Hope and history drive Biden-Harris9 min read . Updated: 22 Aug 2020, 09:24 AM IST
- In a country worst-hit by the pandemic, the final stretch of a seminal election starts to unfold
- In a Washington Post-ABC News survey, three-quarters of suburban residents—and 78% of women—said President Trump generally crosses the line in terms of what’s acceptable behaviour
WASHINGTON DC : Kamala Harris introduced herself to the nation with a personal retelling of how her upbringing led her to become Joe Biden’s running mate, capping an evening that highlighted the importance of women voters to Democratic hopes of defeating President Donald Trump in November.
Harris embraced her place in history as the first Black and Indian-American woman on a presidential ticket, highlighting female leaders who she said, “inspired us to pick up the torch and fight on."
“We’re at an inflection point," Harris said in remarks delivered live—but with no audience because of covid-19—in a Wilmington, Delaware, auditorium. “The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid. The callousness makes us feel alone. We can do better and deserve so much more."
She also spoke of her personal experience with the nation’s long struggle to win civil rights for people of colour, saying Trump’s presidency has thrown into stark relief how that work must continue.
“There is no vaccine for racism," she said.
The remarks capped the evening designed to celebrate women and to showcase Harris, 55, as a full partner to Biden, a 77-year-old White man who she could find herself succeeding as president someday if Biden wins in November.
Trump was able to defeat the party’s 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, by winning a majority of White female voters to score a narrow electoral college victory—underscoring the importance of female votes this year for Democrats. In case any Democrats needed reminding, Clinton herself appeared by videotape to say, “And don’t forget: Joe and Kamala can win by 3 million votes and still lose. Take it from me."
Clinton also drew comparisons between her own historic presidential run and Harris’s selection as the party’s vice presidential nominee. Americans have known her as a senator from California as well as that state’s attorney general.
“Tonight, I am thinking of the girls and boys who see themselves in America’s future because of Kamala Harris—Black woman, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, and our nominee," Clinton said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was even blunter in her assessment, saying she had seen first-hand Trump’s “disrespect" for women. “Disrespect is written into his policies toward our health and our rights, not just his conduct," Pelosi said. “But we know what he doesn’t—that when women succeed, America succeeds."
At the convention, Harris spoke in deeply personal terms about her own upbringing. “My, mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong Black women and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage," Harris said. “She taught us to put family first. The family you’re born into and the family you choose."
The decision to focus on women’s voices on the penultimate night of the convention underscores how important they are to Biden’s hopes of unseating Trump in November.
While Biden and Trump split male voters 46%-46% in a CBS News poll released earlier this week, the Democratic nominee held a 56%-39% lead with women—accounting for his 10-point overall advantage. That’s better than 2016, when Clinton won women overall by 13 percentage points but narrowly lost white women to Trump.
Female voters also helped Biden clinch the Democratic nomination, with exit polling showing that women broke disproportionately his way, while top rival Bernie Sanders garnered more votes from men in the early competitive contests. Biden pledged during a 15 March debate against Sanders that he would pick a woman to be his vice president, a promise he fulfilled when he selected Harris earlier this month.
Trump has sought to erode Biden’s advantage in recent weeks with presidential actions targeting the former vice president’s support base, particularly among women living in the suburbs. On Tuesday, Trump announced a posthumous pardon for the women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, who was convicted of voting illegally before women won the right to vote. And Trump has sought to appeal to so-called “security moms" with ads that argue, “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America."
On Wednesday night, the president took to social media to attack the Democrats and their ticket. In one tweet, he revived Harris’ criticism of Biden over race during a debate. In another, he took aim at his predecessor, again accusing him, without citing evidence, of spying on his 2016 campaign.
It’s a contrast that Democrats might welcome. In a Washington Post-ABC News survey last month, three-quarters of suburban residents—and 78% of women—said the president generally crosses the line in terms of what’s acceptable when responding to those who criticized him.
Balm and a bridge
When Joe Biden steps to the podium Thursday night (or Friday morning India time) as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, he will offer himself to a wounded, meandering nation as a balm—and as a bridge.
A 77-year-old steeped in the American political establishment for a half a century, Biden cannot himself embody the kind of generational change that Presidents like John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton represented. Even with wide-ranging proposals for government action on health care, taxation and the climate crisis, he will never be the face of a burgeoning progressive movement. As a white man, Biden cannot know personally the systemic racism now at the forefront of a national reckoning over centuries-old social and economic inequities.
But the former vice president, six-term senator and twice-failed presidential candidate draws plenty on lived experience—two generations spent on each end of Pennsylvania Avenue (first in the Senate and then in the White House), a record that mixes partisan street-fighting with bipartisan deal-making and bonhomie, and a personal journey of middle-class mores, individual struggle and family heartbreak. That is how he is presenting himself as the person to lead the country beyond the tumultuous tenure of President Donald Trump.
