US elec­tions still mat­ter — even if the par­ties flip their po­si­tions

The gov­ern­ing party will con­tinue to af­fect the pol­i­tics, eco­nom­ics and cul­ture of the world

Business Day - - THE BOTTOM LINE - STEPHEN CRANSTON NGAN ● Cranston is Fi­nan­cial Mail as­so­ciate ed­i­tor.

There will come a point in our life­time when China nom­i­nally over­takes the US in GDP terms. It still won’t be a rich coun­try, as it has about four times as many peo­ple as the US, and China’s GDP fig­ures are ma­nip­u­lated by crude eco­nomic tricks such as pur­chas­ing power par­ity, so it will not be the most pow­er­ful, and cer­tainly not the most in­flu­en­tial, coun­try in the world.

We are un­likely to see any Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tion sup­plant Har­vard or Hol­ly­wood, nor can any­one see Man­darin over­tak­ing English (ei­ther the Jersey or the New Jersey ver­sion) as the world’s lead­ing lan­guage.

Even with China as tit­u­lar num­ber one it is hard to see peo­ple risk­ing their lives to move there. And few coun­tries, not even Myan­mar, aspire to its po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

So US elec­tions mat­ter, es­pe­cially when they pro­vide a de­ci­sive out­come.

From the elec­tion of Ron­ald Rea­gan in 1980, the di­rec­tion was to­wards free mar­kets and smaller gov­ern­ments. Bill Clin­ton won the pres­i­dency in 1992 on the back of his catch­phrase, “It’s the econ­omy, stupid,” yet two years later in more be­nign eco­nomic times his Demo­cratic Party lost con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

At least at the time there was a lot of agree­ment be­tween the par­ties on what came to be known as the Wash­ing­ton Con­sen­sus, free mar­kets and lower taxes. If any­thing, it was the Democrats who were keener on reg­u­la­tion in the 1990s than the Repub­li­cans. If it hadn’t been for Clin­ton’s prag­matic probusi­ness ap­proach the US might have adopted a more closed ar­chi­tec­ture on the in­ter­net and made it hard to start up new web­sites.

Now it is the Repub­li­cans, or at least Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and his hang­ers-on, who are in favour of a pro­tec­tion­ist ap­proach. It is not the first time the par­ties have flipped po­si­tions — from the mid-19th cen­tury un­til at least the First World War it was the Repub­li­cans, the party of north­ern in­dus­tri­al­ists, who favoured high tar­iffs. Then for about 50 years un­til Clin­ton’s rise they switched sides.

Clin­ton’s legacy has been tainted by his per­sonal short­com­ings, but his eco­nomic record was out­stand­ing. He left a bud­get sur­plus, and was for­tu­nate enough not to be con­fronted with any se­ri­ous wars — his terms spanned the time be­tween the first and sec­ond Iraq wars — so the US ended the 1990s in far bet­ter shape than it be­gan them.

Yet that did not help Clin­ton’s suc­ces­sor, Al Gore, when he went up against Ge­orge W Bush in 2000. Of course, it was a con­tro­ver­sial elec­tion de­cided in the end by the Supreme Court, but there’s no doubt that if Clin­ton had been al­lowed to run for a third term he would have walked it. And more peo­ple re­lated to Bush’s B-plus in­tel­lect than to Gore’s wonk­ish­ness.

This week’s midterm elec­tions might not change much in the way the US presents it­self to the out­side world. The pres­i­dent still has sub­stan­tial free­dom when it comes to for­eign af­fairs.

The house may be back in Demo­cratic Party hands but it can’t pre­vent Trump from seek­ing an­other photo op­por­tu­nity with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, or even im­pos­ing sanc­tions on Iran.

The Se­nate has a lot more in­flu­ence as it can vet in­com­ing mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­flu­enc­ing both for­eign and do­mes­tic pol­icy. It is sad to see cen­trist Demo­cratic se­na­tors such as Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana and Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri lose their seats, as they rep­re­sented a bridge be­tween the staunchly Trumpite Repub­li­cans and their “lib­eral” (left-wing but not quite so­cial­ist) col­leagues on the Demo­cratic side.

The house tends to at­tract a more rad­i­cal fruit­cake el­e­ment

— I won’t name any­one, but a Demo­cratic house, with a rel­a­tively thin ma­jor­ity should still bring some san­ity to the do­mes­tic de­bates such as the fu­ture of the Oba­macare health sys­tem.

Many jour­nal­ists are also hop­ing that the house will start a slew of in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Trump. This will cer­tainly be fi­nan­cially good for at least one sec­tor — my own in the news me­dia. Even over­seas, peo­ple can’t seem to get enough of Trump and his in­creas­ingly ridicu­lous an­tics. In fact, many of the dwin­dling band of Repub­li­can in­tel­lec­tu­als (as rare as mar­ket­ing ac­tu­ar­ies) have now pub­licly dis­owned him. Ge­orge Will of the Wash­ing­ton Post is a good ex­am­ple.

Just about ev­ery­body I talk to here in Jo­han­nes­burg sees the Democrats as “our side” .I re­alised that in my dozen or so vis­its to the US, I had barely set foot in a Red (Repub­li­can) state. I may not be typ­i­cal, as on my last visit to New York I did not even set foot on the US main­land, but then there is enough to do in Man­hat­tan to keep you busy for sev­eral life­times.

Like most vis­i­tors, my trips have fo­cused on the north­east and the three West Coast states, all Blue/Demo­cratic.

I have also been to Vir­ginia and Col­orado, but these states are mov­ing more into the blue col­umn. Repub­li­can mod­er­ates such as Bill Weld in Mas­sachusetts or Chris­tine Todd Whit­man of New Jersey are al­most ex­tinct.

Too many Repub­li­cans have a “guns and God” ap­proach, to which any­one from Europe, or even Canada, strug­gles to re­late. In SA we can pic­ture these, as they are mir­rored in Afrifo­rum.

But imag­ine Afrifo­rum ex­press­ing its views at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence. Along with their coun­ter­parts from Waco, they might not even pass the dress code at Davos.

Yet the text books said it would be im­pos­si­ble to win an elec­tion sim­ply by pan­der­ing to the white red­neck vote. Many Demo­cratic con­gress­men were com­pla­cent about bring­ing out the vote in 2016, but proved much more ef­fec­tive this time around. In fact, new vot­ers were the key to most vic­to­ries, not, as you might think, dis­il­lu­sioned Trump sup­port­ers com­ing back into the fold.

/MAN­DEL

Photo-op: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s Repub­li­can Party lost the House, but re­tained the Se­nate on Tues­day, which means the House is likely to see a greater level of san­ity in de­bates about health care, im­mi­gra­tion, gun con­trol and other do­mes­tic is­sues.

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