AMERICA’S BIG CHOICES

Yesterday, Americans turned out in droves to vote in midterm elections, returning control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats for the first time since 2010 and leaving Republicans with a narrow majority in the Senate. The vote was widely seen as a referendum on President Trump’s first two years in office.


Well, the verdict is in. Democrats have picked up at least 26 seats in the House – more than the 23 needed to take back a majority there. The Republicans won at least 2 seats in the Senate, which they will continue to control, but the loss of the lower house is a major setback. As Republicans retreat to lick their wounds and Democrats prepare to use their restored House majority to check the president’s agenda, here are the three big questions they now face.

Run to the center, or cultivate the fringe? With the midterms in the bag, both parties will now start to position for 2020. In doing so, Democrats must choose between striving to pick up disaffected moderates or embracing the activist wing of the party. While the activists may have energized turnout this week, it was suburban moderates who helped to expand the map for Democrats. In 2016, Trump won independent voters by four points. Last night, independents broke for Democrats by a margin of 13 percentage points. The choice of which group to cultivate in 2020 is a fundamental question about the Democratic Party’s future.

Republicans in Congress face a similar dilemma: facing an electoral setback, do they double down on Trump’s America First agenda and divisive brand of identify politics? Or are major setbacks in purple states viewed as an inducement to try to win back the middle?  It may depend on whether the election ends up being perceived as a referendum on Trump’s governing style or on the specific policies backed by Republicans in Congress. The question of who controls the post-election narrative, the White House or Capitol Hill, will also be important in determining how the results are interpreted.

Who is our standard bearer? Democrats have until the beginning of the next Congress in January to agree on their party’s nominee for speaker of the House, and numerous candidates are already jockeying to position for presidential bids in 2020. The Democrats’ debate over speaker will be an early indicator of whether the party will go down an establishment or more activist path.

The Republican leadership, for its part, now faces the crucial decision of whether to hew more closely to Mr. Trump or to try to extricate the party from its president. Moderates may now see good reason to resist the president’s more controversial pronouncements and policies — having achieved the objectives of passing a major tax cut and appointing two Supreme Court justices. But other Republicans will have won re-election by embracing the president, and they may elect to follow his lead instead. We will soon find out whether an establishment Republican is willing to pose either a primary or third-party challenge to President Trump in 2020.

What about Trump? If the question for Republicans is whether to run from Trump, for Democrats, it’s how aggressively to pursue him. As fellow Signalista Alex Kliment noted yesterday, the House’s return to Democratic control gives them broad subpoena and investigatory authority, and it’s likely to result in a slew of investigations into Trump and his family. The results of the Mueller investigation will only add fuel to that fire, depending on what the special counsel finds.

This all means that once the new Congress is sworn in, Democrats will have a wide array of political levers to pull to go after the president. In the extreme, Democrats could even push for impeachment – although the high bar for conviction by the Republican-controlled Senate virtually assures that any attempt to oust the president from office would fail. But that strategy isn’t risk-free: push too far and it could re-activate the Trump voters who stayed home during the midterms when it comes time to vote again in 2020.

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

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In recent years, Republicans have come to dominate most of the state legislatures in the US. Ironically, it was during the Obama-era that the GOP made major headway in states that had long been considered safely blue. State legislatures are now redder than they've been in nearly a century, and in most parts of the country, one party holds all the levers of power (governorship and legislatures). For the first time since 1914, there's only one split legislature in the entire country: Minnesota. To be sure, some state races are bucking the trend: Kentucky and Louisiana, both deep-red states, recently elected Democratic governors. Here's a look at how Democratic and Republican control of state legislatures has evolved over the past four decades.

Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.