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Happy Hump day!

Today we have ...

  • The GOP in disarray
  • Russian carnage
  • Angry Bolivian farmers
  • Banksy thieves in Ukraine
  • A bad start for Bibi
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- The Signalistas

Rinse, repeat: Republicans fail to agree on the House speaker

Gabrielle Debinski

Traditionally, the first day of a newly elected Congress is filled with pomp and circumstance. Children wearing little suits and frilly dresses accompany their parents to the House floor where a new class of lawmakers is sworn in.

But the first day of the 118th Congress was not very joyous for one man in particular: Kevin McCarthy. In an embarrassing series of events, the leader of the House GOP failed to secure a majority of votes – 218 – needed to become House speaker. After three rounds of voting, 20 Republican holdouts still refused to budge, backing candidates not named McCarthy for the role. What’s more, McCarthy actually shed a vote in subsequent ballots.

This infighting over the speakership is not only extremely embarrassing for the Republican Party, but it's also extremely rare. Indeed, it's the first time in 100 years that the House failed to elect a speaker on the first ballot. In 1923, it took nine rounds of voting to coalesce around a single candidate. McCarthy is now headed to round four.

The House speaker is a big gig. Whoever assumes this role is second in line to the presidency after the vice president and is responsible for overseeing all legislative and administrative proceedings in the lower chamber. In short, the speaker matters. They decide which bills come to the House floor for a vote, and assign caucus members to committees that have powerful subpoena powers. What’s more, because the lower chamber holds the power of the purse, the speaker of the House has an outsized role in deciding how and when to fund the federal government.

A problem of his own making. McCarthy, who rose through the ranks of California’s Republican Party, has played an active role in shaping the contemporary House Republican caucus. Not only has he helped recruit a class of hardline GOP candidates over the past decade, but he’s also positioned himself as a political contortionist who bucks party trends for his own political gain. Consider that in 2013, McCarthy, then majority whip, voted against a financial fiscal cliff bill that he had been trying to garner votes for in order to endear himself to hard-right conservatives.

Now what? The role of speaker is so central to the business of government that nothing can get done until this dumpster fire is sorted and someone clinches 218 votes. Given that McCarthy still doesn’t appear to have the numbers, that process could go on for days – or even weeks. But even if McCarthy manages to eke out a victory, he’ll emerge a diminished figure beholden to the ultra-conservative wing of his party that’ll threaten to pull the plug on his speakership if/when they don’t get their way. So far, McCarthy is not thriving in 2023.

What We’re Watching: Bolivia’s angry farmers, Putin vs. the Hawks, Bibi’s bumpy beginning

Carlos Santamaria

Bolivian farmers vs. the government

Political trouble is brewing in Bolivia. For over a week now, farmers have been blocking roads in and out of the agricultural hub of Santa Cruz after the region's governor, right-wing opposition leader Luis Fernando Camacho, was arrested for his alleged involvement in the 2019 ouster of then-leftist President Evo Morales. Camacho lost the 2020 presidential election to Morales’ protégé, Luis Arce, and the two have butted heads ever since. But there's more to it: The protesters also want the national government to carry out a long-delayed census that would give Santa Cruz — a relatively affluent region populated mainly by non-Indigenous Bolivians — more tax revenues and seats in Congress. For his part, Arce says that the farmers are a front for business elites who don't want to share the profits of their lucrative beef and soy exports with poorer metal-producing regions, where the president's Indigenous base resides. So, what might happen next? The protesters won't go home until Camacho goes free, and meanwhile, the standoff is costing Bolivia millions of dollars in lost agricultural trade.

Russian retaliation?

It’s still unclear how many Russian soldiers were killed in the early hours of New Year’s Day by a precision-guided, Ukrainian rocket attack on a Russian barracks in eastern Ukraine. The Russians admit to 89 dead. Ukrainians claim the true number was “about 400.” Either way, Ukraine’s successful attack has dealt another heavy blow to the reputation of Russian commanders. Why, many Russian hawks have wondered publicly, were so many soldiers housed together within range of Ukrainian weapons, particularly the US-made HIMARS guided rocket system? Why was so much combustible (and poorly hidden) ammunition stored so close to their location? Pro-war Russians, active on the social media site Telegram and other communications channels, want answers, and even some Kremlin-aligned lawmakers have called for an investigation. A probe is now underway, and Russian officials on Wednesday pointed fingers at the soldiers' use of banned phones that allowed the enemy to locate them. This story highlights yet again the context in which President Vladimir Putin makes decisions. Since the early days of the invasion, anti-war critics have been jailed for up to 15 years for criticizing the Russian military. But there’s no shortage of pro-war voices calling publicly for the heads of Russian top brass they accuse of incompetence. Putin’s willingness to appease the hawks while imprisoning the doves makes clear which side he sees as the greater threat to his future. That’s why we’re watching to see what hyperdestructive act of retaliation against Ukraine Putin will order to impress those who publicly demand accountability and absolute victory.

