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Column: Ignore Trump’s warnings — Biden and Harris are no radicals

Kamala Harris and husband Douglas Emhoff, right, greet Joe and Jill Biden at an appearance in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12.
Kamala Harris and husband Douglas Emhoff, right, greet Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden after the first public appearance of the running mates in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 12.
(Associated Press)

The Democratic National Convention won’t open until Monday, but we’ve already seen a preview of its main themes: the mostly moderate messages delivered by Joe Biden and his newly minted running mate, Kamala Harris.

Remember the left-leaning priorities that dominated the Democratic primaries — “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, socking millionaires and billionaires with higher taxes?

You won’t hear those fiery phrases from Biden or Harris when they give their acceptance speeches. If their first few days together are any guide, they will focus on less ideological, more pragmatic goals: turning President Trump out of office and getting the coronavirus under control.

Biden will rally allies and set a new tone, yet underneath, his China policy may look closer to Trump’s than to Obama’s a decade ago.

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“We just need a president and a vice president willing to lead and take responsibility,” Biden said when he introduced Harris, the junior senator from California, as his running mate at a high school gym in Wilmington, Del. “Not, as this president says, ‘It’s not my fault.’”

They offered a list of old-fashioned Democratic goals: “good-paying jobs,” emergency aid for the unemployed, action on climate change, and building on the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare.

These are bread-and-butter issues for Democrats. But the agenda almost is secondary in a race against a president whose bungling has led to the highest number of pandemic deaths in the world, and the worst unemployment since the Great Depression.

The Democrats’ slogan might as well be the one Ronald Reagan used in 1980, when he made Jimmy Carter a one-term president: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

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Going after Trump’s dismal record is smart politics. Anytime a president runs for reelection, the election becomes a referendum on his performance.

Focusing on Trump also solves a problem Biden has faced all year: His supporters aren’t very enthusiastic about him. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that most Biden voters say he’s their choice simply because he’s “not Trump.”

None of this should be surprising. Biden was arguably the most moderate of the major candidates in the early Democratic primaries.

The surprise is that progressive firebrands have lined up to provide full-throated endorsements at the convention: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who lost to Biden in the primaries, will give prime-time speeches. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a first-term House member with a national profile, will appear on a 60-second video.

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One reason is that the party platform, the document that lays out the Democrats’ 2020 agenda and aspirations, will look a lot more radical than Biden and Harris will sound at the lectern.

To unify the party that fractured badly in 2016, Biden and Sanders set up joint task forces to seek agreement on major issues including climate change and healthcare.

The cooperation worked. Biden endorsed climate goals that came close to the Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez had championed: eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and zeroing-out net greenhouse gas emissions across the entire economy by 2050.

On healthcare, he agreed to consider expanding the benefits and lowering the costs of the public health insurance program he wants to add to Obamacare, and to limit the role of private health insurance companies.

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That doesn’t go as far as Sanders’ Medicare-for-all proposal, which would have eliminated private insurance, but it’s close to what Harris was proposing before she pulled the plug on her presidential campaign last year.

So while the nominees-in-waiting are singing a moderate theme song, they’re adopting much of the progressive agenda — at least for now. Party platforms often last no longer than the balloons and confetti that traditionally drop on the convention’s last night.

Biden wasn’t the progressives’ first choice when the campaign began — far from it. Harris wasn’t their first choice for vice president, either.

But they’re both practical politicians, and they’ve both followed their party’s base to the left — not as far left as Warren or Sanders, but far enough to keep progressive leaders on board.

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And Trump is the glue that holds Democrats together.

“We will all enthusiastically support Biden-Harris to beat Trump-Pence; there is no comparison,” said Larry Cohen, chairman of Our Revolution, the Sanders campaign’s ongoing political organization.

So far, the strategy is working. It’s not only given Democrats a jolt of energy and a moment of unity; it has confused the president’s attempts to attack.

Hours after Biden picked Harris, Trump complained that her grilling of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh at his Senate confirmation hearing was “extraordinarily nasty.” Also, she was “nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing.” And “the meanest” and “the most horrible.”

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In other words, she was tough.

Two days later, Trump tried to smear Harris. At a White House news conference, he questioned whether Harris, who was born in Oakland to immigrant parents, is a “natural born citizen,” as the Constitution requires for the president and vice president.

“I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump told reporters. “I’ll take a look.”

He needn’t bother. Every reputable constitutional law expert says she qualifies as a natural-born citizen under the 14th Amendment and a Supreme Court decision from 1898.

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The last candidate Trump hit with a “birther” charge was Barack Obama, who won two presidential elections despite Trump’s efforts to stoke conspiracy theories.

If that’s the best Trump’s got, the Democrats’ path to the White House may be easier than expected.


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