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Democrats versus Republicans

After the lacklustre Democratic and Republican Party conventions, how will the debates play out in the run up to November’s US presidential elections

Magda Shaheen , Friday 4 Sep 2020
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The least one can say is that the Democratic and Republican Party conventions, which are held every four years prior to the US presidential elections, went practically unnoticed this year. 

The reasons for this are many, the most important being the holding of the two conventions online amid concerns surrounding the use of digitisation as one of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of thousands of delegates from the 50 US states and dependent territories such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands attending the conventions as usual, this number dwindled to between 250 and 300 delegates as a maximum. Many in the US, and indeed in the world as a whole, will be left wondering about the implications of these two conventions, which this year were both colourless and odourless. 

It is true that the two parties nominated their candidates for president and vice-president at their conventions, but the latter missed the massive publicity and lavish décor that ordinarily go with these events and usually cost millions of dollars.

The Democratic Party convention took place from 17 to 20 August in Wisconsin for a few hours over three consecutive days, with most speeches being delivered remotely from across the US. The contender, Joe Biden, and the nominee for vice-president, Kamala Harris, accepted their candidacies remotely for the first time in more than 75 years. Former president Franklin D Roosevelt did so in 1944 when he was standing for a fourth term in office as he was on board a military ship in the Pacific at the time during World War II.

The Republican Party conference happened a few days later from 24 to 27 August. It was not much different, except for US President Donald Trump hosting a number of meetings in the White House with ordinary Americans who have attributed their liberation from prisons in Iran, Venezuela and India to Trump’s direct intervention. Other meetings featured ordinary Americans testifying that the president had positively affected their lives and that they believe he has made America great again. 

They had come to pay tribute to the president and express their gratitude to him in person. Because of such scenes the Republican Party convention looked less colourless when compared to its Democratic Party predecessor.

Preliminary dates have been set for three debates between the candidates in the presidential elections on 29 September, 15 October and 22 October, while a debate between the candidates for vice-president, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, will take place on 7 October. The question, however, is whether the two parties will have to observe social-distancing, meaning that these debates lose all the excitement and passion of the face-to-face challenges we experienced in the past. It is still not known what the audience will look like in these debates (if there is one), or whether the candidates will appear in person on stage or appear via video. 

While the Trump campaign has requested that both candidates appear on stage together, this has not yet been decided as the relevant committee continues to follow the health and security developments of the coronavirus pandemic and has not yet decided whether a direct or a remote debate will be allowed.

As for the topics that may arise in the debates, the two candidates stand in sharp contrast to one another. On the coronavirus epidemic and the current president’s belittling of it, Biden has said he will go as far as to put the country in lockdown again should the situation call for it. There are major difference between the candidates on foreign policy and regarding the US relationship with China, North Korea, Iran, and on the Palestinian issue and other crucial areas. 

On the economy, Trump is expected to boast about the record job growth and prosperity that his administration has achieved. Biden will focus on the administration’s difficulties in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to these issues, there are also different viewpoints on healthcare, immigration, the environment and climate change.

The intriguing part will be how each candidate will defend each subject from his point of view and who will be the more attractive and persuasive. There is no doubt that the task will not be easy. This is particularly true for the current president, who remains behind his rival Biden by more than ten per cent in opinion polls conducted at state level, though he still insists on his capacity to attract undecided voters. Trump and his supporters have never doubted that he will stay in the White House for a second term. His campaign has already begun to launch attacks on the Democrats, and there has been a bid to rig the elections and produce Trump as the undisputed winner. 

Biden is not in a better position, as he has been forced to strike a delicate balance between leftists and centrists within his own Democratic Party, and they will watch him closely and hold him accountable for every word. Although Harris is a moderate, Biden cannot overlook or denounce the leftist ideology in the party, as he fears to lose the votes of left-wingers. These have become louder and louder and have been influential among the young, the intellectuals, and more surprisingly also Hollywood. 

Will Biden divide the campaign between himself and Harris, so that he maintains a centrist position and the vice-presidential candidate swings between the left and the centre-right? Will he venture to give her a role other than the traditional one prevailing in the White House, in other words the complete marginalisation of vice-presidents and the ending of their duties once the election results are out?

If Biden and Harris win in November, they will introduce important policy initiatives. Their primary concern may be the healthcare system in the US, which accounts for much domestic controversy, but they will also attempt to deal with climate change and bring the US back into the international fold. In all of this, Biden will be open to the radical reform programmes advocated by senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom represented the left wing of the Democratic Party in the battle for the presidential nomination.

Trump is known to be someone who likes to take the offensive, unlike Biden, although Biden’s best course during the debates will be to initiate attacks as well. The past four years have given Biden fertile ground to attack the failures of the present US administration, particularly its failures in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. These will pull the rug out from under the president’s feet and any successes he may be proud of in terms of economic growth rates, overcoming unemployment and other achievements that are now in the past.

Finally, it should be remembered, though the Egyptian people are quick to forget, that the Democratic Party administration of former US president Barack Obama favoured the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt on the pretext that it was a democratic government that had come to power through a popular vote. Let us pray that the Democratic Party has turned this page forever. Should Biden win in the November elections, he will need to be more thoughtful about and more familiar with Egypt and the region and more appreciative of its people. 

The Democratic Party must understand that democracy is not a one-size-fits-all matter, but that every country has a different size when it comes to democracy. Globalisation also does not mean the fusion of all the world’s countries into one mold, but requires, especially in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, the preservation of and respect for the specificities of different countries.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister for international economic affairs.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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