World

US 2020? Welcome to The Age of Perpetual Campaign

Just in case readers had not thought to look forward to the next two elections in America, J. BROOKS SPECTOR offers some food for thought on what it means.

For those of you who think the next US presidential election (and the full House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, and thousands of other state and local officials) is still far off into the muzzy, distant future, think again. The opening skirmishes have already begun. For politics groupies, this is a huge sachet of a controlled substance to feed their addiction. To the rest, it may be symptomatic of the never-ending political campaign that now typifies American politics – and something that is its possible ruination.

What’s going on here? First of all, among some particularly media-heavy elections, there is a primary election afoot in Alabama on 26 September among Republicans to succeed Jeff Sessions, after he had been appointed as Donald Trump’s attorney general. One candidate, Luther Strange, is the appointed senator right now, and he has become the favourite of the GOP establishment – including President Trump. Ray Moore, a former judge, an outspoken far-right-ish candidate, is his opponent and it is possible Moore may win the primary, despite endorsements flowing to Strange.

In Alabama, at this period in history, that primary victory becomes tantamount to winning the actual off-year election, now scheduled for 12 December for this seat in the Senate. (Still, it will be a short-term victory as the election winner will have to stand all over again for this seat in the 2018 mid-term election, as well as face any primary challenges before that.)

Meanwhile, in Virginia, the governorship (and the state’s House of Delegates) is up for grabs this November as well. Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam will be facing off against Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. Virginia is an increasingly Democratic, blue state, but Gillespie is well-known around the state, so who really knows what will happen by election day.

While neither of these races will make a major difference to the nation’s overall political map, they may be harbingers of what may be on offer in the mid-term election that comes in 2018. Here the question may well be whether or not Democrats can translate the general unpopularity of the incumbent president among many citizens and the growing doubts about his suitability and temperament for his job into a broader political critique of GOP policies and practices. And that would, could, might, perhaps lead to sufficient negative feelings towards the GOP that Democrats feel they can just possibly hold onto all their current senatorial seats up for election and win two or three more and thus gain control of the Senate again.

The House of Representatives is a much taller order, given the current Republican bulge in numbers there, the fact that many House elections swing on local issues and an individual representative’s popularity, as well as the gerrymandering that has given Republicans a whole wedge of very safe House seats. Still, Democrats are dreaming of transforming a larger, broader criticism of Trump’s bizarre tweets and his eye-watering, mind-boggling journey through the policy agenda into a broader electoral success. The odds do not favour this, not yet, at least. Not in 2018, anyway.

But, and here’s the thing, 2020 is the real prize among Democrats, it now seems – 2020, of course, is when Donald Trump runs for re-election, (or his successor, Mike Pence, if Trump should fail to complete his term of office) and the whole House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and thousands of other state and local officials are also on the ballots across the country again. And Democratic Party office-holders are already starting to “dream” that waking dream that can come to an ambitious politician early in the morning.

This is particularly true of the Senate where just about all who serve in that body can easily imagine themselves as presidential timber. Actually, there are generally two types of senators – those who really do imagine themselves as the chief executive and those who have decided, after much contemplation, or even an unsuccessful trial run at the presidency, that the Senate is really where they wish to spend their public life after all. Examples of the latter would almost certainly include the late Massachusetts Senator, Ted Kennedy, or, currently, the Republican Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, Senator Lindsay Graham, or the Democrat’s Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, for example.

Key for the Democrats, this time around it seems, will be the need to figure out a policy issue they can embrace wholeheartedly and that can, with some judicious effort, become a rallying cry that will gain real traction among the population beyond dyed-in-the-wool Democratic partisans. Party partisans are already lined up, despite their fears, to reprise the debate over why Hillary Clinton lost the last election, now that her memoir of the defeat, What Happened, has come out. But refighting the battles of whether or not her niche campaigning, the role of former FBI head James Comey in casting doubt on her over the missing emails, whether Bernie Sanders failed to guide his supporters towards the Democratic candidate, or her own natural flaws in campaigning quality, will simply not cut it for an electoral battle some three years hence.

In response to this – and perhaps to ignite a second run for the presidency – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate that would introduce a “Medicare for All” replacement for Obamacare, partially in response to the various unsuccessful (so far) attempts by Republicans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. GOP alternatives have ranged from efforts to eliminate it entirely and let the chips fall where they may to more modest tweaks that have been designed to provide block grants to states (at less than expected costs) to cover support for the insurance exchanges and government subsidies for less well-off citizens who buy insurance through those exchanges. While none of these alternatives has passed, some Republicans are still dreaming that impossible dream.

Instead of mounting a defence of the broad outlines of Obamacare and its reliance on a mix of government support and private health insurance policies, Sanders’ plan effectively expands Medicare – the government-managed healthcare plan for anyone over 65 years old – to cover everyone in the nation. His rationale is that Medicare operates at a high level of efficiency (in comparison to private insurance) and the vast power of gigantic bulk purchases of medicine, devices and medical services would drive down costs, thereby generating overall savings for healthcare expenses for citizens.

