US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS


Biden is Democratic Party Frontrunner

The race to be the Democratic Party presidential candidate tightened dramatically after the Super Tuesday set of primaries leaving only centrist Joe Biden and leftwing Bernie Sanders in the fray. Biden’s subsequent victories in key states like Michigan has left him the clear frontrunner. Biden’s dramatic resurgence began when he won South Carolina in February by a landslide thanks to en masse black American support. Just before Super Tuesday (March 3) his two main centrist rivals, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, withdrew in his favour. Subsequently the billionaire Michael Bloomberg did the same. Elizabeth Warren also withdrew, leaving Sanders without a leftwing rival — but she declined to give him an endorsement. Biden has been publicly backed by two other candidates, Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang.

A number of reasons are cited for these developments. The main one is that Democratic voters are desperate to defeat the Republican incumbent, President Donald Trump. “Electability” is the number one criteria for an overwhelming number of Democratic voters, according to numerous polls. This seems to have been Biden’s star attraction. In exit poll interviews across a dozen Super Tuesday states, a majority said choosing a candidate who could beat Trump was more important than finding one who agreed with them on issues. “The weaknesses of Joe Biden did not disappear,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic Party strategist. “They landed on Joe Biden for a simple reason, and that is because he’s a known and safe quantity…Beating Donald Trump is the unifying force.” The other reason was the overwhelming support Biden received from black voters. In the same way Sanders’ campaign has been fuelled by dedicated leftwing youngsters, Biden’s survived because of a bond with blacks that he earned while being Barack Obama’s number two for 10 years.

The Biden versus Sanders battle reflects a deep ideological division within Democratic ranks. Since 2016, the Democratic Party’s youth and college-educated white supporters have shifted leftward, even becoming comfortable with terms like “socialism.” Sanders has been able to even attract support for his views among Latino voters. But it has been the moderate black voters who have kept the party centred. As one writer argued, this was a group “whose experience with race in America perhaps informed their notions about what is the realistic pace of change in this country.” College-educated whites eventually joined black voters over the electability issue and this coalition helped resurrect Biden’s campaign. Youth and some working class whites remain loyal to Sanders. An ABC News/Washington Post exit poll showed that 60% of youth (below 29 years of age) voted for Sander versus only 15% of elderly (above 65). But youth are notoriously fickle when it comes to turning up and it was notable that, when it came to turnout, Sanders fared worse this year with the young than he did when he took on Hillary Clinton four years ago. Dislike for Clinton helped galvanize Sanders base earlier, that spark seemed to have been missing this round. 

Whoever the Democratic candidate, he will face a Trump still able to motivate his base. The Republican Party primaries are being ignored because Trump faces no real opposition. Despite its pointlessness, Trump received nearly 130,000 votes in his party’s New Hampshire primary – twice what a Barack Obama or a George W. Bush received when they ran. 

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Why does electability matter?  

Ballot Access News, which tracks partisan registration in the US, showed that for the first time this century the number of registered independents was larger than those of a mainstream party, in this case the Republicans. The data tracks the 31 states that require US voters to register by party. It found 29.09% of Americans identified as independents, 28.87% as Republicans and 39.66% as Democrats. As recently as 2004, Republicans outnumbered independents by nearly 10 percentage points. The registration numbers reflect a long term but mild decline in support for both parties. 
State registrations are an imperfect measure of party support because of the different ways local rules are applied. But shifts towards independents seem evident even in broad surveys were voters were asked to self-identity. A Gallup Poll found that 42% of voters in the US say they are independents, 30% say they are Republican and 27% say they are Democrats. There is evidence in some surveys that the increase in independents is because of Republican defections driven by distaste for the Trump administration or the US president himself. But these right-leaning independents remain ideologically conservative. Biden supporters argue these independent voters could be persuaded to support a centrist Democrat and would go back to Trump if the alternative is a leftwing candidate like Sanders.
 
A new survey of battleground states Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – among the six to eight states on which the US presidential elections will hinge – show that Trump has been losing ground since December. In each of the three states, Trump polls better in head-to-head matchups against Sanders by a few points, but against Biden his leads are within the margin of error in each state.

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Future Biden Government

Axios.com has come out with the first report on the possible character of a Biden cabinet and government. His advisors have said their governing plan will be about “returning to normal” and reversing the damage of the Trump administration. He will also draw heavily on known figures from the Obama administration. The sources stressed that the transition process has barely begun within the Biden camp. Among the key takeaways:

  • Biden’s team feels they need a black or a woman, or both, as vice-president. This puts Kamala Harris among the top candidates for the position. Two black politicians, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick, are also seen as possibles. 
  • Candidates for the cabinet and senior positions include John Kerry as a climate change negotiator, Susan Rice as secretary of state, Elizabeth Warren as treasury secretary – though some Wall Street names like Jamie Dimon and Anne Finucane are in the mix as well, Pete Buttigieg as UN ambassador or US trade representative, and Michael Bloomberg as World Bank president. 
  • South Carolina legislator Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden helped turnaround the candidate’s flagging campaign, will have outsized influence on the government. Other reports say that Barack Obama, widely believed to have quietly lobbied on behalf of Biden, will also have considerably sway.  

