Category: Topic Brief Page 1 of 7

Five Senate Races to Consider in 2010

Until early November, extempers can expect to run into lots of questions about the midterm elections.  These questions may ask you which party will win the elections, what the biggest issue in the elections is going to be, or about specific races happening throughout the country.  Usually, if you get a question about a specific race it will be about a Senate or governor’s race because those typically attract more attention than House races.  Extempers should have files on the major races and get to know the candidates in those races.  To get an idea of what the major races are, extempers should go to the Cook Political Report or Real Clear Politics and see the races that are classified as “tossups.”  The “tossup” label designates races where the Democratic and Republican candidates have a chance to win.  If you are new to extemp, you will see this labels again in 2012 for the presidential campaign.

This small list provides you with five Senate races to consider this election cycle.  Having a file on each of these races would be a good idea.

Top Five GOP Presidential Contenders to Watch

Once the midterm elections end, the next big political campaign will be the 2012 presidential election.  While President Obama will likely be nominated by the Democrats for a second term, the Republican opposition has no clear frontrunner.  Based on the midterm election cycle, the GOP presidential primary might be one of the most thrilling and competitive in years and might see a bloody civil war between social and fiscal conservatives.  Such a battle has the potential to either strengthen the party and the candidates involved or devastate the GOP’s 2012 chances.

This brief list will discuss some of the top contenders for the 2012 nomination, with some facts that extempers should consider when weighing in on 2012 topics.  Polling agencies like Gallup, the Pew Research Center, and Rasmussen provide regular polls on the 2012 field and extempers would be wise to cut them.  One useful Gallup poll that was released today can be found here.  I would highly recommend that extempers cut it and place it in their files.

Topic Brief: French Pension Reform

by Logan Scisco

In the United States, the Democratic Party is attempting to paint the Republican Party as mean spirited and warning voters that if the Republicans take control of Congress this November they will privatize Social Security. This tactic is meant to rally elderly voters, who vote more than any other group, to the polls on Election Day. Social Security is referred to as the third rail in American politics because it is such a deadly issue for politicians to confront. However, all experts agree that without changes in its structure, Social Security and America’s dreams of a government pension in old age are likely to go the way of the dodo.

Like the United States, government pensions were seen by European nations and their citizenry as sacred trusts whereby the government would provide for elderly citizens in their old age. Politicians who dared question the sustainability and cost of these pension programs were seen as anti-elderly and insensitive. However, rising budget deficits and crushing national debt burdens have finally forced European nations to deal with their aging populations. Some, like Great Britain, are confronting the problem voluntarily while others like Greece have been forced to reform their generous pension systems.

Topic Brief: Healthcare Debate Update, Part 2

Yesterday, we began our discussion of the current Healthcare Debate in the first part of our topic brief.  As we wrap up your week of preparation for The Glenbrooks, we dive in further to help you better understand some additional complexities concerning the debate.

by Logan Scisco

Abortion Debate

While the Republican Party fought a small civil war over the 23rd New York House district a couple of weeks ago, Democrats are gearing up for their own civil war over the abortion issue.  One of the misconceptions made in the healthcare debate is that the Republican Party is pro-life and the Democratic Party is pro-choice.  While it is true that it is hard to imagine the Republican Party rallying behind a pro-choice candidate (just ask Rudy Giuliani) or the Democratic Party rallying behind a pro-life candidate, both parties have a mixture of ideas about the abortion issue in their camps.

Topic Brief: Healthcare Debate Update, Part 1

By Logan Scisco

Since the summer, the Obama administration has attempted to push healthcare reform through Congress.  With 46 million Americans uninsured, the administration and its Democratic colleagues have emphasized the urgency of passing healthcare reform that would provide insurance to these individuals who do not possess insurance because of choice, their economic condition, or because a pre-existing medical condition excludes them from obtaining quality health insurance.  The current economic situation in the country, where the official unemployment rate is the highest in 26 years at 10.2% (some have the actual number of unemployed at 17%), would seem to help the administration pass this reform.  Another added advantage of the administration going into the healthcare debate is that the Democrats control both houses of Congress and have a crucial filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

However, Obama’s initial push to pass healthcare reform by the end of the summer bit the dust and when representatives went back to their constituents they faced hostile town meetings.  While the media debated the merits of these meetings, they showed how divisive healthcare reform can be as violence was reported at some of the town halls and one man even had a finger bit off.  Furthermore, although the House of Representatives succeeded shortly after the 2009 elections in passing a healthcare bill, the Senate is facing a series of complications in ensuring healthcare reform can clear its chamber.

