Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Do VP Debates Matter?

 Being an inveterate political junkie, I always watch debates during a Presidential Election cycle.  Of course, take-aways from these contests are often less about substance and more about style or catch phrases.  Experience has taught that impressions are even more the case with Vice Presidential debates.

Before one dismisses the significance of the Election 2020 Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Senator Kalama Harris (D-CA) and Republican Vice President Mike Pence (R-IN), it is incumbent on a conscientious voter to consider the top of the ticket.   Pence is the running mate of a 74 year old incumbent Chief Executive who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.  Harris is the bottom of a ticket with a 78 year old challenger who many believe is displaying cognitive decline and  has engaged  in what can charitably called  a laid back general election campaign,  These VP nominees may not just be virtue signaling for identity politics or geographical balance to a ticket, but may well inherit the Oval Office.

To prepare for the future, it helps to look back at the recent past to discern tips and tricks for Vice presidential debates.

For me, the most memorable zinger from a VP contest was in 1988, when George Herbert Walker Bush's VP nominee Senator Dan Quayle (D-IN), tried to answer moderators' pushback on his qualifications if he were to become President.  Qualye, who many believe was chosen in part for his youthful vigor to balance one of the last Greatest Generation Presidential candidates, tried to give vague assurances of continuity.  To support his credentials, Quayle compared himself to Democrat icon President John F. Kennedy, who had the same amount of elected experience before becoming President. Democrat Vice Presidential candidate Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), overcame his debate jitters to utter the ultimate deflating repartee 

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."



 As spontaneous as that sounded, the jibe came from debate prep.  According to Dukakis campaign advisor Susan Estrich in 2004, the stand in for Quayle kept making this JFK comparison, which stunned Bentson.  The Democrat VP nominee asked his advisors if he could say something and they agreed.  The rest was history and comedic fodder for years.  Not that it really helped the Dukakis/Bentsen ticket, which got crushed in the Electoral College in 1988.

For the most part, people rarely remember the VP debates.  Honestly, some political pundits strain to think of losing VP nominees four years later, such as Senator Tim Kaine, (D-VA) First Lady/Senator/Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's choice in 2016.   At the time, I covered the debate blow by blow.  But it made little impact and Kaine slunk into faded memories, even despite retaining his Senate seat.

Despite being quite occupied with the Romney/Ryan ticket in 2012, I struggle to recall any take away moments from the VP debate between Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI 1st) and Obama Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden.  Some commentators note that Biden smirked and interrupted the Congressman, which seems to be part of Biden's toolbox.  This non-verbal strategy does not accord gravitas to one's opponent; however, depending upon the post debate spin, it risks making the perpetrator look like a jackass.

Sometimes, it helps for a candidate to draw from his or her biography to score points.  Biden is famous for invoking his familial tragedies to draw empathy during a debate, as he did during the dust up with Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) maverick VP choice Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) in 2008.

For the 2020 Vice Presidential debate, Senator Kamala Harris  should be well experienced, as she participated in six monthly Democrat Presidential Primary debates before dropping out before the Iowa Caucus with virtually no support.  

Harris made the most of her first debate appearance by going after the jugular of front runner Joe Biden by indirectly accusing him of being a racist for opposing school bussing in the 1970s.


 Harris' verbal hit must have been preplanned, because the next day her campaign store was ready to roll with "That little girl was me" t-shirts and stylized social media posts.  

In some senses, Harris' hardball did not politically hurt her ambitions,  as Joe Biden chose her to be his running mate (or is that vice versa?).  But in a more intangible sense, that attack leads to a perception of unlikeability and phoniness amongst even  diehard Democrats.  

Mike Pence's style is certainly less confrontational than President Trump's demeanor. Pence has a well earned reputation as an Evangelical Christian, so don't expect bombast or invective.  But before successfully being elected to Congress in 2000, Pence hosted a syndicated daily radio talk show for seven  years.  Pence branded himself "Rush on decaf", meaning that he was just as conservative as Rush Limbaugh but without the bombast.  Pence also hosted a weekend public affairs television program.  Skill sets developed from these experiences, such as being comfortable on camera, calmly discussing issues and controlling time, might be quite helpful during a debate.

