Last night’s US presidential debate confirmed the extent to which partisan politics dominates political discourse (or the lack thereof) in America. But it wasn’t the bombast and belligerence of the two candidates (one in particular) that stood out to me. I have come to expect those from contemporary American politicians. Rather, it was something that remained unsaid that surprised me as both an American citizen and an advisor to investors.
Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden refused to rule out changing the number of Supreme Court justices and ending the Senate filibuster should Democrats flip the Senate and take the White House in November. My colleague Miranda Lutz recently explained how Senate Democrats might change the filibuster here. Ending the filibuster and increasing the number of Supreme Court justices would be radical reactions from a political class that has forgotten how to reach across the aisle and that puts party above patria.
In reality, Biden is unlikely to actually pursue these actions. He spent decades in the Senate and clearly respects the institution. If Republicans were threatening to use the same tactics, Democrats would be in full revolt. What is surprising here, however, is that Biden would give even passing consideration to radical institutional changes as a tactic for keeping progressive voters on side. It shows the extent to which partisan extremism has taken hold of US politics.
Biden missed an opportunity to stand up and defend the sanctity of American institutions over partisan interests and in doing so to clearly distinguish himself from his opponent. After four years of the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle executive branch institutions and discredit civil servants, Biden needs to be seen by American voters as a national healer. This is particularly true if he hopes to court moderate Republicans away from Trump at the ballot box. Pandering to a small segment of his party that demands radical reaction to Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is not likely to help his broader appeal as “Healer in Chief”.
I’m picking on Biden for a sin of omission – expecting the Democratic nominee to “go high” – following four years of attacks on American institutions by his opponent and in the hope that the damage done to America’s institutions can begin to be repaired. This by no means forgives Trump’s reprehensible efforts to undermine American electoral institutions by seeding further doubt about mail-in ballots and not committing to accepting the results, calling on his supporters to “monitor” polling stations and refusing to disavow an extremist hate group on live television. I’m choosing not to focus on Trump’s positions last night because they are long standing views, hateful and old news. I wonder if we have changed so much in America that we cannot recall that Nixon lost an election for merely sweating in a debate.
Last night demonstrated the extent of the damage American institutions have suffered in recent years. Biden’s decision not to renounce radical institutional change is by no means morally equivalent to the actions of his opponent. But it shows just how fragile America’s institutional fabric has become. We have finally reached the point where partisan positions are so entrenched that threatening to change the rules of the game is viewed as an appropriate way to win.
Investors are used to dealing with countries where volatile and entrenched interests create fragile institutions. They may need to use some of those lessons from emerging and frontier markets when assessing political risk in the United States going forward.