Clinton, Trump force realignment of tribes
The late Ted Sorensen was JFK’s legendary speech writer. Years ago, I saw him talk in Berlin to commemorate the 40th anniversary of John Kennedy’s famous “ich bin ein Berliner” address, when the president sought in 1963 to demonstrate solidarity with the divided city.
After Sorensen spoke, he was asked if he still considered himself a Democrat.
The party, still regrouping from the Clinton presidency and Al Gore’s narrow election loss, was embroiled in a bruising primaries season.
“Am I still a Democrat these days?” Sorensen repeated the question. Then he answered with a twinkle in his eye: “These days, I am a Democrat, very still. Very, very still.” American politics is tribal. Players tend to pick and stick. This US election, though, the tribes may be shifting.
While Sorensen went “very still” when his party disappointed him, some Republicans are now doing the unthinkable and publicly denouncing their party’s presidential candidate.
Daniel Twining is a foreign policy hawk who has extensive experience advising senior Republican figures, including Condoleezza Rice and John McCain. In this election cycle, he worked first on Jeb Bush’s campaign. When that petered out, he joined Marco Rubio’s team. Within a fortnight, that was over, too, as Donald Trump steamrolled his rivals to seize the Republican nomination.
Since then, Twining has surprised even himself by coming out for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Her campaign team boasted of his conversion, chalking up his name along with those of scores of other prominent Republican thinkers who have switched teams.
“If you’d told me a year ago, that I’d be for her, like publicly, I would have said, ‘You’re nuts’, but that’s just where we are,” he said in Perth this week.
“Funnily enough, she’s the Republican on foreign policy in this race. She’s the hawk. She’s the one who wants to stand up to China and Russia. I think the chances of doing the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are much higher under her . . . she would both reassure our allies and slightly unsettle our competitors and that’s the right candidate to support.”
Twining, an Asia expert with US public policy think tank the German Marshall Fund, was on a visit organised by the US State Department.
The “least worst” scenario Twining envisions if Trump wins is that he delegates the running of the country to others, is held in check by a Republican Congress and moderates some of his more outlandish views.
“He may be self-interested enough not to start a trade war with China, not to blow up the US-Japan alliance, not to build a wall with Mexico that will alienate everyone on both sides,” Twining said.
But another plausible scenario is a seismic split in the Republican Party, particularly considering many of the party’s candidates seeking re-election are doing so without any reference to Trump.
Already, Twining says, there are signs of big shifts in allegiances reshaping the American political landscape.
“So the big question is, is this one of those realignment elections in which Trump takes back those blue-collar Democrats from the Clinton campaign? And do Republican internationalists pivot towards the Democrats?”
He expects a solid Clinton win on November 8, but Twining says Australia should prepare for a more hawkish president. He’s talking here about a tougher approach to a range of challenges, from the rise of China to Russian aggression in Europe and the threat of Islamic State.
One senses that more hawkish times might suit Twining, who thinks Australia has been too accommodating of China.
“I’ve been really surprised by the role of Chinese money in your politics,” he says. “There’s no other country I know of where a foreign government or foreign funds openly could get behind political candidates.
“China is pursuing a design to wedge apart the US alliance system in Asia and it’s naive not to understand that the tools at their disposal are often economic.” There’s no doubting Twining when he says that, despite his decision to endorse Clinton, “there’s nothing kind of squishy about my Republican identity”.
He’s still a Republican, but he’s far from being very still.
If he’s right and Clinton wins, the world may reckon with a hawkish Democrat president, urged on by Republican foreign policy hawks. That can only mean more pressure from our ally to confront challenges posed by China.