Month: October 2020

Ambassador Frank Lavin: Winning Elections – Reagan, Bush, Trump and Election 2020

Ambassador Frank Lavin has been a fixture in Republican politics for the last 40 years.

He worked for President Reagan as his head of politics, advised President George H.W. Bush and under President George W Bush, he was appointed US Ambassador to Singapore in 2001.

A prolific author for global publications, Frank had a second career in Asian finance and is now CEO and founder of ‘Export Now’.

A prominent ‘Never Trumper’, he has been a vocal critic of the Donald Trump Administration.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Frank for a chinwag about Election 2020 and whether Trump can fight back and win, why elections are defined by what voters don’t want,  what made Ronald Reagan the politician of his era, how politics has changed for the worse today, the future of the Republican Party, the secret to winning Presidential races and what the rise of an authoritarian China means for the US, Australia and the world.

It’s a wide ranging chat.

We want to say that Frank absolutely wins the award of best BBQ answer in the history of the show!

Transcript

Misha Zelinsky:
Frank, welcome to the show.

Frank Lavin:

Thanks. Thanks Misha, glad to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And thank you so much for joining us on Diplomates this week. Now you are in Singapore for the audio tape?

Frank Lavin:

I am locked down in Singapore. My business is actually in Shanghai, but I bunk in Singapore because that’s where my wife works. And it so happened when the curtain came down on Coronavirus, I was locked down here, and here I’ve been for about the last six or seven months.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Right. It’s a tough time everywhere at the moment, and no doubt we’ll cover Corona. But there’s so many things I’d like to talk to you about in terms of your personal very long career in politics, but given that we are now very near to the US presidential election, and clearly that’s what everyone’s tuning in for, I thought we might start with the election. You wrote a piece recently, I thought we could start here, you wrote a piece recently saying, don’t really focus on what voters want, focus on what they don’t want. What did you mean by that? And what does that mean for the election?

Frank Lavin:

I think this is a global phenomenon. When we have a public discussion and we articulate our preferences, we typically do so in terms of upside and aspirations. Where do we want our country to go? What kind of political leadership do we want? So that’s typically the currency of public discussion. However, in decision making theory, it’s very different than that. It’s people vote their fears, they vote negative, they can identify the greatest threat or the greatest risk, and that’s what they vote against. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence to take examples from this cycle, Misha. I think we can make a pretty strong case that the rather crowded Democratic field this time, Joe Biden was the least flawed candidate. He was the person who you had a hard time voting against if you were a Democrat, but the other people all had different sort of flaws, personal flaws, ideological flaws, and so forth that made them weak and turned, I think, a lot of Democrats with them.

And I think also Kamala Harris of the candidates mentioned for running mate that she was the least flawed running mates. So they ended up with a package that is broadly acceptable to Democrats rank and file. But if you typically vote Democratic you’re going to be very comfortable voting for Biden and Harris.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so the state of the race, I mean, it’s been pretty set for some time now, polling, and I think as has a lot of people nervous because of what happened in 2016, but if you believe the polling, Biden’s ahead nationally considerably, he’s ahead in most of the battleground states and key states. Firstly, do you think that’s the state of the race? And then secondly, I mean, can Trump come from behind with only a number of weeks left?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah. And look, I think a race with an incumbent in it is overwhelmingly a referendum on that incumbent. So what the polls are telling us, and I do think they’re accurate, is voters would prefer someone other than Trump. But Trump has already sort of lost the job interview, he’s already failed the job interview. It’s not 100% clear if Biden’s passed the job interview, but they’ve already decided they don’t want to renew Trump’s lease for another four years. And no surprise that the poll numbers are stable, Trump is a known quantity and Biden is a known quantity. So it’s not as if you are going to discover something new about Donald Trump in the next 30 days that might change your mind. I think it’s going to tighten up a little bit. I think Trump has a better chance to improve his standing than Biden does, meaning I think Biden’s more or less at his ceiling of around 50%, but Trump is underperforming I think a bit at about 42%.

So I think Trump can go up a point or two, but I think he has trouble going beyond that. So I would still, subject to the one big question mark that’s left in these last six weeks, Misha, is the three presidential debates. So subject to something egregious taking place in those debates of normal performance, more or less a draw, I think Biden wins, and I think he ends up winning by about four points or so.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, the other big thing underway now, and it’s crazy to think of all the things that have happened in this term, we’ve had an impeachment, which seems it’s not going to be even a factor in this election though, whether or not it’s perhaps baked into Trump’s numbers. You’ve got the Supreme Court nomination situation, do you think the replacement of RBG, do you think this is going to be a factor or does it net out both sides? Is it a positive for the Democrats in the suburbs? How do you see that playing out as an election issue? And then we might even-

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I’ll give you a political science answer, meaning I do think it nets out even in that passion on both sides is even. But I think that phenomenon plays to the advantage of the front runner because you’ve got a front runner, as you point out, is in a rather static position, six, eight points up, there’s only 42 days left, and if you’re going to eat up five or 10 of those days with Senate hearings, you’re absorbing the news. The insurgent or the underdog doesn’t have the opportunity to make his case. So if Biden can run out the clock a bit, I think that just helps him at the margin. It just takes Trump off message and it doesn’t help him close the gap at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we talked about the campaigns, and you’re a veteran of many Republican campaigns over a very long number of years … Debates, there’s always a lot of focus on them. Do you think they matter at all? And then like, I mean, what would you be looking for as a Republican strategist at the three debates? You sort of said if it’s a draw it won’t matter, but I suppose what makes a draw first? And then secondly, do they matter at all in the context of a long electoral cycle and campaign?

Frank Lavin:

I would score these debates, I think they do matter, but the metric … it’s easy to have the wrong metric. Meaning the wrong metric here is an academic debate scorecard where your typical academic debate, should Britain go ahead with Brexit or something, and it’s the Oxford society has this debate and the judges vote 82 to 77 that the highest side, the affirmative side won, that’s the wrong way of doing it.

