What sort of coalition do America’s voters want?

The future of America’s Republican party looks more interesting and probably also more healthy, if one can judge by the interchange between Ben Sasse, the scholarly Senator for Nebraska, and his more demotic President, Donald Trump.

“No president — whether named Obama or Trump or Biden or AOC — has unilateral power to rewrite immigration law or to cut taxes or to raise taxes. This is because America doesn’t have kings”, 

wrote Sasse before adding a quick civics jab: 

“Under our constitution we’re supposed to have public servants.”

It’s a reminder that political parties are coalitions – often uneasy ones.  

Also, that branding is essential for coalitions. And the leader is an important part of that.

While this spat has personal overtones, you could see it as (another) example of the Republican coalition striving to incorporate the political forces Donald Trump brought into play in 2016.  And as the election looms, you could also say that Trump and the Republicans haven’t done a bad job aligning their disparate coalition around traditional conservative principles of non-intervention, freedom and opportunity.

So in foreign affairs, Trump has railed against overseas commitments (and even drawn back from them in some instances). 

On Covid response, Republicans have led the argument for policy trade-offs, while the Democrats are more closely associated with lockdown-at-all-costs. 

Trump’s capping of the stock of government regulation (which we wrote of earlier) is a stark contrast to the regulatory orgy of the Obama years.

Meanwhile on the economy – or what may be the key issue in the election, namely who is seen as better equipped post-Covid to restore income levels and economic growth – Republicans are inclined to rely more on market signals and economic adjustment, while Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden is making the case for a zero-emissions stimulus to generate millions of “good paying” unionised jobs.  His pitch is on a more expansive scale than anything Hilary Clinton offered in 2016.

Granted, it’s a simplification – but the election does have some of the characteristics of a referendum on whether more government could do America some good right now.  With the answer depending on what kind of extra government voters think is on offer.  

Joe Biden – a fixture of Washington politics for almost 50 years – might have more of a challenge defining his brand on this issue.  His undoubted ability to accommodate himself to changing political currents could be seen by voters as proof of a safe pair of hands or confirmation of vapidity.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton (who is four years younger than Biden) made a point of flying back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged killer.  Distasteful to be sure but effective in showing what kind of government interventions he favoured.

And this time definition is just as important.  Biden is ahead in the polls but not running as strongly as Hilary Clinton in 2016 in some of the key states.  The betting markets have Biden and Trump even stevens.

So will Biden try to pitch himself more clearly as a jobs, social security and healthcare candidate?  If so, he may need some Bill Clinton-like dramatics to distance himself from the demands of the police defunding, ‘mostly peaceful’ protest, open borders and climate warrior wing of the Democratic party.  

While this group has some vocal support from America’s elite opinion, that may not be terribly effective in swaying the opinions of median voters in provincial suburbs.  The UK’s Brexit saga is a salutary lesson for what can happen when plugged-in elites mistake emotion for principle.

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