Taking Another Look at Biden and Harris: More Than Good Enough!
by Neil H. Buchanan
It is political convention season, and I am deliberately not watching coverage of either party's virtual events. Getting my information second-hand, it appears that the first night of the Republicans' extended-play version of Two Minutes Hate went even worse than expected. Democrats, meanwhile, finished their event last week to generally quite positive reviews.
My big worry about the Democrats' approach is that they seem to have aimed their message entirely at the moderation-obsessed punditocracy, betting the house on the idea that playing the centrist card and eschewing ideology of any sort will allow them to appeal to the possibly null set of swing voters. In an election almost certain to be decided by turnout, Democrats seem to be counting on people of color and younger maybe-non-voters to show up at the polls in droves, without really giving them an affirmative reason to do so.
To be sure, the negative reasons are more than enough, and I will once again spend much of the general election season trying to exhort people to understand just how bad Donald Trump is. Sitting it out should not be an option, and I guess Joe Biden and the leaders of the Democratic Party made the calculation that non-centrists will still be motivated even after watching the convention elevate Republicans while sidelining progressive stars.
That being a matter of prediction, all I can say is that my semipro status as a political commentator means that one should take it with a grain of salt when I worry that the Democrats miscalculated. I can at least say that, given what they tried to do, they seem to have done an absolutely great job of it. One hopes that it pays off.
My goal here, however, is to take a moment to reassess positions that I took on Biden and Kamala Harris over the space of the last year or so. As I (and many, many others) have said all along, no matter who ended up on the Democratic ticket, there would be no contest when comparing them to Trump and Mike Pence. Even so, I did take some rather harsh stances against both Biden and Harris. Should I recant?
The answer is no, but let me be clear about what I am not recanting. In Biden's case, I am specifically talking about my column from May 5 of this year in which I called for Democrats to remove Biden from the ticket because of an allegation of sexual assault. In Harris's case, I am revisiting my column from early last year in which I expressed horror at parts of her record as a prosecutor.
My Biden reassessement is less interesting, so I will dispose of it first. I was not, in May 2020, saying that Democrats should drop Biden because of his record as a weak campaigner, or because of his squishy defensive-crouch instincts, or because of his history with Anita Hill. All of that had been litigated in the primaries, and although I thought that some of Biden's surrogates went to some pretty indefensible places, Biden legitimately emerged as the presumptive nominee.
But as I explained, first in my May 5 column and more exhaustively in a followup column two days later, there are times when even fair nominating processes would need to be superseded by responsible party officials acting in good faith and in the best interests of the party and the nation. I used the hypothetical example of a tape emerging in which Biden was heard using racial slurs, and I argued that "his remaining time as the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee would be measured in days if not hours."
It is to his credit that even Biden's harshest critics would find it all but impossible to imagine him using the n-word, but my broader point was that there are times when a candidate needs to go. I then argued that an emerging story in which a former Senate staffer accused Biden of sexual assault belonged in that category, especially because -- unlike, say, a replay of Hillary Clinton's email server non-scandal, which did not implicate key Democratic (or Republican) ideals or ideological commitments -- the Democrats had quite correctly made the MeToo movement a big part of their identity going forward.
Biden and the Democrats were already taking fire from non-Republican critics for failing to take the allegation seriously, and I worried that a credible claim against Biden would be truly devastating to the party's reputation and would at the very least drive down turnout among its core of voters. The mainstream press would have a field day with accusations of hypocrisy, and the focus would have been moved away from Trump's depredations.
Happily, it quickly turned out that the allegation against Biden was not credible, and the story fell apart rather quickly. I say "happily" not merely because of electoral implications but also because it is good that this alleged assault apparently did not happen. That is not to say that Trump, in his increasing desperation, will not try to reopen this story, but it truly seems to have been a non-event.
In May, had I been involved in the upper reaches of the Democratic Party's leadership (truly a horrifying prospect from all sides), I would have made the arguments that I made on Dorf on Law, but I would of course have emphasized that we should not pull the plug before doing everything possible to get to the bottom of the story. Had it metastasized, however, it would have been more than enough reason to jettison Biden.
On Biden, then, my reassessment of the "Joe must go" argument in my May columns is that I was willing to assume the worst, or more accurately that I worried at least that the allegation was likely to become an ongoing scandal that would feed the right-wing mediaverse for months. I am delighted that the facts were quickly and definitively settled, because even though Biden was not among my top choices, dropping any candidate at that point would have been messy in the extreme.
My reassessment of my earlier comments on Harris is much more interesting because it is not simply a matter of saying, "Hey, new facts, new conclusion." My problem with Harris was (and is) based on a bombshell New York Times column by Professor Lara Bazelon, who in January of 2019 laid out Harris's history as a prosecutor and as California's Attorney General, when Harris "fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors." Bazelon's examples of Harris's efforts to win at all costs -- even when those costs included destroying the lives of innocent people -- were chilling.
Because I view the abuse of state power arrayed against defenseless innocents as one of the worst crimes imaginable, my column expressed "my concerns about a person who would keep people in prison for decades when guilt is by no means proven beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a character flaw of the highest order." Again, this in not a matter of the facts having changed, and I cannot overstate my continuing revulsion at Harris's decisions.
This was all especially difficult, because in every other way, Harris could have been my favorite candidate in the 2020 primaries. I ended up endorsing Elizabeth Warren, but had Harris not had this major stain on her resume, I might have found Harris's combination of talents and assets to be superior in the totality of the circumstances to Warren's.
After George Floyd's murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, I was surprised that Harris contiuned to be a serious contender to be Biden's running mate. Senator Amy Klobuchar wisely dropped out of the competition at that point, with her bad connections to that particular jurisdiction making her an obvious nonstarter. Harris is a woman of color, which is obviously a big plus in the Floyd aftermath, but I assumed that Harris's history as a not-progressive prosecutor would end her possible vice presidential candidacy.
That did not happen, and indeed, people (including me) have been genuinely surprised by how good it felt to see Harris become the nominee. But is this a matter of simply ignoring the bad stuff (as we do with so much of Biden's record) because of how horrible Trump and Pence are? Yes, but not only that.
If anything, Harris's bad acts as a prosecutor highlight the systemic part of systemic racism. Just as the infamous MOVE headquarters bombing of a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia in 1985 was presided over by an African-American mayor, so it is that Black politicians who rise to power in America (as well as rank-and-file police officers) feel the pressure to prove their supposed toughness by participating in a system that perpetuates racist mistreatment. No one thinks that Harris wanted to be bad, but she understood all too well that she would be attacked for being against law and order if she tried too hard to fix the system from within.
And that is the way in which I find it possible to be optimistic about Harris's position on the ticket. In a kind of Nixon-in-China move, Harris could become a leader in arguing that even a steely prosecutor such as herself can have an epiphany about the criminal justice system. At the very least, I cannot imagine that Harris would repeat her earlier sins of actively trying to perpetrate criminal injustices.
Admittedly, that is not guaranteed, and it is certainly likely that a Biden-Harris administration will see plenty of moments in which progressives are sorely disappointed. As I have been saying for years, however, this is no time to play cute by withholding support from non-ideal candidates. We know who Biden is, and Harris's one red flag will be somewhere between irrelevant and a mixed blessing. This was not my dream ticket. So what?