I had a post half-completed the other day when my computer failed – a failure that proved terminal. Add in an egregious decision by the Reserve Bank to leave trustees of its pension scheme potentially personally liable for some really bad past calls by the Bank (a decision that has already contributed to the resignation of our most eminent trustee) and a worsening cold, and my energies were elsewhere. And, of course, for the last 24 hours, the US election has been much much more interesting than anything New Zealand-related that I might have written about. Even my 10 year old came home from school yesterday telling me that her class had been following the early results intensely, even if (she reported that) some of the offspring of liberal Island Bay had apparently somehow become convinced that Donald Trump would soon be bombing New Zealand.
I wasn’t a Trump or Clinton supporter going into the election, and am pretty sure that if I’d been American I’d have voted for neither of them (although one of the interesting things in the last few weeks had been the collapse of the third party candidates’ vote share). I laid out some of my reasons on my other blog. So unconfident was I in either candidate that I thought a least bad outcome might be one in which one party controlled Congress and the other had the presidency, and (as I noted somewhere else a few days ago) the numbers suggested that if that was going to happen, that probably meant Clinton in the presidency.
But, of course, we now know that hasn’t happened. Donald Trump will become President on 20 January 2017. None of my reservations has gone away. Character matters, temperament matters. And Trump doesn’t have either of those in any sort of form that makes me think him fit to be President. I suspect he will be a poor President. Then again, with what we know now John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t pass the character test. Nor Bill Clinton, nor Hillary Clinton.
For all the media vapours in the last 24 hours, the polls were always relatively close – as late as yesterday morning I noticed that two new polls on the RCP presidential polls site had a slight lead for Trump – and the popular vote (not, of course, the basis of the election) looks set to end quite close. Towards the end of the campaign detached analysts had been saying that Trump had perhaps a 30 per cent chance of victory. This outcome was always a serious possibility – the more so perhaps as no one had adequately understood Trump’s surprising success since he first declared his candidacy in the middle of last year. Perhaps in the end it was a bit like Brexit. The polls were always close but (a) most of the media and political elites were appalled at the idea of Brexit, and (b) even supporters ( I was one) couldn’t quite believe, despite the polls, that a Brexit victory could actually happen.
Of course, as regards the US election, those sorts of sentiments were accentuated among elite observers outside the US. According to polls New Zealanders (and Australians) overwhelmingly favoured Obama (in 2008 and 2012) and then Clinton, and that predilection will have been even more marked among our media and political and opinion leaders. And so the subsequent coverage has been marked more by incomprehension and abuse than anything else – although in a breath of commonsense the Prime Minister did note that New Zealand is unlikely to be one of the new President’s concerns. Between the Dominion-Post and Morning Report (and a quick glance through the Herald), the coverage has been so one-sided that it can only have appealed to the emotional uncomprehending side of liberal readers/listeners, offering little in the way of analysis.
I’m a free market-oriented, small government, social conservative. There aren’t many of us in New Zealand. Even if it weren’t for the character and temperament issues, much of Trump’s policy/rhetoric makes me deeply uneasy. I believe in free trade – although not preferential trade agreements of the sort of TPP – and I’m very sceptical of the sort of infrastructure spending programmes that Trump and Clinton were falling over themselves to champion. And if China has a hugely distorted economy, that mostly disadvantages China – the idea of officially deeming China a “currency manipulator” isn’t appealing at all (and to extent it is an accurate description, it was truer 15 years ago than it is now).
Then again, there are some things I’m unambigiously happy about in last night’s result:
- seeing the back, surely finally, of the Clintons (all of them). Failings of character, a strong sense of entitlement, a strong whiff of corruption, and so on. As someone noted, probably not many foreign governments will be donating to the Clinton Foundation today.
- the probable death of TPP. That agreement had very little in common with “free trade”. ISDS provisions, which provide foreign investors access to different dispute resolution procedures than domestic investors or ordinary citizens have access to, should have no place in a democracy governed by the rule of law. And the intrusion of international agreements into trying to set parameters for eg domestic labour market regulation should be firmly resisted. Domestic laws should be argued over in domestic political debate.
- the likelihood that new Supreme Court justices will be people inclined to read the Constitution as it was written, rather than as individual judges might wish it to be written. There is an established procedure for amending the Constitution, and further politicising the Court isn’t that procedure.
- a halt in the relentless push towards normalising abortion (the Democrats campaigned on restoring federal funding for abortions).
- a pause – though probably only a pause – in the relentless push by federal authorities to compel private people and entities to accept/endorse policies that are anathema to their traditions and religious beliefs (eg same-sex marriage and transgender issues).
- less risk of a hawkish interventionist foreign policy, and especially the serious risks that would have surrounded Clinton’s preference for a Syrian no-fly zone.
And others where there is some – perhaps small – hope of better policy:
- smart people on both sides of US politics recognise there are serious flaws in the US corporate tax system. This means it is one possible area of serious reform, especially with the Republicans in control of the House and the Senate. Lower capital income taxation, and a more conventional tax treatment of the offshore earnings of US companies, would be material steps forward, lifting the prospect of stronger private business investment,
- steps towards a rather better healthcare policy, perhaps including much greater scope for innovation in the healthcare and drugs sectors, and perhaps a step towards comprehensive catastrophic risk cover (the latter a stance favoured by many Republicans pre 2008).
- perhaps even Trump and a Republican Congress could be the vehicle towards a viable long-term solution for the huge number of illegal immigrants in the US. In parallels with Nixon to China, perhaps only someone like Trump has the political positioning to be able to resolve the issue. I don’t have strong view on what the “right” outcome should be, but the existing legal limbo can’t be good for the illegals, or for confidence in the US system of government.
And in the last 15 years or so – perhaps especially under Obama – there has been a huge increase in the discretionary use of the powers of the administrative state, rather than relying on Congress. No doubt each side of politics dislikes many of the uses the opposite side’s presidents have made of such powers – and there are some serious challenges around the legality of some of those interventions (including, for example, Obama’s on immigration), but in general, the heavy use of such power isn’t really consistent with visions of a democracy in which legislatures make laws and the executive carries them out. No doubt, Trump and the Congressional Republicans will have differences – often large ones – on many things, and it still takes 60 votes to get major things through the Senate – but there must be more scope for relying on legislation rather than executive orders than there was in years when the presidency and Congress were controlled by different parties. To me, whatever the specific policies, that is an unambigously good thing – superior process. And as the Republicans aren’t defending many Senate seats in 2018, if anything the Senate majority could actually increase a little for the last two years of the presidential term.
Am I very optimistic? No, not really. It was always extraordinary that a great country was reduced to such a bad set of presidential options. And no doubt the political environment for the next few years will be at least as toxic as the last few have been. But from a small government social conservative perspective, even a deeply flawed vessel might still end up being agent for some modest gains (even amid the substantive and rhetorical dross).