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Bill Emmott: Important year ahead with US presidential election looming

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

By Bill Emmott

Every year can be said to be important in the United States of America, for what happens in the world's most powerful country affects us all. But this coming year looks even more important than most. For what is at issue in the November presidential and congressional elections is not just the future of the world's oldest and most influential democracy but also the future of the strongest and most durable alliance system seen in modern times.

The year has already begun in a truly dramatic way. To the reported surprise of the Pentagon, President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a senior military official of another sovereign state, Qasem Soleimani of Iran, in the absence of a declaration of war. And less than two weeks later, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, sent articles of impeachment of President Trump to the Senate, which then commenced a formal trial of the man often referred to as the world's most powerful leader.

So even before wondering about how the election might go in nine months' time, we must contemplate both the potential for war between the U.S. and Iran and for the removal from office of President Trump. Neither looks likely, but the fact that both are even conceivable must come as a shock.

Or do they? One thing that seems to happen when a politician acts, talks and tweets in the way that Trump does is that the public and even the media become numbed, anaesthetised against shock. What used to be considered abnormal has become normal. Since nothing he has said or done has yet caused catastrophe, it becomes reasonable to assume that it never will.

This may indeed prove to be correct. The story of Trump may turn out, to quote William Shakespeare from his play "Macbeth," to be "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." However, one constant reality about Trump should prevent us from yet jumping to that Shakespearean conclusion. It is that the only thing about democracy that he seems to respect and take seriously is the winning of elections.

Trump does not respect the rule of law nor the role of the judiciary nor certainly the role of the media. What he does believe in is his own legitimacy as an election winner. So, if he wins re-election in November, against the current odds, then he will consider himself not just vindicated but supremely legitimate, more legitimate than any other branch of government.

Depending on whether his Republican Party retains control of the Senate, a re-elected President Trump might well consider himself able to act without any real legal or political constraints. Despite his age, he might even attempt to push through a constitutional amendment to permit himself to run for a third term, which looks a far-fetched possibility except for the fact that Trump considers himself able and entitled to break all rules.

Will he win re-election? Based on his current approval ratings, which are low by historical standards for a first-term president, especially at a time when economic growth has been strong and living standards rising, the favorites to win the White House in November ought to be the Democrats. But this will depend on two main factors: the impeachment trial and the race for the Democratic nomination.

President Trump and his Republican supporters in the Senate want to keep the trial short, knowing that at present the Republicans have a clear majority in favor of acquittal, and to use it to portray Trump as a victim. The danger for Trump and the Republicans, however, is that new information might emerge during or surrounding the trial about the president's conduct that could incriminate him and turn public opinion against him. Much depends on whether his former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, ends up testifying or making a public statement, since his evidence could be damaging for Trump.

There is a danger for the Democrats too. This is that fresh information could emerge that is damaging for their front-runner, former Vice-President Joe Biden, about the activities of his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine. It will be hard for the Democratic Party's candidates to maintain a focus on their primary elections and to stop the impeachment trial dominating the political narrative.

The most likely scenario in the Democratic primary race is that the winner will be someone who is relatively moderate and has a broad appeal. That is why Joe Biden is the front-runner and also why the youngest and least experienced candidate, Pete Buttigieg, is in with a chance. In past primary contests, that is what has happened. Yet it remains possible that thanks to the parallel shock-potential of the impeachment trial that a more radical candidate might prevail, such as Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders.

The year promises to be dramatic, even exciting. But it also matters hugely for two reasons. The first is that for all its undoubted flaws, American democracy remains a beacon for the rest of the world thanks to the freedoms it is associated with and thanks especially to the checks and balances inherent in the U.S. Constitution. So, the fate of U.S. democracy is more consequential than, for example, the fate of British democracy or Japanese democracy.

The second reason is the state of the security and diplomatic alliances that have bound America and Europe, America and Japan, and America and South Korea together since 1945. Of those, the U.S.-Japan alliance has taken fewer blows under Trump, but his disregard for allies and often open hostility means that nothing can any longer be depended upon. On the surface, the arguments between the U.S. and China look more important. But what if a re-elected Trump were simply to do a deal with China and then start confronting Europe and Japan over trade and technology instead?

Anything, unfortunately, is now possible. 2020 will determine whether or not it is likely.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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