This topic brief will provide an updated focus on the healthcare debate.  It will examine the future of the public option, the new controversy involving abortion in the healthcare legislation, and the chances of the Democrats getting a healthcare bill through the Senate.

As a side note, I cannot recommend enough that extempers read as much as possible about the healthcare debate, looking at medical journals such as the American Journal of Medicine and other publications to get a sense of the problems that effect American healthcare.  It would also be wise for extempers to read about other “national” healthcare systems that exist in Canada, Great Britain, and France because comparisons in speeches are never a bad idea.

Topic Brief: New Jersey Governor’s Race

New Jersey governor's race candidates, from left, Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, independent Chris Daggett, and Republican Christopher Christie. / New Jersey Star-Ledger Photo Composite (

by Logan Scisco

Although most of the country’s political attention is focused on potential Republican challengers to President Obama in 2012 or how the economy will impact the Democratic Party’s chances in midterm elections next November, there are two races extempers need to focus on next week:  the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.  Elections in “off years” often are the red haired step child of political campaigns, never quite attracting the attention they deserve.  This year marks a stark contrast as the frustrations of the first year of the Obama administration and the national economic climate, not to mention the poor fortunes of the Republican Party as of late, make these two races a critical barometer for 2010.

When he assumed the chairmanship of the Republican Party in 2009, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele said that he was focused on winning the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races.  At the time, sweeping both races looked to be an impossible task because of Democratic gains in Virginia, which now has two Democratic senators and has an outgoing Democratic governor, and because New Jersey has typically been reliably Democrat for in-state politics over the last decade.  However, with healthcare reform bogged down in Congress and President Obama’s standing looking increasingly vulnerable, there is a real possibility of a GOP sweep next week in these two races.  Virginia’s outcome looks certain with Democratic candidate Creigh Deeds trailing former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell by double digits in some of the latest polls.  New Jersey’s race, though, has seen incumbent Democratic Governor and former U.S. Senator Jon Corzine close the gap with his Republican challenger Chris Christie over the last several weeks to the point that the race is now too close to call.

With the Virginia election reaching a near certain outcome, this brief will zero in on the New Jersey gubernatorial race and discuss the major issues in the race, the candidates involved and their platforms, the major issues in the race, and finally what a Democratic or Republican victory may mean for 2010 and beyond.

Topic Brief: Kerry-Lugar Bill

By Logan Scisco

Since September 11, 2001, the Pakistani government has been a friend to the United States.  Although Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organization helped to establish the Taliban and was friendly to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government under Pervez Musharraf made an about face after that date.  Musharraf’s cooperation helped to secure billions of dollars in military and civilian aid for his country and also helped to silence Bush administration officials who might have otherwise been angry at the Musharraf regime’s handling of human rights issues (not to mention a lack of true democracy being practiced in the country).

In August 2008, Musharraf stepped down as President of Pakistan and was replaced by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.  Under his leadership, the Pakistani government has gradually adopted a harder line on Islamic militants inside of the country (after first trying to accommodate them) and Pakistan’s resolve has been in contrast to the current U.S. position in Afghanistan that looks indecisive and shaky.

However, U.S. officials have always been wary of Pakistan.  The army acts as an independent force from the government and has been known to meddle in political affairs.  The army has participated in three coups against the Pakistani state.  With this backdrop, U.S. officials have wanted to tighten conditions for aid that is sent to Pakistan and this is where the Kerry-Lugar bill, passed last month by Congress, comes into play.  This brief will describe some motivations of the Kerry-Lugar bill, the Pakistani people’s reaction to it, and how it could damage US-Pakistani relations.

Topic Brief: Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

Before we jump into this week’s topic brief, check out the official video from’s YouTube channel on their rationale for the selection of Barack Obama as a 2009 Nobel Laureate.

By Logan Scisco

When people first heard the news about Barack Obama being awarded the Noble Peace Prize they probably thought it was some kind of joke.  I can admit to having this reaction.  The reason is not that Obama is a failed president or I have some type of anti-Obama bias.  It is simply because the Nobel prize traditionally has awarded individuals based on their actions, citing concrete achievements and progress as opposed to hopes for what might happen in the future.  With President Obama having been in office for only nine months and without any significant changes

The Nobel Peace Prize is an award that comes from the estate of Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite.  Nobel created five awards, given for peace, chemistry, literature, physical science, and medicine.  The peace prize and these other awards are determined by a Norwegian committee.  The criteria given for the peace prize, which carries with it a $1 million reward is the following:  that a person should “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

Obama’s victory in the prize came as a shock to many and has prompted a debate over the merits of the prize and sparked a small political controversy in the United States.  The controversy might be the only thing that unites conservatives with Hamas and Hugo Chavez.  This brief will examine the justification behind Obama receiving the award, the reaction of the globe and fellow politicians in the U.S., and how this prize could play a part in Obama’s future agenda.

