Countdown to the Election: Last Presidential Debate Analysis
On October 23, 2020, Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA (Sasakawa USA), in partnership with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), co-hosted the third and final of a series of events on the U.S. Presidential election. This event was held the day after the last Presidential Debate between President Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Sasakawa USA and FMC welcomed Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Representative George Holding (R-NC) to discuss the previous night’s debate, the upcoming election, and the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. Attendees included distinguished former members of Congress, members of the Washington, D.C. diplomatic corps, Japanese media and businesses, and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. The Honorable Elizabeth Esty (D-CT, 2013-2019), FMC Board Member, gave opening remarks and moderated the event.
Moderated Debate Discussion
Rep. Esty began the event by introducing the panelists, Rep. Engel and Rep. Holding. Rep. Esty then began the first discussion by asking, with the debates finished, the election 11 days away, and 50 million Americans already voted, what are the key takeaways at this point for the campaigns? Rep. Engel’s first takeaway was that there have been various factors that are contributing to irregular campaigns that would have resulted in an abnormal election regardless of whether President Trump was a candidate or not. Rep. Engel was, however, impressed by the final debate and believed that both sides showed why they want to be elected. His second takeaway was that despite the craziness of this election, this election has shown that Americans want to vote and participate in democracy, and that, despite U.S. democracy not being perfect, it is still the best system in the world and continues to grow every year. The discussion then turned to Rep. Holding, who began his response by looking back at his first race and commended his advisor, Arthur Finkelstein, who said that one can always find more of many resources, but one thing one cannot get more of is time. In response to this advice, Rep. Holding clarified that the Trump campaign is running out of time, has wasted time figuring out a leading message, and is now in a rut. On the other hand, he noted, the Biden campaign has not wasted any time, but they have also gotten a lot of breaks due to COVID-19.
Next, the discussion turned to the race in North Carolina. Moderator Rep. Esty stated that she agreed with Rep. Holding that time is invaluable and noted that the amount of money going into races at every level has been truly extraordinary. Rep. Esty quickly noted that money is not everything as it cannot win an unwinnable race, but it can dominate the airways. Rep. Esty then asked Rep. Holding, with the topic of campaign finances and the race in North Carolina in mind, what is he hearing about the races in the state. Rep. Holding first responded by agreeing that money is pouring into the state and with the local, national, and presidential elections all occurring at the same time, all one sees is political TV advertisements. Despite the number of TV ads, however, Rep. Holding does not believe they are currently very effective as the ads are similar and already, a saturation point has been reached with TV advertisements. He also noted that money being spent on the ground is more than he has ever seen before, and this method of having people walking throughout neighborhoods and knocking on doors will likely make a much bigger difference than TV advertisements.
The discussion then turned to talk over Rep. Engel’s position as the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In this position, Rep. Esty remarked that Rep. Engel has been front and center as President Trump has pulled back from international organizations and commitments. In regard to Rep. Engel’s position, Rep. Esty asked, where will U.S. foreign policy stand, did the Trump administration fundamentally reset the U.S. involvement in the world, and how do other countries view the U.S. role for the world? In response, Rep. Engel stated that the U.S. has been the leading super-power in the world for years, as even with the USSR, there was a feeling that the U.S. had to be present in discussions for the U.S. to win. He continued that with President Trump, it seems that the President believes the U.S. does not need to be present and views international organizations as blood suckers, which Rep. Engel noted as ridiculous. He explained that as the U.S. withdraws, more countries will shift towards authoritarian regimes. He ended his response by noting that NATO and the EU have been very successful alliances for preventing the spread of the USSR and now Russia, and more than anything else on the international scene, U.S. withdrawal has had a negative impact on the opinion of the U.S. held by foreign leaders. Delving deeper into the last question, next, Rep. Esty asked Rep. Engel to also explain how the situation would change under a Biden administration. Rep. Engel remarked that VP Biden is well-versed in foreign affairs and Rep. Engel believes Biden would demonstrate that the U.S. wants to lead as the hegemonic power, ending President Trump’s trend towards isolationism.
