Mike Kueber's Blog

October 21, 2011

Celebrating the coup de grace of Moammar Gadhafi or worrying about the future of Libya

Filed under: Issues,Media,Politics,War — Mike Kueber @ 4:30 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

More and more often on weeknights, I find myself leaving FOX News shortly around 8:10 p.m.  After listening to right-leaning Bill O’Reilly off-and-on for an hour, I quickly tire of viewing far-right-leaning Sean Hannity and then start channel surfing.

My first stop is Piers Morgan on CNN.  Although he is a bit effeminate, he does good interviews if he has a good guest.  Unfortunately, he only rarely has a guest that I’m interested in listening to.

My next stop is usually Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.  Rachel is as far left as Hannity is far right, but she has a lot more sparkle in her personality, so a few minutes with her is usually more enjoyable than a few minutes with the dull Hannity.

I especially enjoyed Maddow tonight because she was waxing romantic over the killing of Moammar Gadhafi.  Her lengthy soliloquy was broken up only by a
conversation with an equally emotional Richard Engel.  Both individuals were nearly in tears of joy, not only because the wicked witch dead, but also because he had been killed by a collective of good guys and was being replaced by a bunch idealistic reformers.

When Maddow asked Engel about the new group in charge, Engel quickly admitted that they were highly religious Islamists, but these Muslims loved the Americans who helped them overthrow the evil Gadhafi.  Engels said he hadn’t had to pay for a cup of coffee in Libya for months.

While listening to Maddow and Engles, I couldn’t help but recall the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the greeting of Americans as liberators in Iraq.  The analogy was also similar in that Hussein was hiding in a spider-nest when he was captured while Gadhafi was pulled from hiding in a sewer.

Near the end of the hour, I changed channels back to FOX News and learned that Maddow might be sugar-coating things.  According to two FOX foreign-policy experts, America should be highly concerned about the people who will be running Libya.  Among other things, the country is a virtual munitions armory and the new leadership could do a variety of things with these armaments that could prove disastrous to America.  Who is right – FOX or Maddow?  I’ll find out tomorrow by getting outside the world of talk TV.

I finished my political fix for the night by listening to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  He was on the same page as Maddow and used a major portion of his show to make fun of the FOX fiends for begrudging Obama this unqualified success.  In fact, Stewart presented one of the most partisan, unfair segments that I have seen on The Daily Show.  He attempted to prove his point (a) by showing several clips of leading Republicans, like McCain and Rubio congratulating European countries, like France, Great Britain, and Italy and (b) by implying that America was actually the dominant power that brought down Gadhafi.

I haven’t been following Libya closely, but my understanding is that Europe, not America, played the dominant role in supporting the rebels in Libya and that Obama made America’s secondary status clear in his various communications.  Consistent with this position Maddow proudly pointed out during her soliloquy that America had never deployed a single combat troop in Libya.

During his Libya segment, Stewart criticized FOX for taking two inconsistent opinions – (a) the removal of Gadhafi may make things worse, and (b) we should have been able to remove him in one month instead of taking six months to do it.  I suggest that Stewart and Maddow are guilty of an analogous inconsistency in their positions – (a) Obama deserves credit for removing Gadhafi, and (b) America led from behind as part of a collective and we never seriously engaged militarily in Libya.

I’ve been a consistent supporter of America’s role in Libya, and I believe America should always prefer participating in a coalition instead of lone-rangering, so I completely agree with Maddow’s feeling good.  But even with MSNBC pundits saying “the war in Libya is over,” I think Americans should be reminded that despite the hoopla in the streets, “more work needs to be done.”

Someone famously told George Bush that if you break Iraq, it is yours.  That is why America’s huge short-term investment in overthrowing Saddam led to a huge long-term investment in the building of new Iraq.

By contrast, America made a relatively small short-term investment in overthrowing Moammar, but it is undecided whether America is going to make a long-term investment in the building of a new Libya.

We can start worrying about that tomorrow.  Tonight let’s just celebrate.