One of the distinctive qualities of the Biden/Harris campaign is controlling the media narrative, as both candidates eschew taking unscripted questions from the press and have extremely limited campaign events which are meant for television. The mainstream media has not hidden their support for the Democrat ticket.  Thus this might be the opportunity for Republicans to impeach candidate Harris by posing hard questions. For example: "Senator Harris, how did you reconcile Joe Biden's opposition to school bussing with your hurt feelings  over racism?"   On the one hand, if Pence fails to propose such pointed questions, it is a lost opportunity.  On the other had, would soft spoken challenges get ignored and make the interrogator inept?

One of the major criticisms of the first Election 2020 Presidential debate was the disrespectful over-talking and insults between the participants.  There is little danger of those traits from Mike Pence.  That is not as sure of a bet with Kamala Harris.  Harris played the adult in the room for the second 2020  Democrat primary debate, which is easy to do with a crowded stage, but that may come off differently one-on-one.

It seems that the Biden/Harris campaign is banking on a visual perception to sell a major component of their campaign.  Due to COVID-19, Harris insisted that the daises be placed at a safe 12 apart.  In addition, the Democrat debater and the moderator will be surrounded by a plexiglass barrier.  This staging may draw attention to the Biden/Harris contention that the Trump Administration has been inept in handling the viral pandemic.  In marked contrast, Vice President Pence declined the see thru cage, which also may be sending a message.

For those that eat, sleep and breathe politics, the Vice Presidential debate will be of temporary great import.  But my visceral instinct is that it will have little impact, aside from confirming impressions of the candidates. In this cycle, that impression may not be a good thing. 


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Debating the Debate Take Aways

Presidential debates are not like Oxford Union style debates, which can be scored on points and form. Often, the policy points do not matter.  What often is the take away from a presidential debate is a zinger (usually pre-planned) or some canned ham (scripted witticism).  Occasionally, the demeanor or appearance of a participant is what is long remembered.  Then there are the blunders, both verbal and non verbal.

To give an example of how seemingly superficial factors sway voters, consider the dichotomy of perceptions that people had about the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960.  Those who listened to the debate on radio generally thought that Vice President Richard Nixon won on points and substance.  People watching on television, however, thought that Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) won the day as he looked collected as well as tan and rested. 

[L] Vice President Richard Nixon (R-CA)  & [R] Senator John Kennedy (D-MA) during 
1960 Presidential Debate, Sept. 22, 1960

 The rest of the story touches upon Nixon’s demeanor, health, and appearance.  Television viewers opined that Nixon looked nervous.  Despite being a ground breaker for long form televised ads (the “Checkers” speech from 1952), the camera did not love Nixon.  He had nervous demeanor which did not display well. Nixon came to the debate coming from a campaign appearance, whereas Kennedy had polished talking points which he rehearsed with aides the weekend before.

 On top of that, Nixon refused television make up as he heard that Kennedy had declined TV make up.  Instead, Nixon tried to  his five-o-clock shadow with “Lazy Shave”, which melted off under the hot television lights during the debate. That contrasted with the clean shaven Democrat challenger. 

[L] 1960s Lazy Shave Ad [R]Button of New York Review caricature by David Levine

Nixon also looked in pain, green and sallow.  This is attributable to being hospitalized for 12 days during the general election campaign due to a Staph infection.  These deficiencies really came across to the television audience.

Zingers are common during presidential debates, as they are the source of post debate water cooler humor and can crystalize a perception of a candidate.  Take President Barack Obama’s quip to ex Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) in 2012 when Romney opined that America’s major foreign policy concern should be the Russians.  Obama joked: “The eighties called and wants their foreign policy back.”.  This painted challenger Romney as out of touch with a sardonic smile on his face. 

Sometimes zingers have some substance to them.  After President Ronald Reagan had a shaky first debate in 1984, there were concerns that the 73 year old President might not be up to a second term.  But in the second debate, Reagan was prepared for this issue and said: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Everyone laughed, including Reagan’s opponent ex Vice President Walter Mondale (D-MN).  That charming canned ham dispelled any doubts and Reagan went on to win in a landslide. 

An awkward phrase tossed out during a debate can come back to haunt a candidate.  During the 1976 presidential debate, incumbent President Gerald Ford was attempting to fend off a challenge by then Governor Jimmy Carter (D-GA).   President Ford asserted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. The moderator was incredulous at this answer and Ford offered examples of how the people of Yugoslavia, Romania and Poland do not feel dominated by the Soviet Union. 

This incredible response was given at a time that there were Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain and within Soviet hegemony of the Warsaw Pact.  Later, Ford’s campaign tried to spin that the spirit of Eastern Europe was never dominated by the Russians. But that blunder was a stand out blunder and may have tipped the scales of an election.

