Ben Roback: What the Republican and Democratic conventions tell us about the state of the race

26 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

The Democratic convention concluded last week without the traditional ticker tape parade and fireworks. There were no screaming hordes or huddled delegates. It was the BBC Proms without Rule Britannia, if you will.

That could not have been helped, of course, given the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Nevertheless, both parties have done their level best to inject energy and enthusiasm into proceedings.

The most notable example was an often overzealous (and at times borderline fanatical) speech made by Kimberly Guilfoyle, National Chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee 2020. “The best is yet to come!” she yelled, into an empty convention hall. The speech desperately needed the reaction of an excitable crowd. Instead it felt overly aggressive.

Instead, at the Republican Convention so far, the standout moment was Nikki Haley’s more orthodox convention speech. The former South Carolina Governor and United States Ambassador to the United Nations’ serious tone and vision will be viewed for years to come as her launch pad for a presidential run in 2024. Unlike most of her Republican colleagues, Haley attempted to deliver a serious answer to the current question of racism in America. Instead of describing the election as “shaping up to be church, work and schools versus rioting, looting and vandalism” (Donald Trump Jr.), Haley addressed the issue through a personal prism, describing her background growing up with Indian immigrant parents and becoming the first female Governor of South Carolina.

Although previously a supporter of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, Haley is a rare example of someone who served in the Trump administration and left on her own terms whilst retaining good relations with the President. If Trump loses in November, attention will quickly turn to her own aspirations.

The Republicans and Democrats appear to have pursued very different strategies

At the start of the year, President Trump would have expected and wanted his convention to be almost entirely about the economy – huge economic growth, low unemployment and record stock market rises. The Democrats might have turned their attention to his record and remarks on immigration, women, race and culture in America. How times have changed.

It is quite clear from that convention so far that the Republican game plan is now centred on cultural issues – namely crime, patriotism and American identity. Joe Biden seems to have caught the zeitgeist a little better, recognising that America is jointly experiencing cultural shifts as well as health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19. The Trump campaign and Republican convention has ignored coronavirus entirely.

The second abundantly clear difference has been in personnel.

The Republican convention has been popular viewing for those who like people whose surname is Trump: Eric, Donald Jr., Tiffany and Melania have all spoken so far. Eric Trump, who has tended to be marginally less visible and antagonistic towards the left that his brother Donald Jr., used a portion of his speech to speak directly to his father and lavish praise on the President’s first term.

But the substance of much of his speech was directed at the Republican base and once again reminded us of the tone the campaign will pursue in the next 70 or so days. “Cancel culture”, accusing Democrats of “lacking patriotism” and “disrespecting our national anthem by taking a knee” both featured heavily. Those hoping for an insight into four more years of Trumpism were left underwhelmed.

Several speakers on the Republican stage painted a picture of a nation on the precipice of Communist chaos. Voters must choose between either liberty or looting. Prosperity or protest. Advancement or anarchy. The Democratic candidate, they have argued, is in the pocket of the radical left and does not have the strength to stop towns and cities across America being blighted by the scenes of civil disorder we have seen time and again this year.

The killing of a black man by armed police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has framed the Republican convention. Street battles have raged between protesters and the police following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Republicans have pointed to the disorder as proof of their warning that law and order might come to an end the moment Donald Trump leaves the White House. Democrats counter that it is further evidence of the urgent need to reform police behaviour. Expect the debate to repeat itself long into the election cycle.

Speakers at the virtual Democratic convention have tried to take a more optimistic tone, painting Biden as a man who can unify a country whose social fabric appears to be cracking at the seams. But it is impossible to escape the fact that a question of credibility might underline that message. Barack Obama sailed into the White House – twice – on an upbeat message of hope and change. A young Senator from Chicago with youthful looks to match his optimistic tone, to many Obama embodied his message. Biden might well be a unifier, but as a career creature of Washington, is he best placed to carry a message of change? So far, the underlying message appear to simply be ‘let’s get the other guy out of the White House’.

Viewing figures are helpful but cannot determine a convention’s success or failure

This is a White House and President obsessed with viewing figures. Trump might therefore be concerned with the first night of the Republican convention’s figures. A total of 15.8 million Americans tuned in, nearly 3 million fewer than the 18.7 million viewers who watched the first night of the Democratic National Convention across the same number of networks. Biden’s keynote speech was watched by 21.8 million Americans – a number the President will be desperate to beat when he takes the stage. For historic context, Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention four years ago drew 34.9 million viewers.

Those numbers might have quite understandably reflected the contrasting strategies taken by the parties. The stage and big screens at the Democratic convention were graced by the great and the good of Hollywood and high society. Chaired by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and with comedic interludes from Veep and Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Democratic convention felt at times more like a political take on an all-star awards gala.

In stark contrast, the high watermark of the Republican convention’s first night was a piece to camera by the St Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched past their home. The American public could be forgiven for opting for a night of Netflix instead.

Trump might be lagging in the opinion polls, but he certainly makes for entertaining viewing. For some, politics is a more serious business than that – especially when a country is in the grip of simultaneous health, economic and social crises. When he stands behind the microphone in the White House to deliver his keynote speech, the President does so as the Republican candidate for president but also the sitting Commander in Chief. As such, his keynote speech will command the attention of more than just the nation. You can bet with certainty that his convention speech will be far from conventional.

What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.