A bad start for Bibi

Israel’s new government, led by PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, received a string of international scoldings on Tuesday after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visited a flashpoint site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims refer to as Haram al-Sharif. The site, the holiest in Judaism and the third holiest in Islam, houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Ben-Gvir, a contentious figure who heads the far-right Jewish Power Party, says he wants to change the status quo at the compound – in place since 1967 – that says Jews cannot pray at the site. (Since then, Jordanians have acted as de facto custodians of the site.) A visit to the area by opposition leader Ariel Sharon in 2000 was seen as an immediate trigger to the Second Intifada. Netanyahu, for his part, played down Ben-Gvir’s visit and said he won’t change the religious status quo. Still, Netanyahu is likely seething given that Ben-Gvir’s move undermines his attempt to reassure new allies in the Gulf that he is committed to deepening relations with the Muslim world. Bibi said that a delay to this week's planned trip to the United Arab Emirates has nothing to do with it, but news of the postponement dropped shortly after Abu Dhabi criticized Israel over Ben-Gvir's visit. Condemnation from the Saudis was also a blow for Netanyahu, who has made no secret of the fact that he wants the normalization of ties with Riyadh to be his next legacy. Netanyahu has pushed back against claims that he has no control over an unruly coalition made up of religious and far-right parties. This episode does not help his cause.

Tools and Weapons Podcast Season 2


Microsoft's Vice Chair and President Brad Smith’s podcast, Tools and Weapons, is now in its second season, continuing to expand on the themes of the NY Times bestselling book he co-authored with Carol Ann Browne. In this month’s episode, Brad sits down with Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, covering Greece's ambition to be an energy hub for Europe, its efforts to digitally preserve ancient cultural sites, and what it takes to protect democracy itself. Subscribe and find new episodes monthly, wherever you listen to podcasts.

Exclusive Maru/GZERO poll: Tired of fighting, slim majority of Americans back divided government

Gabrielle Debinski

Many pundits in the US have long declared the age of political bipartisanship dead. And in the age of QAnon, “lock her up,” and “defund the police,” it’s easy to see how they might have reached such a conclusion.

Still, as divided government returns to Washington – with the GOP now in control of the House of Representatives – it appears that the constant mudslinging between Democrats and Republicans is not necessarily appealing to American voters.

An exclusive new poll conducted by Maru Public Opinion and GZERO Media found that a narrow majority of Americans – both Republicans and Democrats – think divided government is better for the country. Of the randomly selected 1,517 American adults polled (estimated margin of error of +/- 2.5%), 51% said they prefer split government, meaning that both parties control one chamber of Congress each, or that control of the legislative and executive branches is split between the GOP and Dems.

Indeed, this sentiment is even stronger among Republican voters, with 32% of them saying it is better for one party to control both chambers of Congress compared to 52% of Dem-leaning voters who said they prefer unified government.

The thing with divided government is that it means that an increased number of divergent views will seek to shape the law-making process. In short, less law-making gets done. To make progress and overcome obstructionist efforts, compromise is key.

Still, with the awareness that less legislation will get passed by a divided government, voters polled by Maru still think this is the better way. Consider that 69% of those polled said that it’s more important for the new Congress to pass less legislation with bipartisan support than for one party to get more done without buy-in from the other side.

While that conciliatory sentiment might seem incongruous with what we’ve seen in US politics in recent years, it reflects the main takeaways of the recent midterm elections, when US voters mostly repudiated intransigent candidates on both sides of the aisle. Consider that 83% of polled voters said they are more likely to back a candidate who supports bipartisanship, a call backed by 79% of GOP voters and 88% of Dems. Interestingly, just 17% of those polled said they would be less likely to back a lawmaker who supports bipartisanship.

At a time when US politics is framed as a zero-sum game – with a legislative win for President Joe Biden often cast as a loss for the GOP – how then do we reconcile recent political trends with the poll’s findings? (In the GOP, for instance, lawmakers who bucked the party by speaking out against former President Donald Trump in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill were shunned.)

John Wright, Maru’s executive vice president, says that “the nature of US politics is most often the desire of opposing sides to want the other party to act in a bipartisan fashion to get things done to achieve their own ends.”