Because look, somebody is going to do marginally better than the other person, on points, but what I’m saying is that aspect of the debate, I don’t think matters much. I think, look at debate as a threshold set of performance questions, meaning, did each candidate perform adequately? Did they perform to the moment? Were they more or less in their game, on their game, spoke to their constituency, spoke to the issue, stayed on message, were more or less disciplined and messaging, no egregious faults or failures.

If they basically do an adequate job, then it’s tied. It’s a wash, meaning I think Biden supporters simply want to be reassured that their candidate is okay, and Trump voters the same, but the stakes are a little higher for Biden. Trump has chosen over the last six months to make Biden’s age a bit of an issue. And so there’ll be some scrutiny on that point, but if you watched the Democratic primary debate, Biden did fine. Biden certainly passed any kind of threshold criteria. And if you watch, there’s a recent, they call these town hall meetings, recent sort of an open question format on, I think one of the networks are US ABC. And again, Biden did fine. It wasn’t … these are sort of man on the street questions. So they’re not exactly hardball questions. But he had no gaps, no gaffs, no … he did perfectly fine on these questions.

So I think the rap that he’s somehow drifting, or not up to it or not engaged, I don’t see any evidence of that. But God forbid, from the Biden perspective, if he loses his train of thought, or has a gap in something, he will pay a price for that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think those … somewhat ironic, but do you think that perhaps Trump has mis-played this in that he’s lowered the threshold of success for Biden? He’s managed his expectations down so much that if Joe turns up and is basically coherent, to your point, that’s a tick?

Frank Lavin:

I think you’re right. And I think also, there’s an element of Biden’s stage presence that has a bit of charm to it. Meaning, the guy is loquacious. But that’s very different than saying he’s senile. I mean the guy over talks issues, and he has odd verbal tics, like a lot of people in public life , so he’ll use a phrase, stock phrase, like “Come on, man,” to enforce a point, which you could says is rhetorically weak. But it has a certain amount of every-man charm to it. Right? It’s not pretentious, he’s not quoting Latin, and he is an authentic person. He is a man of the streets. So I think rapping him for that doesn’t help Trump.

He also uses the invective at the end of some sentences, “I’m serious,” which again is a painfully weak rhetorical device. But it is authentic, it is Joe Biden. If you don’t believe this guy is the major party nominee, front runner for President, that he’s serious when he makes a point, there’s nothing … the least effective way of convincing you he’s serious is to say “I’m serious.” So he’s not a rhetorical master. But again, there’s a certain charm in the every day unpretentiousness of his approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

So stepping out to the campaigns more generally, how do you see campaigning today as being different to the way campaigns have been traditionally run? Is there a difference? One of the big things people talk about is that so much is focused now on turning out your own vote, turning out your base vote, rather than persuasion of undecided voters. But how do you see campaigns today compared to the way they’ve been run over the last …

Frank Lavin:

There’s been a few shifts in my short political life, but over the last few decades, one shift has been the prevalence of digital communications. It means we’re rewarding depth rather than breadth. We’re rewarding people who might own an issue or a segment of the issue, rather than rewarding someone who can get 51%. So pugnacity is important. You’ve got the most cluttered media environment in the world, and you have to break through that. So there’s always a temptation to say something outrageous, or be outrageous.

Trump is a very good example of that. I think he’d say, if you asked Trump “What are the rules of communication?” He’d say “Rule number one is, never be dull.” And boy, Trump owns that segment of the population of people.

Misha Zelinsky:

He doesn’t breach that rule.

Frank Lavin:

Right. And there’s a certain segment, call it the WWF segment, that says I can’t necessarily follow the issues or follow the policies, but I can tell who the most combative person is. And I warm to that person. And I think I want a fighter, so the person who uses the toughest rhetoric has my vote. By the way, I think you pay a price for that in all sorts of ways as well, but you can see that Trump captures some advantage out of tone and temperament. So there’s been a drift toward that kind of fragmentation of the market, there’s been a reward toward pugnacity, and on the same token I’d say with some regret, there’s been a real shift away from management expertise. That we want someone that can actually run a government program, or run a solution, or find the best way. So if we have problems with high school dropouts, we want someone who’s the most emotional about that issue, and not the who says “I have a seven point plan to reduce high school dropouts,” “Here’s some ideas that will work to reduce high school dropouts.”

So there’s been a real deterioration in the dynamic for somebody who’s got management expertise, and I’d say on the same token, it seems every single cycle we strip out the one remaining element of the process that would reward some time of political leadership to say … make it have some elements of a parliamentary system. The last time that was done was Democrats stripped out, largely, the value of the so-called super-delegates, where they had somewhat of a parliamentary element to their process, where they said “We’re going to let sitting members of Congress and Governors and Senators each have a vote,” and then they said later “No, we were just sort of kidding about that. We don’t want that.” And that was a concession that Hillary Clinton had to make to the Bernie Sanders group. Because obviously those people would look at Bernie Sanders as the answer and he said for his loyalty you have to dilute that group’s power.

So we’re in to a point now where it’s pure vote, with no intermediary institution or individual. So that rewards that emotional content, that rewards that communication skill, and it really de-values both management and leadership or resume. It’s very interesting to me that the last two presidents, Trump and Obama, were two presidents that had very strong communication skills. Both of them love the rally format, large-scale, large mass, very strong emotional connectivity with the base. And neither of them ran on the basis of a government record. Presumably, Obama’s the only one who could have, but he’d been in the Senate for two years. There was no Obama bill, no Obama history, and he knew that. He knew that. He said “What I can do better than anybody else is communicate, and form that emotional bond.” And he did that very effectively.

