Professor Carolyn Evans, Vice Chancellor and President, Griffith University
Good morning, everybody. My name is Carolyn Evans. I’m the Vice Chancellor of Griffith University, co-host for this morning’s event along with HOTA home of the arts here on the beautiful Gold Coast. I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet, pay my respect to their elders past and present, and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people joining us here today in person or virtually. I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of the many lands on which the people joining us virtually are gathered today. Can I acknowledge also members of the Gold Coast council who are here with us, the Griffith University Council and executive, and also the members of the HOTA leadership team. So, it’s a great pleasure to join you for our fourth event in the creating a future for all series of conversations. Our aim has been to bring your outstanding thinkers and leaders; to provide their insights in complex and thoughtful ways about the future. Today’s conversation is a timely opportunity to discuss what kind of future we face pending the outcome of next week’s critical elections in the United States. We are joined once again by one of Australia’s foremost journalists, commentators and writers, Kerry O’Brien. For those of you who followed the series, you’ll be well aware of the skills and experiences brought to the three outstanding conversations so far. We’re very grateful for the role that he’s played. We are also delighted to have a highly engaged and qualified guest to join Kerry in the conversation today. The former US ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013 his Excellency Jeffrey blush. An esteemed lawyer, respected diplomat and champion for education, Jeffrey is devoted to advancing international understanding around the world. He serves as chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board and is chair of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and is the former chair of California State University, which is America’s largest university system. He is also a board member of Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. And most importantly, last year he received an honorary doctorate from Griffith University. He remains active in regional diplomacy today having been appointed by former Secretary of State John Kerry to the East West Center board. He also serves on the boards of Rand Australia and the Australian American Leadership Dialogue and was elected with a live member to the Council of Foreign Relations. He is widely regarded as one of the US top lawyers, a former law clerk to the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, a president of the largest Bar Association in the United States. He also served in the White House as Special Counsel to President Obama. At the same time, he has maintained a commitment to supporting most vulnerable and needy in our society. He’s represented the American Bar Association in several landmark cases supporting the rights of immigrants in the United States Supreme Court. President Bill Clinton selected him to serve as Director of White House Commission on youth violence following the tragic Columbine High school shootings. It’s been my privilege to hear him speak on many occasions. It’s always stimulating and thought provoking. I very much look forward to hearing from him today. So without further ado, I’ll hand over to Kerrry to start proceedings.
Kerry O’Brien – Jeff Bleich, can I add my welcome to your joining the series of conversations. Before we, before we dive in… Sorry, go on?
Jeff Bleich – I’m honored to join you, and a special thanks to the Vice Chancellor Evans. I’m very touched. I wish my kids were here.
Kerry O’Brien – Well, you can always replay it to them. Before we dive into the presidential election and try to sort out, I want to ask a question that I think should frame the whole discussion. When do you think America was at its strongest as a democracy?
Jeff Bleich – Oh, you know, we, we tend to be our strongest when we come through a crisis. So, I’d say as a democracy we were at our strongest coming out of, or during the Great Depression. You know, if you look at Herbert Hoover, who won in a landslide, and was extraordinarily popular with the dominant party in the United States, and based on his response to the Great Depression, and his failure to adapt government to address the needs of Americans he lost in an even bigger landslide only four years later. That’s a robust democracy, where that many people can evaluate a president and change their minds in such clear fashion. It really set up a democracy, which was very different for the next 80 years.
Kerry O’Brien – And by comparison, where do you think it is today? Apart from the Civil War, I wonder whether the United States of America has ever been less united, not just between states, but within states.
Jeff Bleich – You know, in many ways, there are there are parallels to the election of 1860. And it is a reminder that, you know, you can’t take democracies for granted. When people neglect portions of America, or neglect the foundations of government, it can rapidly slide into dangerous spaces. And right now, we have a deeply divided country on a number of issues. But, you know, the good news is that they’re not indifferent. The people are very, very animated. And I think that is a hopeful sign for what is right now a very challenged democracy.
Kerry O’Brien – And Applebaum, right in the Atlantic Monthly, that quote “epidemics, like disasters have a way of revealing underlying truths about the societies they represent.” What underlying truths about America have been revealed by this pandemic?
Jeff Bleich – I think the underlying truth is our struggle with the truth. You know, right now I’d say one of the biggest challenges for our country and for democracies around the world, we’re not alone in this, is a lack of a common vocabulary of truth. Scientific truth, facts, logic and trust. Trust in experts, who we have always counted on to let us know what is true in their area of expertise. I think if you look at the challenges that we’re having on a pandemic, a lot of it is that people don’t know what to believe. You know, the best examples, if you ask the Center for Disease Control in the United States they’ll say you need to wear a mask. It’s one of the best ways to prevent COVID from spreading. If you ask the president of the United States, he’ll say well CDC says recommend a mask and wear a mask. I don’t like masks. So you know, I hear from some people that say masks may cause COVID to spread. I don’t know, you know? So, if you’re an American you don’t know what to believe in. Do you wear a mask, do you not wear a mask? Is it up to you whether you wear a mask? And when people don’t want to believe they either tend to default to a bias, or they believe nothing, and they do nothing.
