“Of all of the wild twists and turns of fate in Joe’s life,” a wry American observer messaged me earlier in the week, “St Paddy’s Day came early for Celtic.”
Former vice president Joe Biden was given the codename “Celtic” by the US Secret Service, and my contact, a person steeped in the friendships and feuds that make up Democratic politics in the US, was as surprised as anyone by the sudden heart-start to what had been Biden’s chronically flailing presidential campaign. It means there is hope for Biden, but there are always buts.
“I fear my political truism No. 235 may play out,” this observer continued. “When a party nominates a candidate because it’s ‘their time’, they (nearly) always lose in November – both Dems and Republicans. Mondale, Dole, Gore, McCain, Romney, Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
“The only one to break the rule was George H W Bush in 1988, but then he proved the rule four years later. Hence validating No. 235 on my list of truisms.”
Nowadays, everyone is desperately searching for wisdom. The head-snapping political changes of the past few years have upended so many assumptions – so much of what had been accepted as firm, conventional beliefs – that even a fleeting glimpse of something recognisable is welcome.
We’ve all learned that prediction is fraught, whether by the examples of Donald Trump snatching victory, or Brexit winning majority support – even by Scott Morrison’s miracle election last year, which defied all assumptions, only for his ascendancy to be followed by an equally astounding summer of political ham-fistedness.
Yet so many conversations, like the one with my American contact are still being had by pundits and policy makers alike. We all hope to foresee what might happen later this year when Americans go to the ballot box. It’s human nature, to try to anticipate, to prepare, no matter how wrong we’ve been in the past. Just ask supermarket shelf-stackers across Australia as they restock rolls of dunny paper.
And there is a ring of truth in his prediction. Surely the 77-year-old Biden, who in every way represents the kind of staid political condition from which hatched the monster Donald Trump, cannot then be realistically expected to slay the beast?
Trump's return in November has also been the operating assumption in the upper echelons of the Australian government for months now, well before the Democratic primaries gathered pace. It's not that the Coalition is barracking for Trump, only that pragmatically, the government is preparing for four more years of his White House occupation.
The logic of this assessment is plain enough. The Democrats wanted Anyone But Trump, contemptuous of his political success, convinced they’d been robbed, sure that his actions were impeachable.
It quickly became Everyone But Trump as the field of potential candidates clustered and grew in the search for the magic quality of “electability”.
Then, as the Democrats squared off and squabbled, robbing each other of attention while simultaneously diminishing their standing in a frustrated electorate, it seemed to become No One But Trump – just the way Donald had winnowed the field and beaten off his own Republican rivals in 2016. Once President, Trump had never really stopped campaigning. His only firm policy was a determination to win again.
But Biden, should he earn the nomination from here, holds out to allies of America the promise of a reset. Or at least, allies can convince themselves of such.
Just imagine the alternate universe of Morrison having to deal with a Biden administration about a looming pandemic such as Covid-19.
No fear of a capricious Tweet suddenly upending an established policy. No pandering to a precious ego easily slighted, willing to believe in every conspiracy. No needing to navigate and build relationships with the circus tent of clowns surrounding the president – here one day, “you’re fired” the next.
Instead, with the kind of people Biden would bring in, Australia would be dealing with stable “interlocutors”, speaking the familiar language of a “rules-based-order” (and believing this to be also be the view in the Oval Office). The world might trust Washington again, too.
Of course, Biden has to win the nomination yet. Joe may have the “Big Mo”, as George Bush senior famously described political momentum, and Bernie Sanders is bound to leap on reports about Wall Street chequebooks funding the Biden campaign. “Game of Grudges”, as my American observer puts it.
Yet even if Biden does win, again upending another version of the conventional wisdom, and Trump is no more, what really changes beyond the personalities, huckster style, and intemperate language?
The US will still be challenged by a rising China, particularly in Australia’s neighbourhood, even if the COVID-19 sets the world economy back a while. The US will still be expecting its allies to do more to confront its adversary. And the allies – including Australia – will still be caught in a debate about whether “more” is worth the cost.
That is the nub of Australia’s challenge. The government was willing to surrender free trade principles to carve out an exception from the Trump administration on steel tariffs, while backing a mission to police oil supplies in the Gulf. Morrison has also been willing to flirt with complaints about “globalists”, despite the record of benefit from an open world.
But the biggest test for Australia around US rivalry with China will continue, regardless of who wins in November.
Daniel Flitton is editor of the Lowy Institute digital magazine, The Interpreter, and a former intelligence analyst.