, it is far easier to diagnose the problem than it is to prescribe the right solution – a point that came through clearly in the subsequent discussion. The essay offers some suggestions (with examples) but struggles to reach a practical path for progress, partly due to the complexity of the problem and partly due to the limited space available (the maximum word count for essays was 1500 words). The following paragraph offers some broad-brush suggestions:

Elites should preach what they practise: present the picture of a married couple raising their biological children as the paradigmatic example of the good life; be explicit about why fathers are important; emphasise the benefits to children in terms of staying in school, avoiding abuse, avoiding drugs, and avoiding involvement with the justice system. People who are married and those delaying childbearing until marriage should be frank about why they are doing so. This should be done in a sensitive manner. But sheepishly muttering the truth, rather than explaining it in a straightforward manner, doesn’t make it any less true. It just means that those who most need a clear plan of life to follow will not understand it.

It may be tempting to see this essay – that essentially advocates marriage as a prerequisite for having children – as a classic right-of-centre, pro-marriage argument the like of which is familiar among American conservatism. With this in mind, it’s notable that the essay steers clear of the familiar anti-government, pro-individual liberty arguments that one might expect. Indeed the essay argues that the government can play an active role in providing a solution, citing the example of the US government’s “decades-long anti-tobacco campaign”, which has resulted in a dramatic fall in tobacco use, despite tobacco products remaining legal and available.

The essay concludes with a thoughtful discussion on some of the obstacles to establishing social norms. The section on virtue was particularly good: “Positive social norms often require the exercise of virtue—work, continence, delayed gratification. Virtue does not come easily to most of us. Developing virtue requires sustained effort and self-denial…So the first difficulty in establishing positive social norms lies in the difficulty of conquering ourselves.

As I have said, arriving at a practical solution to a problem such as this presents a huge challenge. The statistics on children’s outcomes highlight a serious problem requiring a serious solution. But it’s a big step to then say that marriage is therefore the right prescription for everyone who has children. Forcing (or indeed strongly encouraging) this could easily end up with a completely different set of social problems.

That said, there is a strong case for helping people understand that a two parent married couple offers the best environment for children. Providing people with the statistics on this will allow them to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children. As the essay makes clear, it’s about gradually changing social norms rather than introducing heavy-handed policies that might result in negative outcomes. In theory, this is all well and good. But devising a method to achieve it is incredibly challenging.

I encourage you to read the essays in full, which are available at the following link (Carissa’s begins on p 38).




1 Bernardo is a research associate at the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent

2 Mats is a doctoral student at the Helsinki Swedish School of Economics

3 Carissa is the Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the US Commission on Civil Rights

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us

Ten minutes in to his party conference speech, Boris Johnson produced a red brick from the shelf of his lectern. His message both verbal and visual was clear. London suffers from a housing shortage; we need to build more homes. In his own words, “One way or another we will need 1bn bricks. So, brick, my little friend, you will not be alone in London.”

BRITAIN-POLITICS-CONSERVATIVESWith the population of the capital set to exceed 9 million, the demand for housing is growing daily. The important question facing the city’s planners and developers is not if new housing is needed but what type of housing is best for London. This matters because a city’s architecture has a profound effect on its residents. Put simply, where you live can determine how you live.

Surveys of people in the UK have consistently found that the large majority of people prefer to live in streets rather than in high rise blocks. Those who live in streets are statistically happier and less stressed compared to people who live in multi-story buildings. Moreover, in conventional streets crime is lower and people report to being more socially engaged compared to people in high rise buildings.

Back to Boris. Earlier this year the Mayor of London took responsibility for the fate of one of London’s most historic sites, Mount Pleasant, which is currently home to the Royal Mail sorting offices. A large part of this site is set for redevelopment and competing plans exist for how to do it.

Royal Mail has invested more than £10 million in its plans to turn the site into a series of large, high-rise concrete flats up to 15 stories high. The plan has been derided by many including Simon Jenkins who wrote recently that “No respect is shown for contour or urban context.” Jenkins goes on to explain, “The Royal Mail proposal has been overwhelmingly opposed by every local body, not least the local Mount Pleasant Association. It is a mockery of localism and drains whatever character might have been instilled in this potentially charming corner of London”.