Kerry O’Brien – What about the underlying truth that there is a growing unhealthy, increasingly unhealthy divide between the rich and the rest which has been already accented and will continue to be accented, I would think, in terms of those people who have felt the pandemic most and will feel the aftereffects of the pandemic most?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah, no, I think that is true. We have two pandemics going on simultaneously. There is the health pandemic, the virus, which is running around the world. But it’s revealing within the US that this pandemic is hitting different parts of society very differently, based entirely on income. And although we already knew about the great wealth disparities within our country, it’s making it very real when you see that this is the most unequal recession that we’ve ever had. And it’s being borne most by the people who are working hard and are on the front line and are trying to save lives as nurses, as teachers and just being the person who works in the grocery store. They are the most exposed and they are the poorest paid. And when people start to recognize that and that they are overrepresented in immigrant communities and in among racial minorities, those bottlenecks and those fractures within our democracy become more evident.
Kerry O’Brien – So we’ll come back to this broader discussion soon. But now let’s look at the election and the most likely outcome. You’ve seen the inside of a presidential campaign. You’ve run for office yourself. How are you measuring what’s really going on because we know from last time that the polls can get it badly wrong?
Jeff Bleich – I think there is this paranoia, particularly among Democrats right now, about what is it that they’re missing. You know, the polls look good for not only Vice President Biden but also for Democratic candidates in a number of battleground states, including states that traditionally have not been battlegrounds. And so based on the 2016 experience, based on Brexit, even based on the surprise result in Australia, I think there is a general fear and caution about taking any of this as true. I think if you’re trying to be honest with yourself, and not accept the need to tamp down expectations, then you’d have to say that the numbers are what you would look for in a normal election if you were a supporter of Joe Biden. He has held healthy leads in a number of key states. Those numbers have stayed constant for a long period of time. And they seem to have expanded, if anything. But there are key demographics that you look at to see how he’s doing in in those demographics compared to Hillary Clinton, compared to Donald Trump. You know, for example, seniors. Hillary Clinton lost among senior citizens in the United States by seven points to Donald Trump. Joe Biden was currently ahead by 21 points. And that’s nationwide. So those numbers would give you some confidence. And then you would look and see, well, the mistakes of polling that occurred in the past, have they been accounted for? And the critical mistakes in polling last time around were under counting and under polling white Americans without a college degree. And in fact, there has been a dramatic change in the sampling of that group. And then also, underestimating of groups that might come out and vote. If anything, Democrats this time are doing it the other way. There has been a surge in voting among young people. But instead of using the 2018 figures, they’re looking at 2016 figures which are more conservative. So again, conservative calling, sort of a good trend lines, both in demographics, and in individual states, Joe Biden should feel pretty good about where he is today. But I think there is a sense that because Donald Trump has been so successful in the past at defying expectations, and there are extraordinarily concerning dirty tricks going on already, Some in plain sight and some below the surface, that what we are seeing may not be real. And it has created a tremendous unease and fear, particularly among Democrats, but I really think across the country.
Kerry O’Brien – So what significance do you read into the fact that about 60 million votes have already been cast? Which I think is, is more than ever before at this stage of the presidential campaign. What do you read into that?
Jeff Bleich – Well, you know, you want to look at where those votes are cast and who they’re cast by, and what zip codes they live in, because it will tell you a lot. And what you’re seeing is a larger than expected, at this point, turnout by young people. By this point in 2016 14%. of young registered voters had cast their vote. It’s 22% already. So that gives you that gives you some sense that it’s a 50% increase among young people. You’re seeing minority vote come out at high levels. And I think in many cases among minorities they would typically vote for Democrats. So that would give Democrats some confidence. On the other hand, Trump supporters are being registered at a higher rate. They may come out in person, because they were told by their president not to trust to mail in ballots. There could be a surge of them late in the game. And so again, you can draw some conclusions that we’re all really motivated. But I think Democrats may have voted a little bit earlier in part because they were told that Donald Trump may shut down the post office. The yearbook may not make it unless you send it in early. I think some paranoia is driving the early numbers.
Kerry O’Brien – In a sense, you don’t know whether a significant number of those were going to turn up at the polling booth anyway and vote the same way. And that’s the big imponderable, isn’t it? How many people ultimately are going to turn out? And the democrats clearly need a significant number more than turned out last time. There was that conflict between Sanders supporters and Clinton supporters? There was an anti-Clinton sentiment within the Democratic Party. And that is a big unknown, isn’t it?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah, that is one of the big questions. In general, what you’re seeing is a much more unified Democratic Party. And many people, including myself, have great confidence in Joe Biden. But that doesn’t reflect the entire coalition of democratic voters who were animating. Many of them are driven by a distaste for the current president. And it really comes down to, in some cases, fear or an actual hatred.
Kerry O’Brien – I was a correspondent in America in the Reagan years, and I covered the 84 presidential election. It still shocks me. It shocked me then. And it still shocks me today, how much the concept of fair elections in America has been corrupted over generations. Institutionally corrupted in various ways by state governments to favor one side of politics over the other. What are the biggest impediments to people voting this time?
