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OP-ED: A battle of character

  • Published at 11:12 pm July 9th, 2020
Joe Biden mask

The next American election will not be decided by policy but by character

The American election is four months away. Tension is slowly building, partly from the usual excitement, but also from the unusual circumstances of this election taking place in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. Voting will be divided between mail-in ballots and normal voting through attendance at polling centers. 

There is considerable conflict between political parties, with the Republicans arguing there will be more voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots; they are making a considerable effort to limit the use of mail-in ballots. 

The Democrats argue that a registered voter should obtain a mail ballot on request, thus shifting a large percentage of the votes to these mail-in ballots. The Republicans want to limit the use of the mail ballot to those who have a special need (eg, old age). 

Many states allow mail ballots on request, but about half require an acceptable reason to be given. There are many court cases now being heard on these issues. 

Two approaches

The campaigns are just getting started. The nominating conventions will meet and formally select the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Only the vice-presidential candidate of the Democrats is not yet decided. 

The Democrats’ convention is in the week of August 17; and the Republicans’ the week of August 24. The campaigns will rely more than usual on television advertising as large group meetings continue to be risky to those attending -- although Trump shows little interest in protecting the health of his supporters.

Trump will run a very dirty campaign, accusing Biden of many things that will not be supported by evidence. Trump’s approach is to denigrate and insult his opponents. 

We can expect attacks on Biden’s family, his health, his mental condition, relations with women, and financial misdeeds. There will be no evidence for these attacks; Trump’s behaviour will be disgraceful but excused by some as mere politics. 

Biden is unlikely to attack Trump’s family. But he will attack Trump for his failures as a leader and expose his character. The attacks on Trump’s character and behaviour will be very cruel.

Sadly, there will be little useful discussion of actions to deal with the many issues that are devastating American society or its relationship with the rest of the world. There are four obvious problems that the presidential candidates should address. 

1. The Covid-19 pandemic

As of July 5, it was clear that the United States has done a poor job of managing the pandemic. The growth of cases is now accelerating. This is a direct consequence of Trump’s mismanagement. 

The president is no longer interested in this issue and has washed his hands of any responsibility. The administration at the political level claims all is well, while the scientists are uniformly in disagreement with this casual attitude. 

Biden issues his plans, but it is implementation that is needed, as the public health officials know what needs to be done. Trump has failed to lead the US, resulting in the current catastrophe. 

No one knows if Biden can actually do better. Whatever happens in the election, Trump has the responsibility for another six months; there is no reason to believe that he will do better. 

2. Racism in American society

This is an issue that defies any easy solution. Emotions are out of control. Trump believes there is a left-wing conspiracy and calls the movement slogan “Black Lives Matter” an evil statement. 

His prescription is more police and tougher action against protestors, avoiding all the real issues. The Democrats have no meaningful proposals apart from demanding social justice and better policing. 

The deep issues facing the removal of racism from American society would be better attended to by the Democrats; there are actions that can raise the income of the poorer half of society, while the health care and school systems can certainly be improved and made more equitable. 

3. Recession

Trump would say: “What recession? Everything is fine.” Biden will argue that there are serious continuing economic problems and will have elaborate plans. Everything is not fine. 

The continuing pandemic raging in the US restricts the room for trying to revive the economy. Unemployment is likely to increase in the next few months as more enterprises realize that they cannot recover without controlling the pandemic. 

While there are important steps to be taken, it is uncertain in the heat of the election on reaching a consensus, enabling additional legislation to be adopted. 

4. China 

Trump thinks he is doing this well; we do not know what Biden will say. Steve Bannon, a former important Trump adviser, believes that the Trump campaign should focus largely on the China threat, claiming that Trump is the only guy that can handle this danger. Indeed, the relationship between China and the US is a difficult and important problem. Trump’s approach focused on reducing the trade deficit has failed. Ranting against the Chinese, the administration’s policy is no policy. Voters are not much interested in international relations so it will not matter much what happens. 

Where are we?

Polling up to July 4 indicates that Biden has a considerable lead in the national polls, leading Trump by about 8-9% according to data from Real Clear Politics (RCP) (Biden leading 49.6%-40.9%). 

Biden also has a significant lead in several of the key “battleground states” that are in contention. The RCP reports the Las Vegas voting odds as 59.3-38.5 in Biden’s favour. 

The odds had favoured Trump over the past years; the crossover came on June 1. Trump’s job approval is 56.1% negative and 41.9% positive. Presidential job approval is a key indicator of the election outcome. 23.8% of people believe that the country is headed in the “right” direction and 68.1% in the “wrong,” indicating a strong dissatisfaction with the current quality of governance. We note that Trump has the support of about 40% of potential voters, a support level that has been more or less constant during his presidency.

The Financial Times forecast model concludes that Biden already has sufficient strength to win the 270 electoral votes needed (307 electoral votes to 148; 83 are considered toss-ups). The Economist’s model gives Biden about an 89% chance of winning. The model’s expected electoral votes are 346-192 in Biden’s favour.

All trends are against Trump. As of early July 2020, Biden is the leader by a large margin. Trump’s campaign is in a very difficult position and all data suggest that he will lose the election.

Opinion polls show that the voters believe he has done a terrible job with the pandemic and the racial conflicts; support for his talents as an economic manager are declining.  

Of course, Trump supporters claim that the situation will change over the next four months and that Trump will increase his support and win the election. This seems very unlikely; the Republicans will make up stories which show that they are doing better than they actually are. 

The danger for the Republicans is greater as their slender lead in the Senate is threatened. The rejection of Trump will likely extend to many Republican Senate candidates. 

The danger is even greater if Biden is elected and does a reasonable job as president; in the 2022 elections, the Democrats will likely increase the number of Senate seats that they hold. 

The underlying reality is that two-thirds of Americans understand that Trump is a man of bad character and should not be elected again as president of the United States. Character is enough: A complete lack of integrity; a man without patriotism; a man insensitive to the racial problems of the US; a man without empathy and compassion for others; a man without humility who lives his life blustering and bullying others; a man who is a coward and cannot be depended upon, whose word is without value. A man who has no respect for women, whom be bullies and betrays. 

Biden in contrast is a decent man and has lived with integrity and honour. Of course, he has some imperfections, but he is humble and recognizes his shortcomings. 

Complex arguments about medicine, economics, and Asian politics are beside the point. The American people will select the next president on the basis of character. On that score, Biden is the decisive winner.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.