Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode IV

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

Episode IV

The lock-down continues unabated here in the United States. Easter weekend came and went and still the United States appears no closer to getting out of this situation. This was the weekend that Donald Trump originally speculated would see the country reopened, but that hasn’t happened. There seems to be very little sign as to when, or if, the various statewide curfews are going to be lifted, and the gulf between the federal and state responses is doing very little to improve that situation. The Covid crisis is raising questions beyond issues of health that now extend into the political realm, not merely regarding the handling of the pandemic, but as to whether the disease could contribute to an effort to undermine democracy here in America.

The United States is still in the process of selecting a Democratic nominee to challenge Donald Trump in the November election, with Wisconsin being the latest state to hold a primary, albeit in a very convoluted fashion. The Democrat governor of Wisconsin tried to prevent the primary because of fears for public safety, that was challenged by the Republican controlled state legislature. Initially, it looked as though the governor was going to prevail, until the decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which sided with the Republican majority, ensuring that the poll went ahead. We are still in a state of flux with regards to the result, since there was a time period allowed for postal voting and for absentee ballots to come in. It is clear, however, that people are looking at the debacle in Wisconsin and the differing approach adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties, fearing it could be a harbinger for the general election in November.

Conspiracy theorists are already suggesting that Donald Trump might use this as an excuse to cancel the election, or to call into doubt question the results in November. He is already casting doubt on the concept of postal votes, despite the fact that he already has one in place for his residency in Florida. Four years ago, he was asked if he would accept the results of the presidential election if he lost, and he said, ‘wait and see,’ revealing his willingness to play fast and loose with accepted norms of American democracy 

What would transpire if Donald Trump sought to cancel the presidential election in November? Students of American politics who want to get a grasp of what’s going on here need to start with the Constitution. The timing of the election is addressed in the 20th amendment to the Constitution, which states that;  If the president shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect you have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until the President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as Present, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

This appears to mean that it would be up to Congress to decide who would be president, on the basis that neither Mike Pence nor Donald Trump would have become president. If the election is not held, their terms in office will expire at noon on January 20th.  As of today, the Democrats control the House of Representatives, and the Senate is controlled by the Republicans. We move into uncharted territory when you consider that the new Congress will take its seats on the third day of January. We could end up in a bizarre situation whereby if the presidential election is suspended, but there are still elections to the House and the Senate, Democrats could control both the House and Senate. Those Democratic majorities would take their seat on the third day of January next year, and in the absence of a presidential election, once Donald Trump’s term expires at noon on January 20th, they could very well decide who the new president will be.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden spoke this week with regards to the coronavirus and the only news appears to be a total lack of news coming out of that call. It was not a face to face meeting which you may expect at this time in an electoral process, but nobody expected that. President Trump is not going to turn around and suggest that his thinking on this subject has been changed due to any input from Joe Biden. That would not be politically viable. Neither should anybody necessarily expect any original thinking from Joe Biden, whose career to date suggests that such a development really would be quite a miraculous occurrence. What you ae seeing, therefore, is simply the continuation of politics as normal. It is surprising that the phone call took place at all,  but clearly it was an opportunity for the two men to demonstrate some degree of national unity in this time of national crisis, even if the unity is going to be relatively short lived in what is indeed a very strange election cycle. 

Perhaps the most important news to have occurred this week is the decision by Bernie Sanders to finally suspend his campaign for the presidency. This, however, is nothing more than acceptance of political reality. Bernie’s campaign this year really failed to take off in a manner which he and his supporters had anticipated after the results from the Democratic primaries four years ago. In 2016 he came second in a two-horse race with Hillary Clinton. He and his supporters felt that he was the anointed one this year, but history and the voters have decided otherwise. Instead, Joe Biden has emerged as the unity candidate for the Democratic Party, and it’s interesting to see what has happened within the party this year. 

Four years ago, when everyone was terrified that Donald Trump might emerge as the Republican Party candidate, everyone assumed it simply couldn’t happen. Nobody dropped out of the race in an attempt to coalesce support around a single unity candidate, such as Jeb Bush, and as a result Donald Trump came through to win with a pretty constant level of support that hovered around 35%, suggesting that the majority of Republican voters were overwhelmingly opposed to him. However, as long as their egos were intact, Trump’s opponents refused to bow out, guaranteeing him victory. The Democrats have attempted to learn from that this in 2020 and were mindful of Bernie Sanders becoming the Donald Trump figure for the Democratic Party. You saw about a month ago, the leading candidates after Super Tuesday bowing out and throwing their weight behind Joe Biden in a deliberate effort to block Bernie Sanders. What’s telling is the extent to which Biden has recognized that he needs to do what Hillary Clinton failed to do last time around: Bernie Sanders did not drop out until the last minute in 2016, and chased Hillary Clinton all the way to the convention, throwing his weight somewhat tepidly behind Hillary Clinton only very late in the game, ensuring that even at the convention Hillary was heckled by his supporters.  