Body language can deliver debate body blows to a campaign.  During the 1992 Town Hall Presidential Debate between incumbent President George H.W. Bush, challenger then Governor Bill Clinton (D-AR) and Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot, there were timed questions and answers between the three candidates and the audience.  The camera caught President Bush “41" looking at his watch.  

[F] President George H.W. Bush & [B] H. Ross Perot at
Richmond Townhall Debate, 1992

 He may well have been figuring out what portion of the debate they were in to switch tones or emphases.  But the spin from this Richmond Town Hall debate was used as a cudgel later in the campaign to show that President Bush was bored and out of touch.

With this background in mind, we need to consider the expectations game and the later spin.

[L] President Donald Trump and [R] ex Vice President Joseph Biden 
at the Presidential Debate in Cleveland, OH Sept. 29, 2020

Former Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE) spent the better part of a week putting an early lid on campaigning, supposedly doing campaign prep.  Cynical sorts have suggested that the Biden campaign may have been adjusting the candidate’s clock to avoid “sunsetting”, which would not have Joe at his best.   Many Republicans questioned the vigor of Biden’s campaigning and though he might not be physically or mentally up to the job.    However, expectations had been set so low, that a sympathetic news media could proclaim Joe Biden’s debate performance as a triumph if he merely appeared.   

The first (and possibly only) Election 2020 Presidential Debate in Cleveland was a food fight between an incumbent street brawler and “Lunch Bucket” Joe who on prior occasions has threatened to beat up his opponent in back of the school.  Let’s not forget the third debater in this supposedly mano-a-mano imbroglio, moderator Chris Wallace. 

In the first minutes of the debate, Wallace lost control.  But instead of letting the principle fighters duke it out, Wallace seemed to tag team with Biden, asking candidates questions pointedly rooted from a progressive perspective (climate change, racial justice, COVID-19 and “science”), interrupting Trump when he was on a roll, not allowing retorts to obvious distortions, prompting Biden when he answered the wrong question and not allowing pressure when Biden refused to answer.

Biden’s performance of surviving the Cleveland debates may give him the ability to avoid sharing the stage with President Trump for the remainder of Election 2020 because of the unpresidential atmosphere.  But calling his opponent a clown, a perpetual liar and a racist had nothing to do with this so c’mon man (sic).  Such a strategy would align with a campaign which has been critiqued for “Hidin’ Biden”, giving structured pressers with preplanned questions and responses typed out on a teleprompter.  Biden’s staff may feel like they got the credibility which they needed, the debate cast Trump in a negative light and further debates might cause unforced errors.  But in the post debate hubris, Biden’s staff promised to do all of the scheduled debates.

President Trump did not do much debate prep but seemed to wing it. He lived up to his reputation of counter punching and raring for a fight. Honestly, it was not pretty. Trump used sarcasm, redirection and interrogatories to verbally attack his opponent.  For those who liked Mr. Trump’s scrappy style, they may have been pleased. Those who are anti-Trump were not going to be won over.  The unstated objective may not have been to sway undecided voters, but to convict the base while dividing the opposition.

For instance, “Moderator” Wallace asked the question about race, Trump keyed in on Biden’s 1994 lead on the crime bill when he kept referring to Super Predators, which still rankles the Black community. Then he shifted his answer to law and order.  This has elements of answering the question that a debater wants, painting the opposition and playing to your strong suits.  Trump could have touted his Administration’s success in the 2019 prison reform bill, which aided disproportionately impacted African Americans, but he did not.  Was this a missed opportunity? Perhaps.  But Trump wanted to do a quick hit on his opponent and then segue to a prominent campaign theme of law and order, which is a sharp contrast to Biden.  Despite making inroad in polling African American men (presumably from economic opportunity), it is likely that Trump was trying to depress Black turnout for Biden, which has been taken for granted by Biden (e.g. “You ain’t black if you aren’t voting for me” from the Breakfast Club).

Trump’s pivot on the question to law and order plays well with communities that peaceful protests caused burnt out small businesses.  In instant polling on Telemundo, Latinos disproportionately thought that Trump won the debate, which seemed linked to law and order. This was further cemented when Trump pressed Biden on which law enforcement groups endorsed the Democrat, and there was no reply at all.