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Sanders, Warren and the American Left

Bernie Sanders is easily the most unusual presidential candidate because of his avowed socialist leanings and refusal, even to this day, to register as a Democratic Party member. But as a number of articles argue, Sanders is well within the political mainstream of US history and would barely be considered unusual in, say, Western Europe let alone India. Sanders prefers to cite the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his ideological framework. He often argues Roosevelt would not have been against most of his policies whether it is Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal, strengthening of labour unions and taxing the rich. Yet, he is clearly the most leftwing presidential candidate ever run by either American political party in recent history and has positioned himself as an anti-establishment figure. Sanders’ populist narrative is about the “ninety-nine per cent” needing to take on the economic élite and is one reason he finds some support among the white working class that voted for Trump. He is famously quirky, prone to sleeplessness and happiest in a room temperature of 16 Celsius.

Sanders foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, and the co-chair of his national campaign, Congressman Ro Khanna, have outlined a worldview that challenges the positions of the liberal and conservative establishment. There is a deep opposition to the US’s military interventions overseas, its excessive military spending, its close relations with autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and even Washington’s support for Israel. They also question US support for expansive free trade agreements. Questions have been raised about Sanders naivete regarding China and he has berated Trump for not being more critical about the Narendra Modi government’s treatment of minorities. However, the Sanders campaign has been overwhelmingly focussed on domestic issues and most of his foreign policy comments have been about Latin America and West Asia.

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Warren is seen in two different ways in the US. One view saw her as the best female presidential candidate that the US never had, who arguably did more than any other candidate to work out detailed policy responses to every problem but because she was a female was labelled “shrill” and “argumentative.” Another view was to see her as the author of a new leftwing activism that took up 21st century  issues like climate change, Wall Street’s misdeeds and breaking up Silicon Valley’s monopoly firms. Her website had sixty-five policy plans and Warren could be counted on at every debate to begin by saying, “I have a plan…” One profile said she was “the key synthesizer and champion of a new progressivism.” Ultimately, she was outflanked on the left by Sanders while being unable to convince enough centrists that she had the capability to take on Trump.
 
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The Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank, has argued there are four schools of progressive thinking in the US today. One is the “new structuralists,” who focus on “setting guardrails and rules for the market”. Two are the “public providers,” who want to boost public services and public investments. Three are “economic transformers,” who are about “deploying government to catalyze large scale economic change,” such as a shift to a green economy. The last school are “economic democratists,” who focus on strengthening democratic institutions to make them better handle an economic transformation.
 
The Roosevelt Institute’s head, Felicia Wong, has argued Warren comes from the first school with her battles against Facebook and Amazon and desire to restrict the private-equity industry. But there are also elements of all the other schools in her policy formulations, including her support for universal child care and a green economy. Warren, however, is clear that she is not a socialist but someone who wants to correct the failures and shortcomings of the market economy. In an interview she once said “I am a capitalist to my bones…I believe in markets.” She added, “That’s how we build a lot of wealth in this country and a lot of innovation and create a lot of opportunity. But markets without rules are theft.”

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Why the Working Class is in Revolt

The revolt of the white working class against their ruling establishment helped drive both the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and the successful run of Donald Trump. The latest book to analyse the economic reasons for this anger is “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” by the Princeton University pair Anne Case and Angus Deaton. Deaton, a Nobel laureate in economics, is well-known in India for his work on inequality and poverty in this country. 

Case and Deaton first published research on “deaths of despair” five years ago, looking at middle-aged whites. They noted that so many white working-class Americans in their 40s and 50s were dying of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse that the overall mortality rate for the age group was no longer falling – a rare and shocking pattern in a modern society. But they also determined that this phenomenon was true for all non-college educated whites. Up and down the age spectrum, “deaths of despair” were increasing dramatically. 

The new book tries to explain why this is happening. Their answer:  US working-class life is more difficult than it is in any other high-income country. “European countries have faced the same kind of technological change we have, and they’re not seeing the people killing themselves with guns or drugs or alcohol,” Case says. “There is something unique about the way the US is handling this.” Inequality has risen more and middle-class incomes have stagnated more severely in the US than in comparable countries like France, Germany or Japan. Outsourcing has become the norm, which means that executives often see low-wage workers not as colleagues but as expenses. Labour unions have lost negotiating power to large corporations. On top of this, the US has by far the world’s most expensive health-care system.
 
In effect, white workers have begun to experience the economic deprivation that has been commonplace for years among black Americans. Mother Jones recently carried an article on Darrick Hamilton, an academic who strongly influenced the policies of both Sanders and Warren on the racial wealth gap in the US and shown that a black American middle class does not really exist in the US.
 
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(The views expressed are personal)
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World in Review

About the Author

Pramit Pal Chaudhury

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta Aspen Centre

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri writes on political, security, and economic issues. He previously wrote for the Statesman and the Telegraph in Calcutta. He served on the National Security Advisory Board of the Indian government from 2011-2015. Among other affiliations, he is a member of the Asia Society Global Council, the Aspen Institute Italia, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and the Mont Pelerin Society. Pramit is also a senior associate of Rhodium Group, New York City, advisor to the Bower Group Asia in India, a member of the Council on Emerging Markets, Washington, DC, and a delegate for the Confederation of Indian Industry-Aspen Strategy Group Indo-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and the Ananta Aspen Strategic Dialogues with Japan, China and Israel. Born in 1964, he has visited over fifty countries on five continents. Mr. Pal Chaudhuri is a history graduate from Cornell University.