Hillary’s defeat can be explained by many elements, not least of which was the fact that there was a 5 million decline in Democratic turnout from 2012. There was no great surge in Republican support, there was simply a dip by 5 million for the Democratic Party. Joe Biden believe this is an eminently winnable election. If the Democratic base gets out to vote, the thinking clearly is that Joe Biden can win where Hillary Clinton did not. Biden is attempting to court Bernie Sanders’ supporters, talking about the fact that his team have created a movement. Very clearly there has been the emergence over the past four years of a new-left movement in the United States, identifiable with Bernie Sanders as well as AOC in New York City, formulating around the support for the Green New Deal concept. It must be said that in many ways this is somewhat out of kilter with the mainstream United States. Bernie Sanders and this nascent movement helped drag the Democratic Party to the left four years ago, making it more difficult for Hillary Clinton to position herself at the political center where she spent much of a political career along with her husband. Joe Biden is, therefore, playing lip service to Bernie Sanders’ supporters, hoping that by doing so this early in the primary season any hard feeling will be diminished by the time of the election in November, enabling them to come out and voting for the Democratic candidate. 

Biden’s apparent grip on the nomination has raised questions about whom he might name as his vice-presidential running mate. He has made clear that he intends to name a woman to the position. Some people are suggesting this is a historic first, but  this is not the case; We have seen Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee at the top of the ticket four years ago, Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee  in 1984, and  who can forget Sarah Palin, the vice presidential nominee for the Republican Party in 2012? The idea that Biden is going to select a woman is significant, so that narrows down the field of potential candidates. The most important factor to consider is that Joe Biden needs to choose someone who can help him win the presidency. To do so, he needs 270 Electoral College votes. He needs, therefore, to choose someone as a running mate who can guarantee to bring along their own state; the more populous the state, the more delegates it brings for the Electoral College. Therefore, Biden needs to choose someone who is very popular in a state with a large population. Who might Biden be thinking about? Some people have suggested Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from of New York, although her media presence has been diminished, and no one is really talking about her.  There are certain states which are all but guaranteed to vote for the Democratic Party in November, and New York would certainly be one of them,  so it doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense to choose Senator Gillibrand because New York will be in the Democratic tally, and if it isn’t then Joe Bryant has a lot bigger things to worry about!

A similar challenge faces Kamala Harris, whom a lot of people have talked about as a potential Democratic vice-presidential running mate. Yet the last thing Joe Biden needs is any more votes from California! The Democrats won that state by 2 million votes four years ago, and desperately need to spread their support among the neighboring states, so bringing Kamala Harris on board fails to contribute an awful lot to Joe Biden’s ground game. Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota is a serious possibility, coming from the Midwest which is part of the country the Democrats desperately need to bring into their tally. It is part of the country which was seen to back away from Hillary Clinton four years ago, so she could very well be a possibility. Someone who has a lot of light on them  is Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, but again the great problem with naming her is the fact that Massachusetts is going to vote Democrat come what may, and therefore, naming her would not necessarily galvanizes an awful lot of excitement, or pick up local support beyond where it already is. An interesting candidate is Governor Whitmer from Michigan, an individual who may lack a great deal of experience, but who would be able to help deliver Michigan, a state which Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, and which Donald Trump desperately needs to hold onto it he wants to be re-elected. She’s a candidate who could help bring the Midwest along and would, therefore, be an all too obvious candidate for Joe Biden’s presidential running mate. 

We are in uncertain times. In the 1930s and 1940s, once the Great Depression was ending, and America’s involvement in the Second World war was becoming increasingly inevitable, Franklin Roosevelt presented himself as being vital to the national interests of the United States. It was claimed that ‘Dr. New Deal was going to become Dr. Win the War,’ suggesting that the United States would be unable to prevail without FDR in the White House. That turned the elections of 1940 and 1944 into unprecedented situations whereby a sitting president remained in office seeking election for a third and a fourth time. The Constitution was changed subsequently to prevent this from happening again, but when FDR did it there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, only precedent stood in his way. What Donald Trump is going do in November is anybody’s guess. At this point, he is required to run for reelection in the November election. There is no example in American history of a presidential election not being held. Even during the Civil War an election was held. During the Spanish Flu epidemic elections were held. During World War Two, elections were held, so there really is no historical precedent for Donald Trump to look back upon to use in an attempt to potentially undermine American democracy in November. His opponents would doubtless suggest that would not be an impediment for Donald Trump should he seek to thwart democracy, for we are in the most uncertain of times here in the United States. 

“The Next Vice-President of the United States…”

For those who are less than inspired by the current presidential election, I have good news; it will all be over in 6 months (well 8 if you include the wait until Inauguration Day)! The dynamics could not be more removed from those of 4 years ago. Barack Obama is far from the historic figure if ‘change’ that he positioned himself as in 2008. He has aged visibly in the role and is failing to stoke the passions as once he did. Unable to run on a platform of ‘change’ he has chosen the rather uninspired ‘Forward’ slogan, that has gone down like a lead balloon.

