The 2020 Race Is Down to Center-Right vs. Far Right

Vice President Mike Pence was doing a campaign gig in Arizona last night, the state where incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally continues to trail Democratic challenger and former astronaut Mark Kelly. Pence’s boss is locked in a virtual tie with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, which explains why the vice president was spending time in a state that Republican presidential candidates have dominated in nearly every election since Barry Goldwater came down the mountain in 1964.

“On the way here,” Pence told that Arizona audience in a voice drizzling sarcasm, “I heard Joe Biden just named his running mate — California Sen. Kamala Harris. So let me take this opportunity to welcome her to the race.” At this point, the crowd booed lustily. “As you all know,” he continued, “Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have been overtaken by the radical left. So given their promises of higher taxes, open borders, socialized medicine and abortion on demand, it’s no surprise that he chose Senator Harris.”

That, right there, might just be the funniest thing you’ll hear on the campaign trail this year. It’s a vivid preview of the Trump/Pence strategy for the remaining 83 days: Paint Joe Biden and his newly minted vice presidential pick as a Trojan horse bursting with socialism, abortion doctors, and lighters for burning Bibles. Biden/Harris: Antifa in Tailored Suits.

Why is that so funny? Because the Democratic presidential tickets in my lifetime have been, in order: McGovern/Eagleton rapidly followed by McGovern/Shriver, Carter/Mondale twice, Mondale/Ferraro, Dukakis/Bentsen, Clinton/Gore twice, Gore/Lieberman, Kerry/Edwards, Obama/Biden twice, Clinton/Kaine, and now this.

While there are some doozies buried in that long, strange line, the simple fact of the matter is that — in assessing by the candidates’ records — Biden/Harris is on numerous counts the most right-leaning Democratic presidential ticket I have personally laid eyes on. Donald Trump and his crew are going to need a nuclear-powered brush to paint his Democratic opponents into some sort of far-left corner. That dog won’t hunt.

Biden’s long record of service to the banking industry, the carceral industry, and the war-making industry is well-documented. He is about as “left-wing” as the right side of an F-22 Raptor. In choosing Senator Harris, Biden has tapped a politician well within his own ideological sphere.

Harris very eloquently extols the virtue and necessity of social justice, but portions of her record demonstrate where and how her official performance has fallen short of her rhetoric. Her hands-off approach to police violence against citizens while serving as California Attorney General is a grim fact, as is her crusade against sex workers during that time. Her record on LGBTQ issues is mostly solid but far from steady, and her record of fighting to keep improperly incarcerated people behind bars is chilling.

Of course, Harris has backed away from or actively disavowed many of the less-than-progressive blemishes on her resume since becoming a senator, presidential candidate and now vice-presidential nominee. Yet she still speaks the language of high finance fluently — “I believe in capitalism,” Harris told a big-dollar Wall Street crowd at an East Hampton fundraiser a year ago — and the financial news network CNBC seems to think Wall Street is pleased with Biden’s choice.

We are a long way round the bend from primary season, aren’t we. A race that began with progressive stalwarts like Bernie Sanders, Julián Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Marianne Williamson and Mike Gravel has boiled down to a ticket that is as establishment-right as one gets in today’s Democratic Party.

That’s the rub: A progressive insurgency against the Democratic establishment, led since 2015 by Bernie Sanders, has been temporarily snuffed at the highest levels. Rep. Ilhan Omar won her primary yesterday, and the progressive tide is still running high in the House. In the offices of the Democratic National Committee, however, the process of choosing a presidential nominee remains firmly in the hands of the last people in America who can call Biden and Harris “progressive” and still keep a straight face.

A recent exchange on Democracy Now! between Aimee Allison of She the People and Briahna Joy Gray, the former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, underscores the ways in which many progressives are feeling torn over the historic nature of the nomination of Harris who — as the daughter of a mother of Indian Tamil descent and a Black father from Jamaica — is both the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent on a U.S. presidential ticket.

“It’s hard to overstate how historic, how monumental this is. It’s a watershed moment for women of color across the country,” Allison said in the roundtable conversation, adding that the nomination is “an indication that the establishment in the Democratic Party … now acknowledges that America needs the leadership of women of color.”

Gray responded:

There can be no doubt that of course this nomination is historic. But something else historic is going on right now, which is that we are in the middle of the largest protest movement in American history. And it’s a protest movement that’s all about finding nonpunitive, noncarceral solutions to the kinds of economic problems that are plaguing disproportionately Black and Brown communities … And so there’s a great deal of frustration … [over] a running mate who is known for being the top cop from California, the state that has the second-highest number of incarcerated people in America.