Jeff Bleich – Well, you know, one of the great gifts of the American people is we’re an extraordinarily innovative people. But what it means is that we have folks who got into government overtime, and they figured out ways to innovate, and to game the system of governance. And if we don’t constantly correct and improve our democracy, we’re susceptible to being gamed. And it’s happened over time. There are a number of things going on right now. So, there are the things that always exist, which is we have deliberate efforts to suppress the vote. So, for example right now there was a ruling recently which says that even if you mail your ballot before election day, and it’s postmarked well before election day, if it isn’t received on election day it can’t be counted. You know, you voted, you voted in time. And it was just held up by the post office, and you’re denied your right to vote. We have other states which have said that we’re only going to allow one ballot box per County. Which mean that tiny counties with a total population of 2000 have a box and in major cities, with populations of millions like Dallas and Houston, get one box to collect ballads.
Kerry O’Brien – So in fact, on the day you could have a queue going for miles. Where some people in that queue that by the time ballot closes, are still far away from being able to vote. I mean, that is the kind of thing I’m talking about. When you see that kind of blatant distortion. If you’ve got such a great democracy, how is that allowed to happen?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah, we have a democracy in which there has been a systematic effort over a long period of time, to make it difficult for certain people to vote. And, you know, in this case it’s really focused on people who live in cities who typically do vote Democrat who are the ones who would be most disadvantaged. As well as young people, first time voters, immigrants, people who don’t necessarily speak the language well, would all be, would be at a disadvantage. So, for example, you’ve got some places where you have to put your vote in a sleeve before you put it in your envelope, and then mail it in. And if you don’t put it in the particular sleeve the right way, it doesn’t count. So, you have those sorts of things that are being done in plain sight that are that are suppressing the vote. You have a number of other ways in which votes are restricted and just, you know, gerrymandering of districts. We’ve drawn districts in a way which mean that they favor one party over another, and one person’s vote in in one part of the country is going to have much less of an impact than another part.
Kerry O’Brien – I found myself musing when I was when I was preparing for this conversation. I covered the Philippine elections in 1986, when Marcos was ultimately thrown out, but only after a coup. Not at the Ballot box. The ballot box was clearly rigged. But there was a whole big team of international observers under the auspices of the UN, including very senior Americans, including senators. That was a corrupt system. And there was an international scrutiny on that system. And I did have this passing thought. Why is there not an argument for having international scrutiny of how fair and democratic the American system really is when you have such distortions as these?
Jeff Bleich – Well, I don’t know that we necessarily have to have international observers come in, because one of the reasons you have international observers come in other countries is you don’t know what’s been going on and how it’s been gained. We know exactly how it’s been gained. It’s on the front page. So, our challenges are different. Our challenge is generating the public will to have a significant change in how we govern ourselves. In the 1920s, during a very similar period of dislocation, we made massive changes, including changes are in our Constitution, that fundamentally changed how we voted. Among those was, it used to be that the state legislators would select the senators, and we made that a popular election so that the public can choose their senators. Similarly, up until then women didn’t have the right to vote. And so, with the constitutional amendment establishing suffrage, we doubled the number of Americans who could vote in the election, you know, in one election cycle. I mean, these are dramatic changes that happened because of a sense that the game was rigged and that there was disenfranchisement. We did other things because of corruption, which had been rampant during that period, including the establishment of a civil service. I think we’re due for one of those periods again, where we fundamentally fix what is by all accounts, a rigged system.
Kerry O’Brien – And yet the mood would suggest that that would be almost an impossibility, that the country is so divided. You’ve got this solid block of Trump supporters, almost cult like supporters in the many millions. And I mean, I suspect Australians take the integrity of their electoral system for granted. Compulsory voting strongly scrutinized by an active Electoral Commission and a federal voting system that the states can’t tamper with. What would you give for such a system?
Jeff Bleich – I loved the Australian voting system when I was there. And when I came back, one of my great missions in the United States is to take some of the best ideas from Australia and make sure that we incorporated them into our own system.
Kerry O’Brien – How has that been going?
Jeff Bleich – Well the last four years have not been our best in terms of that kind of innovation. But I see, I see opportunity here. And I’m not just being, you know, pollyannish. The very first bill that was passed by the new Congress, when democrats took the house in 2018, was H.R.1 Which is focused on a whole series of election reforms including public financing of elections. Just take all this dark, dangerous money out of our election system, and turn it into a fair fight where the same amount of money is available to both sides to do their advertising, and knowing where the money comes in.
Kerry O’Brien – And knowing where the money comes from is utterly critical, is it not?
Jeff Bleich – Yes, exactly. So, you know where the money comes from. It comes from, you know, federal funds and you know what the money is for. And no one has, you know, some advantage of where they are then beholden to the special interests that paid for it. Right. So that’s one thing. Another thing is that there would be a nationwide overview of district so that you would ensure that districts are properly drawn for federal elections. And there are a number of other reforms that are included in that. Hypothetically, if the vice president were elected, and if the senate were to flip in this election cycle, you would have a president of Congress and a Senate which could pass that legislation, you know, in the first 100 days. And Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House has said that would be her number one priority, because until you get the system fixed you can’t fix all of the policy challenges that we face as a country. Now, this has all been complicated by the fact that within, you know I believe it was yesterday, the president secured a very conservative majority of the Supreme Court. And there’s a real question as to how that court is going to review and decide the constitutionality of decisions that would come out of potentially a democratic, elite controlled house senate and White House.
