No one even in their wildest dreams would have thought that the 2020 American Presidential election process is going to turn out this way. The Democrats, who were waiting for their four days of fun, frolic, and occasional bickering by way of the National Convention in Milwaukee, had to stay put in their living rooms and bedrooms, and watch the entire event unfold virtually. At the star-studded Democratic National Convention, its galaxy of speakers made their speeches, their only companion being a teleprompter. No cheers, whistles, balloons… nothing.
The callousness of the Trump administration in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic being what it was, the Democratic leadership wisely took the decision of taking no chances even it meant that the grand finale by way of the acceptance speech of their nominee, Joseph Biden, was the same as the rest of the pack. Only a small crowd of journalists observing social distancing norms were the audience.
It has been a long political journey for the man who started his political career five decades ago and made his first shot at presidency some 33 years ago, only to falter on charges of plagiarism. He vowed to return and he has, but not before trying his luck at least two more times for the coveted prize of party nomination. For all the insults he had to endure in his 2020 campaign at the hands of President Donald Trump, his acceptance speech at the party convention stunned even critics and political opponents.
Biden, for long, had been dismissed unfit, out of touch, and senile by Trump. “I thought it was enormously effective speech. Remember, Donald Trump has been talking for months about Joe Biden as mentally shot… I thought that he blew a hole, a big hole in the characterization,” senior journalist from Fox News, Chris Wallace, said of the former Vice President’s acceptance speech. This statement coming from Fox News would have sent Trump into a tizzy.
The journey of Kamala Harris has been no less difficult for she certainly did not have things on a silver platter. Daughter of immigrants, Indian and Jamaican, Harris was raised by a determined single mother who made it to the United States to pursue her educational dreams when she was only 19. Harris not only eminently qualified herself by pursuing law, became the District Attorney, and finally the Attorney General for the State of California, not by fluke but by the dint of hard work. If the racist right-wing now hurls all kinds of epithets and innuendos, Harris has seen them all even before she reached the hallways of the Senate in 2016, the only second African American female to enter that chamber. She along with a dozen or so others threw their hats in the ring for the 2020 Presidential election, quickly bowed out, but not before making the point that she was a force to reckon with. She had the guts to take on Biden in a debate in 2019 but it was all professional in the game of politics.
This election is a different one and for many reasons, the pandemic being just one of them. The pandemic continues to be traumatic to America where about 170,000 lives have been lost since the beginning of the year; millions of Americans are without a job as a result of forced closures putting the economy in a tailspin and pushing it on a par, if not worse, than that of the Great Depression. Millions of kids are forced to sit out of classes and into online sessions, universities and colleges are fighting for survival in the absence of students. And all the while critics have accused the President and his administration of being in total denial. Worse in the aftermath of the brutal killing of African American George Floyd, the political right, extremists and bigots fanned the flames of racial violence. The Presidential tweets did not help matters, it only made things worse.
That America has been scarred in the last four years is a theme that Biden and his running mate Harris have been trying to hammer away and that the Democratic ticket is somehow the passport to what the country is all about. “United we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America,” Biden said while accepting the nomination. The ripping apart of the policies of the Trump era by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama aside, the Democrats are trying to weave a course that seeks to put back confidence in the minds and the hearts of people who have been devastated by the turn of events in the country. The domestic compulsions apart, the Trump administration is seen to have wasted a lot of mileage in foreign policy as well with many nations unable to figure out what it is that Washington says or wants. The formulation of trade policy is perhaps one example that has left allies and adversaries quite puzzled.
Both Biden and Harris are aware that the ball game is just starting and over the next 70-odd days they have to show the voters that the country can somehow be put back on track. Merely calling Trump as the “worst” President America has seen is not going to work; rather it is in the ability of Democrats to convince a broad coalition cutting across gender and race that time has come for change. And this is where the biggest problem: it is one thing to have Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on their side; but it is a totally different story to see if the generational gap has been bridged, especially the aspirations of the youngsters that range from education, health care to climate change. The bottom line is that both Biden and Harris will have to work overtime to get on board nearly every cross-section of society they could lay their hands on. Also they would have to energise the base, an area that the Trump campaign seems to be miles ahead.
President Trump has just begun his warm-up for the Republican National Convention starting next week that will also be a virtual event for the most part except that no one knows from where the President will be giving his final address—from the lawns of the White House? But one thing is for sure: neither he nor his campaign will spare any trick in the book to come back at Biden and Harris even if it means they are cheap comments laced or bordering on racism and bigotry. Apart from making cynical comments about the origins of Senator Harris, the Trump campaign has been overtime to convince the nation that Harris is not “really black” as she is Jamaican. In fact, this is a campaign together with the President that constantly talks about “White” America and the support they draw from, particularly from the non-college-educated males. Between now and election day, Trump may throw a few crumbs to appease women voters, but it is not sure if they will take the bait.
The next few days will show how much exactly of a “bounce” Biden has received in the aftermath of the Convention; but generally, polls are showing that the race is tightening and nothing of late to suggest that the Biden-Harris ticket is running away with the election on November 3. Political analysts are making the point that the real attention must not be on national polls that show Biden leading Trump by anywhere between 9 and 12 points; rather the prime focus must be on the surveys in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin where the difference is not much. Biden may be running close in states like Georgia and Texas, but not many political operatives see these two states switching blue. And then there are others who predict that this Presidential election is going to be so close that the result is not going to be known on the night of the election, rather weeks later after court battles!
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)