This week, after the most sedate US presidential campaign in recent memory, due to coronavirus, the 2020 election race suddenly got interesting.
On Wednesday, hordes of media representatives and Democrat supporters descended on the small state of Delaware to witness what is likely to be the most consequential political decision of Joe Biden's long career. A day earlier, Biden had named Kamala Harris, a daughter of immigrants and member of the US Senate, as his running mate in November's election as he seeks to unseat Donald Trump.
Hours before their first appearance together at a suburban Delaware high school, supporters were showing up, undeterred by the fact that they would be unable to witness in person this moment of history because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“I just felt I wanted to be here,” said Pam, a retired African-American woman who had driven north from Maryland. “They’re the perfect ticket. I have always admired Joe. And Kamala – her intelligence, her experience. She is willing to grow, to do, to help the ordinary person.”
That Joe Biden chose to hold one of the key moments of his presidential campaign in Delaware is not surprising.
Though born in an Irish-American household in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a connection that his critics say he overplays at every opportunity to demonstrate his homely, man-of-the people, persona – the small state of Delaware, half way between New York and Washington DC, has been his home for more than six decades.
Offaly's Barack Obama Plaza notwithstanding, few other politicians have a motorway service station named after them. Biden does – the Biden Welcome Center is a recognisable stop-off on the busy I-95 freeway that tracks the east coast.
Biden’s secluded lakeside home, surrounded by satellite trucks and media vans this week, is just a few miles away from the high school where Wednesday’s event took place. So too is St Joseph of the Brandywine’s cemetery, the resting place of his son Beau who died in 2015 of brain cancer at the age of 46.
Joe Biden’s life story is one of professional triumphs and personal tragedies. In 1972, a week after he was elected to the Senate for the first time at the age of 29, his wife and 13-month daughter were killed in a car crash. His two young sons, Beau and Hunter, survived but spent weeks in hospital. Biden was sworn-in as senator at the hospital bed of one of his sons. He then began the daily commute from Delaware to Washington DC by train to make sure he was always there to give them breakfast.
Over the next 40 years, Biden carved a career as a Washington insider as he rose up the ranks of the Senate. He developed a reputation as a bridge-builder, an east coast Democrat who once worked as the only white lifeguard in a predominantly African-American pool, but who could work with arch-conservative Republicans across the aisle.
But the choice of Biden proved politically astute – adding a generational weight to the experience-lite Obama ticket
But this bipartisanship brought its own questions – most notably his willingness to work with known segregationists in the Senate.
As chair of the senate judiciary committee in the early 1990s he oversaw the Anita Hill hearing, established to investigate allegations of sexual assault brought by Hill, a young African-American government employee, against supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas.
His handling of the episode would come under fresh scrutiny almost 30 years later during the 2020 campaign at the height of the #MeToo movement. So too would his support for the 1994 crime Bill signed by then president Bill Clinton that led to a steep rise in the incarceration rates for black men.
The decision by the young senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, to select Biden as his running mate in 2008 surprised many. Biden, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had helped introduce the young Obama to the workings of the upper chamber when he was elected in 2004.
But the choice of Biden proved politically astute – adding a generational weight to the experience-lite Obama ticket. “I want someone with gray in his hair,” he reportedly told confidantes. Though temperamentally very different – the loquacious and gaffe-prone Biden contrasted with the reserved, almost austere Obama – they developed a strong working relationship.
Twelve years later, Biden has now been faced with the same choice as Barack Obama – who to pick as his own vice-presidential candidate as he seeks to dislodge Donald Trump from the White House.
After a months-long selection process, involving teams of lawyers vetting and interviewing almost a dozen woman, Biden named Kamala Harris, a 55-year-old senator from California, this week.
The choice was paradoxically the least surprising, and the most radical.
Harris, a highly accomplished prosecutor who has impressed through her forensic questioning of Trump officials and US supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh in her role as senator, was always the most likely choice. She has been the front-runner since ending her own presidential bid last December, a campaign that now appears to have been well-conceived given that it dramatically raised her national profile.
But the fact that Biden has chosen the first black and Indian-American vice-presidential candidate of any political party without much fuss suggests how far the US has come in terms of what it expects from its political figures.
Civil rights marches
Harris was raised in Berkeley, California. Her mother, a PhD student from India, met her father, a Jamaican-born academic, during the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
Harris and her younger sister attended services at a black Baptist church and a Hindu temple when they were growing up, with Harris choosing to attend the historically-black institution of Howard University in Washington DC. After law school back in California, she embarked on a successful career as a prosecutor, serving as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California.
In 2013 she met her husband, Doug Emhoff, on a blind date. The pair married a year later and she is stepmother to his two children.
In her first public appearance with Biden at the Greenville high school this week, a beaming Harris gave some hints of how she intends to campaign over the next 80 days, as she delivered a commanding and comprehensive speech. She took on Trump directly – as a former prosecutor, she said, the case against Trump and Pence is “open and shut” – and she outlined her commitment to racial justice, climate change, as well as plans to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Harris also spoke in moving terms about her friendship with Biden’s late son Beau. Both served as state attorneys general at the same time, and Biden himself has said that Beau’s respect for Harris was one of the reasons he chose her, despite Harris’s well-publicised attack on the former vice-president’s record on race relations during the first Democratic debate.
Like Biden, Harris is a moderate progressive, much more to the centre than many in the party would like
That Biden chose a candidate so evidently symbolising generational change, as well as representing a different gender and race, suggests he is aware of his own limitations as a candidate. It has also raised some Democratic hopes that he is resurrecting the winning Obama-Biden combination of 2008 and 2012.
But like Obama's choice of Biden, the double-act is about more than identity politics. Just as Biden shared many of Obama's political policies and instincts, Harris is similarly a centrist candidate. Like Biden, Harris is a moderate progressive, much more to the centre than many in the party would like. While Harris's record as a prosecutor is likely to come under scrutiny from those who believe she was too reticent to investigate police misconduct, for the most part the left wing of the Democratic Party has rowed in behind her and Biden.
Unlike the 2016 Democratic campaign when the infighting between the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps continued right up to the convention, next week's largely virtual convention will see left-wing stalwarts of the party such as Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deliver prime-time speeches, as the Democratic Party tries to show a united front.
Such is the effect of the Trump presidency, that the imperative to remove Trump is overriding any real attempt to debate or scrutinise the direction of the Democratic Party at this moment, though that conversation will ultimately return.
As for the Trump campaign, the president has lost no time in denigrating Harris as “nasty” “angry” and a “mad woman”.
“She’s very bad on facts. She is very weak on facts,” he said this week about the one-time federal prosecutor.
Trump and his daughter Ivanka in fact donated to Harris’s campaign for attorney general between 2011 and 2014. A spokeswoman said this week that the former developer and reality TV host donated to candidates across the political aisle at that time.
With Harris due to hit the campaign trail in the coming weeks, following next week’s national convention when she will officially accept the nomination along with Biden, the Trump campaign now has a new force to reckon with.
Given the broadly unsuccessful attempts to smear Harris this week, it is evident that the Trump campaign has a battle on its hands as its confronts the challenge of a Biden-Harris ticket.