Pragmatism may yet prevail in America
By Gillian Tett
For Financial Times
February 14, 2016
Five months ago Jon Huntsman, a former Republican presidential contender, travelled to New Hampshire to meet a small group of politicians. He was joined by John Kasich, a current Republican presidential candidate; Chris Christie, until recently another Republican; Joe Lieberman, a former Democratic senator; and Martin O’Malley, a Democratic governor. Their goal was to endorse a bipartisan “national strategic agenda” to revive America and rebuild Washington’s credibility among both voters and global investors.
This meeting, organised by a group called No Labels, did not make waves after all. Other well-meaning bipartisan initiatives have emerged in recent years and failed. But this gathering had an interesting twist: Donald Trump participated and enthusiastically endorsed the group’s bipartisan and technocratic ideals. “I was surprised he came, but he was very positive,” Mr Huntsman observed at a meeting of business leaders in Philadelphia last week, adding that he is ready to work with Mr Trump if he becomes the Republican nominee — which he also thinks is quite likely.
Bond market investors around the world should take note. So should voters. After all, Mr Huntsman is hardly a crazy firebrand. Like Mr Kasich, he represents the more sober, pragmatic, internationally aware wing of the Republican party. The word “sensible” is often tossed around. The fact that he is not ruling out Mr Trump — and that Mr Trump attended the gathering — highlights the fact that there is a chance that Mr Trump may yet become a great deal more bipartisan and technocratic in his style than many people expect.
This may not seem obvious right now, least of all to people outside America. After all, the hallmarks of his campaign have been offensive verbal aggression and a lack of tangible policy ideas or serious advisers. Global investors who want to price the risk of a Trump policy plan, in other words, have almost no hard information right now on what he might actually do if he arrives in office.
People who have dealt with Mr Trump in a business or political context (and I have spoken with many recently) claim that his rhetoric is just a marketing campaign. He has to be loud and brash, the argument goes, to get through the Republican primary. But if he prevails, he could shift tack to widen his appeal.
One likely step is that he will seek to use his daughter, Ivanka, to attract women voters; or at least counter his sexist image. She might be a potent weapon: not only is she is smart, but she runs a website, WomenWhoWork, that promotes soft feminism.
Mr Trump is also likely to wrap himself in more pragmatic language — and to borrow all manner of ideas from places such as No Labels. This includes some surprisingly sensible ones. The platform argues, for example, that the next president should start his or her term by creating a national plan that focuses on four economic goals: creating 25m net new jobs in the next decade; securing social security for another 75 years; balancing the federal budget by 2030; and making America energy secure by 2024.
No Labels calls on the president to pick at least one goal in January 2017, before the State of the Union speech, and retreat to a place such as Camp David with a group of senior politicians of both parties to produce a plan. The idea is that focusing on long-term goals in this bipartisan fashion will help break the gridlock in Washington and create momentum to tackle the other goals.
“[We aim] to put an end to a governing process that simply drifts between divisive debates, political posturing and outright crises,” the manifesto declares. It is a vision not of ideology but of McKinsey-style C-suite governance — pragmatic, bipartisan dealmaking and problem-solving.
Could this work in practice? It is hard to imagine. But the No Labels group points out that presidents such as Ronald Reagan used to cut deals. And the main point is this: if somebody — Mr Trump or anyone else — were to borrow this language, it might just appeal to voters fed up with gridlock. It might even reassure financial markets, which are equally fed up with budget brinkmanship and government shutdowns.
Either way, the lesson for global investors is that they need to watch like hawks to see if Mr Trump’s language does shift in the coming weeks, and whether he can hire “sensible” people such as Mr Huntsman into his team. Future historians may view Mr Trump as a temporary sideshow or dangerous demagogue; but if Trump the opportunist wins power, he might yet be more pragmatic and technocratic than his recent predecessors. That would be irony indeed.