“Because of that built-in bias,” Wright explains, “the sentiment may be there for compromise, but it’s almost always a one-way street of expectation, so it rarely occurs.” Indeed, this view, whereby many lawmakers fear that compromise will lead to electoral backlash, helps explain why legislators on both sides of the aisle have doubled down on their positions on many divisive issues, like abortion, rather than seek a middle ground.

So with the 118th Congress having just been sworn in, what might we expect over the next two years? “Given the split between the House and the Senate for the next couple of years, especially with the run-up to the presidential election [in 2024], compromise may be almost impossible to find,” Wright says, suggesting that the recently passed $1.7 trillion spending bill is likely to be the last bit of compromise we see for some time.

Aging autocrats and tech bros: 2023's top risks

For Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group's top 10 geopolitical risks of 2023 are kind of two sides of a very interesting coin. On the one hand, major democracies and their institutions look pretty stable. On the other, we've got a small number of aging autocrats and tech bros who have an incredible amount of power — and this is all playing out in Russia, China, Iran, and ... in artificial intelligence.

Interested? Watch his Quick Take here.

Hump day recommendations

Read: “All the Pretty Horses,” by Cormac McCarthy. This great American writer published two eagerly awaited new novels in recent months: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris.” But those unfamiliar with his work should start with an early classic, “All the Pretty Horses,” the first of his “border trilogy.” This page-turner reveals a novelist who, even in his early work, was already a master of vivid character. — Willis

Watch: O Rei & Sly. The late Brazilian soccer GOAT Pelé had a very brief career as a Hollywood actor, appearing in "Victory," a feel-good 1981 film directed by the great John Huston about Allied POWs who plot an escape from Nazi-occupied Paris while playing the German national team. The Allied squad features both big-name actors such as Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone — who plays goalkeeper — and soccer stars like Argentina's "Ozzie" Ardiles and England's Bobby Moore. The movie is just okay, but if you're a soccer fan, you'll go nuts over the final scene. — Carlos

Read: the limits of what we can know. How did the accidental invention of a pigment famously used by Van Gogh and Hokusai lead to the development of the poison gas used at Auschwitz? What devastating scientific/mathematical discovery moved Albert Einstein to protest that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe!”? And what happens when scientific inquiry reaches a point where it makes the world more uncertain rather than less? Part historical fiction, part philosophical meditation, and part quantum mechanics primer, the short, unclassifiable book “When We Cease to Understand the World” is Chilean author Benjamín Labatut’s exceptional effort to tackle these questions. If you read Spanish, pick up the original, titledUn Verdor Terrible. — Alex

Watch: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” Nan Goldin, a New York-based photographer, anthropologist, and activist, has lived one hell of a life. She left a troubled suburban home as a kid and came of age professionally and sexually in New York City in the 1970s and 80s. Using her camera to document experiential art, sex, and the HIV/AIDS crisis that decimated her community, Goldin, who suffered from drug addiction in her 20s, more recently became entangled with the opioid crisis. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” a documentary, elegantly interweaves the past and present and makes one nostalgic for a New York City where queer counterculture was young and free. — Gabrielle

Win a signed copy of Ian Bremmer's book

Tell your friends to sign up for Signal! If you refer at least four new subscribers, you could win a signed copy of Ian's latest book, "The Power of Crisis," recommended by Moose himself. Just copy and paste your personalized link (below) and share with your friends.

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Hard Numbers: Banksy thieves in Ukraine, red light for Pakistani malls, skull shipment from Mexico, heartwarming US-China moment

Alex Kliment

12: The ringleader behind a plot to steal a mural painted by the famous street artist Banksy in Ukraine could face up to 12 years in prison. The pseudonymous British artist stenciled the image of a woman in a gas mask on a wall in the town of Hostomel just after Russia invaded. The artwork, valued at a quarter of a million dollars, was lifted in December but has since been retrieved.

8:30: Cash-strapped Pakistan has ordered all malls and markets to close by 8:30 pm as part of a wider packet of measures to conserve energy. With a much-needed IMF loan still on hold, the country is reeling from the costs of imported fuel for power generation. Things have gotten so bad that the government has even turned off half of the country’s traffic lights just to save a few extra kilowatts.

4: Authorities at a Mexican airport found four human skulls wrapped in tinfoil in a package destined for the US state of South Carolina. No motive or explanation has yet been established, but the package was postmarked from the cartel-infested Mexican state of Michoacán, one of the most violent places on earth.

22: A thaw in US-China ties? China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang, who for more than a year served as Beijing’s top diplomat in Washington, warmly praised the US in a tweet, noting that he had traveled to 22 different US states, made “many friends,” and was “deeply impressed” with Americans.

This edition of Signal was written by Gabrielle Debinski, Alex Kliment, Carlos Santamaria, and Willis Sparks. Edited by Tracy Moran.

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