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Letter from Washington: The populist’s promises

For all the unorthodox ways in which Donald Trump does politics, one aspect of his re-election bid has been normal: his claim to have done what he said he’d do four years ago. As this unconventional president’s most conventional slogan has it: “Promises made, promises kept.”

Among the promises kept: conservative judges (and lots of them), tax cuts, deregulation, a reconfiguration of US trade policy, an embassy in Jerusalem, no new major foreign entanglements, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the Iran deal, the economic growth overseen by Trump until the arrival of the pandemic.

As with any president asking for four more years, he has his share of broken promises too. A failure to deliver a Republican answer to the healthcare question is probably the most conspicuous. The swamp isn’t drained. Public debt hasn’t shrunk, but ballooned. Progress on the much-hyped border wall is slow — and, so far, Mexico hasn’t paid for it.

As the historian and prominent Trump supporter Victor Davis Hanson pointed out when I spoke to him this week, the Biden campaign doesn’t make much of these broken promises. I’m not sure I quite agree with Hanson that “there is a grudging consensus that whatever you think of him, he’s really kept most of his promises”. After all, it’s the initial promises that the Democrats usually object to, not Trump’s failure to deliver. What purpose would be served by Biden pointing out that Trump has not followed through on his pledge to bring back torture, for example? More generally, if your central campaign message is a restorative one — we’ll put the country Trump broke back together —it hardly makes sense to downplay the scale of the change.

When it come to the presidency, style matters

However, even Biden’s promise to return to business as usual has more to do with style than it does substance. That is not to disparage what Biden is offering the country. When it come to the presidency, style matters. If the polls are correct and the former vice-president is on the cusp of victory, it is exactly because of the way he has eschewed an ideological clash between progressivism and conservatism and instead focused ruthlessly on character, comportment and competence.

First on a recent list of “five great things that Joe Biden has already done” by New York Times columnist David Brooks was “de-ideologising” the election. “He’s made the campaign mostly about dealing with Covid-19,” writes Brooks. “That’s a practical problem, not an ideological one. Conservatives and moderates don’t have to renounce their whole philosophy to vote for him. They can just say they’re voting for the person who can take care of this.”

If the pandemic proves to have scuppered Trump’s re-election, one of the ironies will be that the president missed an opportunity for ideological vindication. As others have pointed out, the coronavirus was a chance to express the same scepticism about globalisation and China that worked four years ago: a germaphobic China critic was presented with a virus from Wuhan and decided not to say “I told you so”. Instead, the pandemic has exposed the temperamental deficiencies that make him so ill-suited to the job. Meanwhile, liberal technocrats like New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern are lauded for a border closure beyond White House aide and enthusiastic restrictionist Stephen Miller’s wildest dreams.

But the “promises made, promises kept” of a one-term Trump would still have changed America in ways that the restoration candidate will not be able to undo.

In some areas, Trump has sharpened partisan divides, hardened public opinion and made future compromise more difficult. On immigration, for example, where Trump has taken a tougher line any of his recent predecessors, Democrats and Republicans are poles apart. According to Pew, 83 per cent of Democrats and 38 per cent of Republicans say that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents”. It’s a similar story with trade, where Trump’s protectionist rhetoric has driven Democrats and Republicans away from one another.

In other areas, though, Trump has ushered in a new consensus. The most notable example is China. With some moves, a Biden administration would be able to restore parts of the status quo ante with ease — rejoining the Paris climate agreement is a particularly low-hanging fruit — but on China, there will be no reset. And that is largely because of Trump.

Out on the campaign trail, the president’s daughter, Ivanka, is fond of saying that Washington hasn’t changed her father, but that he has changed Washington. For better or for worse, she is right. Paradoxically, the result that will prove her claim is a Biden win, after which some things will feel gratifyingly normal, even boring, but others will be forever changed.

If, however, the American people deliver another surprise, there are four words that will deserve closer attention from Democrats in the post-mortem than they got during the race: “promises made, promises kept.”

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