Written by Astead W. Herndon and Lisa Lerer
Democrats formally nominated Sen. Kamala Harris for the vice presidency Wednesday night, placing a woman of color on a major party ticket for the first time and showcasing the diversity of race and gender they believe will energize their coalition to defeat President Donald Trump in the fall.
The third night of the party’s national convention also featured a striking repudiation of Trump by former President Barack Obama, a break with the presidential custom of not criticizing a successor by name. Obama praised Biden’s character, contrasting it with Trump’s, and directed a portion of his remarks to voters undecided about whom they will vote for, or whether they will vote at all.
“Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job, because he can’t,” Obama said, growing emotional at points as he talked about the challenges facing the country and democracy. “The consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone.”
A day after nominating Joe Biden, a 77-year-old fixture of Washington establishment politics, Democrats tried to make the case that while Biden would be one kind of change agent — a repudiation of Trumpism — Harris would help steer the party in new directions and reflect a changing America.
Speeches by Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Speaker Nancy Pelosi were intended to underscore the history-making moment of Harris’ nomination, highlighting Harris’ uniquely American biography: A child of immigrants and a graduate of a historically Black university, she is one of the few women of color elected to the U.S. Senate.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Harris said as she formally accepted the nomination. “The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid. The callousness makes us feel alone.
“We can do better and deserve so much more. We must elect a president who will bring something different, something better and do the important work.”
Far more than the two previous nights, which centered on testimonials to Biden’s character and empathy, the program focused on policy, addressing issues like gun violence, climate change, affordable child care and immigration. In videos, activists promoted Biden’s plans to tackle a warming planet, and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence reminded viewers of his role in crafting the Violence Against Women Act. The American child of a deported undocumented mother begged the president to reunite families torn apart by his immigration policy.
In perhaps the most policy-heavy speech of the evening, Warren, speaking from an early childhood learning center in her home state of Massachusetts, praised Biden’s “real good plans.” She highlighted his proposals to make child care more affordable, to provide universal preschool and to raise wages for child care workers.
Much of the evening was devoted to the power of women in politics. In a week marking the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Pelosi and Clinton, two of the most influential women in politics, wore white in their appearances, in homage to the suffragists. In their remarks, both anointed Harris as a successor of sorts, though they had declined to endorse her or any of the other five women who sought the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet, even as Democrats championed change, they promised to keep fighting for policies to combat sexual assault and domestic violence and to improve access to affordable child care. The prominent airtime given to those issues underscores the influence Democratic women have gained during the Trump era. Women have emerged as the backbone of the party, shattering records for political giving, running for office in unprecedented numbers and overwhelmingly voting for Democrats.
The third night of the Democratic National Convention, conducted virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, was a tribute to the constituencies that have driven the party’s rise during the Trump administration — women, minority voters, and young voters. While Harris was the evening’s main attraction, the program featured remarks from several of the most powerful women in the party, as well as Spanish-language speakers, victims of gun violence and everyday Americans meant to represent marginalized slices of the electorate. Like the previous evenings, the night combined elements of an old-fashioned variety show, a telethon and a political event.
The most unexpected development of the night came from Obama, whose condemnation of Trump was a departure from his first turn on the convention stage, in 2004, when he catapulted to national prominence with a soaring manifesto of hope and national unity. On Wednesday, his message was darker, a reflection of a country changed by crisis and a party desperate to oust an incumbent president. He offered a grim warning about the durability of American democracy.
“This president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism,” Obama said, addressing voters. “They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win.”
Obama has largely held his fire for 3 1/2 years as Trump has gone after him relentlessly with fierce attacks and baseless smears. Obama has largely stayed out of American politics, other than occasionally offering advice and endorsements to Democratic candidates. Many supporters have long wished that he would speak out against Trump; on Wednesday he did, focusing chiefly on the Republican’s approach to the pandemic, leadership and democracy.
He said the effects of the coronavirus crisis had made clear the stakes of stable leadership, and he cited the American deaths from the virus that Trump has rarely acknowledged. He also alluded to some of Trump’s most controversial moments, saying his actions had eroded America’s standing throughout the world.
Obama delivered his remarks from the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in a room with the U.S. Constitution displayed on its walls. The subtext was clear: The core of the nation’s democracy was at stake.