“There’s great seriousness of purpose here," said Valerie Biden Owens, the candidate’s younger sister and, until his current White House bid, perennial campaign manager. “We are in a time of struggle. We are in a time of grief," she continued, nodding to the novel coronavirus, its economic fallout and the reckoning on race. “All of this has come together. My brother appreciates it. He can feel it."
The electorate ultimately will decide whether Biden in fact offers a bridge back to a pre-Trump version of normal, a path forward to a more equitable society or some combination. Voters’ most immediate consideration, though, maybe that he is not the incumbent.
“Everything that Donald Trump is, my brother is the polar opposite. I don’t have to make him bigger than he is," said sister Val. “Joe’s the right person at the right time for all the right reasons."
Biden has used his convention to showcase what his campaign hopes will be a winning coalition. Prime-time hours have been generously sprinkled with Republicans. A video highlighted Biden’s personal friendship with the late senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. Former Ohio governor John Kasich endorsed Biden and assured anti-Trump Republicans that he had no worries Biden might make a “sharp left turn" in office.
Biden, though, spent recent months working with primary runner-up Bernie Sanders and other progressives tweaking his policy slate leftward. Those moves reflect Biden’s increasing emphasis on the wide wealth and opportunity gaps he says have been “laid bare" by the pandemic’s economic effects.
Sanders repeated his support for Biden on Monday and emphasized Biden’s agenda as he urged sceptical progressives to vote affirmatively for the Democratic nominee, not just against Trump.
Semblance of consensus
Biden sees no inherent conflicts in his wide-net approach, arguing over nearly 16 months of campaigning that the country must relearn how to govern by some semblance of consensus, and that starts with bringing varied voices to the negotiating table.
Part of Biden’s ability to make seemingly disparate appeals is that his policy pitches remain secondary to the personal pitch, amplified during the convention, that he is a decent, compassionate man of faith, a practising Roman Catholic.
While he likes to project an “Uncle Joe" persona, he still flashes the short fuse that was more common decades ago. In Iowa, he told one climate activist to “vote for somebody else." He challenged a man who questioned his age to a push-ups contest.
Still, empathy more than anger has defined Biden’s life, as the vice president who buried an adult son stricken by cancer, the young widower and father who lost his first wife and infant daughter in a car accident, and the schoolboy mocked by classmates and a nun for a severe stutter.
His sister points to that childhood crucible as seminal—and newly applicable in Biden’s campaign against Trump amid the backdrop of a changing electorate.
“When you are bullied, you have a choice to make," Biden Owens said. “You can become a bully yourself and step on people who don’t look like you or don’t speak like you or whose value you don’t even begin to understand. Or, you can choose to realize we are in this together and develop empathy, which is what Joe did. He appeals to your better instincts."
Biden’s candidacy has met criticism since he launched his bid on 25 April, 2019, but he heads into the final 75 days of the campaign unscathed by second-guessing.
It’s a truism that there are no second acts in presidential politics. Biden is on his third. His first White House bid in 1988 flamed out over plagiarism allegations. On his second attempt 20 years later, he barely nudged 1% in Iowa and watched Barack Obama soar to the nomination.
When Obama tapped Biden as his running mate, it looked like his career capstone. Biden has said he wouldn’t have run this time if Trump wasn’t president. But he did, and he stood out immediately.
In a primary presumed to be about Democrats’ ideological rift between progressives and the centre-left establishment, Biden took aim at Trump. Sure, Biden sided with the mainstream liberals and moderates on policy, but in his stem-winding, sometimes poorly focused speeches, he lamented that Trump was damaging “the soul of the nation." He often referenced a 2018 book “How Democracies Die."
Early on, it didn’t work. Biden finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire, and was in danger of collapse. But South Carolina’s Black voters, a constituency not significantly represented in the first two nominating states, stood by his candidacy and propelled him to the nomination.
The critical moment came with an endorsement from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress and a towering figure in South Carolina. “I know Joe," Clyburn said in an emotional appeal. “But more importantly, Joe knows us."
Biden took complete control of the nomination about the same time public health officials urged a national lockdown. So he’s spent much of the spring and summer in the same place where he recorded his launch video last spring: His home in Delaware. Yet, even with Trump mocking him for “hiding in his basement," Biden will conclude his convention with a discernible lead in national and most battleground state polls.
Biden will accept the nomination Thursday night without the usual trappings—the boisterous arena, the balloons. He’ll speak instead directly into the camera as a relative handful of aides, family and media look on.
“We don’t look at this … as a victory lap," Biden Owens said, recalling the celebration when he narrowly won his first Senate race before his 30th birthday. “We stormed the convention centre in Delaware, in Dover, with high school marching bands. We burst onto the floor with the bands and the cheering." This year, she said, the “convention reflects the moment."