So we’re in an era now where that sort of populism dominates the process, and saying “I am the master of the Senate, I’m Lyndon Johnson, and I orchestrated 40 pieces of legislation and I’m moving America a certain way,” we said that doesn’t really matter anymore. Or doesn’t matter the way it used to. So that’s a huge shift in the electorate behavior in the last few decades.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s interesting, isn’t it, because when you look at the Democratic primary, the governors, who all have presumably good government experience … who’ve got records … have not done well at all. And they didn’t even get through to Iowa. Whereas you look back to Bill Clinton in ’92, he was Governor of Arkansas and that was a good base for him to campaign. So interesting point you raise. But also, do you think that the lack of gatekeepers in major parties is a problem now? The so-called smoky back rooms, in terms of …

Frank Lavin:

I think we’d be better off with them playing some kind of role. There should be some median where … look, I’m fundamentally, I believe in democracy. So you want the voters to elect delegates, the delegates to elect … but I thought the idea of super-delegates or something like that made a lot of sense. To say “Look, this person who’s a member of Congress or Senator, Governor, has some awareness of the system and some capability to add to the conversation.” So I wouldn’t just simply discount that to zero. So I think that’s the happy medium, that voters can directly elect any delegate they want for any reason they want. But the incumbent members, those few hundred other people, are going to have their say as well. So then you have a bi-cameral process. A little bit like the UK labor party, right? Where they have direct membership, and they also have union leadership vote … different constituencies have different rights within the UK labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. Australia as well, it’s the leadership of the labor party is now decided by 50% vote of the rank and file membership, 50% by the union caucus. The colleagues of the candidates. And they know them best, presumably, right? So they know what they’re like.

Frank Lavin:

But that’s a members constituency, what you just described?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. So it’s like 50/50 college, so members of the labor party get a vote directly and then the other half of the vote is made up of people that are in the federal parliamentary caucus, along with the candidates.

Frank Lavin:

Right. Good. Well look, it’s not for me to tell Australia what to do, but I’d say that’s some kind of balance, that lets leadership play a role, but also rank and file of the man on the street play a role, would be helpful. And interestingly, of the leading candidates this cycle, two of them were not members of the party in any meaningful sense. Meaning Bernie Sanders was never a Democrat, and Donald Trump was never a Republican. So it’s extraordinary to me, you can sort of walk in off the street and through self-declaration just say “This looks interesting to me, why don’t I lead this party?” And to say “My, that’s a rather elastic political structure if somebody can just knock on the door.”

Biden, to his credit, has been a registered Democrat, active Democrat, for 40, 50 years. So that’s a much more traditional biography of the people we used to nominate.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s essentially been a hostile takeover of the Republican party by Trump, and an attempted one by Sanders, and you’re right, I often remark to people that friends of mine that are Sanders people, who say “The Democratic party was very unfair to Bernie,” I say “Well, he’s not a member.” So you can understand there might be some hostility from an organization that someone is not a member of, to being colonized by. But that’s just an observation.

Now going right back … I want to zero in now on your experience. And we’ve talked a lot about the Republican party, you were of course Ronald Reagan’s political director. Way back with a legendary Republican president, sort of the beginning of the modern era in many ways … before we get into your experiences, what was Ronald Reagan like, as a person? And a man, and a President? I’m kind of curious for your take on that.

Frank Lavin:

Well, if I had to pick one word I’d say “Genial.” Meaning, I think an element of leadership is to project an amiability, and to be open to anybody’s opinions, questions, and to say “Look, it’s a world of opinions. Everybody’s got an opinion, everybody wants a hearing.” They view the President as some sort of Supreme-Court-type figure that they say “I want this, I’ve got this injustice, I’ve got this problem you need to fix, you need to help us.” So you need to have that in your mind when you take the job, that you’re going to have a lot of people knocking on the door, and coming in. And you better be able to treat them with respect and with kindness, and give everybody a good hearing.

So he was extremely good with that. And I suspect that came with a long history in movies, TV, and radio, where again, you’re a public figure. And Americans are just unabashed about approaching people and saying to Ronald Reagan the actor, “My cat just died, and I had named him Ronald after you. I’d like you to come to my cat’s funeral.” But Americans will say things like that, and you have to be able to say something gracious and polite to that person, and not “Get out of my way, you lunatic.” So Reagan was very, very good at offering empathy and trying to be compassionate with somebody, and trying to give the person the time of day and make sure the person is taken care of.

And he was a great guy to work with, as well. No static, no sharp elbows, I think he also, just as a human being, as a manager … you know, if you have all the power in the world you can be gracious. You can be kind. And the saying of the 1980s was, of all the different kind of people who end up in the West Wing, some of them quite difficult personalities, the two nicest people in the West Wing were Ronald Reagan and George Bush. And they were both old-school gentlemen, who were very … great guys to work with. And you could say anything to them, they’d respond. Very approachable. So I enjoyed that time with Reagan and with Bush.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about Reagan and Bush. A lot of people talk today, they talk about President Trump and essentially he can’t take bad advice … and essentially anyone who stood up to him or had a different view has been run out of the White House. How did the White Houses operate under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and how would you give advice to the President, that might be contrary to what they’re thinking at the time?

Frank Lavin:

But that happens regularly in a professionally-managed organization, you set a tone from the top that we’re trying to go in a certain direction, trying to go in a certain path, but we want to hear about the trade offs, we want to hear about the cost, we want to hear about alternative paths. And that’s part of the policy process. And that’s why you have the … I was on the National Security Council staff, but that’s why you have that NSC process. To say “We’re all concerned about problem X, and there are three or four options in front of us, let’s look at the costs and benefits of these different approaches, and have a thoughtful discussion.”

So there was never a climate of hostility or stigmatizing the outlier. You wanted to make sure you always heard the outlier. So I said any … let’s make sure around the table that there’s at least one negative voice there, so we fully understand what might go wrong, and we don’t get into an odd kind of cheerleading dynamic of … we run cheering down some path, again we’re just reinforcing each other’s worst instincts.

So I thought Reagan and Bush were both good managers in that respect, I think you’re right, Trump doesn’t have a lot of policy depth, so he can’t always evaluate the trade offs, and then you overlay that with enormous personal sensitivity. So if you challenge him, it’s a personal slight. And he thinks you’re impugning him. So he must rebuff you, he must knock you down or swat you down. So you only learn by doing, and sometimes you don’t learn at all, right?

