Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 14 August 2020


Not just lost for words, Biden has lost the plot

Joe Biden could turn out to be the worst president, especially for Australia, since Jimmy Carter. Or he could be just competent. On the basis of the evidence, that’s as far as the range of possibilities extend.

Biden will be the most verbally, and intellectually, challenged president to take office.

No one, surveying the repeated wreckage of his sentences, could conclude otherwise.

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Of course, Biden hasn’t won yet. The realclearpolitics poll average puts him 7.4 per cent ahead of Donald Trump. Two weeks ago, he was a percentage point better than that.

Polls are tightening across battleground states, though Biden still has a clear lead.

At this point four years ago, Hillary Clinton was ahead of Trump by about a percentage point less than Biden is now. Polling leads can deceive. In July 1988, Democrat challenger Michael Dukakis had a 17-point lead over George HW Bush, but lost in a landslide.

Biden will get a poll bump from the gushing press reaction to the appointment of Kamala Harris as his running mate, and from next week’s Democratic nominating convention. Trump will get a bump from the Republican convention the following week.

Biden is well ahead and the betting favourite, but Trump is by no means out of it.

Assessing his record, his recently stated views, his personnel picks and the nature of Biden the politician, the chance that Biden will be an ineffective, perhaps dreadful, president is strong.

This is a controversial, and reluctant, judgment. If Biden wins everyone of goodwill (including this writer) will wish him success. It is in humanity’s interests that the US succeed.

Biden, like Harris, is a politician with apparently no serious or lasting political convictions beyond wanting to win. He is a zeitgeist politician, a man not so much for all seasons as for whatever weather system is passing by. Western politics is often served well enough by such professionals, but that’s when public prejudices are roughly aligned with reality.

Biden instead has moved a long way left, with his party and with the moment. He is committed to a big rise in the corporate tax rate, a rise in income taxes, $US2 trillion in climate expenditures over four years, a whole raft of other spending, a big increase in social welfare payments and government health insurance expenditures.

He would rejoin the Paris climate accords and claims he could completely decarbonise US energy production by 2035. He would install 500 million solar roof panels — presumably made in China — within five years. He will ban fracking on federal lands, while Harris wants it banned altogether.

In foreign policy, climate change will be king. The people surrounding Biden on foreign policy are retreads from the conspicuously ineffective and failed second Obama administration. After he defeated Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Biden formed six joint policy groups with Sanders. He has brought Sanders’s people, and others from the far left, in to staff his transition operation.

Biden wants to take some money away from police and redirect it to social programs although he and Harris do not sign up to the “defund the police” slogan. They want to cut military spending.

Biden talks of revitalising alliances and the multilateral system. He sometimes talks tough on China. But Bill Clinton, an infinitely more capable politician than Biden, accused Bush in 1988 of “coddling dictators” and said he would not grant China Most Favoured Nation trading status. These sentiments didn’t last five minutes into Clinton’s term.

It is true the US mood has become very anti-China and Biden will somewhat follow the mood. But Beijing is a sophisticated international actor. A little like North Korea, it has a repertoire of standard plays that it deploys with US presidents that, until Trump, always worked.

One is to offer help on North Korea. It never amounts to anything but always looks promising. Even an administration as tough-minded as that of George W Bush went slow on the quadrilateral security dialogue in order the get Beijing’s mythical help in reining in Pyongyang.

Better than that, Beijing offers a grand historical bargain on climate change. This is the equivalent of selling the Brooklyn Bridge, but a Democratic president finds it irresistible. The grand bargain never requires Beijing to do anything. Obama went soft on China’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea in exchange for completely worthless media moments and declaratory agreements on climate change that required Beijing to do nothing it wasn’t going to do anyway.

Beijing demonstrates what it really thinks of the climate change religion by remaining the biggest producer and user of coal in the world, the biggest builder of coal-fired power stations at home, and the biggest financier of coal-fired power stations internationally.

Given the immense post-COVID economic difficulties a Biden administration will face, and the job-destroying, economy-wrecking consequences of its tax and climate policies if they are ever implemented, it is heroic to think Biden could resist declaring a historic accord with China, transcending old differences, brought about by his visionary commitment to dialogue and humanity, blah blah, while Beijing reaps strategic advantage.

Am I too cynical?

The US media, divided between Trump haters who boost Biden absurdly because he is the non-Trump, and the much smaller band of Trump partisans who condemn Biden without reservation, nuance or qualification, is completely unreliable on Biden at the moment.

So for an assessment of Biden it’s best to turn to those who know him best and don’t have an axe to grind. Robert Gates was George W Bush’s last defence secretary, at a time when Bush was at his most cautious. Uniquely, Gates was also Obama’s first defence secretary, at a time when Obama was cautious not to look strategically unreliable.