When the topic shifted to public health and insurance, Biden wanted to tout the virtues of Obamacare and paint President Trump as heartless. Trump wanted to show that Democrats want to wipe out private insurance and pointed to the Bernie Sanders manifesto which Biden supposedly had bought into towards the end of the primaries.  Biden insisted that the manifesto was not his plan and distanced himself from Sanders.  Trump chimed in that Biden just lost the left. Obviously, Bernie bros will not be happy that they were pushed to the side.  That might dampen some turn out on the left, even if was a “necessary evil” so Biden might triumph.

The debate in Cleveland did not feature a spin room, but that did not really matter because the mainstream media had their narratives already established.  Biden survived so he thrived.  Trump acted “unpresidential”.  In addition, it echoes the Biden campaign’s narrative that “this clown lies all the time”.   More establishment Republicans tsk tsk the street brawl flavor of the debate.  Some commentators on the right lament missed opportunities. It certainly did not look pretty.

In rereading the debate transcript, Trump was able to strongly reinforce his law and order message, offer negative news about Biden family corruption which the “fake news media” has ignored, and shown that Biden is a politician who is light on accomplishments in 47 years of public life and lacks leadership now.   If Trump did not have to debate Chris Wallace, there were some instances which Biden’s ramblings might have shown that he’s lost some steps, but Trump’s challenges redirected the contentious conversation.

Time will tell if there will be more presidential debates in Election 2020 and what messages will resonate among the electorate. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Tide Pod Toddies -- A San Francisco Treat?

Well, it would make for a colorful cocktail, but poisonous.  

Alas slightly more poisonous than the intransigence coming from the Speaker's office at the Capitol.

Friday, September 11, 2020

President Trump on the Heroicism of Flight 93

This is the Face of War in the 21st Century

Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer quotes the President on 21st Century warfare

H/T: Politico

Karl Rove on the Fog of War after 9/11

Bush Special Advisor Karl Rove on 9/11

 H/T: Politico

On Going Down into the Bunker on 9/11

White House Stenographer Ellen Eckhert Recalls 9/11 at Offutt AFB bunker

H/T: Politico

Air Force One Pilot Remembers 9/11

Air Force One pilot Col. Mark Tillman's recollection of 9/11

Despite President George W. Bush's persistent entreaties to return to the White House on the morning of September 11th 2001, the Secret Service would not permit the Commander in Chief to return to Washington for fear that he might be a target. There was chatter about "Angel" (which is the code word for the Air Force One) being next. 

So after departing Sarasota, Air Force One flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, in Shreveport, Louisiana. 

Air Force One's pilot Col Mark Tillman, wanted to make sure that the aircraft had a full tank of fuel as it was unsure where the President would go next.  A civilian argued that 14 hours of fuel was only for a time a war, but a Air Force Master Sergeant, impressed upon the crew that we are in a time of war.

H/T: Politico

Remembering 9/11 Victims

A dozen years ago, two planes were hijacked by jihadist terrorists under the direction of Osama bin Laden and they were deliberately flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.  Within two hours, both towers fell, killing 2,118 civilians in the building, 147 crew and passengers from American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 along with 11 hijackers.

Here is raw footage with raw sound from that chaotic day in lower Manhattan--

New York City chose to memorialize all of the innocent dead by creating a park with two waterfalls in the footprints of the Twin Towers, building a 1,176 foot high One World Trade Center (originally designated the Freedom Tower) and a$600 Million  museum to memorialize the horrific day.

There has been some controversy concerning the 9/11 memorials at Ground Zero in NYC.  It took over a decade to erect a new building which was meant to show American resolve.  The signature new World Trade Center building legally changed its name from the 102 story $3.1 Billion Freedom Tower to accommodate a 21 year lease with Vantone, a Chinese commercial realty company.  The 9/11 museum drew fire for featuring the jihadist hijackers "for the  historical narrative".  Some have complained that political correctness has gone made at Ground Zero erasing anything heroic, patriotic or influencing the narrative.  Atheists even tried to exclude a cross formed by two steel beams in the WTC collapse that gave many Ground Zero rescue workers solace, but fortunately courts denied this claim.

On September 11th 2001 at 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 flew into a first floor western facing wall of the Pentagon.  The crash killing 125 people on the ground (including 55 civilians)   53 passengers, six crew and five jihadist hijackers

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (third from right) assists with the injured at the Pentagon 9/11/2001

.The 184 victims of the attack on the Pentagon were honored in an outdoor memorial on the southwest corner of the Pentagon which was designed by Julie Beckman and Steve Kaseman with 184 illuminated benches arranged by age and whether they were in the building or aboard the terrorist hijacked aircraft.