And the good thing about Reagan I would say, and Bush as well, is they each had a policy compass. They each knew where they wanted to go, and they’d also spend considerable time in public life. So they had a team, they had people they worked with, people they trusted, people who believed in them, had working responsibilities … so thy didn’t just wash up on the shores of the White House on election day and say “Let’s try to figure this out,” they had been at this search, and at this business of government, for decades. Right? So reasonably well-seasoned when they came into office. Trump really suffers from the fact that he … it’s kind of impressive that he won, but he won as the outsider, and as the contrarian with any kind of government background at all. And you pay a price for that. Because he didn’t have a team, he didn’t have thought-through position papers when he came into office.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Reagan era, the Bush one era, the 80s into the early 90s … politics has always been not a game for the fearful. So it’s always been very robustly-contested in the United States. But it strikes me, and certainly Biden talks about this a lot, it strikes me that politics has gotten nastier in recent times. And certainly nastier since that era. Would you agree with that? How did things happen in the back rooms, when you’d be talking to the other side, compared to what you observe today?

Frank Lavin:

I think there’s been enormous deterioration. You hate to lay it all on one person, but I’ve never seen a President act the way Trump acts with regard to how he describes political adversaries, or impugns them. But to have that kind of raw criticism, or mocking or scorn, of individuals and opponents from a Presidential statement, I think is beneath the office. I would say one of the first rules of serving as President is to act like a President, and to act with a degree of dignity. And if you want to take a shot at someone, we see Presidents do that. You can use humor, you can use back-handed or understated comments. People get the joke, people know what you’re saying. But to simply berate somebody and denigrate someone is, I think, appalling. And then he frequently does it in a context of their ethnicity, or their religion, or where they’re from. I think these are just appalling statements, that nobody in public life should act that way.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Republican party … you’re a long-time Republican. You got links right back to Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush. I’m kind of curious about how the Republican party has changed. Because I often think, you look at Ronald Reagan’s record, and he’s considered to be the gold standard by many Republicans active today. But you look at his record as California Governor, and you think “Would he win a primary in 2020?” So what does that say about the modern Republican party, from your point?

Frank Lavin:

I think there are two or three things going on here. One of which we talked about, which is the rise of digital media, the rise of emotional populism, and this populist … I mean what is populism? One we discussed already is emotional connectivity, rather than a managerial approach to problems. Now that can be on the left or the right. But another element of populism is it’s grievance-based. Tell me what’s wrong, tell me what you don’t like, and I’ll speak to your grievances. Which on the one hand, all grievances need an airing, but on the other hand, if your messaging is entirely grievance-oriented, you’re not talking about solutions. And you’re not allowing people to feel comfortable about the direction of the country. So there’s the price you pay for being grievance …

I’d say a third area of populism, which is also a bit dangerous or risky, is populism’s message is exculpatory. Populism’s message is, “The problems we face today are because others have done this to us.” I would say, in most countries, it’s generally the opposite. The problems Australia faces today, are problems that Australians have made. The problems Americans face today are problems Americans have made, right? And if you have a problem with drug use, or high school dropouts, or street crime, or unemployment, or lack of racial equality, those are self-inflicted problems. Those weren’t problems that Japanese or Chinese steel makers hoisted upon us. So you can see the seduction of it, but there’s a bit of a danger in that if you’re telling people “Our problems are caused by someone else,” instead of saying “I want to bring a mirror, and I want you to look in this mirror and tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

And I’ll tell you the fourth element of populism, I would say, is policy choices have no trade-offs. We’re going down the wrong path, but don’t worry, I’m going to take us down the right path. But we know in government, almost all policy situations do have a trade-off. And you can be unhappy with the path we’re on, there are advantages and disadvantages, but the alternative one you’re suggesting is also going to have costs and benefits. So it’s not a question of right and wrong. But if you listen to a lot of the Trump rhetoric, and I would say some of the Obama rhetoric … well, Obama had a populist streak, but I don’t think he was as orthodox populist as Trump. But he had elements of that as well. So this populism dominates the moment, digital dominates the moment, as I said.

I’ll tell you something else that kind of opened the door to Trump, is the drift of the Democratic party. So I think you’re quite right to talk about what’s happened to Republicans, and how did they become more nationalist, and move away from some international leadership roles that you had under a Reagan presidency and a Bush presidency, but what happened to the Democratic party where the working man, the Union member, the factory worker, moved away from the Democrats? How did the Democrats become more new class, and more orthodox left, and more based in identity politics that is just uninviting to a lot of working class voters? Even if there’s still an economic orientation to the left?

What would give a multi-millionaire like Trump, who has nothing in common with the working man culturally, what would give him reach with that community that Hillary Clinton didn’t have? So it’s as much of an evolution of the Democratic party as for the Republican party.

Now Biden, to his credit, especially in the last two or three weeks, if you look at his speeches he’s keyed back into that working class voter a lot more. He talks about, he’s not an Ivy League College graduate, he went to a state school. So it’s a little bit of populism there, a little bit of us and them, but it’s a shot at Trump. It’s a little bit of saying, he has a theme of “My Dad told me you’re no better than anybody else, treat everybody with respect.” With a little Will Rogers egalitarianism. But that will play well. And again, it’s a shot at Trump, who’s sort of the regional elitist, and the regional snob.

So Biden, I think, gets it. That at least culturally, social and cultural bases, you’ve got to be able to speak to this constituency that I feel is cut adrift by the traditional Democratic party. And Republicans can reach out to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s an interesting point. And this is not particular to the US Democrats, we’ve seen it with a lot of parties of the center-left around the world, where for whatever reason having a nationalist response to the economic concerns of working class voters. And the parties of the left are not, for whatever reason, connecting with the concerns of those people.

Frank Lavin:

And there’s also a social-cultural element here. Which look, I don’t think the Democratic party is guilty of this, I don’t think Joe Biden is guilty of this, but there’s elements of the Democratic party, and some of them are vocal elements, that for example call for open borders. That there should be no restrictions at all on immigration. See, that’s not a majority view, even with the Democrats. But I think Americans just find that unfathomable, that you would do that. And I think it’s as popular in America as it is in Australia.