Kerry O’Brien – Yeah, well that’s it. That’s a huge question, isn’t it? That’s a huge question.
Jeff Bleich – That’s what happened to FDR. The New Deal. His first 100 days passed a whole bunch of legislation and a healthy portion of it was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which was extremely conservative at that time. And over time, again, the public kept reelecting FDR, and he kept getting new appointments. And eventually, he had a court that was more in line with his thinking about what was needed to make our democracy work.
Kerry O’Brien – Of course this time, having in mind the mood in the country, it’s not just critical that the democrats win the election is it? It’s not just critical in your terms for Biden to win this election. It has to be a big win. It has to be a big win, to move beyond the cries of cheating. It has to be a big win, does it not to send a message to the Supreme Court as well.
Jerry Bleich – Right. I mean, again, if you want to sort of change that we’re describing in a democracy, it’s going to require a big win for those reasons. But also you need a big win for another reason. Which Donald Trump didn’t accomplish this alone. He was enabled by a United States Senate, which went along with not only his legislative program, but indulged his behavior. You know, I think it’s a fair bet that if Barak Obama had called upon a military partner, and said we are only going to release the funds that Congress has allocated to you if you do me a favor in connection with my reelection. And was sort of caught red handed doing it on a white house phone that they would have impeached him and convicted him. And they didn’t. They objected to the impeachment. They didn’t call any witnesses. And with one exception, not a single republican voted to convict him. So, he had a number of people who had made a calculation that they were better off blinking away some behavior that they consider intolerable in order to maintain power. And if Donald Trump loses by a significant amount, that sends a chill down their spine that they could be next. And they’re going to need to reform their behavior, or the American public will vote them out. So, I think that’s the other reason why a significant margin is going to be important. And the democrats are not only going to stay paranoid, but they should feel that every single vote matters this time around.
Kerry O’Brien – But also in terms of how the nation reacts, this deeply divided nation reacts where there are a lot of people with guns, there are people who have already threatened violence if it doesn’t stay with Trump. And I’ll say again, there’s also the question of how the Supreme Court might react if it is called on to adjudicate outcomes in particular places. So, it is critical in your terms, is it not, for those reasons that it is a big result for Biden?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah, it has to be a conspiracy proof result. One where no one can say this election was stolen, it was you know, it was taken under darker night. I think, for the health of America to at least know who we are and what we truly believe, and for our leaders to know that as well, there has to be a decisive result. I think the other aspect of it, as I said, is true which is if people think that something’s being stolen from them they feel empowered to do dangerous things. The court in Michigan today ruled that it’s okay for people to bring guns to the polling place as long as they don’t use it for intimidation. I don’t know about you, but I think a lot of people feel that when they see a gun that’s intimidating. Just in itself.
Kerry O’Brien Of course, there are guns and guns out there. I mean, there are the small pistols that might be sitting in a pocket somewhere. And there’s the rifle that can shoot automatic rounds. It’s bizarre, Jeff, it is bizarre for Australians to actually contemplate this.
Jeff Bleich – Now look, when I served as ambassador, as you know I love my country and had tremendous pride in what we’ve done. But I’ve also been candid about the areas where I couldn’t explain our thinking, you know. I can’t justify our failure to regulate guns in the United States, in the same manner that Australia did. Which is, you know, which would be consistent with our Second Amendment, which would still protect the rights of Americans, but which would prevent AK47 from being in the hands of teenagers and resulting in the sorts of terrible mass shootings that we’ve witnessed. And likewise, I haven’t been able to explain why we would spend billions and billions of dollars and four years of campaigning now to elect a president when others can elect heads of state with much less money squandered, fewer special interests involved, and greater confidence in the in the outcome of the of the election.
Kerry O’Brien – the count will be unfolding next Wednesday morning, Australian time. What should we be looking for in those first few hours of counting?
Jeff Bleich – I think the most important thing will be what you see in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina. Lord.
Jeff Bleich – If Joe Biden is declared the winner in say, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, then there’s really no path for President Trump. Or if he wins a state that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, but has a large number of electoral college delegates, North Carolina or Florida, then again there’s really no path. And if that happens early in the evening, then it sets a tone for the evening. Because all of the networks are saying it looks like it’s going to be Biden’s night. If it’s very close in those election in those states, and they’re saying that it’s going to come down to paper ballots that have haven’t been counted yet, then I think there are going to be two very different narratives that will be presented. You know, and I think the President will be arguing that there’s a lot of fraud going on. That many of the votes that haven’t been, if he’s ahead, that the votes that hadn’t been counted are suspect votes and reflect fraud. If he’s behind, I think he may start to, you know, challenge other aspects of voting because he’ll be within the margin of error. And will, you know, claim that somehow there was fraud connected with the election. He’s already said he’s only prepared to accept the outcome of the election in advance if he knows he won. So, there’s that. The third thing you should look for is a disparity between the Senate and the presidential race. It’s hard to imagine that anyone’s going to vote for Jamie Harris, an African American who’s challenging Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and vote for Donald Trump. And so, if you see a real disparity between the senate votes and the presidential votes, that is going to trigger a lot of alarm bells about whether or not there has been some tampering with their voting systems. Because we know that the Russians and others would be prepared to do that if they thought they could get away with it.