United Airlines Flight 93, the Newark to San Francisco scheduled flight with a crew of seven and 33 passengers was hijacked by four jihadist terrorists.

The passengers revolted against the hijackers after learning of the other hijackings. Flight 93 crashed in rural Somerset County, Pennsylvania.  It was  believed that had the jihadist hijackers prevailed, the plane was headed to crash into the US Capitol.  But in 2009 a high ranking al Qaeda detainee revealed that Flight 93's specific target was  White House. Whatever the case, these heroic passengers were first conscious US combatants in the War on Terrorism.

There was some controversy with the original design of the Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The memorial originally was supposed to include 40 groves of red maple trees shaped like a crescent.  To quiet the debate, the 93 foot Tower of Voices has 40 wind chimes and a grove of 40 red maple trees which circle the walkway, following the bowl shape of the former surface mine.

As time has passed, the September 11th 2001 attack could fall into the recesses of memory for many Americans directly untouched by the fanatical atrocity. May we always remember the 9/11 victims and never forget the American virtues which made US a target of those wishing to establish a world-wide Caliphate.

Remembering the Sacrifices of Surviving First Responders to 9/11

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Union General who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his gallantry during the Battle of Gettysburg.  Gen. Chamberlain's profound invocation of a Civil War cemetery in 1889 gave solace to a Russ Kleat, a  soulful First Responder at Ground Zero after the 9/11 Islamist terror attack on the World Trade Center.

It is easier to mourn the loss of 2606 lives lost in an instant as the Twin Towers imploded.  But there are many First Responders who made it out alive but who have been mentally scarred and physically impaired by their dedicated service. 

It seems just that the New York Fire Department has been gradually adding names to the 9/11 Memorial Wall of First Responders who have fallen due to illnesses related to their efforts after 9/11.

The valiance of the 9/11 First Responders gives new poignancy to Gen. Chamberlain's invocation.  I will think of the line "the mystery of grace" now whenever I see photos of the Tower of Lights remembering 9/11 victims.

Rudy Giuliani on 9/11

Rudi Giuliani 9/11

Remembering the Heroes of 9/11

Presidential Photographer on 9/11

America is Under Attack on 9/11

George W. Bush Chief of Staff Andy Card on 9/11

As the world looks back on the atrocities of September 11th 2001, we forget that it was a different world. In Farenheit 911 (2004), Michael Moore mocked how President George W. Bush continued to read "My Pet Goat" to a group of schoolchildren in Sarasota, Florida as the Twin Towers burned.  But a Politico magazine article of oral histories of 9/11 points out how scant communications were that day.  Cellular technology was not as prevalent and it was challenging to get media while out of pocket.

President Bush went about the pre-planned No Child Left Behind event when his Chief of Staff Andy Card whispered in his ear about the second plane crashing.  President Bush remained calm and continued reading, knowing that he could do nothing immediately with imperfect information.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Choosing Kamala: Identity Politics Intersects with Authenticity

Former Vice President selected first term Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) as his running mate in his race of the White House.  At the beginning of the 2020 election cycle, Harris was considered one of the top 22 contenders in the Democrat Presidential Primaries.  Harris was a standout in several early televised debates, however Harris folded her campaign in December 2019 before the first primaries due to lack of finances with about 2% support. 

Vice President Biden fulfilled a campaign promise to pick a Black woman to be on the ticket with him. Harris will be hailed by the mainstream media as the first Woman of Color  on a major party Presidential ticket.   Although identity politics seems like a superficial criteria to select a stand in for the most powerful office in the world, that is arguably  what drove this pick.  However, Kamala Harris may not generate as much enthusiasm among African American voters as Barack Obama did in 2008, due to a perceived lack of authenticity to the African American experience. 

Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California in 1964 to a Tamil (Indian) mother and a Jamaican father, who were both graduate students at University of California Berkeley.  Kamala’s mother chose both her daughter’ names to preserve their Indian cultural identities.  So it would be fair to say that Kamala Harris is also the first Asian woman to be a major party Presidential ticket.  That attribute may not be emphasized as that inconvenient truth may not resonate with a Democrat African American base, which candidate Biden’s is seeking to shore up after a string of repeated verbal blunders, including the infamous “You ain’t black if you don’t vote for me” with Charlamagne tha God on “The Breakfast Club”.

In her own Presidential campaign, Harris has sought to associate herself with the African American experience.  Harris was quick to associate herself the Jussie Smollett faux hate crime in January 2019, which she exploited into pushing  an anti-lynching bill.   Kamala Harris made her mark in the early Democrat Presidential debates by indicting Biden for working with segregationist Senators. 