But there’s a variant of that, called Sanctuary Cities, that city governments and municipal governments should not cooperate with Federal law enforcement in cases regarding illegal immigration. And you’d say “Look, this violates all sorts of government norms and constitutional norms, and you have local governments actively working to frustrate law enforcement.” And they’re projecting some kind of nobility on illegal immigrants. Which might be there in some cases, certainly there’s personal hardship there, but if there’s a legal warrant out for that individual, most people’s reaction is you need to honor that warrant. You need to process that person in the criminal justice system.

So there’s some exotic voices on the left that probably get more of a hearing than they deserve. It’s not a majority view, but it’s off-putting to rank and file historic Democrats who might normally pull the D lever. And look, let’s face it, the original Franklin Roosevelt sort of issues that got the Unions going and energized the Democratic party for a few generations, have largely been solved. So it’s a victim of their own success to say “We have 40 hour weeks, we have well-enforced safety and health regulations, and these sort of factors. We have funded retirements.” You know, it’s a comfortable life in the factory now, as opposed to 50 years ago.

I remember reading federal and OSHA, federal workplace hazard statistics that said … because I was going on a tour of a steel mill when I was a Congressman, I was talking to folks who worked at the steel mill. It said look, the injury rate and the fatality rate at a steel mill in the US is considerably lower than the injury rate and fatality rate working at a 7-11. So that’s a really successful journey. Because you can bet 50 or 100 years ago, working in a steel mill was quite a hazardous … there’s no safety anything, no guard rails, no safety goggles, no procedures. I’d guess it was a pretty miserable place, but now it’s a reasonable working environment.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, we’ve got a lot of members that either work in steel, I’m from Wollongong, it’s a steel town … they’re good jobs, right? And that’s why it’s become such contested space to maintain and keep these jobs. You sort of touched on that before, the contest between the United States and China when it comes to trade. But just the Republican party, if Trump wins, it’s going to become the Trump party … probably in perpetuity. The hostile takeover would be complete. I’m kind of curious on your take, and you’re a never Trump-er I believe. If Trump loses, what happens next for the future of the Republican party? Some people think it’ll double down, you’ll end up with Donald Trump Jr. as the next proxy for that same nationalist … or is the more traditionalist, Bush Republican going to come back to the center?

Frank Lavin:

Well, I think it’s an open question. And a lot of it has to do with personalities as much as the philosophy and the themes. Meaning it’s not as if there’s a working caucus or faction that is a meaningful entity. It’s not like Japan, where you have LDP factions that stand for something, and then you group around them and they organize. You can’t really have that. And I say this meaning, what you have is this running, open debate/argument, fist fight policy papers, books, talk show, kind of behavior until you formally decide this with the primary seasons in four years.

And you’re going to have … you know, it’s open casting call. There’s no playoff bracket where you settle down. Anybody who wants to show up at the starting line for the race could show up at the starting line. So it’s a very inviting proposition, and indeed the market tends to overshoot. Meaning you tend to get 20 some people showing up saying “I think I’m interested in this job,” when you say “Well look, only half of them might really be serious and only a quarter of them really can go the difference.” But there’s no filtering mechanism. So I think we’re going to have a very open, loud, noisy, maybe at times painful debate on the future of the Republican party. And it is only settled during the primary process in 2024.

I’ll say this though, I think Trump, if he loses, he still has a shadow. But that shadow lasts one or two years. And he’s got some real strength in that he enjoys the media, he enjoys the public role, and he’s a good communicator. So he’s got some real strengths. But he has some real disadvantages as well, one is he’s not a young man. He’s getting into his mid-70s himself. Two, I think most importantly, he is defined as a loser. And if you ask what Americans disdain, what they dislike the most, they disdain losers. And there’s not anybody running for public office in America today that says I better call up Hillary Clinton and get her advice. They say we’ll give her a speaking slot, and we’ll applaud her, and say “I respect your long service,” but she’s deemed a loser. So if Trump is deemed a loser, I think right away you lose half the party right there. You say “Look your only job was to win this damn thing, you couldn’t do it, so why should we listen to you?”

But there’s also true believers. That saying in the US, you might’ve heard it, that both parties are divided functionally between two groups: the priests and the mathematicians. And the priests say “I have the truth, you need to follow me,” and the mathematicians say “Look I’ve got to get the 50% plus one.” So the mathematicians move away right away from Trump, most of the priests, the Trump priests at least, stay with him and say “He speaks the truth.” But there’s even different priests. It’s a broad church, there’s different factions, different denominations. So there’ll be other people running in 2024, and you could see a series of problems.

One is that the Trump field might be the dominant field, but again there’s no faction mechanism. So what you have are three or four people running as I am the new Trump. I’m the baby Trump, I’m the mini-me. Including, arguably, maybe one of the Trump children running in that capacity. But you have different statewide officials running in that way, so you could have four or five people saying “I’m the new adjusted, modern, improved Donald Trump.” Right? And then you’ll have some people running as non-Trump, or anti-Trump, you’ll have some people running as fusion candidates. I mean, everybody defines themselves. It’s open architecture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, by the way, priests and mathematicians, that’s a fantastic quote that … I’m going to be using that live on air, I’m stealing that quote from you. It’s fantastic. Really good. I just wanted to …

Frank Lavin:

If we’re just taking a break, Mike Murphy uses that a lot. So credit him rather than me, at least if you’re going to use it independently. Mike uses that all the time. But it’s …

Misha Zelinsky:

Mike’s been on the show, so I’m sure he won’t mind you borrowing it.

Frank Lavin:

So to hell with him, yeah I agree, I like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I just want to switch gears slightly, now you had a big career in US politics, you then went on to be an ambassador. I kind of want to get your take on US leadership. The US has typically played a big role as a global leader, I mean, how do you see its role presently? And what’s your take on Trump’s approach to the alliance structures that have underpinned the world, post World War II and certainly post Cold War?