May 31, 2011

Foreign policy – above my pay grade

This past Sunday, “60 Minutes” included a segment that described the tough slogging in Afghanistan.  Coincidentally, at a Saturday bar-b-q I met an Army infantryman who had recently returned from Afghanistan.  Both “60 Minutes” and the infantryman told stories that were remarkably similar – i.e., the fighting is intense and Americans are decisively winning every battle and nearly all engagements, yet the enemy Taliban keeps coming.  Sounds like Vietnam, except that the American public is not being fed body counts.

Back in Vietnam days, the military publicized the enemy body count to show that we were winning the war, and the media publicized our body count to show that we were paying an exorbitant cost for our win.  Although the military has never publicized enemy body counts in Iraq or Afghanistan, the media publicized American body counts while their enemy Bush was in office, but discontinued the practice when their hero Obama took over the wars.

I usually take the position that foreign-policy decisions are above my pay grade and have previously recommended that politics should “end at the water’s edge.”  The war in Afghanistan is a perfect example of that.  If President Obama concludes that America should withdraw from Afghanistan now that Osama bin Laden has been killed and al Qaeda has been decimated, I will accept his judgment.  If he decides that we need to further decimate the Taliban, I will accept that, too.  I don’t think these options should be argued with the American public in the upcoming presidential election.

Israel v. Palestine is an exception to my rule that foreign-policy issues should play a role in domestic politics.  Because Jewish Americans have a special interest in America’s relationship with Israel, they will naturally comprise a large voting block that politicians will be tempted to pander to, not unlike the ethanol pandering that politicians do for the Iowa presidential caucus.

The best protection against that pandering is for the vast majority of voters, who aren’t a part of the special interest (whether pro-ethanol or pro-Israel) to punish the politician to panders.

March 23, 2011

The power to make war

Republicans are supposed to be sticklers about constitutional niceties – they often describe themselves as constitutional conservatives.  As a practical matter, however, they don’t let constitutional niceties get in the way of America making war at the drop of a hat.  Thus, you did not hear objection from Republicans when Barack Obama recently decided to make war against Libya without any authorization from Congress. 

A couple of nights ago on Bill O’Reilly’s show, Karl Rove noted that, although George W. Bush received Congressional authorization prior to fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration did not believe such authorization was constitutionally required.  Rove explained that, although the Constitution gives Congress the right to declare war, the Constitution also makes the President the commander in chief, and that right implies the right to make war.  If that were true, why bother giving Congress the right to declare war?

As Washington Post columnist George Will recently declared

  • “Congress’s power to declare war resembles a muscle that has atrophied from long abstention from proper exercise. This power was last exercised on June 5, 1942 (against Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary), almost 69 years, and many wars, ago. It thus may seem quaint, and certainly is quixotic, for Indiana’s Richard Lugar — ranking Republican on, and former chairman of, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — to say, correctly, that Congress should debate and vote on this.”
  • “There are those who think that if the United Nations gives the United States permission to wage war, the Constitution becomes irrelevant. Let us find out who in Congress supports this proposition, which should be resoundingly refuted, particularly by Republicans currently insisting that government, and especially the executive, should be on a short constitutional leash. If all Republican presidential aspirants are supine in the face of unfettered presidential war-making and humanitarian interventionism, the Republican field is radically insufficient.”

After the disaster in Vietnam, Congress attempted to rein-in presidential war-making by passing the War Powers Resolution in 1973.  This law requires a president to obtain Congressional authorization within 60 days of initiating hostilities.  If America is still fighting Gadhafi in 60 days, it will be interesting to see if the constitutional conservatives insist on a congressional vote.

P.S., a column by Maureen Dowd in today’s NY Times included the following quote from candidate Obama on presidential war-making powers:

  • As compelling as the gender split is, it’s even more interesting to look at the parallels between Obama and W.  Candidate Obama said about a possible strike on Iran, “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  Yet both men started wars of choice with a decision-making process marked more by impulse and reaction than discipline and rigor.  Denouncing the last decade of “autopilot” for presidents ordering military operations, Senator Webb told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC: “We have not had a debate. … This isn’t the way that our system is supposed to work.”