Topic Brief: G-20 Summit

International Monetary Fund Photograph/Stephen Jaffe

International Monetary Fund Photograph/Stephen Jaffe

by Logan Scisco

Two weeks ago, the leaders of nineteen of the world’s influential economies, with the European Union, met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for another round of G-20 summit talks.  The G-20 is an organization created in 1999 that is meant to be a broader discussion forum of developed and developing economies.  The G-7, an economic forum that featured the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Japan, was sometimes called too elitist and too isolated from emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil.  (Writer’s Note:  The G-8 is the name for the economic organization that includes all of the members of the G-7 plus Russia).

In Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama hosted the second meeting of the G-20 in 2009 (the first was held in London).  Throughout their discussions, leaders of the countries that are part of the G-20 debated the equality of voting rights in the International Monetary Fund, banking regulations, economic stimulus packages, free trade, and deciphering what the exact mission of the G-20 was going to be.

G-20 meetings will continue to play a pivotal role in the shaping of the world’s economic output for years to come.  As a result, extempers will start to see more questions about the G-20 in the future.  This brief will explain the composition of the G-20, what the latest summit accomplished, and the chance that their reforms will greatly affect the world economy.

Topic Brief: 2009 German Federal Election Results

Several days ago, Germany’s federal election took place and voters gave Chancellor Angela Merkel another term in office.  The major change from the election result was that the period of Germany’s “grand coalition” between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), and the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD) is finished.  Instead, Germany will now be governed by a coalition of Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which last governed Germany together in 1998.

The German election result may pose a major re-alignment in German politics, as the major parties become more polarized in opposition to each other and there is a clearer ideological split between minor parties.  Also, much of the new government’s work will be focused on improving the national economy, which barely climbed out of recession at the end of the second quarter.

To discuss these issues, this week’s brief will explain the German federal election.  To do so, we will examine the run-up to the election, how the election turned out, and what the new governing coalition of the CDU/CSU and the FDP will be able to accomplish in their new term.

Topic Brief: Missile Defense Adjustments in Europe

Last Friday, President Barack Obama opened a new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations by decided to adjust plans to place missile interceptors in Poland and an advanced radar system in the Czech Republic.  Obama’s policy was likely fuelled by advice from the Defense Department, who had argued that such a system was not capable of meeting the defense needs of America or its allies in the region, and a belief that cooperation with Russia was needed to resolve pressing world problems, notably nuclear proliferation.

Despite this backing and these strategic calculations, proponents of a missile defense system have argued that President Obama has greatly weakened the security of U.S. interests in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.  They also argue that the President sold out countries in Eastern Europe who have been very loyal to the United States to Russia, for whom they wish to receive protection from.

Since extempers will be faced with answering questions pertaining to this issue in the weeks ahead, it is timely to have a topic brief lay out the history of missile defense, the new defense plans the Obama administration is adopting in Eastern Europe, and what major changes in American foreign policy may be realized by this defensive shift.

Topic Brief: “You Lie!”: The Joe Wilson Incident

Last week, President Barack Obama tried to change the message on the healthcare debate.  As the American public has grown more skeptical of the President’s agenda, Obama’s team has tried to retake the initiative in the media and part of that was Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.  However, during Obama’s speech when he said that illegal immigrants would not receive coverage in his healthcare plan he was interrupted with a shout of “You lie!” by Joe Wilson, a Republican representative from South Carolina.  For anyone who has not seen the video, it is worth a look just to see Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s facial expression after the incident.

Wilson’s remarks started a political firestorm.  Some have argued that his actions demonstrate everything that is wrong with the Republican Party.  Others have argued that there must be something bad in the water in South Carolina, where Republican Governor Mark Sanford is trying to fight off impeachment by January.  Then there are those who believe Wilson did the right thing in standing up to Obama and calling him to task for a lack of enforcement mechanisms in healthcare legislation to keep illegal immigrants from getting coverage.

Considering that healthcare is a central tenet of Barack Obama’s domestic agenda and that the Republican Party is hoping to regain control of the House in 2010, it is important that we look at the Joe Wilson incident this week.  To do so, this brief will break down the incident in two ways.  First, we will look at the issue that raised Wilson’s ire:  the coverage of illegal immigrants in the healthcare legislation before Congress.  And second, we will look at the political fallout from Wilson’s outburst and if it works more in favor of Democrats or Republicans.