Frank Lavin:

By the way, this process, this evolution I would stay started under Obama. But Trump brings a kind of roughness to it, and Obama had a lot of charm in his style. But both of them came to office questioning US international leadership. And both of them make a lot of similar points, that the cost benefit of US role globally was just out of whack. And we needed to trim down and retrench US outreach, that there wasn’t an immediate threat, that global reach sometimes became a self-defining mission of … we would go on a hunt for enemies and end up in wars where we shouldn’t properly be. And the trade policy … I mean, interesting, Obama ran for President, was the first successful candidate for President to run against trade. And he said almost verbatim, the same as Trump, NAFTA is a mistake and NAFTA needs to be renegotiated.

Now, to his credit, when Obama came to office, backed away from that. And you could say I give him credit for being sort of an economic rationalist, or I give him discredit for being politically expedient. But I guess you could make the same dichotomy as Trump to his discredit, he kept his word. But to his credit, what he said in the campaign is what he did in office. He said “We’re going to try to change NAFTA.” So you had the first time in the modern era, from Harry Truman through George W. Bush, 11 Presidents in a row all supporting trade, trade liberalization, US participation in trade. And you have two Presidents who are saying that trade is harmful to America. We need to back away from it.

But same thing with political military set of issues, you had the sharpest reduction in NATO under Obama that we’d ever had, modern era, and I think Obama was basically saying “Look, we’re saving money, there’s no immediate threat.” And Trump goes one click further on the dial, he says “Look I’m not sure I believe in NATO, I think these other people aren’t burden sharing, and they’re sort of cheating us or abusing the relationship.” So we’re at a period of definition, where the Cold War generation in America has left the scene, and largely left the scene, there’s not a consensus on a US international leadership role, there’s always sort of a populist temptation to argue against playing a role, and I think it’s potentially dangerous. Because to my mind, if we don’t maintain the alliance structure and the international posture we’ve had, you’re going to be inviting to malevolent powers.

There’s a foreign policy concept known as a provocative weakness. And you’ve got to be very careful about reducing your posture to a point where you become a provocative weakness, and you’re provoking instability by not being seen as serious. I don’t think it was any accident that the only change in borders in Europe, by force, since World War II, came with the Russian seizure of Crimea. And that was on Obama’s watch. To say for whatever set of reasons, the Russians, the Soviets, always respected US deterrents. They would challenge and provoke, and do a lot of things, but the battle ground in the Cold War became the third world in part because Europe was so stable. So the only place that was left for the Soviets to compete was Central America, and Angola, and different kind of publics where they could, in some respects, compete on an even footing. But Europe was a very stable environment, where they knew they should not provoke or challenge NATO. And for whatever set of reasons, Obama didn’t have that credibility with the Russians the way other US Presidents did.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ve talked a lot about partisanship, and we’ve talked about the shift in US policy in recent times. One of the things that seems quite settled, or at least has a bipartisan consensus, is about US competition or strategic competition with China and the Chinese communist party. And so I’m kind of curious for your take, you were Ambassador to Singapore, you live there now, how do you see this playing out in that part of the world? It’s relevant to Australia as well, how do you see this contest, and how do you see it playing out in the region itself?

Frank Lavin:

I think it’s hugely relevant to Australia. Look, I make a broad statement that it is, to my mind, China’s role in the international system is the foreign policy issue of the moment we’re in. This century. China’s the only major power that is still defining its international role. And it’s not entirely up to China itself to define that role, because, to the extent it’s own self-described definition impinges on other people’s rights. Then they have something to say as well. So it’s a collective process, but it’s an ongoing process, and what we see is after 30 years of strong economic performance, China has developed a set of political aspirations, and that economic performance has translated into military reach as well. So they’re in the game, they’re in the competition for power and friends and influence. It’s largely peaceful, but not always, and some of it is quite sharp-elbowed. And they don’t always behave in a way that we would say comports with normal diplomatic behavior. So they’re playing their own tune, and they’re marching to their own beat, and the rest of the world is responding to it.

A lot of this is okay, a lot of this is the normal parameters, and I think what’s important, and where I would fault Trump, I give him marks for calling him out on a lot of their misbehavior, but what he hasn’t done is try to shape some kind of positive view on areas where we can cooperate. On some of the trade issues, tourism, educational activities … there’s a lot of value, and I would say for Australia as well, to have Chinese students there, Chinese tourists, trade … there’s a lot of value in that relationship.

So let’s try to capture the positive sides of the relationship, and let’s be sensitive to the places where there’s competition, like in a text base like Huawei, and so forth where there’s sensitivities and there’s ongoing competition. And then at the more serious level, geopolitics, let’s make sure we draw a line under a very important geopolitical core interest, like freedom of navigation in South China Sea, like Taiwan’s security, where we make sure we’re sending a clear message to China about what US core interests are, and I daresay Australia core interests as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given that we basically now have a rising economic power, for the first time in a long time, that is not a Democracy, so how do you see the systems competition reemerging for the first time since the Cold War? Is another Cold War essentially inevitable on that basis?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a Cold War but I would call it a competition. And China has never … well, not never. But in the last several decades, China hasn’t claimed to have global ideological goals. They really abandoned those … in the 1970s they were funding groups in Africa and Central America, they funded as we well know, Southeast Asian, Indonesia, and Malay insurgencies. So they’ve played a role in guerrilla warfare, but not for 40 or 50 years. It’s been quite a while since they … so they’re acting in some respects closer to, so to speak, normal state behavior. But, then you have normal geopolitical rivalry and competition, and you observed, the fact that they’re Leninist and political structure is also a cause for concern for other countries. That it’s not what we would call normal state behavior.

But I don’t think it’s a cold war competition, I don’t think they’re trying to get African countries to model themselves after China the way the Soviet Union wanted African countries to adopt Soviet-style government. What they do want from African countries is political support, they want markets, they want technology embedded in the ecosystem in Africa. So there’s certain things they want, but it’s more power projection and economic connectivity than political modeling in the strict Soviet sense of that word.