In fact, Harris implied that frontrunner Joe Biden essentially was a racist for opposing busing, and made it personal by claiming that she was supposedly impacted by that policy decision. This was a calculated attack by Harris on the front runner Biden, as Harris was selling “That Little Girl Was Me” on her campaign website the morning after the viral moment. 

During Harris tenure as California Attorney General from 2011-2017, Harris earned a reputation of aggressively prosecuting marijuana related offenses.  In 2014, Harris laughed at the notion of California legalizing recreational marijuana.  

When it was politically convenient for her, Harris changed her tune on marijuana usage. During her Presidential campaign, Harris gave a light hearted radio interview with “The Breakfast Club” where she claimed that she smoke weed as a student at Howard University listening to Tupac and Snoop Dog.  Two problems with that claim– Those artists had not released their albums at that time and it shows Harris to be a hypocrite with casual marijuana use yet throwing the book at others using recreational marijuana.

 No wonder Harris developed a reputation which prompted influential Detroit African Americans to opine about Kamala Harris: “She’s fake. She’s phony. She’s not one of us.  She built a political career by over-prosecuting Black kids.” 

Aside from the box canyon promise of picking a Black woman, Biden supposedly wanted a running mate with whom he felt comfortable.  Can Kamala be simpatico with Joe after implications that her top of the ticket was racist?  Moreover, Kamala is on record believing the woman who accused Joe Biden of sexual assault. 

Campaigning in the era of COVID-19 relies more heavily on reputation and symbolism than hitting the hustings. With that in mind, it is worth considering how the Biden campaign announced their choice.  The formal public announcement was on Twitter, implying that Biden was modern and comfortable with technology.  Yet the Biden campaign released a photo of Biden in his basement having a Zoom meeting with Kamala Harris giving her the good news.  Note two things from this planned photo.  

Beneath Biden’s phone is a printed text telling the candidate exactly what his script was for the call.  Also note the positioning of Biden’s handset, as he is holding the cell phone upside down. How authentic!

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Thinking In Time About Biden's Short List

A leak attributed to presumptive 2020 Democrat Presidential nominee Joe Biden (D-DE) revealed that six names had made the initial cut to be considered Vice Presidential running mates.  This list seems to adhere to Mr. Biden’s promise to pick a woman.  The list includes Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), Obama National Security Advisor and ex UN Ambassador Susan Rice, two term Congresswoman Val Demings (D-FL 10th), first term New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D-Atlanta).  

Notably, several persons who seem to have been campaigning to be Joe Biden’s right hand woman were absent.  Failed 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who had been openly speculating about her chances was not on the list.  Minnesota Senator Amy! Klobachar (D-MN) did not make the cut, despite the fact the she withdrew from the Democrat primaries quickly after placing third in New Hampshire thereby  clearing the way for Biden’s first Presidential primary win (ever) in South Carolina.  Also absent is freshman Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmar (D-MI), who made a name for herself in aggressively implementing a continued COVID-19 lockdown in the Great Lake State.   Surprisingly, Michelle Obama’s name was not teased on this list, even though candidate Biden has used nearly every opportunity to associate himself with the Obama legacy. And Hillary Clinton’s name was no-where to be found on this leaked list.

Naturally, Biden Campaign spokesman Andrew Bates, dismissed the speculation by cryptically saying: “Those who talk don’t know and those who know don’t talk”.  That may be true, as sometimes prospective nominees use the time between clinching the nomination and the convention to keep in the news as they supposedly vet candidates, but then they make an unexpected choice.  This campaign tactic garners earned media during a traditionally lean campaign funding time-period between the primaries and the general election.  Moreover it has the added bonus of recognizing inter-party influencers to unite the party and generate enthusiasm. 

(L) Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY 9th) and ex VP Walter Mondale (D-MN)
Take the parade of VEEPstakes candidates that 1984 Democrat nominee Walter Mondale interviewed for the job.  Mondale claimed that he wanted a running mate who could advise the President nationally, could act as an international envoy and who could help pass legislation on Capitol Hill.   Mondale was open to having a female VP, so he seriously considered Kentucky Governor Martha Layne Collins (D-KY), then San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and ultimately his choice Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY 9th), who was known for working for equality for women while representing a conservative Democrat district where Archie Bunker from “All in the Family” would have lived.