March 19, 2011

Sunday book review #20 – Decisions Points by George W. Bush

Last December, I suggested that there was so much interesting material in Decision Points that I would break my review into three parts, with the first part reviewing the five pre-9/11 chapters and the second and third parts on the chapters dealing with post-9/11 foreign policy and post-9/11 domestic policy.   After reviewing the first part of Decision Points, I was detoured by a series of books that became available at the SA Public Library.  One of those library books, Because It Is Wrong, critiqued Bush’s post-9/11 handling of surveillance and interrogation issues, which are precisely the issues that Bush discusses in Chapter Six of Decision Points – War Footing.  I review both Because It is Wrong and the War Footing chapter in a subsequent blog entry.   

After reading the library books, as well as a few others that squeezed ahead of it in my reading queue, I finally returned this week to Decision Points and found the remaining chapters to be even better than the early chapters.  The War Footing chapter is followed by separate chapters on Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Chapter Seven is titled “Afghanistan.”  Shortly after 9/11, Bush was briefed on three options for dealing with al Qaeda in Afghanistan – (1) cruise missile strikes, (2) cruise missiles and manned-bomber attacks, and (3) missiles, bombers, and boots on the ground against al Qaeda and the Taliban.  During the briefings, some advisors suggested dealing with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction at the same time.  Ultimately, Bush decided on option #3 (America would not be, as bin Laden suggested, “paper tigers who would run in less than 24 hours”), but he declined to take action against Iraq – “We would fight the war on terror on the offense, and the first battleground would be Afghanistan….  Unless I received definitive evidence typing Saddam Hussein to the 9/11 plot, I would work to resolve the Iraq problem diplomatically.”

In his 2000 campaign, Bush had said, “I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”  Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and 9/11 changed his opinion.  But America was not prepared for nation-building, and Bush concedes that helping the Afghan people to build a functioning democracy has been more daunting that he anticipated.  He is confident, however, that we will ultimately succeed, especially since President Obama has apparently shares the same objective.

Chapter Eight, titled “Iraq,” describes the drawn-out process of going to war against Iraq.  Bush details (a) the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and (b) the diplomatic efforts to avoid war.  When those efforts failed, General Tommy Franks started war-planning.  He had been impressed by the ability of the military to destroy the Taliban and close al Qaeda camps without using a lot of troops.  The key to this so-called “light footprint” was that America was not viewed as invaders or occupies, and General Franks decided to apply the same strategy in Iraq.  Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested to General Franks that he would be better served applying the so-called Powell Doctrine (deploying massive, decisive force), but Franks chose not to adopt it and Bush decided to defer to his military advisors.  The Iraq chapter ends in 2004 after the successful invasion, but the story of the war will be picked up in a later chapter titled, “Surge.”

In Chapter Nine, titled “Leading,” Bush describes his leadership style.  He describes how he worked with Ted Kennedy to pass the No Child Left Behind law and how a variety of compromises resulted in the flawed Medicare prescription-drug benefit.  But he laments his inability to reform Social Security and immigration laws.  In hindsight, he wishes he had attempted immigration reform early in his second term instead of going first for Social Security reform because the former had more bipartisan support.

Incidentally, I was happy to learn that Bush’s five-part proposed immigration reform was very similar to the proposal on which I ran for Congress: (1) hardened border security, (2) temporary-worker program, (3) enhanced enforcement with employers, (4) improved assimilation by requiring immigrants to learn English, and (5) a path to citizenship for long-term, working residents.

Also incidentally, Bush closed the Leading chapter by urging that Congressional districts be drawn by nonpartisan panels instead of legislatures.  He reasoned that legislatures tend to draw polarized districts, which result in polarized politicians, which result in dysfunctional government.  Although this is an excellent argument, talk is cheap – I don’t remember Bush speaking up on this issue when he was in a position to do something about it.

