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The US Presidential Election Campaign Begins

20 Feb 2020
By Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur FAIIA
Joe Biden speaks with supporters at a town hall hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, Iowa. Source: Gage Skidmore

With the presidential primary elections underway in the United States, the only thing that seems clear at this point is that the the eventual Democratic nominee will face an uphill battle to the presidency.

At this point in the four-yearly US presidential election cycle, the 2020 election is President Donald Trump’s to lose. In parallel, the race to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate is Senator Bernie Sanders’ to lose. Meanwhile the trauma inflicted on the country by the ill-advised impeachment drive has injected the poison of partisan, scorched-earth opposition even deeper into the American body politic, when the existing level of divisiveness had already rendered Washington a highly dysfunctional seat of government. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right in her initial judgment a year ago that impeachment was not advisable without compelling reasons backed by overwhelming evidence and bipartisan support. Not one of the three criteria was met.

After three years of vilification by much of the mainstream mass media, the hijacking of the president’s agenda by the Mueller investigation that turned up empty, months of high-octane impeachment hearings with 17 witnesses and hundreds of documents, and two weeks of televised Senate debate, the political story so far is aptly summarised in the title of an editorial in Canada’s Globe and Mail: “Acquitted by the Senate, high in the polls, his foes in disarray.” Trump’s base is energised, his supporters are emboldened, his opponents are divided and frustrated, and the Democratic Party stuffed up counting in Iowa spectacularly. A major Republican Party campaign theme will surely be: they can’t even run their own party in a small state, how can they be trusted to run the country?

The emotionally draining impeachment effort’s focus on the murky Ukraine dealings has left former Vice President (VP) Joe Biden mortally wounded. The hearings were all about Ukraine and Trump’s efforts to get Kiev to investigate what, if anything, Biden had done as VP that was improper. The end result is that, like Hillary Clinton with her missing emails scandal, Biden is left saddled with the vague suspicion of wrongdoing and moral turpitude that a presidential candidate has great difficulty shaking off.

A Hill-HarissX poll in October showed 64 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of Independents, and 40 percent of Democrats believed that the VP’s son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine were an important campaign issue that should be discussed. Yet the mainstream media mostly ignored it. An October poll for Investor’s Daily showed 23 percent of Americans as more likely to vote against Biden, and just eight percent more likely to vote for him, because of the Ukraine story. A Quinnipiac poll last month showed Biden to be behind Sanders on honesty, at 17 percent and 26 percent, respectively.

The impeachment imbroglio proved predictably counter-productive and has benefitted Trump but damaged the Democrats. Trump’s approval rating in Gallup polls rose from around 40 percent when impeachment began to 49 percent when it finished – his highest approval level. Tellingly, the intensity of his approval climbed by five percent while strong disapproval fell by eight percent. (The best site for tracking the multitude of polls on a rolling basis, including the average of polls, is RealClearPolitics.) The Democrats have successfully energised Trump’s base and fundraising but not their own: impeachment proceedings have been good for his coffers!

Most crucially, the Democrats were never able to escape the damning charge that, in their visceral dislike of a president who had been intentionally elected as a disruptive outsider to drain the DC swamp, DC insiders were hell-bent on over-ruling the vote of 63 million Americans, overturning the 2016 election, and striking the elected president from the ballot for 2020. Judged against this, their accusation that Russia had helped Trump win in 2016 and he had pressured Ukraine to tilt the 2020 election against Biden shows either chutzpah, irony, or lack of self-awareness.

While the Democrats have been preoccupied with impeachment affairs of state, Trump’s been busy making a play for Blacks and Latinos, among whom his support has risen by eight points. His message is twofold: the Democrats have taken you for granted for decades and now take their cue from woke white voters; what have you got to lose by trying me out instead? Don’t just focus on my rhetoric, but look at my record in creating employment for you and raising your family incomes.

So where does the Democratic primary contest stand after the fiasco of the Iowa caucus and the first primary in New Hampshire? Biden, a fading fourth in Iowa and forlorn fifth in New Hampshire, is a political dead man walking. Sanders is in pole position. He has huge advantages in a battle-tested national organisation, passionate following, fundraising, and credibility from his 2016 campaign. It’s hard to see Elizabeth Warren bouncing back as a serious contender from the left of the party.

The most serious threat to Sanders might prove to be Michael Bloomberg, especially if the party hits the panic button in fear of an epidemic of a new strain of Bernievirus Sandersitis similar to the outbreak that felled the Corbyn-led UK Labour Party. If the party hierarchy coalesces around Bloomberg to deny Sanders the prize once again, the legion of Sandersnistas would desert the party come November.

Meanwhile Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar will divide the moderate vote for the next set of primaries. Buttigieg finished a strong second, but his appeal and staying power across the broader Democratic rainbow coalition, along with his record and previous statements, will only be subjected to the blowtorch now that he is a serious contender.

Klobuchar is the biggest winner from New Hampshire and will likely get the biggest boost from the collapsing Biden candidacy. On the one hand, she too will get an intense scrutiny so far not applied to her candidacy. On the other hand, if Warren goes into a freefall, Klobuchar is left as the last woman standing. Should she continue to perform well in future debates and her record holds up, or even gets increasingly favourable attention, she could well triumph. Alternatively, she could be a very attractive running mate for either Sanders or Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee, compensating for their weaknesses and complementing their strengths. She would add gender balance, geographical breadth and philosophical ballast to the ticket. On the face of it, either combination could offer real competition to Trump in November.

Ramesh Thakur FAIIA, a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, is Emeritus Professor of the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. He is Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and co-convener of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

This is a revised version of an article originally published in Pearls and Irritations on 14 Feb.