While Mr. Mondale offered high minded criteria in selecting a Vice Presidential running mate, there are often more base political concerns, encapsulated in the probing question “What does (s)he bring to the ticket?   Almost always, a campaign wants the selection to lock a state in the victory column.  Preferably an important swing state.  This might explain the major motivations that Hillary Clinton (D-NY) chose Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) to clinch Virginia in 2016.

A second quality that Presidential nominees usually seek in their VEEPstakes choice is the notion of balance.   In 1960, then Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (D-MA) balanced his East Coast ticket by picking then Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-TX).   In 1988, Governor Michael Dukakis (D-MA) chose Senator Lloyd Benson (D-TX).  This can be North/South or Coastal/Midwest (or more derisively-- “fly over country”).

That balance need not be geographical or electoral.  In 2000, then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) chose former Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney (R-WY) as his running mate.  Republicans rule Wyoming and it is only three electoral college votes, so clinching a swing state is not the answer.  Well, at the time, “W” was considered to be an intellectual lightweight and a Washington outsider.  Cheney, who had acted as President Ford’s Chief of Staff and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s Defense Secretary, quelled media concerns for “gravitas”, as well as selecting a rock rib Republican who had loyalty to the Bush family.   Opting for an experienced but loyal insider may well have been the motivation for then freshman Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) choosing 36 year senate veteran Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) in 1988.    

There are some instances in which the VEEPstakes is driven by reinforcing a value.  Take for example when then Governor Bill Clinton (D-AR) selected Senator Al Gore, Jr. (D-TN).  Both were baby boomers from mid South states, neither being signficant swing states or big electoral college values.  But they could be contrasted as a new era for politics, particularly contrasted with the last World War II President (Bush “41").  They also could be marketed as “New Democrats”.

(L) Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) and (R) Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) made a surprise choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R-AK) in 2008.  McCain fancied himself as a maverick who campaign would fight for you.  He chose a had a reputation for fighting corruption among her own party and offered inroads with the religious right.  It did not hurt that she provided an attractive generational balance for an aged Vietnam War veteran. This might have been a second choice for McCain, as he pined to pick his friend Senator Joe Liberman (D/I-CN) but this choice was allegedly rebuffed by GOP conservatives.

By thinking in time, it might shed some light into Biden’s Veepstakes. Aside from insinuating that his running mate must be female, candidate Biden has espoused:
"One, that they are younger than I am. No, I'm not being facetious, and number two that they are ready on Day One to be President of the United States of America."   

So Biden recognizes that he is older and needs to have a second who is ready to step in. 

(L) ex VP Joe Biden (D-DE) and (R) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)
If we take Biden’s statements about age and sex seriously, it is odd that Elizabeth Warren tops the leaked list.  Warren is almost 71 years old, so technically she’s younger than the top of the ticket but not a generational difference. However, based on many recent media appearences, Warren seems more mentally with it than Biden. Warren placed in third in her home state primary, so it’s hard to say she’d lock Massachusetts, and the Bay State is hardly a swing state. The ticket would not be geographically balanced.  Warren’s credentials as a “Native American” Harvard professor, bankruptcy lawyer and legislator does not lend credence to being a public administrator ready to step in.   Arguably, Warren’s name being circulated appeals to her supporters, is an attempted olive branch to Bernie Bros due to her socialist leaning campaign and might lead to party unity.

At the start of the 2020 Democrat primary campaign, Kamala Harris was considered to be in the top tier of candidates, as she was a youthful minority candidate from the largest electoral college vote state.  An 2007 iteration of Joe Biden, might crib his praise of Barack Obama unto Kamala as a storybook candidate <<who is an African American candidate articulate and bright, clean and good looking.>> Maybe not today.  

(L) Ex VP Joe Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Kamala Harris (R-CA) at Detroit debate
During the Democrat Presidential Detroit Debate of 2019, Kamala Harris came out of the box to insinuate that her Joe Biden, her fellow candidate for the Democrat Presidential nomination, was unintentionally a racist for being against school busing in the 1970s, which benefited her as a little girl. Yet this blatant play of the race card did not win her support among the predominantly African American Democrat electorate in South Carolina, which Biden easily carried (with the strong support of House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC 6th).  Wonder why there is a disconnect between identity politics and Harris.  Consider the progressive paradigm of intersectionality.  While Harris is a Person of Color (sic), progressive voters have perseverated on the fact that Harris was perceived as being on the wrong side of history when she was California Attorney General as she was strong on punishment for minority malfeasors and that she punished cannabis criminals while privately enjoyed smoking it. 