Chapter Ten is titled “Katrina,” which was the costliest national disaster in America’s history.  Bush does not do a lot of finger pointing (he never mentions the poor performance of the citizenry) and takes responsibility for government letting down its citizens – “Serious mistakes came at all levels, from the failure to order a timely evacuation of New Orleans to the disintegration of local security forces to the dreadful communications and coordination.  As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster.  I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions.  Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen.  The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions.  It was that I took too long to decide.”  

Bush gives a detailed discussion of four important events:

  1. He pushed hard for Mayor Nagin to order a mandatory evacuation of the city.  The order came less than 24 hours before Katrina landed.
  2. His decision against visiting New Orleans shortly after the flood was correct because he would have interfered with the rescue efforts, but he should have landed in Baton Rouge to meet with the governor and show his concern.
  3. He pushed hard for Governor Blanco to authorize the federal government to take charge of security in New Orleans, but she never agreed.  Eventually, Bush sent in federal troops and General Honore, but because of Blanco’s resistance they had no law-enforcement authority.  Yet they succeeded in bringing order to the city.  “Had I known he could be so effective without the authority I assumed he needed, I would have cut off the legal debate and sent troops in without law enforcement powers several days earlier.”
  4. Although he had encouraged FEMA’s Mike Brown with, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he eventually replaced Brown because Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said Brown had frozen under pressure and became insubordinate.

Chapter Eleven, titled “Lazarus Effect,” describes Bush’s fight to secure funding for fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Although Bush’s efforts are commendable, there really wasn’t a lot of opposition to overcome.  Getting Congress to spend money does not require superhuman efforts.

Chapter Twelve, titled “Surge,” brings us back to the war in Iraq.  By 2006, sectarian violence had caused the Iraq situation to deteriorate.  Even Republican whip Mitch McConnell was lobbying Bush to bring the troops home.  After the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, new Speaker Pelosi declared, “The American people have spoken….  We must begin the responsible redeployment of our troops outside of Iraq.”  But Bush remained committed to prevailing in Iraq, and eventually he concluded that the “light footprint” strategy espoused by Rumsfeld and Generals Casey and Abizaid was the problem.  In its stead, he adopted a “surge” strategy developed by National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and General Petraeus.  At the close of one preliminary meeting with General Petraeus, Bush used the gambling expression that America was “doubling down,” and Petraeus one-upped him by responding that “we were all in.”  

Opposition to the surge was immense, with notable exceptions like Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman.  The House passed a nonbinding resolution disapproving the surge.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared, “The war is lost, the surge is not accomplishing anything.”  According to Bush, this declaration “was one of the most irresponsible acts I witnessed in my eight years in Washington.”  I agree that, for a leader in Congress, Reid’s statement was contemptible.        

Eventually, the surge succeeded, and it is enabling President Obama to conduct an orderly withdrawal.

Chapter Thirteen, titled “Freedom Agenda,” describes Bush’s efforts to implement the fourth prong of the Bush Doctrine throughout the world.  For those of you, like Sarah Palin, who aren’t familiar with the Bush Doctrine, it means:

  1. Make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbor them.  We will hold both to account.
  2. Take the fight against terrorists to the enemy overseas before they can attack us at home.
  3. Confront threats before they fully materialize.
  4. Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.

The Freedom Agenda was implemented in several ways:

  • Supporting fledgling democracies in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Georgia, and the Ukraine.
  • Encouraging dissidents and democratic reformers in repressive regimes like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela.
  • Advocate for freedom while maintaining strategic relations with nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia, and China.

Bush says that in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, he placed much focus on the Middle East because “the great tide of freedom that swept much of the world during the second half of the twentieth century had largely bypassed one region: the Middle East.”

