For the past few months, the 2020 Presidential campaign has been largely reduced to a virtual phenomenon. Wednesday’s rollout of the Joe Biden–Kamala Harris Democratic ticket was a covid-19 hybrid. Heavy rainstorms lashed down on a crowd of spectators that had gathered outside of A. I. Dupont High School, in Wilmington, Delaware, where the candidates were scheduled to appear. Then the power inside went out, delaying things by about an hour. When Biden and Harris eventually emerged together, they were both wearing black masks, which they took off to the strains of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up.” “Hello hello,” Biden said to the members of an expanded press pool. “Thanks for being here. I wish we were able to talk to the folks outside, but we are keeping our social distancing and playing by the rules.”
Despite the restrictions, nothing in what happened during the event offered any consolation for Donald Trump and his campaign, which seems to have been left flatfooted by Biden picking the obvious choice as his running mate. On the basis of this joint appearance, the Biden-Harris ticket looked like a well-balanced one, whose principals could complement each other effectively during the run-up to the election. And the selection of Harris has already brought some brio to the Biden campaign.
The former Vice-President’s campaign’s strategy is to make the election a referendum on Trump, cast a wide net, and avoid any distractions that could knock this strategy off course. In the remarks that Biden and Harris delivered, they stuck squarely to this template. The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey and Matt Viser described the two speeches as “perhaps the most crisp and focused . . . either has given during the presidential campaign.” Despite—or perhaps because—the two candidates didn’t have any screaming supporters on hand, their words seemed to carry added weight.
Biden praised Harris’s intelligence, toughness, and readiness to take on the job of Vice-President. Then he moved on to the broader importance of picking her. He spoke of “little Black and Brown girls who so often may feel overlooked and undervalued in our society—but today, maybe they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way.”
Despite their dissimilar origins, Biden went on, he and Harris weren’t so different. The two of them had worked hard to rise from modest backgrounds, and, unlike Trump, they were both on the side of working families. As he shifted to a disquisition on the shortcomings of the forty-fifth President, Biden brought up the fact that Wednesday was the third anniversary of “that terrible day in Charlottesville.” It was after seeing white supremacists spark violence in the Virginia college town, and Trump remark that there were “very fine people on both sides,” that he “knew we were in a battle for the soul of the nation,” Biden recalled. “And I’m proud now to have Senator Harris at my side in that battle.”
Biden also noted that Trump had already attacked Harris, claiming she had been “mean” and “nasty.” As the campaign went forward, there would be more of these attacks, Biden said, and, referring to the seated Harris, he added, “We have to have her back.” This was a solicitous note from a politician whose empathy is one of his strengths, especially in contrast to Trump. After Harris got up to speak, however, it quickly became evident—it has been clear all along, really—that she is more than able to take care of herself.
Where Biden had despaired of Trump’s inability to fashion a coherent response to a pandemic that has killed a hundred and sixty-five thousand Americans, Harris went further; she held the President directly responsible for the terrible human toll. “This virus has impacted almost every country, but there’s a reason it has hit America worse than any other advanced nation,” she said. “It’s because of Trump’s failure to take it seriously from the start. His refusal to get testing up and running. His flip-flopping on social distancing and wearing masks. His delusional belief that he knows better than the experts. All of that is the reason that an American dies of covid-19 every eighty seconds.”
That’s what political professionals call prosecuting the case against an incumbent. Harris’s gift for doing this, a talent honed during her long career as an actual prosecutor, explains why many observers thought that she would be a shrewd pick. More surprising, perhaps, was the political awareness and deft touch that her speech displayed—attributes that sometimes seemed to be lacking during her ill-fated primary campaign.
It was Harris’s embrace of “Momala”—the term of affection that her stepchildren use for her—which had social media buzzing. That was a layup. More tricky was her invocation of civil rights to appeal to younger and more progressive voters—she called those protesting for racial justice “heroes of our time”—while also finessing what she had said about Biden during a Democratic debate last June, when she brought up his decades-old record on busing and criticized him for talking about how he coöperated with segregationists early in his Senate career. “The civil-rights struggle is nothing new to Joe,” Harris said on Wednesday. “It’s why he got into public service. It’s why he helped reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and restore employment discrimination laws. And today, he takes his place in the ongoing story of America’s march toward equality and justice—as the only person who served alongside the first Black President, and has chosen the first Black woman as his running mate.”
Clever. According to a report in the Times, Biden’s campaign aides believe that Harris’s presence on the ticket will bolster its appeal with Black and Latino voters and suburban women, and help increase Democratic turnout. In an election in which most of the attention will focus on the Presidential candidates—as usual—that’s a lot to ask of any Vice-Presidential pick, even a historic one like Harris. But on the third day of the Biden-Harris ticket, Team Biden has reason to be encouraged.
As even some progressive groups that supported other candidates in the primaries have fallen behind Biden and Harris, the Democratic Party seems unusually united, and girded for battle. And with a recent Monmouth University poll indicating that Trump is trailing Biden by a massive twenty-nine points among women, the Democratic ticket now includes a formidable female politician who will be taking the President on all the way to November 3rd. If Trump didn’t know that before Wednesday, he does now.