Although Vice Presidential running mates are often encourage to be attack dogs for the top of the ticket, when she wasn’t spouting attacks planned in advance, Harris had a wooden stump style.  There is some evidence that Harris was associating herself with the Jesse Smollett controversy for political gain, but that did was not successful in being a positive lime light to dominate African American attitudes. 

Long time Democrat operative James Carville opined that personal chemistry may color Biden’s choice of a running mate.  When the cameras are away, it is hard to imagine that Harris would pass Biden’s smell test after accusing him of essentially being a racist.  Biden himself has asserted that his running mate must be intellectually simpatico.  Again, Harris does not seem to fit the bill. 

Although Biden easily carried the predominantly African American electorate voting in the South Carolina Democrat primary, with the strong support of House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC 6th), Biden may have to bolster his black base after his bone headed blunder with  the Breakfast Club’s “Charlamagne the God” when he said: “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black”. 

It is hard to see how Harris could achieve that end.

(L) Sen. Amy Klobachar endorsing Joe Biden (R)
An ideal balance of identity politics, geography and loyalty would have been Biden’s 2020 competition Senator Amy! Klobachar (D-MN).  She is a woman, from a Midwest swing state and did Biden a big favor by dropping out when she did. Alas events and experience got in the way.  The George Floyd sparked riots in Minneapolis highlighted the fact that Klobachar was a Minnesota Attorney General who gave the bad cop a pass for brutality in 2006.  Oops.  Klobachar’s husband’s live was saved from Covid-19 by doses of hydroxocloroquine, which was championed by President Trump (to much ridicule by the mainstream media).

Rep. Val Demings (D-FL 10th) at Trump impeachment
Another quasi prominent African American woman in the news is Congresswoman Val Demings (D-FL 10th).  Her background includes being a Police Chief in Orlando. She rose to prominence as being one of the eight House Impeachment Managers for the failed Senate trial of President Donald Trump.  Aside from that, the second term Representative has no legislative achievements, and her time leading the Orlando police force is marred by unresolved excessive police brutality problems.  While Florida is a swing state with significant amount of electoral votes, it is difficult to think that her presence on the ticket clinches the victory.  In a short time span, she would have to be marketed as a minority icon, in a nation that twice elected a black President.

Two names that were on the list that seemed to be sop to identity politics are Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham.  Both seem to be considered because of their identity rather than their experience as Administrators. Viscerally, it is hard to think that Bottoms would clinch Georgia.  Lujan Grisham might be enough to lock up the Land of Enchantment with its whopping five electoral votes.  But realistically, this would be more of a play to keep Hispanic votes in the Democrat camp.

The leaked name that is most intriguing is Susan Rice. Granted Rice has never held elective office (though she dreamed of being the first Senator from the District of Columbia) and DC’s three electoral votes are safely Democratic. So it’s not clinching a state or geographical balance that makes Democrat Rice (not to be confused with Condeleeza) interesting in Biden’s VEEPstakes. 

(L) ex VP Joe Biden (D-DE) and Susan Rice 
 Susan Rice is 27 years younger than the top of the ticket, has experience as UN Ambassador and being National Security Advisor, so she is “younger” and can be pitched as ready to step into the job when Biden can no longer do so.  But it is her connection to the inner circle of the Obama Administration and loyalty that makes it remarkable.  Susan Rice was the Obama Administration official that went on all five network public affairs shows immediately after the Bengazi fiasco in 2012 to spout the Administration line.  Susan Rice was part of the inner circle that has been implicated in the unmaskings of Trump campaign (and transition) staff.  So she worked with Biden, showed loyalty to Barack and doesn’t mind being the front person in contentious situations.   Along with identity politics, the Obama association, the loyalty and willness to be a pit bull, Susan Rice would be an interesting choice for Biden, albeit with some significant prospective liabilities. Besides, she has no office to lose and may earn a lucrative gig on MSNBC if things go south.

We can not be certain if the delayed 2020 Democrat National Convention will be held in Milwaukee, much less if Joe Biden will still be at the top of the ticket, so speculation on a Vice Presidential pick is a pre-mature parlor game.  Maybe Biden has binders of women which just haven't come to the forefront yet. But for political junkies anxious to not have to think about Antifa insurrection and COVID-19 contagiousness, it is a good exercise to keep regular order in shape.  Besides, it might give those of us who care about politics insight on evaluating Biden’s final answer.