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The Democratic nominee America needs

Jul 08,2019 - Last updated at Jul 08,2019

By Alexander Friedman and Jerry Grinstein

SEATTLE – The contenders for the US Democratic Party’s presidential nomination have held their first debates, and the main questions reverberating in political and media circles seem to be either who will be tough enough to take on President Donald Trump, or who has the headline-grabbing ideas.

But there is a better way to think about who the Democratic nominee should be. While the Democrats search for a liberal saviour, they run the risk of making a fundamental mistake. The answer to the party’s problems lies not in its own version of an extreme disruptor, but rather in empowering moderate local leaders throughout America, not just the coastal states.

The Democrats must pick a candidate who not only wins the White House, but, just as critically, also gives swing-state House and Senate candidates policies that are wide enough for them to run and win on, thereby enabling change in Senate leadership. The Democrats must nominate a candidate who understands that voters in many of the states that will actually decide the election are largely more fiscally conservative and less interested in the politics of division.

Forget the west coast and the northeast: these states will largely get behind whoever the Democrats nominate. But there is real concern among local leaders in states like Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the places that will determine the election’s outcome, that the country cannot afford the headline policy proposals for healthcare, education and the environment that are becoming litmus tests for many Democratic candidates.

These fiscal concerns have merit. The United States is running an enormous deficit, exacerbated by the Trump administration’s recent tax bill. Historically, the US has been able to carry more debt than other countries because it enjoys the unique privilege of printing the world’s reserve currency. Thoughtful political leaders on both sides of the aisle have known for years that the US needed to address the deficit to avoid imperiling the dollar’s exalted status at some point decades from now. But under Trump, with his unilateral and erratic trade wars, America’s competitors and even its allies are now stepping up efforts to knock the dollar off its pedestal and develop an alternative reserve currency.

Moderate state leaders are highly attuned to fiscal soundness, because, unlike the federal government, they cannot print currency to finance debts. Such leaders will have a hard time supporting programmes that imply rapid deficit growth, like the Green New Deal or a single-payer healthcare plan, or forgiveness of all student debt. It is unclear, at best, how the country would pay for such programmes, and their constituents will largely find them threatening as a result.

The bold ideas now coming to the fore among some Democratic candidates may sound appealing, especially to a party searching for ways to galvanise young voters, and they surely contain elements that address important issues facing the US. But policy ideas are not campaign soundbites. Each must be weighed in terms of what it would cost, what would have to be sacrificed to pay for it, the net impact on the deficit, and critically, whether it empowers or alienates swing-state leaders.

Over the last two generations, the US presidency has become more powerful than ever, dominating the political system in a way never intended in the constitution. Historically, presidents have nonetheless been constrained by a combination of respect for the rule of law, a default to truthful and ethical behaviour, a willingness and ability to act strategically to strengthen the US in the long run, and, critically, the Senate’s constitutional duty to act as an independent limiter to a president’s power.

Today, all four of these constraints are gone. Trump has no interest in the constitution, honesty or best positioning the US for the long term. And under Mitch McConnell’s leadership, the Senate has abandoned the US founders’ vision that it be, in James Madison’s words, “a necessary fence” to protect “the people against their rulers” and from “the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led”.

In these circumstances, the Democrats must turn to voters throughout the US to find their way to a functioning government that acts in accord with the constitution. This starts with recognising that winning in 2020 means taking back the White House with a candidate who helps the party regain control of the Senate as well. Only then can the US begin to repair the damage caused by the Trump administration, restore the checks and balances on which American government depends, and right the country’s fiscal trajectory. What is at stake may be nothing less than the fate of the American experiment.

 

Alexander Friedman is a former CEO of GAM Investments, a former CFO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was a White House fellow during the Clinton administration. Jerry Grinstein is a former CEO of Delta Air Lines and Burlington Northern Railroad, and previously served as chief counsel to the United States Senate Commerce Committee. Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org

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