US Elections | Party conventions are the heats before the final lap

The United States Republican Convention starts later today, to conclude on August 27, with US President as the show stopper.

I had been present, as India’s Ambassador, at both the Democratic (Philadelphia) and Republican (Cleveland) conventions in 2016. A senior Republican told me in Cleveland that they were unfortunately about to nominate a candidate who could lose to Hillary Clinton, but were happy that the Democrats were going to nominate the one who could lose to Trump. This captured the visceral negativity towards Clinton in sections of the US electorate.

The conventions this time, in a COVID-19 era, are quite different. They are normally occasions for thousands of party activists to converge, be enthused for the final phase of campaigning and ‘get out the vote’ efforts. There are a large number of parallel analytical and strategy briefings, discussions on prospects and trends in US politics, and intense networking between leaders, party workers, scholars, journalists and other invited guests. All that is missing this time, with outreach done virtually or in front of restricted audiences.

A well-accepted strategy in US politics is to first ‘define your opponent’, in terms that are favourable to you, and then attack their failings and dangers for the voting public. The Democrats, at their 2020 Convention last week, sought to define Trump in terms similar to 2016, but magnified by his behaviour and performance as US President.

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He was now described as ‘incapable of governing’, callous, focused on personal gain, weakening US alliances, cosying up to authoritarian leaders even when they worked against US interests.

There were, however, no specific criticisms of Trump’s policies on Iran and China, where he has some bragging rights before the US public. Both Joe Biden and Trump have political vulnerability on China. As Vice-President, Biden had described China’s rise as good for US and world. Trump has on several occasions referred to Chinese President as a good friend and, according to former US National Security Advisor John Bolton, sought China to buy more farm produce from US, to help himself electorally.

However, the Trump administration has taken many more steps against Chinese trade and technology malpractices than any administration since the opening to China by Richard Nixon in 1971, and establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. Similarly, a tough approach on Iran, and the recent historic midwifing of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, will go down well with sections of the Jewish and evangelical voters.

In January, it appeared that Trump would campaign heavily on ‘economic achievement’. US economy had grown well in his watch, and unemployment was at historically low level of around 3 percent. All this changed from March, as COVID-19 infections forced shut downs, US economy went into negative territory, and unemployment crossed 10 percent levels. Trump is also vulnerable on his response to COVID-19, initially denying that it would have any major impact, promoting unproven medication, and generating confused messaging on preventive strategies, with US now leading the world at 5.5 million infections and nearly 200,000 deaths.

Despite trenchant criticism of Trump on many fronts, his base, at around 40 percent of the population, has remained loyal to him. They see him as more responsive to their concerns on loss of jobs through globalisation or immigration. He has also tapped into ‘white racist’ sentiment, and will seek to project himself as a ‘law and order President’ to appeal to those unnerved by recent large scale anti-racism protests.

For India, a Trump or a Joe Biden presidency will present varying opportunities and challenges, even though the broad trajectory of the relationship will remain positive. Building on the bipartisan consensus since 2000, through the Republican and the Democratic Presidents, Trump has advanced the ties, including through higher level technology transfers and defence cooperation, convergence on China strategy, and visited India in February, the final year of his term which is normally devoted to electoral campaigning.

That said, he has taken unexpectedly harsh measures on trade, removing the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits, imposing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports on national security grounds, and restricted or suspended H1B visas till end of this year. Biden and his VP running mate Kamala Harris came out with a very supportive message for India on August 15, pledging responsiveness to India’s regional and border related concerns. One can expect, however, some dissonance on climate change and human rights issues.

Once the conventions are over, the final lap will begin, marked also by presidential and vice-presidential debates. People, including in India, will be closely watching Harris, who has shown mettle as a prosecutor, and in Senate hearings. There is growing anxiety in US that if the margin is close, there could be serious disputes, delayed results, and further dent to US soft power.

 Arun K Singh is former Indian Ambassador to the United States. Views are personal. Read original article here.