US Presidential Election: Not Red, Not Blue, but Green to win?

US Presidential Election

With a recent poll showing that 14% of registered voters see climate change as the most important challenge facing the country, victory in November may well hinge on the success or failure of the respective parties to own this issue. For context, such a figure implies that around 30 million voters could cast their ballots this Autumn with the environment at the forefront of their thinking – that’s two to three times as many as in 2016.

Of those who care about climate change, one-third describe themselves as ‘very progressive’, suggesting that it is the Democrats who have the most to gain from grasping the initiative on the environment.

Voters focus on green policies, but does Biden?

Despite this potential vote-grabber for Biden, the issue features only 25th on a list of policy proposals on the Biden 2020 website. His plan has three main avenues of execution:

  • Reinstating Obama-era regulation through executive order
  • Investing $1.7 trillion in green energy and jobs through an act of Congress
  • Leading international treatymaking efforts on the world stage.

That’s a long way from the $16 trillion investment into the “Green New Deal” that Bernie Sanders was promising. Herein lies the dilemma which will ultimately decide Democratic fortunes this year – how can they appeal to the middle whilst also ensuring that their base turns up to vote? It looks like climate change isn’t a hill for them to die on.

Rebranding climate issues for rust belt voters

The electoral system also explains why the climate features so far down Biden’s list. The rust belt is a crucial cluster of states for both parties when it comes to grabbing electoral college votes, and many of these rely heavily on so-called ‘dirty industries’ for employment and prosperity. Pennsylvania is the main example of this, where Trump secured victory by less than 45,000 votes in 2016. As the third largest coal-exporting state in America, voters in this area may not react well to Biden’s green vision, allowing Trump to take home 20 crucial electoral college votes.

There is however an opportunity to re-brand green credentials as a wider vote winner. The climate issue is ripe for conversion into an anti-China policy, thanks to their role as global polluters in chief. With approval of China down to -40% in the wake of coronavirus, and Trump likely to leverage this sentiment in his own favour, the environment offers the Democrats a line of attack which can be employed without turning off their core base of support.

How will America’s Climate Policy shift after the US Presidential Election?

There are three main scenarios that could play out in the US Presidential Election.

Scenario One: Trump Wins a Second Term

With or without a Republican Congress, Pres Trump would likely continue to use executive orders to cut back the environmental regulations that were instituted by the Obama administration. So far, Trump’s repeals have included the moratorium on federal coal leasing and the extent to which federal agencies must take account of the environmental impact of their actions.  

  • This would benefit fossil fuel companies

Scenario Two: Biden beats Trump, and the Democrats gain Congress

In this instance, the Democrats would have carte blanche to deliver on all of Biden’s campaign pledges, including the $1.7 trillion of government spending. In the wake of coronavirus, huge government investment will be expected, providing the perfect cover for such a policy. However, with a majority only guaranteed for two years, and other objectives clearly taking priority, it is unclear whether a Pres Biden would deliver the entirety of his environmental agenda, even in the greenest of scenarios.

  • This would benefit companies that can boost their green credentials
  • It would harm “dirty energy” businesses

Scenario Three: Biden beats Trump, but the Democrats fail to capture the Congress

Here, Biden would have to rely on the power of executive orders and the office of the Presidency to implement parts of his climate proposal. As easily as Trump repealed them, Biden could reinstate Obama’s regulations. Also, he could use America’s status on the world stage to influence treatymaking and catalyse future climate accords. However, the $1.7 trillion investment in green energy and jobs is not possible without congressional approval, leaving the former VP with a half-delivered promise.

  • This would be like half a heart transplant: the economic damage of regulation would be incurred, but without investment elsewhere to compensate

Despite any green rhetoric, the truth is that the environment simply isn’t a priority for the Biden campaign, and this is unlikely to change once in office. A New Deal might be in the offing to respond to the huge economic downturn, but it’s unlikely to be a very Green one.

How will the US-China relationship define the Presidential election?

US Presidential Election

Trump knows that antagonising China is a dangerous game. But in the run up to the election, it’s also a political necessity.

Before the coronacrisis, there was already a perfect storm of economic and security disputes brewing between the US and China. Covid-19 compounded all the existing issues as well as adding a whole new dimension to the rift. Tension is escalating on all fronts.

Economic

Phase one of the trade deal is dead. The promises made by China – purchasing at least $200 billion in US exports over two years – looked unrealistic from the get-go. But the virus means meeting phase one’s targets will be downright impossible. Throw in that China is already buying more from competitors (its imports from Brazil are up 35% on May 2019) even in an economic downturn, and any revival of the Trade Deal before the Election look dead and buried.

Security

The tech war has entered a period of unprecedented turbulence. Trump continues to affirm that Huawei threatens national security, upping the ante in May when a new rule was issued barring Huawei and its suppliers from using American technology.

Foreign policy

The Trump administration is reportedly exploring several measures that could punish China for its handling of the virus, including suing the Chinese government for reparations and cancelling US debt obligations to the country. Meanwhile, China has ordered its state-owned enterprises to stop purchases of US farm products after the US threatened to withdraw its special status treatment for Hong Kong – itself a response to China’s new security law for the territory.

The President was aiming to run his campaign based around strong economic performance, and failing that, a successful response to the pandemic. As both these options become increasingly difficult to achieve, China must serve as the scapegoat on which Trump can pin his administration’s failings.

Usefully for Trump, the American people aren’t too fond of the Chinese right now either. A Pew Research Center poll from April suggests that Americans have increasingly negative views of the country with two-thirds now holding an unfavourable opinion towards China.

This sentiment is widespread across a range of groups in America, which is unusual in an ever more polarised electorate.

A Republican ad campaign has been launched proclaiming, “One nation deserves the blame: China”, while the America First Action SuperPAC says it’s spending around $10 million on ads in swing states condemning Biden over China.

It’s rare for two thirds of Americans to reach such a strong consensus so inevitably both the incumbent and his challenger are attempting to burnish their anti-China stripes.

Each also believes they can use China to score personal points against the other candidate.

  • Trump is quick to criticise “Beijing Biden” and his son’s alleged profiteering from Chinese business.
  • A recent Biden campaign ad reads, “Trump rolled over for the Chinese. He took their word for it.”, and goes on to cite some of Trump’s early remarks praising China’s pandemic response.

This fight isn’t without its risks however.

  • In May, Biden’s aforementioned ad sparked outcry from representatives of Asian American Organizations who accused the Democratic candidate of feeding the rise of anti-Asian racism in the US.
  • For Trump, a new economic cold war would imperil any incipient return to growth not to mention leave it isolated when big global discussions take place. Hence the recent decision by the US Commerce Department to allow American companies to collaborate with Huawei on 5G technology standards.

As we know though, Trump is no stranger to risky political moves. With winning the election his top priority and alternatives running out, the President will hold onto the anti-China card for dear life to avoid being trumped by Biden.

The battle of ‘who’s tougher on China’ shows no signs of relenting. Both candidates will be forced to push harder and harder to have the last word on an issue which has galvanised such a strong reaction among the American public.

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