Kerry O’Brien – So, is there evidence that the Russians could actually tamper with the voting process itself? I mean, we know the part that was played because of the intelligence that has been revealed and reported on it. The release of the Clinton emails and so on. But actually tampering with the voting process, the count voting count itself.
Jeff Bleich – Yes, in 2016, the Russians were able to get into the voter registration rolls in 40 states. That meant that they were able to tell who was registered to vote for which candidates, how often they voted, and that they could target disinformation messages to them. There was a very stern warning delivered by then President Obama to the Russians that if they tampered with voting in that election cycle, there would be significant sanctions brought against them. And in fact, some sanctions were directed against Russia just for what they had already done. It is not clear that any such warning has been delivered to the Russian government. And we know Russia’s capabilities. It wouldn’t take very much just to scramble addresses so that people show up at the polls and their vote doesn’t count because they came to the wrong place, or their license doesn’t match what is in the voter rolls or other things that could prevent votes from being counted. And there are certain kinds of voting machines that are susceptible to fraud. I mean, being active, producing fraudulent results.
Kerry O’Brien – And you see again, yeah, go on
Jeff Bleich – We don’t have automatic paper backups and audits. So, there is a real risk of mischief that people are going to be looking for to see if there’s evidence of the fundamental disparity in certain kinds of results in certain counties.
Kerry O’Brien – So, what you’re saying actually leads to the prospect that you can see that it might be possible to have a result in doubt depending on how people have really voted number one, but also secondly, depending on how those votes might have been changed. And you could actually have a very tight result, apparently, which could be a confused outcome over a significant period of time. All in an environment that’s potentially explosive.
Jeff Bleich – Yes. And with an incumbent who’s demonstrated that he’s willing to use all the resources of government to secure his reelection. I mean, he’s done all sorts of things that have never been done before by any president, including using the White House as a prop for campaign rules. So, there are certain things that would give you caution. And when I said that Democrats are living in great fear, notwithstanding all the trend lines being very much in their favor. I mean, look, the numbers right now are the kind that would be like Bill Clinton running for reelection against Bob Dole kind of numbers where he won handily in his reelection. But in this case, no one is feeling the kind of confidence that Bill Clinton and the democrats felt in 1996.
Kerry O’Brien – All things being equal, how confident are you that there really could be the Triple Crown for Democrats? The White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives?
Jeff Bleich – Well, here’s what I could accurately predict. I know with using the intelligence community terms, I would assess with high confidence that Joe Biden will not only receive more votes than Hillary Clinton did, but that he will also win more popular votes than Donald Trump by a large margin. I would assess with medium calm, that he will receive more electoral votes, if all votes are correctly counted. And I would assess with medium competence based on what I know now that all votes will be counted accurately.
Kerry O’Brien – And what about the Senate and the House of Representatives?
Jeff Bleich – And in the Senate, if Joe Biden wins, then the Senate will flip as well. I think Democrats are likely to win in Arizona, in Colorado, in Maine and in North Carolina and that would be enough to flip the Senate. I think they also have an opportunity to potentially win one seat in Georgia, a seat in Iowa. Maybe Montana, maybe Kansas, maybe South Carolina. That’s a lot of extra seats that they may potentially pick up. And I don’t think that the house really is in jeopardy.
Kerry O’Brien – Okay.
Jeff Bleich – I think if Joe Biden has a Good night, then you’ll probably see a wave election.
Kerry O’Brien – Okay. So what might Joe Biden achieve with at least two years of congressional control? Beyond the electoral reforms that you’ve talked about? What areas? There are a lot of big issues there?
Jeff Bleich – Well, I, you know, to be on, yeah.
Kerry O’Brien – Sorry.
Jeff Bleich – I’m sorry. I lost the signal a little bit. Can you hear me?
Kerry O’Brien – Oh, sorry. Sorry. Yeah, I can. What I’m asking is what would Biden hope to achieve? What would be his big priorities in the first two years if he got both houses? And obviously, his climate change policies would be front and center. But there are a lot of other big issues as well like that Australia has a very close interest in like China. What do you think will be his key touchstones that he will use those first two years for?
Jeff Bleich – I think a couple things. One is H.R.1 as I said.
Kerry O’Brien – Yep.
Jeff Bleich – you know, it’s something that should unite us. We should help election reform after the experience we’ve been through. Nevertheless, many elections. I think the second thing is health care. He’s been very clear that you know, particularly going into a pandemic, you need to have a healthcare system that works for everyone. And so, he would work to not only preserve Obamacare, after it’s potentially ruled invalid by the Supreme Court. But even if it’s, even if it’s not invalidated by in by the new Supreme Court, I think he would likely add a public option to it so that it’s a little bit more like what you see in Australia where everyone has some access to some form of healthcare in the United States. It is just an absolute tragedy in the United States that we have people going bankrupt and dying because they can afford health care. I think the those would be some his priorities. I think his other main priority in the first 100 days is he’s got to rebuild the federal government in a number of critical dimensions. And he’s going to be challenged by that in the sense that a number of people who had great expertise in government have left. It’s been hollowed out. A number of positions were never filled by the Trump administration. And the Trump administration has been pretty clear that they are not in the mood to assist in an orderly transition and make it easy for a new president to establish a new White House a new agenda. So unlike in the past, where transitions have been very collaborative, even between different parties, we don’t anticipate that to be the case this time around.