Next, Rep. Esty turned to discuss election interference. She asked both panelists for their perspective on opportunities for Congress, post-election, or next year, regarding addressing election interference, especially by U.S. adversaries, and whether the U.S. will be successful in addressing these challenges. In response, Rep. Engel explained that Russia has clearly been the major problem in election interference, although China and Iran have certainly caused problems too, and the U.S. has shown a weak face rather than being tough on this issue. Rep. Engel also expressed his confusion over President Trump’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite attempts by Russia to disrupt U.S. democracy. Rep. Engel concluded by discussing possible backroom deals between President Trump and Putin, and how interference in U.S. elections should not be tolerated. Following Rep. Engel’s comments, Rep. Holding stated that once the election transpires, this issue must be at the forefront of every American’s mind. He said that he believes the results of this election will be in doubt for some time, and U.S. intelligence is presenting evidence that there are countries meddling in the elections. Continuing, Rep. Holding explained that he does not think these countries want to tip the scale one way or another but simply put the results of the election in doubt. Concluding, he remarked that the American people will have it at the forefront of their minds and once they convey this issue to Congress, then that is when Congress will come together to address the issue of election interference.
After the discussion on election interference, Rep. Esty asked the panelists if there were any low hanging fruit that the next Congress could easily work on. First, Rep. Engel discussed that for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they have tried to be as bipartisan as possible by promoting the idea that politics stop at the water’s edge. In other words, while it is important to have discourse on differences internally, Rep. Engel’s committee believes U.S. lawmakers should put forward a united front in terms of foreign policy so that U.S. adversaries cannot exploit any differences. Rep. Engel concluded by stating that political differences between Americans pales in comparison to the hostile actions U.S. adversaries would like to utilize against the U.S. and it is, therefore, dangerous to get caught up in petty political disagreements when formulating U.S. foreign policy. In the end, he noted that one thing all Americans have in common is that the U.S. is their home and it should therefore be protected from foreign interference.
Next, Rep. Esty asked the panel about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. For Rep. Engel, she asked, if there is a Biden administration, what would be the goals. And for Rep. Holding, in the same situation, how would Republicans respond to those goals. Additionally, Rep. Esty asked how President Biden would be met in the international affairs realm. First, Rep. Engel discussed that the most important goal for the U.S. is to rebuild alliances. Under the Trump administration, Rep. Engel stated that many U.S. alliances have been shattered, and this does not bode well for the U.S. and the international liberal order. Concluding, he stated that the U.S. needs to be involved in global politics, not because it benefits the world but because it benefits democracy and U.S. interests. Next, Rep. Holding responded by stating that U.S. adversaries use internal divisions to their advantage and previous American leaders understood that fact. He agreed that the House Foreign Affairs Committee has been the most bipartisan committee in Congress but noted that in the past ten years, foreign policy has become very politicized. Adding to this, he explained that politicians are no longer trusted so it is harder for them to convince their constituents that policies being enacted are for the benefit of the U.S. and the world. Rep. Holding ended his comments by noting that even if VP Biden returns to all his positions of the early 00’s it is unlikely he will bring Americans back together and unfortunately U.S. adversaries will continue to take advantage of U.S. internal divisions.
Rep. Esty then moved the conversation to trade policy, noting its importance and identifying it as a major factor in President Trump’s 2016 victory. She asked the panel what they think the future of trade policy is in the U.S. First, Rep. Holding stated that President Trump has flipped traditional Republican feelings on trade and that shift began in 2010 as Republicans began to look less favorably on free trade. He said that he thinks if VP Biden wins then a Biden administration will try to revert a lot of what the Trump administration has done, but if he reverses trade policies then he will not be acting on what his own policies have been. Rep. Engel responded next by agreeing that trade policy has been flipped which increases the importance of focusing on the actual issues. He added that constant instability in opinion on international commitments does not show strength and noted that President Trump’s trade policies have been Democratic policies for years. Thinking back to when NAFTA was established, Rep. Engel noted that although he disagreed with the trade policy, it had already been agreed upon and therefore should have been kept and worked on. Concluding, Rep. Engel noted that the U.S. must be consistent internationally and cannot keep switching opinions based on who is president. He said when the U.S. leads, the U.S. must show the world that when something is negotiated and agreed upon in the past, the U.S. will remain committed to seeing how it works and not immediately seek to end such an agreement.