Misha Zelinsky:

Getting towards the end here, but I want to quickly jump back to the US election. Kind of curious for your take, what would your advice be to Republicans that are worried about Trump, that have been lifelong Republicans, what is their role in this election? Do they vote Democrat? Do they sit it out? Would they split ticket? And then secondly, who’s going to win? I’ll barrel you down to a prediction here.

Frank Lavin:

Well look, I think there’s an aspect of human behavior regardless of ideology, regardless of policy, there’s some aspect of human behavior that any one of us would say “This type of behavior is so reprehensible that even if I find myself in agreement with the individual in some respects, I can’t in good conscience vote for this person because of his own activity.” And that’s my feeling toward Donald Trump, that even though I probably agree with elements of his platform and things he’s done, I just don’t think he should be President.

But I’m giving you a bit of a long answer there, because I back into that to say “Look, I’m comfortable with right of center policies elsewhere on the Republican ticket.” So I don’t have a problem voting for Republican office holders and Republican candidates elsewhere. I know some of my colleagues who are never-Trumpers who don’t adhere to that, and they say “Not only must we purge Trump, but we must purge anybody who supported Trump, anybody who voted with Trump,” and so there’s got to be a broad church. We need a Robespierre kind of reaction.

But I don’t subscribe to that, and I’ll tell you this, whether Biden wins or loses, if he wins he’s going to want a Republican Senate in there to put a bit of a check on his own left, and he’ll be a more successful President if a Republican Senate is in there. And I also think Republicans, if they were looking at a post-Trump Republican party, a Republican Senate will help them develop an identity beyond Trump, and there’ll be speakers and leaders politically who are not Donald Trump.

So I’m not abashed at all about saying I’m voting … I think, I just applied for my absentee ballot, I vote in Ohio, but I think … I’m just trying to remember … I think I’ll be voting straight Republican for state and local offices in Ohio. There’s always one outlier, one lunatic that you don’t feel comfortable voting for, but I’ll be voting for somewhere around 99 to 100% of Republicans. But not Donald Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the predication for the Presidential race is?

Frank Lavin:

I think Biden wins. I think Trump’s got three big problems, only one of which might have a solution. The three big problems are: the economy, Coronavirus, and Trump’s own personality. Trump has been unpopular, more disliked than liked, about since he took office. And you can’t fix that. That’s his operating style, he relishes it, he likes being audacious, he likes playing the public role, he likes being the bad guy, it lets him be the most visible person in the room. It lets him be the most powerful person in the room. So that’s the price I pay, for my operating style. So that’s just uninviting to people. The Coronavirus, I don’t see any measurable improvement, although Trump will try to message some improvements. But I don’t see that having traction.

The one area where Trump can pick up a little bit is the economy is on a bit of an uptick. So he’ll get some credit for that. But the main problem with that thesis is it’s only on an uptick in a relative sense, in an absolute sense it’s still off-peak from pre-Coronavirus. So if you ask me how that washes out, it means that people who are inclined to vote for Trump but found all of the last six months too timultuous, they’ll gravitate back to Trump. He’ll pick up a point or two. But people who are disinclined to vote for him aren’t going to be won over because we have two or three months of a nice recovery. Because we’re still under water, we’re still below where we were before Coronavirus started. So I do think Biden wins.

I’ll give you one other prediction if I might, Misha, that all this discussion about election day anomalies, and weird behavior and Trump’s weird behavior … there’s no question at all that he loves being outrageous, he loves being provocative, he loves saying inappropriate things. But I have a feeling this is going to be a reasonably smooth election day, meaning by midnight election night, US time, we’ll know 75% of the results. And we’ll be able to make a prediction. Unless the results are say, less than two or three percent, then it’s harder to do because it breaks down by states, of course. But if Biden’s up there in a three or four percent lead, where I think he’s going to be, I think we’ll know … we’ll be congratulating him that night.

Although, as I suggested a minute ago, Trump is still of the kind of personality that he’ll be defiant, if not on the bridge of his ship screaming at the torpedoes. So he still has the capacity to behave in an un-statesmanlike fashion, but I’ve just got a sense this has a smoother resolution than you might expect, given all the discussion we’re hearing today about anomalies on election day.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, a lot of people are worried about the mail-in ballot issue, and the fact that most … if you look at the messaging and the polling, that Biden’s voters are going to vote by mail, Trump’s voters are going to vote in person, and the nightmare scenario is that Trump’s in the lead on the night of the election and then the postal ballots come in over the next few days and then Trump declares that it’s been stolen from him. So that’s the nightmare.

Frank Lavin:

Elements of that could happen, I guess what I’m saying is I think 75% of the states, that scenario won’t apply. That the amount of mail in ballots are small enough, and the lead is large enough. Or the counting is taking place quickly enough, that even by election night you say, Biden wins Pennsylvania by 400,000 votes, there’s still 150,000 votes to be counted, and people say well that doesn’t matter. It’s not consequential. So I think that will be about 75% of the states, that election night will say that it’s over. But that leaves a lot that are closer to your scenario, but even in most of those where we say “We don’t really know, we can’t really declare a winner, but we could say if trends continue this person’s won or that person’s won.” But we can’t formally state it.

So I think that will be the bulk … only in the minority of that minority will you say, “We don’t know who’s winning, and the trends aren’t clear either.” So we don’t really know, we just have to keep counting for another few days. But that is going to be a very small number of states where that even materializes. So I guess I’m prognosticating here that it won’t be enough, it won’t be big enough states or consequential enough states that it’s going to be meaningful, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you have any concerns about Trump and the Republican Senate in a lame duck session, Trump’s lost the election, Biden’s not yet been sworn in, in January, the Republican Senate potentially ramming through a supreme court nomination? Or other things of that nature? Or is that something that’s overblown?