Kerry O’Brien – So when you were in Obama’s transition team from Bush Jr., was Bush Jr. Cooperative?
Jeff Bleich – Yes. They produced binders of information for us. They had each of the departments had transition sessions. They sat down and explained what, what they had they done, how they had done it. I remember one of my favorite stories. I brought in George W. Bush’s person who had been responsible for evaluating whether candidates for federal offices could be confirmed by the Senate. Because that was part of my responsibility as special counsel. And I said, so how did you set it up? And what did you do, and he couldn’t have been better and more forthcoming. He told me exactly how they’d set up the system and what they’d done. And he said the one thing you need to know. One thing you need to know is, all these people, you know, have been nominated for president, you know, you go to them and you say, look, the President’s in charge of appointments. I’m in charge of disappointments.
Kerry O’Brien – Of which there had been many. . So you’re signaling that this will not be the case this time?
Jeff Bleich – No, I don’t anticipate that to be the case. And it would have been the case, I think, with some of the people who are originally in the White House who came from a more traditional Republican Party. Those people have left the White House and the people who are in leadership positions generally align with the approach of President Trump who is a zero-sum scorched earth kind of person. Your win is my loss.
Kerry O’Brien – The first question, I suppose, if you’d take a department like justice. And so you’ve got to try and establish how far the Trump doctrine has penetrated justice. In its departing from in the way bar has run that department. So question, what damage has been done, if any? And then how do you undo that damage? And I’m just imagining that across a number of departments. That would be a huge distraction. And I would think for much more than 100 days, even without contemplating all of these big policy areas, like climate change that he’s committed to.
Jeff Bleich – there are 1600 positions that have to be confirmed by the US Senate. There are another 2400 positions that the president needs to appoint that don’t even require Senate confirmation. You also need to, in some cases, rebuild aspects of agencies that were dismantled in order for them to take onboard these new policies and properly evaluate them and present them for either regulations or laws. There’s a lot of work that has to be done. It’s amazing what you can do in four years. And, as my mom used to say when my friends would come over and we wrecked the house when I was a teenager. You know, it takes hours to make a place nice, and it takes minutes to destroy.
Kerry O’Brien – So can you just briefly reflect on what it was like inside the Obama team in those first heady days? In terms of the hopes you all had for America’s first black American president? The mood of that team in those early days in the White House?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah, I think the mood was serious. I mean we were Obama folks. So, we like open change. We were optimists. And we like to crack jokes. But in terms of our sense of purpose, there was a real sense of discipline and seriousness of purpose. We had a lot of work to do, we had limited time to do it. We needed to stay in our lanes. We needed to put others first. No leaks, no ego, no drama. Do the job and do the job as well and as hard as you can every minute. And there was a real sense of trust that the people around you had that same ethic. I’ve worked in some great situations. And frankly, the only other experience that I’ve had that match that was working at the US Embassy in Australia with my colleagues. But being in the White House and being in the US Embassy in Australia, there was a sense of we are all in this together. We trust each other, we work together, we believe in each other. And it’s not about me, it’s about the job.
Kerry O’Brien – yeah. And what was also prevalent as you went into the White House was that that Obama was elected on an absolute surge of optimism. I mean I remember the excitement of that night, which I think probably swelled beyond traditional boundaries. But you’ve got to ask, what happened? Because after eight years of Obama, enough Americans embrace Donald Trump to put him in the White House. Such a huge leap from Obama to the diametric opposite.
Jeff Bleich – You know we actually did a study of that after the election because we were trying to figure out what had happened. They reelected him handily, only four years earlier as well. So, you know, what had happened in the second term that had soured them on Obama? Or was it some other thing? And what we discovered, just surprised all of us. Which was that people who had voted for Barack Obama twice and then voted for Donald Trump in the key counties that flipped still loved Obama. And so we said, Okay, well, you just voted for someone who is committed to trying to undo everything that Barack Obama established as his legacy. And you still love Obama. Where’s the math on that? And what they told us was two things that have made me see American politics differently ever since. They said what they liked about Donald Trump was what they liked about Obama. What they liked about Barack Obama was that he was independent. He was not part of a democratic machine. He had actually taken on the front runner and the establishment in order to win the election. And he had his own way of speaking in his own independent voice. And he was genuine. It wasn’t that some clever consultant had come up with that new voice. If you read his books from when he was just out of law school, ‘Dreams of my Father,’ the voice you hear in that book is the same voice that you heard from Barack Obama. What they liked about Donald Trump was that he wasn’t a Democrat or Republican, both parties hated him. He was independent. And he was genuinely independent because the things he was doing on the campaign trail, no self-respecting consultant would ever tell a politician to do. And the voice that you heard, the sometimes crazy voice that you heard on the stump were the same crazy things he said in the New York Post throughout his career as a real estate developer. And what they were saying was we just don’t trust that the system works anymore. And we want someone who we know is independent of this system, and is genuine. Now, what they weren’t asking for were some of the things we’ve also focused on, which is experience and competence and commitment to constitutional values and norms and then empathy for others. They were so frustrated with our election system and the choices that they were receiving, that they were prepared to go with someone simply because they were who they were, and they weren’t owned by the party.