After describing successes in his Freedom Agenda, Bush concedes disappointment with Russia, Egypt, and Venezuela – “Still, given what I’d hoped Putin and I could accomplish in moving past the Cold War, Russia stands out as a disappointment in the freedom agenda.  Russia was not the only one.  I was hopeful that Egypt would be a leader for freedom and reform in the Arab world, just as it had been a leader for peace under Anwar Sadat a generation before.  Unfortunately, after a promising presidential election in 2005 that included opposition candidates, the government cracked down during the legislative elections later that year, jailing dissidents and bloggers who advocated a democratic alternative.  Venezuela also slid back from democracy.”

Chapter Fourteen, titled “Financial Crisis,” is the last chapter.  Bush said that Bernanke and Paulson, two of his best appointments, warned him that the crisis could be as bad as the Great Depression.  Bush’s great response – “If we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”  His actions reflected that sentiment – he bailed out the banks, AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and two auto manufacturers.

Also in this chapter, Bush responded to a couple of common criticisms relating to his role in causing the financial crisis:

  1. He failed to ask Americans to sacrifice while we were fighting two wars.  Bush counters that this wasn’t like World War Two where we had to convert to a war-based economy.  “I’ve always believed that the critics who alleged I wasn’t asking people to sacrifice were really complaining that I hadn’t raised taxes….  I am convinced that raising taxes after the devastation of 9/11 would have hurt our economy.”
  2. He squandered the massive surplus that he inherited.  “Much of the surplus was an illusion, based on the mistaken assumption that the 1990s boom would continue.  Once the recession and 9/11 hit, there was little surplus left.

Decision Points concludes with a short Epilogue, in which Bush reveals complete serenity about his presidency.  He believes that the central challenge of his presidency was to keep America safe and that mission was accomplished.  He “pursued his convictions without wavering, but changed course when necessary…trusted individuals to make choices in their lives… used America’s influence to advance freedom.”

I remember back in the 80s when I would defend Reagan against those who thought he was a dunce or a Neanderthal.  In my mind, Reagan was a national asset, and that’s how I’ve felt about George W. Bush.  After reading Decision Points, I believe that America was fortunate to have him as president from 2001-2009.

October 29, 2010

Campaign 2010 – Iraq and Afghanistan

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:09 am
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Earlier in the week, Tom Brokaw contributed an Op-Ed piece to the NYTimes titled, “The Wars That America Forgot About.”  He complained about the paucity of campaign consideration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the wars’ duration (nine years) and cost (5,000 lives and $1 trillion).  In Brokaw’s opinion, the dearth of discussion is due to the fact that few Americans are affected by the wars – i.e., the all-volunteer military is less than 1% of the population, and America’s non-military are not even asked to pay for the wars.       

Today, a headline in the NYTimes read, “In 2010 Campaign, War Is Rarely Mentioned.”  In the accompanying article, the author Helene Cooper concludes, however, that the absence of coverage is the fault of politicians.  She opines that politicians in both parties have strategically decided that discussion of the war would not be helpful to them.

I suggest that Brokaw and Cooper are conveniently overlooking a major, obvious cause for the lack of coverage.  No, it’s not the apathy of the American public, and, no, it’s not the fecklessness of politicians.  But rather, it is the political bias of the media.

Obama campaigned for president by promising to quickly end the bad war (Iraq) and to fully engage in the good war (Afghanistan).  Unfortunately for him, Bush ended the bad war before Obama had a chance to end it, and the good war deteriorated badly.  Because the media completely bought into the Obama presidency, they have no motivation to undermine him by adding Afghanistan to his pile of difficulties.  The media was downplaying the wars and bringing their correspondents home long before the 2010 campaign. 

So, Tom and Helene, when you wonder why the wars aren’t being covered, look to your brethren.

September 1, 2010

A preliminary evaluation of Bush-43

George W. Bush has always been my type of man.  He is openly proud of his Texas heritage and is a bit of a Philistine regarding high-brow culture.  He loves following sports and staying in shape.  His highly successful terms as governor of Texas solidified my belief that he had the right stuff.  Imagine my surprise when one a my best friends, an Austin lawyer who is studying for his Masters in History at UT, told me early in Bush’s second term as president that many historians considered Bush to be the worst president ever. 