As a candidate he appears unwilling or unable to take credit for his 2 signature moments without them rebounding in his face: His health care reforms are being considered by the Supreme Court and could be rejected as being unconstitutional any day now, and his efforts to maximise the raid that killed bin Laden were scuttled by his inability to credit the work of those on the ground who actually carried out the raid. So all, in all, Obama is failing to cut an inspiring figure in US politics anymore. He may not be Jimmy Carter just yet, but the signs are worrying.

Facing the president is Mitt Romney. This was the governor of Massachusetts who introduced a health care system so similar to that endorsed by the White House that it was referred to as ‘Romney-care’ by his Republican critics in reference to ‘Obama-care’. This is a Republican that is acceptable in Massachusetts. He is also a Mormon, which causes suspicion amongst some and finally he is the very personification of an old school insider politician; a governor and a son of a governor. This is not exactly the candidate that the Tea Party were hoping for and it is their activism that held so much promise for a potential Republican victory this November.

If the top of the ticket is failing to generate any interest then all that leaves is the VP slot. Readers of The Commentator will no doubt be familiar with the HBO movie Game Change that aired recently and which did much to ridicule the Republican process in 2008 that resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin. Less well known is that the book this was drawn from was focused almost exclusively on the Obama-Hillary race with only a small section focused on the Republican VP process.

However, whilst the selection of Governor Palin provided career a high for Tina Fey and filled ample column inches around the world, the forgotten reality is that the Democratic choice didn’t work out too well either. The initial reaction to Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was hardly euphoric with many, myself included, asking how this choice demonstrated the much-vaunted ‘change’ that Obama had campaigned on. Here in the UK Biden was most known, if he was known at all, for plagiarizing material lifted from Neil Kinnock, aka ‘The Welsh Windbag’ and former Leader of the Labour Party who was routinely trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Hardy a figure to want to be imitating in order to secure the White House.

Biden, it was argued, helped to balance the ticket. Well, ok, he was white and Obama was black, he was old and Obama was not. Was the implication also meant to be that Biden was experienced and Obama was not? That was a reasonable position to take from the comparison, though hardly a flattering one for the would-be president. Biden was from Delaware and Obama from Illinois, so hardly a great North/South divide. Delaware is also a tiny state with only 3 Electoral College votes, so he didn’t exactly bring much to the party on that score. Since the election Biden has hardly covered himself in glory, committing gaffe after gaffe.

If Obama is victorious in November, his power will begin to ebb away very quickly as thoughts turn to the 2016 race and who will replace him in the White House. Does anyone seriously expect that candidate to be Joe Biden? Of course not. Which brings me to my point: What purpose does it serve to retain Biden on the ticket? He no longer serves any purpose other than to distract attention from the president and to act the fool. He is after all, such a buffoon that even bid Laden recognised the potential value of having him in the Oval Office. So, if Biden no longer helps with the ‘lack of experience’ vote, or with the racial equation, his state brings virtually no Electoral College votes and he serves only as a hindrance, why retain him? There is simply no logical argument for his place on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Obama needs a candidate who will be his Game Changer for 2012. A candidate to excite the base of the Democratic Party. A candidate who is ready to assume the presidency should the unthinkable happen to the Commander-in-Chief. A candidate with a track record of winning campaigns. A candidate who has demonstrated an ability to be a tough and loyal ally. A candidate whose home state would bring in a large number of Electoral College votes. And finally, a candidate that has a viable chance of winning the White House in 2016. There is no one in the Democratic Party that fits these criteria better than Hillary Clinton. She has denied any interest in the role, but selecting Hillary will also aid Obama in his depiction of the Republican ‘War on Women’ in 2012 and present the Republicans with a dilemma.

The dilemma for Romany is how best to counter a decision to place Hillary on the ticket. It can hardly of escaped anyone’s attention that the Republicans had a week field of candidates this year. The heavy hitters all stayed home, clearly anticipating a clear run against a non-incumbent in 21016. They will be ill at ease with the thought of joining a ticket that, if successful would keep them from the Oval Office for at least eight years, and which if it fails, could end any chance of such a situation arising altogether.

Romney desperately needs a Game Changer of how own, but if Obama selects Hillary then Romney could be accused of playing gender politics if he names a woman as his VP candidate. Not that there is a logical Republican female candidate who brings the same strengths to the ticket as Hillary does for the Democrats. Romney must do something altogether different therefore. His one sure-fire bet is to choose Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio would excite the Republican base, engage the Latino vote, put Florida in play (remember 2000?) and certainly make a Republican victory more of a possibility than it is at present.

The challenge for Romney is not placing the call; it will be if that call is rejected. The risks are huge on both sides however.  If Rubio refuses and Romney loses, does it get blamed on the petulant self-serving one term senator who placed self ahead of nation and party? If Rubio accepts and Romney loses does Rubio get tagged as a loser, thus running his chances in 2016? If Romney wins, then does Rubio lose all of his appeal when he eventually gets to run, which could be as late as 2020?

This is a debate that has been rumbling for some time and must surely come to a head in the coming weeks. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, which is one thing that makes politics so fascinating. However, with the polls close, the stakes so high, the lead candidates so dull, the VP-stakes could not be more important in 2012.