Challenges facing US Democrats

Saeed Okasha , Thursday 13 Aug 2020

With Biden not attending the upcoming Democratic Party convention, questions arise over his influence on the party’s election platform


On 5 August, presumptive presidential candidate for the Democratic Party Joe Biden announced he will not travel to his party’s national convention, as a precautionary measure due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In an official statement, the party said that instead of Biden travelling to Milwaukee he will address the nation and accept the Democratic Party’s nomination from his home state of Delaware.

The Democrats’ national convention, slated for 17-20 August, will take key decisions in terms of finalising the party’s platform for the presidential race and choosing Biden’s running mate. Biden’s physical absence at the convention due to Covid-19 could potentially weaken his hand and allow his Republican rival Donald Trump to take advantage of the situation and undermine Biden’s capabilities. Since Biden was chosen as the Democratic candidate, Trump and his team have focused on Biden’s health and how this impacts his ability to lead the US. Trump, who strongly opposed the national shutdown at the start of the pandemic, could be adamant in attending the Republican national convention — which will be held one week after the Democratic one — without wearing a mask, to prove he is fit, healthy and braver than Biden. Trump’s campaign could also propagate the claim that Biden will not attend his party’s convention because he is worried that he will trip up when speaking to party representatives. Biden suffers a stutter since childhood, but Trump suggests that Biden’s cognitive abilities should be tested.

Other than Biden’s absence, finalising the Democrats’ platform could be problematic because there are severe rifts since the far-left camp of the party — supporters of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — will send one quarter of eligible representatives to the convention. This large number of left-leaning representatives could hinder the party from closing ranks behind Biden if he does not adopt some of the social and economic reforms the far left is calling for. The conservative camp is worried these reforms will obstruct the economic recovery of the US, which has stumbled due to the pandemic. Some party supporters understand the risks of opening up debate about the party’s platform and policies, and the promises it will make to voters, because this could lead to division between the party and voters at a time when the Democratic Party is seeking to unite voters against Trump and his policies. Or because making broad and unattainable promises could constrict policies and decisions Biden may choose in the future if he is elected to the White House. They suggest postponing presenting the party platform until after Biden wins the election.

Joe Baerlein, the principal of Baerlein and Partners in Boston, wrote in Politico advising Biden not to open detailed discussion of the party’s platform in the elections, and only focus on Trump’s weak points in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and his quarrel with China. Baerlein also suggests that Biden should announce early on his intention to appoint Trump’s Republican rival Mitt Romney as Secretary of State if he wins the election, to prove that he is keen on the unity of the US to prevent further partisan fissures.

The Democratic convention could also be split over Biden’s pick for vice president. He had promised earlier that he will choose an African-American female as his running mate, and the list is long for potential candidates. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser; Senator Kamala Harris, known as the strong woman of the judiciary due to her long career as a district attorney; and Congresswoman Karen Bass, who is the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus and who is spearheading police reform legislation named after George Floyd (the black man murdered by police two months ago).

Biden’s dilemma is not only deciding between the three women, but also dealing with the anger of white females who wanted the opportunity, such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar who both ran against Biden in the Democratic primary race for president, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Biden may lean towards choosing Rice since he has known her well for many years and they both served under the Obama administration. However, Harris would be a better choice for Democrats even though she and Biden do not see eye to eye, especially after she attacked him during primary debates when she was seeking the Democratic candidacy for president. Harris is popular with the party’s leftist camp and could deliver many votes from women of colour and young female voters on the left.

Reactions to whomever Biden picks as his black female running mate could also be problematic. First, choosing a female will not add much to a party which already fielded a female candidate to contest the presidential race in 2016, namely Hillary Clinton. Choosing a black woman will not make much difference in US political life since Barack Obama already served as president for eight years. Therefore, pulling on the heartstrings of women and minorities may not be of much benefit to Biden in comparison to Obama and Clinton, because conditions, contexts and challenges are different today.

Democrats must brace for Trump’s actions and surprises as soon as he is officially nominated by the Republican Party this month, and as developments unravel that could change Biden’s and Trump’s chances, such as finding a vaccine or cure for Covid-19 by September, as Trump promised. There are also three presidential debates that are usually scheduled towards the end of September and early October. Will the Democrats be able to hide Biden’s stammer and ignorance of foreign policy, and will they be able to convince American voters during these debates?

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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