As it turned out, my friend made his comments at the high point of Bush’s presidency.  At that time, I was able to argue that, although the mission in Iraq was not quite accomplished, the American Misery Index (unemployment rate plus inflation rate) was at historic lows.  But it was all downhill from there.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorated and the economy imploded.  Now it is generally accepted that the Bush presidency was an abject failure.  I disagree. 

I concede that Bush assumed the presidency at the time of peace and prosperity.  Through no fault of his, peace ended on 9/11.  Obama and the Democrats argue that 9/11 may have thrust America into war in Afghanistan, but the war in Iraq was a war of choice.  That may be true, by American’s ultimately ratified that choice by reelecting Bush to a 2nd term.  I think country-western singer Darryl Worley in the song “Have Your Forgotten” best explained why America went to war against Iraq:

They took all the footage off my T.V.
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger that’s what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it everyday
Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight
Well, after 9/11 man I’d have to say that’s right 

Regardless of the rationale for waging war against Iraq, Bush has been severely criticized for his handling of the war after Saddam was defeated.  Everyone agrees now that more troops were needed, but Bush showed that he wasn’t “stuck on stupid” and eventually his surge proved to be what was needed to successfully conclude the war.  By comparison, Senator Obama was the most vocal opponent of this strategy.

Bush successfully managed America’s economy during most of his presidency.  As I noted, the Misery Index was at historic lows.  And it is not surprising that a conservative would reduce taxes when government was running a surplus.  My biggest complaint against Bush is that he didn’t require Americans to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  He may have thought that cutting taxes would increase revenues, but he was wrong, and I think that is the most critical mistake that most Republicans are making today.  Reducing taxes stimulate the economy and in some situations may actually increase revenue, but as a general practice, a government has to increase taxes to increase revenue.  As Henry Butler said in Economic Analysis for Lawyers, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Bush’s first post-presidency book – called Decision Points – is due in the next few weeks, and I’m looking forward to explanations for his actions.  All great leaders have common sense and good judgment, and I expect to see a lot of that.  But there is an argument that leaders don’t make a difference.  According to George Friedman in The Next 100 Years:

Geopolitics and economics both assume that the players are rational, at least in the sense of knowing their own short-term self-interest.  As rational actors, reality provides them with limited choices….  I am not suggesting that political leaders are geniuses, scholars, or even gentlemen and ladies.  Simply, political leaders know how to be leaders or they wouldn’t have emerged as such.  It is the delight of all societies to belittle their political leaders, and leaders surely do make mistakes.  But the mistakes they make, when carefully examined, are rarely stupid.  Most likely, mistakes are forced on them by circumstances….  Geopolitics therefore does not take individual leaders very seriously, any more than economics takes the individual businessman too seriously.  Both are players who know how to manage a process but are not free to break the very rigid rules of their professions.”  

I think Friedman’s theory is supported by comparing the actions of Bush, a moderate conservative, and his successor, Barack Obama, an extreme liberal.  Although Bush was broadly attacked for his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has deviated only slightly from the course set out by Bush, including the maintenance of Guantanamo.  Although Bush was broadly attacked for his bank and car bailout, Obama has maintained that course with an extravagant stimulus.  Although Bush was attacked for his tax cuts, Obama is currently leaning toward extending the cuts.  Bush enacted No Child Left Behind and Obama is continuing essentially the same program.  Bush unsuccessfully proposed comprehensive immigration reform, and Obama appears to be in complete agreement with Bush’s proposal but has been too timid to actively pursue it.  Probably the only significant difference between Bush-43 and Obama has been ObamaCare, and there are indications that that may cost Obama a second term.

I suggest that a major component in judging the success of a president is whether he is re-elected.  In my time, Bush-43, Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, and Eisenhower were reelected; Bush-41, Carter, Ford, and Johnson were not.  Obama’s reelection is certainly in doubt.  The ultimate successor is Reagan because he was the only two-term president in my time to have his party’s heir prevail in the next election.