An alternative plan has been put together by Create Streets and the Legatum Institute. This plan is far and away a better option than the Royal Mail plan. A quick look at the details of the alternative plan reveal why:

  • It includes 730 homes, which provides a higher density than the Royal Mail’s 681.
  • It’s popular. A recent survey of 258 local residents found that 99% of respondents favoured the Create Streets plan over the Royal Mail plan.
  • It’s better value. The estimated re-sale potential over 40 years is estimated at £280m more than the RM plan (which would mean an Mount Pleasant£84m loss for the British taxpayer given that we own 33% of Royal Mail).
  • It gives greater priority to green spaces, especially in relation to the impact on a nearby primary school.
  • It provides better connectivity for residents, with pedestrian routes that are 75% more accessible than the RM scheme.
  • Finally, it’s much, much prettier than the RM plan.

Enter Winston Churchill. In 1943 parliament was debating the plans to reconstruct the House of Commons chamber after it was destroyed by a German bomb two years previously. During his speech, rather than using the event to make a case for modifying the chamber, Winston Churchill argued for it to be rebuilt exactly as it was. Churchill argued for this because he believed the Commons Chamber represented more than bricks and mortar. The intimate design of the Commons chamber, Churchill argued, plays a vital role in preserving and upholding the style, culture, and process of Parliamentary democracy that had existed for centuries.

Churchill recognised that our architecture influences our culture. He knew that preserving the principles of Parliamentary democracy would have a substantial effect on wider society. This is what he meant when, during the debate, he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Back to Boris. Picture the scene, the Mayor of London has both sets of plans for the Mount Pleasant site spread out on his desk. The first is the Royal Mail plan for an ugly, high-rise, concrete jungle, unpopular with local residents; the second is the Create Streets plan for an attractive, popular, design that provides more homes and better value than the first. This sounds like a no-brainer. And yet, bizarrely, Mr Johnson recently approved the Royal Mail plan.

This may not be the end of it. There’s still a chance for a government minister to overturn the decision or indeed for Johnson to change his mind. The excellent Mount Pleasant Association certainly hasn’t given up hope.

Boris Johnson is soon to release a book about Winston Churchill. He will undoubtedly be familiar with Churchill’s advice to parliament in 1943. Seventy years later, Johnson would do well to heed that advice.

Talk at the Brookings Institution

Last week I was in the US and spent time in Washington DC, Boston, and New York. I gave several talks and hosted various meetings including giving a talk and moderating a panel session at the Brookings Institution (video below).

The subject of the discussion was “Opportunity and Prosperity” and the four panellists were: Carol Graham (Brookings Institution), John Prideaux (The Economist), Richard Reeves (Brookings Institution), and Charles Murray (American Enterprise Institute).


This event page on the Brookings Institution website provides more detail about the event: http://www.brookings.edu/events/2014/11/18-prosperity-beyond-economic-growth

RFK on Moral Courage

rfk capetownAfter his election as Senator of New York in 1965, Robert Kennedy began campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. In June of 1966 he travelled to Cape Town where he received a hero’s welcome, being greeted by a crowd of 18,000.

In his speech, RFK positioned the South African struggle for freedom in the context of the worldwide struggle to break down barriers of nationality, race and class. It has been argued that in this speech RFK laid out his core political philosophy.

The speech was delivered to the National Union of South African Student’s Day of Affirmation, an annual protest in support of human liberty and academic freedom in the face of government oppression. It has become known for the section in which Kennedy talked of ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that can ‘build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.’

The speech is superb from start to finish, packed full of wonderful prose. However, the section that stood out for me was the section in which he lists the dangers that can prevent people from achieving their dreams. After listing two dangers (futility and practicality), he moves on to the third:

A third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality of those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.

This is so true – and just as relevant today as it was when Kennedy first said it. The world is full of people who are strong, brave, or intelligent. But the people who change history are those who have the courage to risk their own reputation in order to stand up for what is right.