Both of these sentiments are reverberating through much of the progressive response to the selection of Harris. Biden’s choice is indeed a bright acknowledgement of a fact too many Democratic candidates have been happy to ignore: Black voters, and specifically Black women voters, are the backbone of the Democratic base.

Rep. Jim Clyburn knew this when he saved Biden’s campaign during the South Carolina primary. By leaning hard on Biden to tap a Black woman for VP after that successful rescue mission, and with Biden’s subsequent payment of the debt he owed from the primaries, Clyburn was explicitly elbowing a properly larger space at the table of government for a sector of the populace that has been waiting more than 400 years to exert the influence they deserve to.

The fact that Harris is on the Democratic ticket four years after the first Black president left office, and is the presumptive Democratic nominee in 2024 or 2028 if the Biden/Harris ticket wins in November, marks a sea change in the balance of political power within the Democratic party. No one is ever, ever going to take “the Black vote” for granted again.

There is also the unique opportunity for genuine progressive influence in the assembly of Biden’s Cabinet-to-be, should he win. Many people, myself included, strongly suspected that Harris would be nominated for attorney general should he pick someone else to join him on the ticket. Now that she is out of the running for the top law enforcement position, there are a number of exciting possible nominees Biden should be pushed hard to consider, if not nominate outright.

At the top of my personal list for the AG spot is Preet Bharara, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York who was shoved out of his office by Trump shortly after the 2016 election. Bharara was investigating Trump and his business dealings when he was fired, which is why many believe he was removed in the first place. The material from Bharara’s investigation into Trump was absorbed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and lent much weight to Mueller’s exhaustively detailed report on Trump’s Russia dealings. Mueller may have fumbled the ball, but Bharara’s contribution was damning for the president nonetheless.

Biden has promised there will be no pardons for Trump if he wins, no “looking forward” and away from the crimes of this administration. I can think of no better person to pursue justice than Bharara. He already knows the details down to the decimal, and would be a highly motivated investigator. As attorney general, Preet Bharara would run Donald Trump to ground, and that is argument enough for his nomination.

Before the theoretical, of course, is the actual: The filthy damn campaign mess awaiting us over these next 83 days.

Straight out of the gate last night, Trump hit Harris with his newest, and easily worst, nickname: “Phony Kamala.” Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it? He repeatedly referred to Harris as “nasty,” an insult he reserves only for women. While discussing the Harris pick on a radio show yesterday, Trump said that Biden had “insulted” men by choosing Harris.

Trump is also deep into racist dog-whistling, talking about how Biden “roped himself off into, you know, a certain group of people.” It’s going to be like this every day, but then again, it would have been like this every day no matter who Biden picked.

Because nothing awful ever truly dies, the echo of Biden’s announcement had not yet faded before Trump proxies rolled out the “birther” artillery for another salvo. They are spreading lies about Harris not being a U.S. citizen (fact check: she has been one since birth), using the offensive term “anchor baby” and falsely arguing that she cannot by law assume the office of the presidency should the need arise. Of course it’s bullshit, but count on hearing this and similar racist allegations over and over again.

It will be interesting to see if Mike Pence has the guts to bring that garbage to the table when he meets Harris in Salt Lake City for an October 7 debate. The job Harris did on Biden for his work with and praise of congressional segregationists during a June 2019 debate has become the stuff of legend, and was a fair portion of the reason why Biden needed Clyburn’s help to survive the primaries.

However one may feel about Harris, if that entirely lethal version of the senator from California shows up in Utah — the woman who bounced Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh off every wall in the hearing room when she had them before her — it feels quite likely that she will carve that chalkdust mannequin of a vice president into ribbons so fine, even Pence’s wife (“Mother”) won’t be able to knit them into a devotional for the bathroom wall. Just a hunch.

So here we are, up to our ears in a lethal pandemic and a righteous social uprising while climate disruption burns on and capitalism collapses around us. In this fraught environment, a right-center Democratic ticket with dubious social justice chops is set to square off against the most brazenly fascist presidential administration in history.

Only Nixon can go to China, went the saying. With the help of a new coalition formed around a cornerstone of energized Black voters, perhaps only Biden can go to the White House under these extraordinary circumstances.

83 days.