Kerry O’Brien – So here’s the big question for the Democrats. What responsibility does your party take for the rise of Trump? Handed power by all those disaffected working people who the democrats were once able to take for granted, who clearly felt betrayed by the political establishment, but particularly by the party that was supposed to be the workers Party?
Jeff Bleich – Yeah I think it’s true. Two things. One is I think it’s true that the democrats had started to take their traditional base support for granted. And had also thought that the issues that they had come up with 30 years ago that neatly divided people across party lines were the ones that remained front and center for everyday Americans. But everyday Americans were going through the biggest technological and economic disruption in 100 years with globalization and with new technologies. And new technologies are really what was driving the globalization. It wasn’t a matter of policy, it was just that we now have the ability to be everywhere simultaneously. And that was what was front and center for Americans. And they were counting on Democrats to be the voice for their frustration, and they just weren’t hearing it. Now, in defense of Democrats they were just awarded at every turn once. Once Republicans took the Senate it was just a whole different ballgame. I’ll give you one example. There was an infrastructure bill that would have put a lot of Americans back to work and would have allowed us to start dealing with many of the challenges that we faced in the new digital economy. And we presented it to the Republicans and the Republicans said this is terrible, you know, the worst infrastructure bill we’ve ever seen. And then they gave us a bunch of changes. And we went back to the president and said well we can live with these changes. We can’t live with these changes, but you know, we can work with this. And the President said let’s live with all their changes. Let’s just live with all their changes, some of them suck. That’s okay. Because the only way we’re going to get this thing passed is if we call their bluff. So, we called their bluff. We made no changes. And they killed the bill. Their bill. They were committed to not allowing him to get anyone wings for the American people, period. And so, if you’re in that environment Democrats weren’t able to do some of the things they wanted to do. And I think it is, you know, I think it’s going to take a sea change in our in our governance for any of those policies to pass or have a single party for some period of time.
Kerry O’Brien – I’m going to try and squeeze stuff together a bit here because we get getting close to time and I I’ve got a lot of questions that I’m going to have to jettison. But I’m also very happy with the tenor of the conversation, Jeff, we’ve covered good, interesting ground. But just as a full stop on what you’ve just said, nonetheless, wasn’t Hilary Clinton, well I’ll make this as an observation and move on. I would have thought that Hillary Clinton’s failure to visit the key battleground state of Wisconsin in the 2016 campaign was a classic illustration of democratic complacency. She thought Wisconsin was in the bag, so why bother? Now, if you want to comment on that in a minute, fine. But I want to move on to talk about the extent to which truth which has always been a tradable commodity in politics, but in the age of false news, truth as a concept just seems to have evaporated. I don’t know how democracy survives in the absence of truth. The absence of a basic trust even in documented demonstrable facts. So when Donald Trump stands up, as the pandemic is surging again around him and says we’ve turned the corner we’re winning, this is going to be over soon. And his army of followers give him a hearty cheer. So demonstrably not the truth. But these people lockstep with him. Now, when you take that and impose that as a sort of semi-permanent feature on the American landscape, where does that leave democracy?
Jeff Bleich – First, I won’t disagree with you about Hilary Clinton’s campaign. Never take people for granted. Never take anyone for granted. Always ask for your vote, and always assume that it has to be earned. So, I think it was a mistake. Now, one more significant question that you’ve asked; how do we survive as a democracy? You’re exactly right. Different forms of government have different relationships with facts and truth. Authoritarians thrive in a world where there is no truth, there’s only what the state says. And then you must believe that because there’s no other way to exist in that society. Democracies depend on just the opposite. We need to know what the facts are, so that we know what’s the best course. And we can elect people who we trust to put that emotion and to solve problems that are of concern to us. And we need to have a common language of science and facts and trust in the integrity of the system and in the integrity of the people who are sharing the information with us. So, in truth and trust. This President has made no bones about the fact that he is more comfortable with an authoritarian style of leadership. On the very first day as President when he was inaugurated he stood before Americans and said it didn’t rain when it was raining on him.
Kerry O’Brien – I mean, that sort of set the bar didn’t it?
Jeff Bleich – that set the standard which was that the truth is what I say it is, that is your truth. And he has been consistent with that approach from day one.
Kerry O’Brien – So how do you how do you put the genie back in the bottle, if and when he’s gone? How do you do that? Because what you’re really talking about is that whole social media phenomenon, the capacity to manipulate it. And the New York Times just recently illustrated it when it reported research that from September 2016 to September 2020 Facebook likes, comments and shares from news articles that regularly published falsehoods and misleading comment roughly tripled. In the last four years, that has roughly tripled. So, what does the Biden administration do about it? How do you stop that?
Jeff Bleich – You know, the nice thing about democracies and people who are free people and get to make decisions is that we tend to swing one way or another. We fall in love with some idea. And over time, we start to see the worse in it and then we’re repelled by it. And we sort of move back and forth. We’ve always had some segment of American society prone to prefer dishonesty and conspiracy theories and far long descriptions of truth. Or of their reality. But on the other hand, that’s always been a relatively small group. It kind of flares up for periods of time, and then it shrinks back down. So McCarthyism. That was not long ago, 70 years ago. There was a communist under every rock.
