This is the second in our series on the 2016 US Presidential election, in which Alex Burd talks to Peter Trubowitz, Professor of International Relations and Director of the US Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Associate Fellow at Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs. [ The first podcast, on Donald Trump can be found here.]
With the Democrat and Republican conventions now complete and the candidates confirmed, attention turns to the general election. Donald Trump, the self-appointed outsider, faces Hilary Clinton, the first female Presidential nominee in the history of the two main parties. Clinton is no stranger to government however, having been the First Lady of the United States, Senator for New York, and Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in a career of public service that spans three decades. The campaign has been vitriolic from the outset with Trump dubbing Clinton ‘crooked’, while Democrats and been quick to argue that Trump is unfit to hold the office. To predict that battle ahead I’ve been speaking Professor Peter Trubowitz, director of the US centre at the London School of economics. He explains why the he expects the upcoming election to be one of the most negative in history.
ProfessorTrubowitz: I’ve written and I think this, that this election is going to be about war, sex, and work. Both of these candidate have very high negatives. Both are up in the 50-60% ratio. It may not be unprecedented, maybe the 1968 campaign with Nixon, Wallace and Humphries was similar. It’s very unusual and what it means is that both sides are going to hammer away at those unfavorable. And for Clinton what means is that she’s going to go after Trump after on something where he scores very low which is a sense that he’s in command on the issues, that he’s reliable, and his ratings there are unbelievably low. She’s going to focus on who’s got the finger on the nuclear button. That may not be as salient as it was in the 1964 election when Lyndon Johnson and when people were worried about Barry Goldwater because he talked very loosely about nuclear weapons and using them and I think she’s going to hammer that very hard and she’s going to get a lot of traction. What Trump is going to do very hard is go after her husband. He’ll be able to do two things there, he’ll be able to raise issues about the Clintons and whether they can be trusted and where they’ve taken the country before, but it’s also a way to remind the public that Hilary Clinton is not new and she’s part of the establishment. By drawing the connection with the husband and the presidency in the 1990s.
Alex Burd: Hilary Clinton has built her campaign on the promise of being a solid, reliable hand on the tiller – in contrast to the erratic and unconventional Trump. With over twenty years experience her time in public life has not been mistake-free and she will not be able to ride the same wave of optimism and hope that carried Barack Obama to power. Her judgement and honesty has been called into question by her opponents following terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012 and her use of a private email server when secretary of state.
PT: The way this game is played is that you look for the other sides vulnerabilities and you go after your opponent’s strengths. She comes across who’s someone who’s much more calculating and steady and she’ll really try to play on her experience but I think he’ll go after that and say experience doesn’t equal judgment and so forth as Bernie Sanders has done in the Primaries. I think both of them have room to go after the other way and to play on the others unfavorable. Her weakness, especially with young people is that she’s not viewed as trustworthy. And whether that’s fair or not you can see it in the poll results. While Trump as that shortcoming as well, he’ll go after her on that dimension. He’ll try and driver her negatives higher, it’s also a way to solidify his base support. The more he hammers away at the Clintons the more it is red meat for the Republican base.
AB: If Clinton is successful the Democratic Party will have won its third consecutive Presidential election for only the second time in it’s history, ensuring their longest stay in the White House since the Second World War. Having served in President Obama’s cabinet Clinton risks being tarnished by the failings of the current regime and encounter weariness from votes with the status quo. But, she will be able to call on the support of the Leader of the Free World on the campaign trail.
PT: Trump’s structural advantage in the election is that he is the outside and she is the insider. In American politics it’s very unusual for the party holding power to win three terms, so that’s where he’ll go. But you know Clinton has an interesting, kind of hidden weapon in Barack Obama. I think he’ll start campaigning for her a lot sooner then would normally be the case. I think his approval numbers are something to really keep an eye on, I think they’re currently above 50%, the other day on Gallup they were on 52%, that’s a high number, it may not seem like a high number but that’s a very positive number. Normally when an incumbent President has numbers that high then it is a good for the candidate running from that party. I think she’ll also be able to use Obama also to repair, to bring young people on board. I think he still has credibility with younger people in a way she doesn’t and he can do a lot of the bridge building there for her.
AB: As the refugee crisis in the middle east continues and the fear of domestic terrorism rises one of the major themes of Western politics has been the growing support for isolationism and nationalism. Donald Trump has capitalised on this, and has looked to move away from the traditional alliances that have been in place since the Cold War, refusing to rule out using Nuclear weapons in Europe and refusing to commit to defending NATO allies in the Baltic. A recent Pew poll found that foreign policy was a key concern for 70% and the next President could completely redefine America’s place in the world.
PT: There’s a very heavy focus on the burden that the United States is shouldering internationally. When you look at what Trump ahs talked about most of it is about reducing those burdens or about putting tariffs on Chinese imports or making it harder to move jobs out of the United States, or make it harder to cross America’s borders by putting up a wall or making America’s allies pick up more of the tab for collective defense. So most of that points to some kind of a strategy of retrenchment. That will cause a great deal of concern. Some in Europe, but especially in Asia, are already worried about that. They’re worried about the political dysfunction in the United States, they’re worried about China’s rise and there’s a sense in many Asian capitals that the pivot to Asia is more rhetorical than concert and Trump plays into those fears and anxieties. I think if you take a broader view here as well then one of the messages of this electoral cycle is that the public in general wan the United States to be less engaged internationally. And that’s going to be a problem for Hilary Clinton as well if she ends up winning in November, she’s going to have to deal with those concerns as well. I think the challenge for whoever becomes the next President is going to be navigating the continuing demand for US leadership and the erosion of domestic support for that. That is really the challenge, dealing with the demand and shrinking supply on the US side in terms of political support for international engagement. I think that over the next couple of years will the job for the next President.
AB: Since the election of George W Bush in 2000 politics in America has become increasingly polarised. Intransigence has become the defining feature of US politics with neither side willing to work with the other to the point where government has broken down completely as it did in 2013. With two unpopular candidates, unable to command full support from within even their own party, it looks unlikely that either Trump or Clinton will be the one to reach across the aisle and heal the divides between Republicans and Democrats.
PT: Its going to be difficult for whoever wins. If this election goes to form where it’s highly polarized electorate and that plays out in the election, then it’s going to be hard for the next President to govern. There is a possibility that you get an outcome where Clinton is able to cleave the Republican party and she might have a larger base of political support but I wouldn’t predict that. I think in a way this election is a referendum on how polarized this country. If it’s truly red versus blue and very polarized what you’ll get here is an election where Clinton wins the Presidency but the Republicans continue to run congress and we have a dysfunctional government going forward.
AB: Americans go to the polls in roughly three months’ time, on November 12. Current polling indicates a narrow lead for Hilary Clinton and Professor Trubowitz believes this will be borne out once the votes are counted.
PT: Holding everything constant, you know ceteris parabus, I would predict that Clinton would win, I don’t know by how much but I think she will win but there’s a lot of time between now and then and there’s a possibility, maybe even a likelihood of a black swan, a terrorist attack in the United States, that’s not clear how that plays, something like that happens. It could easily help Trump, it’s conceivable it could help Clinton. A lot of it would depend on how Obama responded to it.
AB: If you missed part one of this programme which discussed the rise of Donald Trump then please visit our website at www.podacademy.org or the Pod Academy iTunes Feed. You’ll also be able to listen to programmes on the Philippines and a lecture by Noam Chomsky. For updates follow us on twitter at Pod Academy.
Thanks for listening.
Picture: Donkey Hotey