Here’s why a trade agreement embracing NZ won’t be too high on Biden’s policy agenda

Republicans and Democrats across the US are beginning to slice and dice the November 3 election results which showed President Donald Trump and the GOP did much better than anyone – pollsters, analysts and the media – ever expected.

Staggering sums have been spent. The Centre for Responsive Politics calculates both parties spent $US14 billion in all.

This disproved the conventional wisdom that money buys votes. Think of Michael Bloomberg. The former New York mayor and one-time presidential candidate spent more than $US1 billion of his personal fortune estimated at $US55 billion for little.

The $US66.9 billion spent by the Democrats failed to win control of the Senate as expected while they lost ground in the House. In the current Congress, the Democrats hold 232 seats and the Republicans 197. In the next House which takes office on January 3, the Democrats will have only 222 seats and the Republicans 208.

Make up of the new Senate won’t be concluded until the January 5 run-off in Georgia, where the two GOP incumbents failed to make the cut on November 3. Both parties are pouring millions into the race, which the Republicans are expected to hold.  This will give them 52 seats to 48. A loss would give the Democrats control because with the 50-50 balance, the Vice President (due to be Kamala Harris) will have a casting vote.

Some of the luckless Democrat Senate candidates spent eye-watering amounts, even by US standards. Biggest spender was Jaime Harrison, who spent $US104 million trying, unsuccessfully, to unhorse close Trump confidante Senator Lindsey Graeme in South Carolina.   

Hedge funder Tom Steyer spent $US341 million but this didn’t secure him the Democrats’ presidential nomination.

What is becoming clear is a shift in political alliances across the US.  Joe Biden had a comfortable ride to the White House in spite of, and not because of, the Democratic Party.  He stood for normalcy, stolid, sensible middle of the road leadership. All this appealed to the electorate after four years of Trump’s erratic, hectoring, inconsistent presidency.

But if the COVID-19 pandemic had not hit the US, and Trump had handled the current outbreak better, he might well have won and returned to the White House. The US economy was booming, unemployment slipped to lows unseen for decades, and Trump had signalled withdrawal from the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, which resonated with wear-weary Americans inured to the constant images of returning dead US servicemen and women.

Biden did well in the cities, with Black America and the educated parts of the electorate. Not so his House and Senate candidates, who suffered under Republican taunts of socialism, defunding the police, LGBT, black lives matter, and the Woke/Cancel movement racing through the Left and universities. Mainstream America read this as an attack on their “old fashioned” fundamental values.

No doubt Biden’s ultimate victory in November was aided by his ability to match Trump’s campaign dollar for dollar, at around $US1 billion each, but any activity that didn’t directly mobilise party faithful might not be worth the cost.

This pattern helps explain Biden’s choice for Cabinet positions and key advisers. Nearly 50 years in the Senate has taught him the values and power of the centre. 

We can expect more leaks to the political and media bloggers from the progressive left led by Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez from Brooklyn and Senator Bernie Sanders, who are bound to complain the left isn’t getting a look in at the top jobs.

This  will also explain why Biden’s trade policies will be extra-conservative, given his caucus pressures and the heavy influence of the union movement which funded his campaign and provided political muscle in the “get out the vote” struggle.   

He is unlikely to try and join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in his first term. 

For New Zealand this means a free trade agreement will be down on his agenda, although many NZ officials question whether it would be worth the candle, given the concessions NZ would have to make in critical areas like pharmaceuticals without better access to the US dairy market.


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