Salmond and SNP mis-steps set back Scottish Independence Movement

The last couple of weeks have seen a few controversies crop up as the Scottish independence referendum campaign finally started to kick off in the press. After almost two years of occasional back-and-forth sniping over the pros and cons of independence, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso sent shots across the bow of the Yes campaign on two of the most important issues for an independent Scotland: currency union with the UK and membership in the European Union. Osborne ruled out allowing an independent Scotland to use the pound in an official capacity, and Barroso indicated that several EU members concerned about their own regional independence movements would vote against Scottish membership.

These were both fairly predictable announcements, yet they seem to have caught Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Yes campaign, entirely flat-footed. There was no way that the Unionist parties in Westminster would provide any incentives or stability to plans for Scottish independence. The Yes campaign is in the worst possible bargaining position now, as any suggestion of an accommodation on the part of the UK government is likely to help supporters of independence.

In the increasingly unlikely event of a yes vote, Salmond’s Scottish National Party will hold a lot more cards to be able to force the Westminster coalition’s hand on border controls, EU membership, currency union, and other issues. For the duration of the campaign, though, the Yes campaign should have expected nothing less than damaging commentary and press releases from government ministers and planned how to react to these veiled attacks well in advance.

That Barroso would be the bearer of bad news from the EU may have been somewhat unexpected, but it isn’t at all surprising that a senior EU official would give a discouraging response on the topic of Scottish membership. The Spanish government will be particularly concerned about membership for an independent Scotland given its own sectional problems, especially in Catalonia, and other countries could have similar concerns. Again, a bit of strategic planning for potentially damaging comments or announcements could have gone a long way to mitigating the effects of bad news from Brussels.

The Yes campaign has been polling solidly between 32% and 38% for most of the last three years, with some increasing opposition and a still-sizable number of swing voters (around 15%). To win, the SNP will have to win just about all of those swing voters and peel away some support from the No camp. (An aside about turnout: I haven’t seen any good examinations of which side would benefit from higher or lower turnout, but my hunch at this point is that lower turnout would favor the Yes campaign because the SNP has done rather well at low-turnout Scottish Parliamentary elections, and they should have a more consistent local campaign structure to get Yes voters to the polls.)

Bad news weeks like this will continue to be a problem for the Yes campaign right up until the September referendum, and they should expect a serious onslaught. David Cameron has a lot to lose personally (although the Conservatives have quite a lot to gain) from a yes vote, and he will do whatever he can to discourage Scottish voters from taking the independence path. Whatever the economic logic of a currency union (not ridiculous, but certainly not ideal from the perspective of Westminster) or EU membership (far more likely and more reasonable), the Yes campaign should have been prepared for these setbacks, and will need to have much better plans to address the criticism and damaging announcements to come through the spring and summer.

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Chris Christie’s Biggest Mistake

Chris Christie may or may not have had any clear involvement in the politically-motivated lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, and evidence one way or another might or might not be uncovered by the various state and federal investigations into the matter. Whatever happens, he has already made an inexcusable set of political mistakes that should make potential funders for a 2016 presidential bid very concerned.

Quite simply, Christie and his communications team have failed to provide a good explanation for the Governor’s lack of knowledge about the workings of his senior staff, and they have spent a month treading water instead of putting out a coherent story of what led to the lane closures. The governor’s staff have gotten far behind the story and have lost any chance of regaining control of the narrative. Well into February, a month after his hour-and-a-half-long press conference, Christie has still been trotting out the same lines about an internal review and professing his own innocence and ignorance.

The problem isn’t that people are taking particular note of the Christie team’s pathetically slow response, because most 2016 voters are not too bothered at this point. The problem is actually more serious than if they had been, because polling data has indicated that most Americans don’t buy his story about the lane closures, and by floundering for more than a month the Christie camp has lost valuable time to reset perceptions about his role. While they may have hoped that the story would die down and people would simply forget about the entire affair, the attractiveness of the story at the outset made it an obvious headline-topper for a week or so on many news outlets, which entrenched public perceptions of the event — including suspicion about the governor’s involvement.

Any important donors to the Republican Party should be viewing this lackluster response in a Presidential campaign context. What sort of (media-generated) front-runner lets a scandal of this size get so far out of his control? If Christie has any more skeletons in his closet — as some hints from Double Down indicated he does — and his communications and campaign strategy team reacts with this lethargy and lack of direction, he could be pretty well sunk.

Christie made a reasonable effort to regain control of the story in his first news conference, but since then he has drifted further and further behind the media coverage, and his team has utterly failed to recast the narrative and provide a convincing explanation that exonerates the governor. Barring a bombshell, it hardly matters if he had any involvement or was guilty of illegal activity. His inaction on the public relations front should be enough of an indictment to rule out any Presidential hopes.

When the Republicans control Congress, even though they don’t

While listening to last week’s Slate Political Gabfest, I noticed an interesting slip of the tongue from David Plotz, the Editor of Slate. In the segment of the show on inequality (at 23:10), he said that some left-wing economic legislation has no chance “because Congress, which is Republican-controlled” would block it.

My first thought was simply that he was wrong, and had made a rather surprising error for a top Washington journalist. The Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans control the House. It’s a standard mixed-government situation.

But, on reflection, this slip-up makes a striking point. In a sense, the Republicans do control Congress because they have total blocking power in the House and enough votes to filibuster in the Senate. The capacity to prevent action can be more significant than the capacity to create or destroy. The Republicans, if they stay largely unified, have an effective veto over any legislation. For a party that prefers the status quo on immigration, for example, to any reforms advocated by the President or Congressional Democrats, this is particularly valuable.

At the same time, this ability to prevent legislative action is problematic. To be sure, this is the way the system was designed (more on the inherent conservatism of the U.S. Constitution in a couple of weeks), but that does not make the end result any less troubling. The consistent use of blocking power further slows the nation’s policymaking reflexes and contributes to partisan distrust.

The current state of the system will not change appreciably until at least 2016. Even if the Republicans take over the Senate this fall, President Obama will likely veto any conservative legislation that comes from Capitol Hill, and the chance of the Democrats taking back the House is almost nil. This will set up another win-or-the-country-is-destroyed election for both sides in 2016, with each attempting to gain enough control to demonstrably change policy, but the victor not gaining quite enough ground to deny blocking power to the other.

If the Democrats end up in a blocking minority position without the Presidency after 2016, that could provide an interesting comparison with the ways that the Republicans are using their power now. Left-wing people generally think of their representatives as too virtuous to take such a path, but I suspect only a lack of caucus cohesion can prevent Democrats from extracting some gridlocked revenge in a few years’ time. There isn’t a lot of support to be gained from going along with your opponents these days.

The upshot? Don’t expect any big changes. Blocking power is important and easily retained in the American political system.