Topic Brief: Budget Deficit Politics

topicbriefBy Logan Scisco

During the “off season” after NFL Nationals, the issue of the budget deficit has come to be a major one in American politics.  It has the potential to shape the outcome of the midterm elections in 2010 and is playing a role in President Barack Obama’s declining popularity ratings.  As extempers get ready for the 2009-2010 season, which starts in less than six weeks with the Wake Forest National Early Bird, they will face questions about an array of economic issues such as unemployment, the effectiveness of the stimulus package, and the level of international trade as well as the controversial issue of healthcare reform.  All of these issues have something to do with the budget of the United States government and by proxy the deficit the U.S. government currently finds itself facing.

Americans in the late 1990s got used to seeing fiscal discipline on Capitol Hill between the executive and legislative branches.  President Bill Clinton worked with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, a relationship that was often tense through impeachment proceedings and a government shutdown, to craft a budget that was balanced and that ran a surplus totaling $128 billion.  In fact, the major issue of the 2000 election between Vice-President Al Gore and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush was over what to do with this budget surplus, with Gore arguing that it needed to be used to shore up entitlement programs such as Social Security in a “lockbox” and Bush arguing that it needed to be given back to the American people in the form of a tax cut.  After the first presidential debate between the two men in the fall of 2000, Saturday Night Live had a hilarious mock debate over this issue.

After Bush won the election, he was able to get Congress to approve his tax cut package and celebrated the occasion as a victory for small government.  However, thanks to September 11th and a U.S. recession that began after Bush was elected, the federal government started to see deficits early in the Bush administration.  By the time Bush left office, he and Congress, which was controlled for six years of his administration by Republicans, left the country with nearly a $500 billion deficit.  To put this into perspective, that number represents nearly three percent of America’s gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of goods and services produced within the U.S. in a given year.

Therefore, this topic brief will describe the state of the budget deficit under the Obama administration, how Congress and the Obama administration are trying to cope with it, and the political fallout on the budget deficit issue.

Topic Brief: 2009 Afghan Elections

Two weeks ago, the nation of Afghanistan held its second presidential election since the U.S. invasion of the country in 2001.  President Hamid Karzai was looking for another term in office against 39 other candidates, the most notable of which was Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a ethnic Tajik who was a former foreign minister in the Afghan government.  The election was seen as a measuring stick of how stable, or unstable, Afghanistan has become over the last several years.

By most military estimates, Afghanistan is in danger of being lost.  Years of ignoring the country’s internal development due to the war in Iraq have allowed warlords to continue to hold control of parts of the country and the Taliban to spread out.  Areas in northern and western Afghanistan which had before been pacified by American troops and NATO forces are now under more influence from the Taliban.  Afghan experts are fearing that a Taliban insurgency could become a wider rebellion against the Afghan government.

While the Afghan election result is still uncertain and it is possible that there will be a runoff in October, extempers would be wise to consider the possibilities of the result and the impact the result will have on U.S. Afghan policy, the war in Afghanistan, and the country’s internal political structure.  As such, this brief will detail some crucial events in the run-up to the Afghan election, the behavior of the vote, and why it matters for Afghanistan’s future.

Topic Brief: Myanmar’s Struggles

Extempers who are juniors or seniors this year might remember the protests that threatened the ruling government of Myanmar, a country also referred to as Burma by much of the international community, in the fall of 2007.  These protests, led by monks and political dissidents of Myanmar’s military junta, were in response to the junta removing fuel subsidies but eventually acquired a more democratic flavor.  However, this so-called Saffron Revolution was quelled by the beating, imprisonment, and killing of its participants and thus, Myanmar’s second attempt at acquiring a democratic government since 1962 failed.

At a time when globalization has brought a degree of prosperity to the Southeast Asian region and as countries in that region, such as Indonesia, are playing a more prominent role in global affairs, Myanmar’s junta sticks out like a sore thumb.  The junta proclaims that its autocratic governance is justified in order to keep Myanmar’s multi-faceted ethnic groups together under one umbrella.  However, the junta has used its position and Myanmar’s plethora of natural resources, to enrich and protect itself.  This style of governing has turned what was once Southeast Asia’s richest country (during the British colonial period) to one of the region’s most impoverished.

The urgency of this brief is in Senator Jim Webb’s (D-Virginia) recent visit to Myanmar.  During this visit, Webb met with the head of the junta, General Than Shwe, and the country’s most vocal democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi.  Webb’s visit has brought back some international attention to events that are unfolding in Myanmar.  This, coupled with the State Department’s concern about Myanmar’s military ambitions and alliances, makes the country a hot topic that extempers may encounter in the early part of this year.

This brief will provide some background concerning the historical tensions in Myanmar, the circumstances surrounding Webb’s visit, and discuss strategies for the international community to better engage Myanmar.

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