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Politics

Daniel Twining -- Ominous signs for regional allies in US election

Just a few weeks ago, Republican elites were falling in line behind Donald Trump following his victory in the presidential primaries over his establishment challengers. Now, even many Republicans who, against their better instincts, endorsed the tycoon are expressing public unease over his divisive and undisciplined campaign. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders at last has ended his guerrilla war against Hillary Clinton, but is now holding her campaign hostage to a list of policy demands that would pull her from the wide-open center ground of American politics to the leftist fringe.

Many Americans in the middle of the political spectrum feel that they have no one to vote for in November. Meanwhile, many allies overseas are bracing themselves for radical changes to American foreign policy that could turn the United States from a stabilizing to a destabilizing force in world affairs.

The principal problem is on the Republican side. From the perspective of its establishment elites, Trump has conducted a hostile takeover of the party. Republicans have traditionally advocated policies that promote free markets, free people, and an internationalist foreign policy. But Trump supports economic protectionism, illiberal controls on immigration, an ethnic majoritarianism alien to the American tradition, and an approach to foreign policy that seems to reserve more vitriol for U.S. allies than adversaries.

Trump is the leader of the country's conservative party, but his policy positions are often not conservative. He heads a party of traditionalists even as he promises radical departures from tradition in foreign and domestic policy. Yet for many Republican leaders -- and many Republican voters -- the principal problem is not Trump's policies, which may in fact be malleable and would be subject to the pressures of the Oval Office were he to be elected. More acute are concerns about his character and temperament.

He sits at the head of a party whose leader in 1863 propounded the Emancipation Proclamation -- but he plays the race card as a wedge. He seems willing to say whatever his audiences want to hear, leading him to take openly contradictory positions on a range of issues. He is abusive of those who disagree with him and seems to believe in his own cult of personality. He appears dismissive of core tenets of governance like America's constitutional separation of powers, picking fights with members of the judiciary and with the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

His brashness may be an asset in connecting with angry voters who already support him, but it alienates the substantial majority who do not -- many of whom did not vote in their party primaries, but will vote in the general election in November. As Arizona Senator Jeff Flake puts it, 13 million Americans have voted for Trump thus far, but he needs about 65 million votes to win in November. He is not now on track to win them: voters' negative opinions of him are growing. Polls show that seven in 10 Americans now view Trump unfavorably.

The conundrum for Republicans is that Trump successfully has mobilized a part of their voting base that supports him fervently. But his attacks on women, Muslim-Americans, immigrants, and even U.S. soldiers and veterans may ultimately prove more successful in mobilizing a super-majority of Americans who are not part of that hard-core base to vote against him in November.

Republican leaders are even more uncomfortable given the risks Trump poses not only to their principles but to their Congressional majorities. A blowout in the presidential vote in November, in which Trump's campaign collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, could also lead to a Democratic sweep of the House and Senate, with Trump not only losing the White House for the Republicans but sacrificing their control of Congress too -- leaving a legacy of Republican defeat down the ticket that would endure long after he fades from the scene. At the same time, most Congressional Republicans cannot bring themselves to publicly support the Democratic nominee for president, because they are not Democrats.

Republicans are thus suffering from an existential crisis of identity, in which the core tenets of the Congressional and establishment wings of the party are rejected by the man who now leads it as their putative presidential nominee. No living former Republican president is supporting Trump. Nor is the party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who has emerged as one of Trump's most outspoken critics. Party grandees like House Speaker Paul Ryan and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain are caught in the impossible position of acknowledging Trump as their party's nominee, whom they will therefore support, even as they distance themselves daily from his divergent positions on key issues. Others, like Governor John Kasich of Ohio, simply cannot bring themselves to endorse Trump even though they had pledged to support their party's nominee.

But even as Republicans form their circular firing squad, Democrats are not out of the woods. Their nominee is an establishment aristocrat and experienced policy wonk who is hawkish on foreign policy. That these qualities could also describe Republican luminaries like Jeb Bush explains why many Republicans who have never voted for a Democrat, including this author, are preparing to vote for her.

But Clinton does not have the election in the bag, and not only because of Trump's formidable unpredictability. Friendly fire from fellow Democrats has harmed the Clinton campaign. Sanders' old-fashioned state socialism and protectionism have pushed her in the wrong direction on trade, regulation, and other policy areas where she should rapidly be pivoting to the center ground, where her instincts lie, to appeal to independents and Republicans. His continuing challenge and lingering threat have prevented her and the powerful Democratic party establishment from turning their full fire on Trump.

More broadly, nearly as many Americans (12 million) have voted for Sanders' populist insurgency from the left as have voted for Trump's populist insurgency from the right. This could have real consequences for U.S. allies and trading partners in Asia even if Clinton prevails.

Americans are feeling insecure, nationalistic, protectionist, bombastic toward allies they accuse of free-riding (as Obama himself did), and angry at their governing establishment -- including at the bipartisan foreign policy elite that has guided America's course in the world. Voters need to hear from Republican and Democratic leaders alike that trade makes Americans richer; that U.S. prosperity is tied to the ability to attract global talent to settle on America's shores; and that American leadership stabilizes an international system otherwise prone to dangerous anarchy -- as the U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East, Russia's revanchism in eastern Europe, and Chinese revisionism in maritime Asia have made all too clear.

Daniel Twining is a director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and has been an advisor on five Republican presidential campaigns.

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