Moderated Q&A with Attendees
The first question came from Akihiko Nakazono, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the ITOCHU International Inc. Washington office. Mr. Nakazono asked the panelists to reflect upon the recent polling statistics that show VP Biden winning by a large margin, and if these polls are incorrect as they were in 2016, what analysts are missing. Rep. Holding first highlighted Senator Jesse Helms, who was elected five times to Congress and was always under-polled because he was considered a divisive candidate. Rep. Holding said that President Trump and the relevant polls are experiencing the same under-polling as Sen. Helms did. Next, Rep. Engel stated that the power of the Electoral College also needs to be accounted for, referencing Hillary Clinton’s win in the popular vote but ultimate loss due to the Electoral College. Therefore, Rep. Engel recommended the abolition of the Electoral College and instead utilize one vote, one person, no matter the state. Overall, the panel agreed that under-polling is occurring in the U.S. and the election is a tight race.
Next, the moderator asked the panelists to discuss their thoughts on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, otherwise known as New START. In response, Rep. Holding stated that he is certainly in favor of anything being done to prevent nuclear proliferation, citing Ronald Reagan’s vision of “trust but verify.” In the comparison of nuclear proliferation under the Soviets versus today’s Russia, he stressed that verification needs to do more than ever done in the past. In addition to nuclear proliferation, Rep. Holding stated that the U.S. also needs to be aware of cybercrime, cyberwarfare, and other disruptive tactics that can be just as detrimental to the U.S. economy and security as solely a nuclear threat. Rep. Engel agreed with Rep. Holding’s thoughts on New START, stressing the importance that Congress work together to overcome any influence from a U.S. adversary, such as Russia or China.
Following the discussion on New START, Mr. Paul Kincaid, Director of Congressional Outreach at FMC, asked what a transition of power in the U.S. might look like if it occurs. First, Rep. Engel stated that unfortunately, U.S. politics have evolved into more hatred on either side, and politics have become more partisan than ever. He reminded the audience that Americans must understand that there are differences in opinion on issues. Rep. Engel also added that foreign policy should be as bipartisan as possible. In response, Rep. Holding stated that he agreed with Rep. Engel. Rep. Holding recalled that when he first began work in D.C. in the early 1990s, leaders were able to go to Congress and have civil debates and try their best to get the best deal they could for their constituents. However, today, Rep. Holding stated that the early 1990s situation no longer occurs today. Concluding the question, Rep. Esty noted that Congress today is going to have to find a way back to civil and productive debates and legislation.
The last question came from Dr. Satohiro Akimoto, Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. Dr. Akimoto asked if the panelists could discuss what the Senate and House of Representatives election races look like. Rep. Holding responded first by stating that in his opinion, there are a lot of tight races occurring, and it will be difficult for Republicans to gain seats in the House of Representatives, but it will most likely even out. He added that Republicans will keep the majority in the Senate; however, Democrats may gain some seats. Rep. Engel disagreed with Rep. Holding, stating that he believes the Senate will flip and the House of Representatives will gain more Democratic seats. He concluded that if VP Biden wins, the Democrats are going to do extremely well in House of Representatives and Senate races. The Hon. Esty then concluded the event, thanking the panelists, sponsors, and all of the attendees.
Sasakawa USA is grateful to Rep. Engel and Rep. Holding for participating in this discussion and to the Hon. Elizabeth Esty for moderating this event.
Summarized by Benjie Canady, Associate Program Officer, Sasakawa USA
For information on Sasakawa USA’s Policy Briefing Series, go here.