Gates’s memoir, Duty, is the finest I’ve read by a US cabinet secretary. It’s not anti-Obama. Gates writes that Biden is a decent human being — no small thing in Washington — and that they always had a cordial relationship.

However, his judgment of Biden is withering. Biden was a “motormouth”, Gates writes, and “not too many meetings occurred in the Situation Room before the president started cutting Biden off”. He further writes: “I think he (Biden) has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Gates also writes that he was astonished that Biden, after so many years in the Senate, “so often misread what congress would or would not do”.

It’s worth noting that on the day Obama ordered the strike on Osama bin Laden, Biden advised him not to do it until he had more information, which would have meant never. Even by the very light standards of the time, Biden was the dove to Obama’s hawk.

Let’s go to one other source on Biden. Legendary journalist Bob Woodward could under no circumstances be called anti-Democrat. His books have their limitations but are very well sourced. In Obama’s Wars, he writes of a National Security Council meeting: “Biden spun a hypothesis about how a Pashtun leader in Afghanistan influenced Pakistan. It contained enough what ifs that some in the room were quickly confused. (David) Petraeus later told others that the vice-president tended to get lost in his own verbiage.”

And remember, this is years ago, when Biden’s decline was not as marked as it is now.

I spoke to a senior foreign official who dealt with both Biden and John McCain. McCain in his later years was regarded as acute but inclined to ramble a bit. The foreign official told me both men loved anecdotes, but McCain’s anecdotes generally made a point and came quickly enough to an end, whereas Biden’s went on forever.

The best defence of Biden’s acuity is that he’s always been gaffe-prone. Indeed, in his vice-presidential debate with Sarah Palin in 2012 he claimed to have chased Hezbollah out of Lebanon, whereas Hezbollah has never left Lebanon.

It’s worth recording a few of Biden’s gaffes and factually wrong statements. Biden claimed he was arrested in apartheid South Africa while attempting to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. He wasn’t.

He claimed he was an activist marching in demonstrations in the civil rights era. He wasn’t.

He said he voted for the Iraq War authorisation because George W Bush promised that he would never invade Iraq. A claim frankly too bizarre to decode.

He said he graduated in the top half of his year at law school. In fact he graduated 76th out of 85.

These are not isolated historical oddities. Before COVID gave Biden the joyous retreat to the safety of his basement, his statements during the recent primary campaign were frequently bizarre. More than once he forgot where he was; on one occasion welcoming people to the wrong venue. He declared himself to be a candidate for the Senate. He said that unlike the African-American community (nearly 40 million people), the Latino community was very diverse.

He often says astoundingly weird things about race, once describing Obama as: “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate, bright, clean and nice-looking.” He recently said to an African-American interviewer: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, you ain’t black.” And: “Poor kids are just as bright as talented white kids.”

In a primary debate Biden said that since Sanders had opposed a gun control measure 150 million Americans (nearly half the population) had been victims of gun crime. The most spectacular and justly famous recent Bidenism was an attempt to quote the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men and women are created by, you know, you know, the thing …”

The world was deprived of magnificent, if slightly macabre, entertainment when COVID drove politics into indoors isolation and scripted performance. Every unscripted sentence from Biden is a potential train wreck and it is fascinating to watch for the moment of derailment. Whereas normally a US presidential election campaign is the most searching, relentless and unforgiving of examinations, Biden could hide in his basement, avoid all spontaneous contact, avoid press conferences, avoid being asked to respond to Trump’s attacks.

It goes without saying that Trump has his own political, verbal and intellectual challenges.

Given Biden might well be president, it is worth trying to work out what his presidency might be like. It will have the advantage of initial goodwill, from the US media and much of the rest of the world, but Biden literally does not look as though he can do a good job.

Of course, he will preside rather than rule. As they say, people are policy. On that score, it’s not encouraging. His foreign policy confidants are all Obama hangovers who ran a dreadfully ineffective administration under a president who was at least a masterful orator. Biden’s transition committee appointments are weighted left. Cabinet picks will be critical.

And, while Harris is a political shape shifter, always willing to change position, she too has gone far to the left, though not as far as many others in the Democratic Party. But, depressingly, she revels in the culture wars at their most vituperative. They have made her famous, especially her role in abusing and condemning Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when an uncorroborated allegation of long ago sexual assault was made against him. Naturally, Harris did not uphold anything like this standard when a much more credible accusation was made by a woman against Biden. Other Democratic presidential candidates have gone to the centre with their veep pick; Biden went left.

Between COVID, global recession, the deep internal splits in the US, the aggressiveness of Beijing and Moscow, and the unpredictability of Pyongyang and Tehran, we are entering an acutely difficult strategic phase.

There is little evidence to think that Biden can handle it.

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