10 December 2020
Forward To The Past
Still in the swamp?
By J R Thomas
The shades of night are drawing around the current President, whilst the rising sun lights the gentle smiling face of the new First Citizen. That’s the only poetic effusion that you will have to suffer here, so pass safely on. Donald has lost, his team is packing up and leaving, Rudy is hospitalised, and Melania, having Christmas-decorated the White House for the last time (or maybe not) has been noticed giving her husband tender and sympathetic looks. Maybe she will be back in 2025; we won’t pursue that because nobody knows. We must turn now to the rising sun and see what we can discern picked out in this strange new light that strikes across the land. (Sorry, forgot, promise not to do it again.)
If there is a new light, it has a strange feature; it’s very like the old light that has been the illumination of American politics for a long time. Joe Biden has been around a long time – he was first elected as a Senator (for Delaware) in 1970 when only 29* and went on doing that job until 2009 when he finally got promotion as Vice-President to Barack Obama. He didn’t have to change his place of work though; the Veep also serves as President of the Senate, so he did another eight years there. Promotion was a long time coming; back in 1988 he had joined the Presidential nomination tussle among the Democrats but withdrew after some, um…inaccuracies… in his record were drawn to the public attention. But he soldiered on in the Senate and in the Democrats with the result that has pleased so many – well; just over half. But it is a remarkable career and it showcases Mr Biden’s extraordinary drive and determination that he has finally won the top job in American politics.
The determination is one thing, but another thing is the influence which Mr Biden has over the Democrats; not perhaps as much as the Clinton’s, but in modern times more than the Kennedy’s. Joe is a machine politician, a man enmeshed in the very beating heart of the Democrat Party, a man who knows not only where the bodies are buried but who did the deed and with what. In this he could not be more different to Donald Trump, himself previously a registered member of the Democrats who did not join the Republicans until 2009, and never held any form of political office prior to being elected President, nor had showed much interest in it, and spends little time on back slapping, or even back stabbing.
Joe though is not only a man who knows how to operate the machinery; he has learned the instruction book by rote and will govern accordingly. In that he seems likely to turn out to be one of the least radical presidents of modern times, with few new ideas or approaches. Nothing wrong with that of course if the old system is still the best system. But it is not what Bernie Sanders and most of those other contenders – the mostly forgotten twenty-two – had in mind for a new approach to Leftish politics, a vaccine against Trumpism. Radicalism is not Joe; what will be Joe is hard to be sure of, especially given the difficulties in taking up office in the time of Covid, and he did not tell us much in his manifesto. No increase in tax for most folks, but increases for the rich (who they?), and corporates. No further troop withdrawals, he said, but the US would be taking back her place as leader of the green revolution, reducing use of carbon based energy, trying to end the sanctions against Iran and renegotiate the non-nuclear treaty, attempting to rebuild relationships with China. The thrust of all this is that the United States will once again be taking up her role as leading nation of the world, chastiser of the naughty, punisher of the wicked. Whether this is what the world wants is another matter, of course. Whether this is what a Democrat administration ought to be doing is also another matter.
There are some cynics who said that what Mr Trump was doing was more in line with Democrat principles than the Clinton and Obama approach to world affairs (and indeed at home – a real effort to maintain employment in dying industries, for example, to say nothing of extending Mr Obama’s Mexican fence). But we must wait and see what Mr Biden actually does, rather than what he says, and who his key appointments will be. So far there is a very familiar feel to them; a sort of regrouping of the Obama team albeit with more women in the senior jobs. And with John Kerry, another old stager and party insider coming around again – this time responsible for Climate (so blame him if it gets too hot/wet/windy/snowy). The essential tone of the Biden approach can perhaps be discerned in what the New York Times had to say on Mr Kerry’s appointment : Kerry will “persuade skeptical global leaders, burned by the Trump administration’s hostility toward climate science, that the United States is prepared to resume its leadership role.” Very kind of the United States, sir, and we thank you. Not sure the Chinese government will quite go along with that, but Mr Kerry can burn up lots of air miles going back and forth trying to persuade them.
It is distasteful at this time to speculate too much on how long Mr B. will be doing the job, and as to what Veep Harris’s role will be, both in the short and the long term. But Kamala is as ambitious as the new President and she will want to carry the party with her, knowing that her chance will come in 2024. That suggests that she will differ little with her boss on key issues and approaches, knowing that to win in four years she must not be identified too much with the left and radical outposts of her party.
Which points up a strange feature and oft overlooked feature of American politics over the last 50 years, beginning with he of blessed memory, Ronald Reagan. The Republicans, the Grand Old Party, the party of the older and richer, of business and enterprise, of conservatives and traditionalists, has become the party of change and of radicalism, of the anti-establishment, of angry outsiders. Not just them of course; similar themes are to be found on the far left of the American discourse, and in its spiritual leader, Senator Saunders. But the Democrat party taking power in Washington next month is indeed the mainstream of conventional politics, the old ideas taken out for another jog even if polished up a bit. The inhabitants of the swamp, not its drainers. The new President is the ultra establishment man, surrounded by a cabinet chosen pretty much in his own reflection. One has the oddest feeling that the recasting of American politics is far from over yet.
* Pedants will protest that citizens cannot be Senators until the age of 30; indeed so. Joe’s birthday is 20th November so he qualified by the time he was sworn-in, in January 1971.