As CNBC described Sanders’ plan at his launch a few days ago,

The bill already has 16 Democratic co-sponsors, a number that would have been unimaginable just a year ago. The independent senator from Vermont also released a white paper on how the government might finance such a healthcare system, which included an income-based tax increase, an expansion of the estate tax, and a new tax on incomes of the 0.1% of Americans.

“ ‘Today, we begin the long and difficult struggle to end the international disgrace’ of U.S. healthcare costs,” Sanders said, emphasizing that Americans pay more in health-care costs than any other developed nation, nearly 18 percent of U.S. GDP. ‘The American people want to know what we're going to do to fix a dysfunctional health-care system.’

Under a Medicare for All plan, ‘depending on your income, your taxes may go up,’ Sanders said, ‘but this will be more than offset’ by overall household savings on health-care costs, premiums and co-pays.

The senator also stressed that a government-managed plan would simplify the financial affairs of both individuals and small- and medium-sized companies. ‘You will no longer be writing checks to private insurance companies,’ he said.”

The deeper idea is to make “Medicare for all” a litmus test for anyone who wishes to become a bona fide Democratic presidential candidate, thereby creating a campaign issue to browbeat Republicans (and any Democrat who is not a supporter) as a measure of candidate legitimacy. One potential problem with such a plan is that a large majority of Americans actually gain their health insurance through their employers – and those plans, under current law, generate real tax savings for employers and employees both. Moreover, studies show that a majority of people with such employer-sponsored plans tend to like what they are getting already.

Regardless, Sanders is betting that the utter simplicity of such a plan and how its essential features can be explained on a small flyer or hand-out (and with the real popularity of Medicare, especially for those who are already 65 or who are coming closer to that milestone), will turn this idea into a rallying point for Democrats, come 2020, even if his plan stands zero chance of being passed by the Senate any time soon, given Republican control of that body. It seems that 15 other Democratic senators also agree with this strategy – and they see support for this plan as a pretty good trial balloon to test their street cred with a leftward-moving Democratic Party in the initial jockeying for a presidential race.

The cosponsors of Sanders’ bill already include Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, Minnesota’s Al Franken, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, California’s Kamala Harris, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, Massachusetts’ Ed Markey, Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, New Mexico’s Tom Udall, Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren, Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse, and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen. Now not all of these are household names, certainly, and only a few of them have been getting could-be/would-be notices as possible Democratic candidates for 2020 such as Gillibrand, Harris, Booker and Warren. But others, such as Al Franken, may be able to use such ideas as a way of inserting themselves into the centre ring for consideration as well over time.

Allied with this pitch for “Medicare for All”, there is also a brewing tussle over Social Security – the government retirement programme. Most people probably still think they have actual accounts into which they pay funds, and that they then reap the actual results once they retire. In fact, Social Security was designed as a cross-generational income transfer programme. That means the current working generation funds the current benefits to retirees, once someone qualifies to receive it. However, as the number of retirees continues to grow, and as the number of workers relative to that number continues to decline, Social Security is increasingly likely to face a funding crisis within this generation, if revenue streams are not improved.

Accordingly, as a growing cohort of the vast wave of baby-boomers retires, many of them will be largely reliant upon Social Security to survive in their later years. (Oops, didn’t save enough separately to live on without Social Security.) As a result, one of the big government and public policy fights will be a fight over how to save, finance or expand this programme. There will be growing pressure to increase Social Security (and Bernie Sanders is already making this very case too). Not surprisingly, Republicans will resist any moves to raise taxes on the wealthy to cover the shortfall, even though Social Security taxes are not like income tax. At a particular point, a person’s income is no longer taxed for Social Security. Even if someone is a millionaire, the payment for Social Security eventually tops out. This anomaly will provoke one helluva of a public fight and, increasingly, it will have a huge presence in US domestic politics until the baby-boomers are all dead. And that’s not for a long while yet.

Of course, would-be Democratic presidential hopefuls are also going to be looking at the Trumpian foreign policy world for likely pickings. They are going to be “eager” to make the case that potential disasters vis-a-vis North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other trouble spots, over that baleful but still-murky Russia-Trump connection, the ceding of any global leadership on climate change, and his confusing stances on international trade relationships will have all greatly harmed America’s standing in the world. But many hopefuls will still be thinking that the real votes for victory will come from domestic issues, unless one of those foreign policy concerns blows up badly in Trump’s face. The challenge will be how any senator – or anyone else – can position himself or herself to differentiate from the larger herd, without simultaneously generating a major bunfight in the party over what its real, core issues are. There is lots to watch already on this, it would seem. And years to go, still. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks to the news media prior to boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 14 September 2017. EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW

HEADLINE FEATURES

YOUR NEXT ARTICLE