Friday, October 9, 2015

Sorry, America, but it looks like Joe Biden is your next president

Plus: Bloomberg, Kissinger and me; Hillary Clinton’s Peronist path to power

Niall Ferguson

10 October 2015

I have a sinking feeling that Joe Biden might be the next president of the United States. In a brilliant essay published by the American Spectator in 2010, Angelo Codevilla of Boston University foresaw a popular revolt against ‘America’s ruling class’. What he calls ‘the Country party’ repudiates the co-option of the mainstream Republican party by the bureaucratic behemoth that is Washington, DC.

You cannot understand the popularity of Donald Trump until you grasp the essential characteristics of this Country party. White, male, ageing Americans are sick of political correctness. They are sick of carefully calibrated talking points. They are sick of immigrants. They are sick of wars in faraway places of which they know nothing and care less. And they are sick of government programmes — even ones they collect money from. In all his crassness, Trump speaks for these people. The more he says the unsayable — ‘Build a wall [along the border with Mexico]!’, ‘Send back the Syrians!’ — the more the ruling class shudders. And the more the ruling class shudders, the better he does. As I write, the latest polls for the Republican primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire have him in front. In the former, he is on 24 per cent. Jeb Bush, the ruling class’s candidate, is on 7 per cent.

Yet there will surely come a time when Trump will overplay his hand — or perhaps the costs of campaigning will start to exceed the benefits to his brand. When that moment comes, white, male, ageing Americans will need a new champion. Of course, a professional politician like the Vice President is as much a member of the ruling class as it is possible to be. But never underestimate the appeal of crassness at a time like this. Biden is routinely described as a blowhard and a loudmouth. To the Country party, that’s alluring. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says Biden would fare significantly better than Clinton in a contest with any leading Republican contender, including Trump, whom he would trounce 56 to 35 per cent.

Henry Kissinger, whose life I am halfway through chronicling, was never much good at American domestic politics (his friend William F. Buckley referred to his ‘dogged ignorance’ of the subject). Grand strategy was Kissinger’s thing. But by the time of the 1968 election, he had learned the lesson that ‘the typical political leader of the contemporary managerial society is a man with a strong will, a high capacity to get himself elected, but no very great conception of what he is going to do when he gets into office’. Biden fits this bill. He understands, for example, the enduring appeal of the reluctant candidate, who only enters the race when his party and his country insist that he do so — hence his public agonising about whether to run. He understands, too, that a Democratic victory will depend on keeping together President Obama’s anti-Country coalition of groups who still see Washington as their friend: women, the young and minorities (call them the ‘Supreme Court party’) — hence his much-publicised August meeting with Senator Elizabeth Warren, the darling of the left. Note, too, that Biden would be the candidate most likely to inherit the formidable, data-driven electoral machine that won two successive Obama victories.

ON TUESDAY I launched Kissinger, volume one, at the Four Seasons — still the powerbrokers’ number-one restaurant in Manhattan — courtesy of my favourite international man of mystery, Nicolas Berggruen. Former mayor Mike Bloomberg swung by, triggering a wave of acclaim and flash photography. A Bloomberg run for the White House remains the Upper East Side’s dream. It isn’t going to happen, alas. ‘You can’t win,’ is how he succinctly puts it. One of many handicaps is that Bloomberg knows exactly what he would do if he ever got to the White House. He is a bit too Lee Kuan Yew for the rest of America. That ban on supersize sodas has not been forgotten by the Country party.

It’s different in South America, where I spent the weekend. Argentina’s presidential election is just days away and the ruling class — the Peronists, who have dominated since the era of Juan and Eva Perón — are nervous. Peronism’s signature combination is unaffordably generous welfare and (consequently) regular financial crises. Periodically, Argentine voters weary of the latter and today, after 12 years under another Peronist husband-and-wife team, Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, change is in the air. Admittedly, two of the three leading candidates are Peronists. But the third, Mauricio Macri, is the Mike Bloomberg of Buenos Aires. A successful businessman who has been mayor of the city since 2007, Macri might just win if he can force a second round that would pit him one-on-one against the Peronist Daniel Scioli. If, meanwhile, Hillary Clinton goes on to win the US presidency, Argentines can say that Peronism has moved north. Her path to power would essentially be the same as the one taken by both Eva Perón and Cristina Kirchner.

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