Frank Lavin:

I think they’re going to be as forceful as they can, I mean Andy Warhol once said “Art is whatever you can get away with,” but I would say politics is whatever you can get away with. So I would say yeah, whatever they can legally get away with, and you can criticize their audacity and you can take umbrage at their behavior, but to say if the system lets them do this, they’re going to do it. Or they’re going to try to do it. The big, big prize that we’re looking at right now is the Supreme Court Justice.

But I also think we have to give this individual some credit, meaning I think America will more or less accept this process if the person themselves with judicial knowledge and learned behavior, and dignity. And the person comes across like a judge. And I think the person will have a big TV audience. You’ll have 50 or 100 million people watching this person’s testimony, and they’ll come to a conclusion to say the person looks okay to me. So Democrats are against this person only because it’s a Republican selection, but I think then the issue will just fade. But if the person comes across like a boob, some kind of political hack, they’re not up to the job or otherwise flawed, then I think it raises all of the points you just made to say “Look, this is a force.” You’re using this temporary majority status to push somebody through. And it’s going to rank a lot, I think Republicans pay a price for that kind of ham-handedness.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well we can talk about this, clearly I could talk about this all day. But you’ve got other things to do. Now I’ve got the last question that I don’t let any guests leave without getting weighed in on, I know you’ve been desperately researching Australians, but a barbecue at your place, it could be in Ohio or it could be in Singapore, Singapore is probably not as far for Australians to travel. There’s a lot of Aussies in Singapore. But three Aussies at a barbecue at Frank’s, and why?

Frank Lavin:

The three I’d invite … yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. And I have to ask you a technical question, since you’re the judge and jury here, can we designate pre-confederation inhabitants as Aussies?

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure.

Frank Lavin:

Or are you going strictly by … yeah. Because then I’ll say, there’s an interesting historical figure who has an Australian pedigree and Australia anchor, but I suspect Australians would deny he’s Australian, but he’s a fascinating historical figure, and this is your former governor of New South Wales, from the Colonial era, Captain Bligh.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would put William Bligh down as a fascinating individual. This fellow, we in America know him only from Mutiny on the Bounty, and the fact that he has this rather remarkable escape across several thousand miles of sea. But I think what few Americans know is then he becomes … he re-enters the Colonial service and becomes the Governor of New South Wales, and there’s a mutiny again! There’s another mutiny against him and he’s kicked out again.

Misha Zelinsky:

Rum rebellion, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would definitely want to ask him, what is there about his management style and his personality that induces people to mutiny against him. And I think Misha, I’m going to ask you to chip in with me on that, and I think what we’ve got to get him is Dale Carnegie’s book about how to win friends and influence people, to say “But Captain, you’ve just got to work on that personality side, so you’re not rubbing folks the wrong way all day long.” But I would put Captain Bligh down on there.

I thought of somebody else, but I’m not even sure I know their names, but this might be two [and might not fit under your rules, but I was also intrigued … you know, I was in Perth a few months ago, and I got to go to the Fremantle, there’s a shipping museum there. And the exhibit on the Batavia, was the Batavia shipwreck, but these were the first Europeans … two of the mutineers from the Batavia were juts set ashore on Australia …

Misha Zelinsky:

East India Company, wasn’t it? Yeah.

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, that’s the Dutch though, so it’s not even the Brits. So it’d be quite a stretch to call these people Aussies, since Australia didn’t exist, nothing existed, they were just put ashore as part of their punishment and they disappeared. But it’s nonetheless an interesting story. But I’d say back to planet Earth, the real Australia as we know it, I’d say … I’ve always had this curiosity about a prominent Australian who played a signature role in his country’s history, but Americans only know him through the prism of World War II, and that’s John Curtin. But what’s striking to me, is that if we look at global leadership in that moment, and I would put Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle … and I’d put Mackenzie King in that as well, to say these are individuals who we know today as great wartime leaders, and indeed they were very important for their nations’ survival. But their record domestically, and their record in domestic politics was much more mixed. Much more ambiguous, and much harder to evaluate.

And I think as Americans, who are just a bit lazy on this point, but we don’t fully understand Curtin’s parliamentary pedigree and what his domestic agenda is, because I think as far as we’re concerned, we’re just so overwhelmed by war dynamics that we’d say, as far as the US is concerned it really doesn’t matter what he was doing back home. What really matters is the A, B, C, D alliance in East Asia, and what the Americans, they’re all just working together.

But that would be the fellow. So Captain Bligh and John Curtin. And then I want to take a flyer, there’s an enormous celebrity culture in Australia, and I wanted to take a bow to it, but to go with someone who might not be terribly well known at the moment, but I suspect will be, and it’s a young Australian filmmaker, Natalie James. And she just had a movie out, which got released in the US called “Relic.” And it’s a bit of a spooky, a bit of a horror movie. And so she’s making a name for herself. I heard her on a podcast, very impressive person. And it’s a degree of creativity, entrepreneurial drive, craftsmanship, that you really have to respect. And I think when people say “What makes Australia great?” It’s people like that, who have a vision and pursue a vision. And so it’s not because of celebrity status, I don’t think she necessarily has celebrity status, but because she’s going down this path of professional excellence and creativity, and she brings joy to our lives with her movies.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m going to say, look, I am the judge and jury, and that is without a doubt the best answer that we’ve ever had on this show. The amount of history that you’ve got on there with William Bligh, the Rum Rebellion, the Dutch East India Company crash in the 17th century at Perth, John Curtin, legendary labor party minister from World War II, and then a modern day filmmaker, Natalie James, mate. Five-star effort, well done!

Frank Lavin:

Thanks Misha! Am I the only American who didn’t say Ned Kelly?

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you didn’t say Crocodile Dundee or Ned Kelly.

Frank Lavin:

I didn’t say Paul Hogan.

Misha Zelinsky:

You lost a Bingo round, mate, but nevertheless. Five star effort. Look, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on, and I will hope to have you on sometime soon.

Frank Lavin:

I’d love to visit with you again. Thank you so much, Misha, for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks mate.

Frank Lavin:

Thanks