Two Takes on the Presidential Race
The democratic primaries and the campaign statements of President Trump are not only a big topic for the American media. We asked Peter Rough, Fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute and Young Leader 2018, and Michael Werz, Senior Fellow at the Democratic Center for American Progress and member of the board of Atlantik-Brücke, for their views on the most important issues of the upcoming elections.
What has been the biggest surprise to you so far in the presidential race?
Michael Werz: The fact that President Trump still has an approval rating among registered Republicans that ranges between 79% and 88%, as well as the fact that GOP leaders have fallen in line behind the President, even when he has flouted both Republican orthodoxy and constitutional norms.
Peter Rough: The biggest surprise for me is the utter failure of any Democrats who hadn’t previously run for president (or flirted with the prospect) to catch fire. Biden, Warren, and Sanders are clearly the big three and from them there is a steep drop-off to the rest of the field (Harris, O’Rourke, Gillibrand, etc.). Given the current flux in American politics, I expected a relatively unknown Barack Obama-like figure to emerge to run a new campaign with new ideas. Instead, the Democratic field feels a bit stale.
Which issues will ultimately decide the elections 2020?
MW: Health care, economic issues and environmental policy consistently rank among Americans’ top concerns, but in a broader sense the election will be answering the question of where Americans want to see their society a generation from now. For many, this will be the most consequential election since the Second World War—there will likely be record turnout. For many Trump supporters, they will vote because they feel their white privilege and economic advantages are being threatened. Those who oppose Trump will vote because they abhor his targeting of minority groups and fear what another four years of what Steve Bannon called the “deconstruction of the administrative state” might bring.
PR: There will be a mix of traditional issues which always decide elections, most importantly the economy. And then issues which Trump has made his own, like immigration and trade. There are some issues which have been heavily discussed in the Democratic primary – race relations and climate change come to mind – that are unlikely to be big topics in the general election. The majority of Americans are white and almost half are male; I can’t imagine villainizing them to be an effective general election strategy. Moreover, the economic costs of largescale climate intervention will probably deter the Democratic nominee from making that a premier issue in the general election. I also think neither side will wish to emphasize health care. For Trump, the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is the biggest setback of his administration; for the Democrats, Obamacare is still something of a liability. So both sides are incentivized to mute this issue, despite all of the primary talk of “Medicare for All.” One thing I can guarantee, however: there are bound to be unforeseen issues we aren’t talking about now that will matter a great deal come next fall.
The increasing popularity of socialism – at least the American definition of it – is discussed a lot in the media. How do you assess the role of the far left in current politics? How important will it be in the elections?
MW: From a European perspective, this discussion must be quite entertaining. The self-declared democratic socialists in the Democratic Party argue for the right to study at a state university and not end up with massive student debt, for a health care system that leaves no American behind, for the reinstatement of previous regulation of the financial sector, and for meaningful action to address climate change. Angela Merkel and most of her CDU supporters would wholeheartedly embrace these policy positions and still reject the label of being a “socialist”. Ultimately, the current discussion here in the U.S. proves just how far the entire political spectrum—including the Democrats—has shifted since the Reagan era.
PR: The left is more powerful than at any time in recent memory in the Democratic party. This is where the energy lies and explains why presidential candidates have positioned themselves on the fringes. It is also something of a liability for Democrats in the general election. There is a reason why Trump targeted the so-called “squad” of left-wing congresswomen: his goal is to make them rather than Joe Biden the face of the Democratic Party. A hugely consequential dynamic will be the eventual Democratic nominee’s pivot from primary to general election candidate.
What effect has Donald Trump’s presidency had on the political debate leading up to the primaries?
MW: A mixed effect: He defines some of the policy responses because of his extreme positions on immigration, his denial of climate change, his continuing redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top of U.S. society. At the same time, many Americans realize that forty years of deregulation and the illegitimate war in Iraq have undermined America’s reputation with the rest of the world and created massive economic inequality at home. The President has attempted to answer these challenges by rewinding the clock to the 19thcentury – complete with tariffs, robber barons, and modern-day Jim Crow legislation. But because he has so destroyed the old norms, many Americans are increasingly open to new ideas that might have previously been dismissed as outside the mainstream. This desire for outside-the-box solutions to 21st century questions is one of the reasons why Elizabeth Warren’s campaign based on detailed, bold policy proposals has proved so popular.
PR: Trump’s presidency is everything. He commands the ship, so to speak. It’s antiquated to talk of a news cycle, but perhaps it’s best to say that he’s driving the media narrative in directions of his choosing. It isn’t always smooth sailing, but there’s no doubt that he’s the object of attention.
What are the president’s chances of being reelected?
MW: It’s unlikely that President Trump will be re-elected. Over the past two and a half years he has been unable (or unwilling) to expand his base beyond his core supporters. In addition, his confrontational behavior, open racism, and cozy relations with authoritarian leaders have alienated some moderate Republican voters in suburban and rural areas – the midterm elections last November showed that trend clearly. The cruel border and immigration policies implemented by his administration – as well as the racist diatribes – will also motivate minority voters (one-third of the U.S. population) and millennial voters (now the largest demographic group of voting age) to get more involved in the electoral process than ever before.
PR: The last time a president lost reelection was 1992, so I think his odds are slightly better than 50/50. In my view, the Democrats have not really absorbed the lessons of 2016. Their hope is that the American public is so exhausted by Trump that it decides to dump him. And if this election is purely a referendum on Trump, they may very well win; however, if Trump succeeds in making this a choice between blunt Trumpism and American socialism, then he probably wins.
After the Russian hacks in the 2016 presidential election: How big is the danger of interference with the 2020 elections?
MW: It’s a substantial risk that has been almost entirely ignored by the Trump administration. President Trump’s denial of any Russian involvement will surely be read by Moscow as an invitation to interfere once more – which is also true for upcoming national elections in Europe. However, it seems that the intelligence community is better prepared and more sensitized than in 2016. Ultimately, American society and policymakers have no option but to assume that the voting process is being executed with integrity. Any doubt about the legitimacy of the voting systems and count would only add fuel to already simmering discontent about the unfair advantages provided to the Republican party by the electoral college, gerrymandered districts, and legalized voter suppression of minorities. This growing sense of illegitimacy poses a serious long-term threat to one of the oldest democratic system on earth – a system currently led by a man who openly said he might contest the last presidential election if defeated.
PR: Given the changing nature of media, I suspect foreign meddling in elections will be a permanent feature of Western politics. I doubt it will play a decisive role and tip the vote one way or another. But it is important to deter such pernicious behavior to the extent possible. Such interference should not be cost-free.