Kerry O’Brien – but imagine McCarthy operating in this environment using social media the way it’s being manipulated today. That’s the difference. That’s the difference. And I’m not hearing from you how that Genie gets put back in the bottle?
Jeff Bleich- Well, okay, I’ll give you a different example, then. You know, we had yellow journalism in the turn of the century. And that was a reflection of the fact that we had new technologies and new ways of exploiting it. And people understood that they could get political advantages by using these systems. Similarly to what’s happening now with the abuse of cable news and the abuse of social media platforms to put out false information, and to allow people to choose their own narrative. And believing things that just simply aren’t true without proper fact checking. There were a whole series of reforms that came into place over the 30s 40s 50s. But where you really started moving towards extraordinary responsible journalism, principles like this has to be confirmed by two independent sources.
Kerry O’Brien – And these days, it’s supposed to be three.
Jeff Bleich – Yes, these days it’s supposed to be three. But as you know, people are publishing anything that has absolutely no basis in fact, and has no confirmation whatsoever. I think we’re going to move back into a period of integrity because there is always great value for human beings in having accurate, timely, relevant information. And people will pay for that. And they will start to know when they’re not getting it. And they will get sick of losing because they have the wrong information. And they will migrate to the right information. So over time, it works. But we’re in the midst of that transition.
Kerry O’Brien – Jeff, this is a fascinating discussion. And to me an important one. But one of the big things for Australia that I’m getting to just as we come to the end of the conversation, and you’re not going to do it in a minute, but China. So, we Australia has found itself absolutely the ham and the sandwich between a Trump policy on China, which has been very unstable. It’s changed not from day to day, but it’s been often a very belligerent one. And Australia, it seems to me has, as the great ally, tended to swing far much more behind that policy in the extent to which it is showing its own form of belligerents to China even though China is our biggest trading partner, and is hugely important to us in our own region. So, you know, the situation here You know how important China and America are to Australia. How do we play that? Say you get a Biden administration, is he going to be tough on China as well? And will you just automatically expect Australia to fall in?
Jeff Bleich – I think a Vice President Biden, if he is president, would be smart than China which is a little bit different from tough. I think we’ve been tough on them in the wrong way. So, I’ll give you one example, which shows you the difference between tough and smart. We’re being smart with the Transpacific Partnership. The TPP was a way of not only ensuring that there were rules of the road for trade relations among a number of prosperous countries, Australia, the United States, Japan and Canada. But also, it was a way of creating a market which was irresistible to China that it would have access to only if it was prepared to reform some of its own trade policies. Where it had tried to abuse its leverage with respect to partners in the region. That was the real benefit. China desperately wanted the TPP to go away and wanted the US out of TPP. So, President Trump, not only did he campaign on getting rid of TPP, but once he got elected, instead of saying to China okay now I can get out of TPP, but I may not do it right away. In fact, I may want to toughen it up a little bit, or I may just want to get rid of a couple of cosmetic things. You need to negotiate with me. He could have gotten a whole bunch of trade concessions from China in exchange for the US agreeing ultimately to withdraw from aspects of TPP. Instead, he just unsigned that day, asked for nothing in return. The greatest deal maker, the person who wrote the art of the deal, got nothing from China on trade. And so then later on has to declare a trade war with China. That was just a blown opportunity. And a really dumb move. There’s no other word for me to describe. So, rule of law is going to be the key and alliances are going to be the key. If you have a clear set of common set of rules and commitment among a group of likeminded countries, that is a way to have a real conversation with China where you’re not being tough on China, you’re just finding common ground where everyone benefits. Where there’s our style of win/win.
Kerry O’Brien – Yeah. And so last question. Where is Australia in that? There is this sense that there is an automatic expectation in Washington, that where it goes, Australia follows. We followed into Vietnam, we followed into Iraq, we followed into Afghanistan, so on. And with this sort of up down round around policy between the Trump White House and China, Australia has clearly changed its attitude and approach too.
Jeff Bleich – I think Australia follows its values. But Australian values are much more at risk based upon China’s current course, than frankly, America is. America, we’re the largest economy in the world. We don’t live in the same region. We’re not subject to hegemonic influence from China. So, we have we have strong strategic interests with respect to China, but not nearly as urgent as the ones that Australia has. And where we align on values is where I think Australia and the US will find themselves working closely together. We have great concern about China establishing surveillance states throughout the region, using 5G and other infrastructure, and using their Belt and Road loans as a way of capturing countries as basically hostage countries by threat or by death in a in a manner which destabilizes Australia’s own relations in the region, and its own prosperity and security. So, in those ways I think, Australia and the US are going to be aligned. It’s not going to be the US dragging Australia. If anything, I think Australia is going to be tugging on the United States, because these are interests that we share. But they’re more urgent, I think, for Australia.
Kerry O’Brien – Jeff Bleich in the shadow of the election, this has been a fascinating conversation. Thank you very much for sharing it with us. Thank you.
Jeff Bleich – Thank you.