“Do not let them take away your power,” Obama said. “Do not let them take away your democracy.”
The evening opened with a surprise appearance by Harris, who welcomed the audience along with Kerry Washington, the third Hollywood actress to assume emcee duties this week.
In her acceptance speech, Harris, 55, wove her personal story with policies that she said would improve the lives of all Americans “to achieve the future we collectively want.” Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, said her experiences would ensure that the perspective of people long marginalized in America — African Americans, Asian Americans, women, first-generation residents — would have a voice at the highest levels of Biden’s administration.
She said she was committed to “a vision of our nation as a beloved community — where all are welcome, no matter what we look like, where we come from, or who we love.”
While the pandemic denied Harris the typical pomp that awaits any vice-presidential nominee — a clamoring convention audience of thousands — it provided her a controlled setting to reintroduce herself to the American people after her unsuccessful presidential campaign. She was to deliver her remarks from Biden’s home state of Delaware — rather than from Milwaukee, where the convention was initially chosen to take place — and she was introduced by her sister and niece, both of whom played key roles in her primary campaign, and her stepdaughter.
Though voters selected Biden, the former vice president, as their nominee over candidates who made up the most diverse slate ever in a presidential primary race, he has often been cast as a transitional figure, selling himself as an elder statesman who can stabilize a country in crisis and restore a sense of decency to government. Harris, meanwhile, was positioned Wednesday night to represent the diverse electorate that Democrats have long maintained will enshrine them in power, a forward-looking complement to Biden’s steady hand.
Many Democrats have speculated about the possibility of Biden’s serving only one term, and the selection of Harris as his running mate installs her as the leading candidate for 2024 should he choose not to run again.
Clinton made the case for Biden and Harris as a dual package offering policy and empathy, saying they could move the country forward in areas such as housing and health care. She noted that Harris would face attacks as a woman on the national ticket, but added, “I know something about the slings and arrows she’ll face, and believe me, this former district attorney and attorney general can handle them all.”
Making an urgent plea for Americans to turn out for this election, Clinton said: “This can’t be another woulda, coulda, shoulda election. No matter what, vote. Vote like our lives and livelihoods are on the line — because they are.”
On Wednesday, the program offered a diverse lineup of speakers, a majority of whom were women. Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, one of the country’s most vocal advocates for stricter gun laws, delivered a moving plea for curbing gun violence. Other speakers were set to address climate change, immigration and economic policy. An emotional video featuring an undocumented family in North Carolina was filmed entirely in Spanish, with English subtitles.
In a halting speech, Giffords, who has struggled with speaking since being shot in the head at a congressional event in 2011, urged viewers to support Biden.
“Words once came easily, but today I struggle to speak. But I have not lost my voice,” she said in a pretaped video. “We must elect Joe Biden. He was there for me. He’ll be there for you, too.”
Yet Harris was the night’s unquestioned focus, showing signs of the political prowess that once made her a top-tier presidential candidate. During her campaign, she struggled to find a balance between the party’s progressive and moderate wings, and failed to deliver a consistent message on policy. But on Wednesday night, as Biden’s running mate, the most famous faces of the party were making the case for her, including Clinton, the party’s first female nominee, and Obama, the country’s first Black president.
While Democratic activists and political insiders pressured Biden to showcase his commitment to diversity by selecting a Black or Latino running mate, Democratic voters have rarely placed the same importance on representation, even at a moment of rapidly changing national views on race and gender.
During the primary race, many Black voters expressed disenchantment with the idea that racial representation equated to change, and that they should automatically support a candidate who looked like them. But with Harris on the ballot, some Democrats believe that turnout among minority voters may be higher, and that the same voters who overlooked her as a presidential candidate will be inspired by her as a running mate.
But for all the embrace of Harris for symbolizing a new era of Democratic politics, there was little Wednesday night to suggest that her ascension would signal a break from mainstream Democratic orthodoxy. A former prosecutor and California attorney general, she spent the primary campaign oscillating between the party’s moderate and progressive lanes, supporting ideas like the expansive Green New Deal to combat climate change but rejecting left-wing litmus tests such as “Medicare for All” and higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans.
On issues such as racial equality, her proposed solutions mimic the policies of Obama and Clinton, not those of the activists who pushed the Democratic Party leftward in recent years.
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