News World Larry Hackett: The combatants in the battle for America’s soul are finally set
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Larry Hackett: The combatants in the battle for America’s soul are finally set

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For a man with such a storied political career, Joe Biden has bungled a lot of big moments.

He cribbed a British politician’s speech during his ill-fated 1988 presidential run, mishandled the epic Clarence Thomas/Supreme Court hearings in 1991, engineered the much-regretted crime bill of the mid-’90s and managed to embarrass his boss, Barack Obama on more than one occasion (see Marriage, Same-Sex).

On Wednesday, he – at last – finally played against type.

In selecting California Senator and former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris as his running mate, Mr Biden has kept to the tight script of his virtual campaign: Do No Harm.

And stay well out of the way when your opponent is managing to wound himself without your help.

In this very strange election season, Mr Biden’s selection of a VP candidate was even more freighted than usual: A mix of reality dating show and racial reckoning.

Back in the spring, Mr Biden had promised to pick a woman candidate.

In the weeks after the George Floyd killing and nationwide demonstrations, the pressure to pick an African-American woman grew, particularly since Mr Biden owed his resurrection on Super Tuesday to the unwavering support of black voters.

The list of black women he considered included Florida Congresswoman Val Demings, a former police chief; the no-nonsense mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance-Bottoms, the even more buttoned-up California Rep. Karen Bass and Stacey Abrams, who nearly became governor of the Deep South state of Georgia.

The hopefuls’ odds rose and fell through the early summer.

Ms Abrams lost ground early, a victim of her very explicit desire to be picked (just not done; can’t seem too ambitious, after all).

Ms Demings and Ms Bottoms had their moments, but they too seemed to lose traction.

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Asian-American veteran who lost both legs during the Iraq War, seemed to be advancing into the front of the pack, which always included Ms Harris, former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and, most recently, Susan Rice, a former UN ambassador and foreign policy expert in the Obama administration.

All were solid, seasoned professionals who brought unique attributes and constituencies to the ticket; no Sarah Palin bet-the-farm stunts here.

In the end, Mr Biden ended the conversation pretty much where it began: With Ms Harris, long a rising star in California politics whose gravitas and resume made her more of a national figure than almost all of the other candidates.

So, was all of this matchmaking worth the time? The importance of the VP selection has been debated in American politics for decades.

John Kennedy selected as his running mate Lyndon Johnson, who he loathed, as a way to secure Texas in 1960 (it worked).

Ronald Reagan selected George HW Bush in 1980 to assuage the feelings of the GOP’s establishment wing (sort of worked).

John McCain selected Ms Palin because, well, he was desperate for a Big Moment (didn’t work).

Mr Biden will win California easily, so Ms Harris’ selection has no regional benefit.

But as an African-American woman of national stature, she will be both reassuring and groundbreaking.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Chase Centre in July. Photo: Getty

Her politics are roughly in the centre of the current Democratic Party.

And while that may be a problem for the party’s left wing, it should be more than offset by the excitement it should engender among African-American voters, whose turnout is essential for Mr Biden to win.

Ms Harris will have one major issue to address: As the district attorney in San Francisco and then California Attorney General, Ms Harris was seen as tough on crime and soft on bad cops.

Her own presidential campaign – mystifyingly unfocused and badly run –ended before the paroxysm of outrage over George Floyd’s killing in May, so she will craft a position that explains her past while putting her in the present.

Polls released Tuesday show Mr Biden maintaining a 10-point lead. Selecting Ms Harris should only shore up that lead.

It may have taken too long to end up where he started, but by being deliberate and thorough, Mr Biden seemed less impulsive than his history would suggest.

That’s a good thing. So while Ms Harris may be the unsurprising choice to fill the ticket, no surprises sounds like a winning strategy to most Americans, who have had enough surprises this year to last a lifetime.

Larry Hackett is the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, and a contributor to the US morning television news program Good Morning America