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OP-ED: The future against the past

  • Published at 07:24 pm October 7th, 2020

Meet the US vice presidential candidates

The saga of the American election and the dying days of the Trump presidency continue, as the question of Trump’s health dominates the news. This column will not take up that circus.

An overview of the election status reveals Biden is getting stronger nationally but losing support in some of the battleground states.  However, although support for Biden may be declining, he is generally in the lead in most battleground states. The most recent polls have Trump ahead in only three battleground states -- Texas, Ohio, and Iowa. All three states were expected to be in Trump’s camp. 

Overall, Biden seems stronger and stronger. Trump’s erratic behaviour is linked to his knowledge that he is going to lose the election.

Senior citizens

One obvious comment about the two persons is that their principles are quite old. Biden, who is 77 (78 on November 20), would be one of the oldest presidents and is subject to all the hazards of old age -- decline of both physical and mental facilities. Trump is 74 but has now been infected by Covid-19 -- that often has serious consequences, both physical and mental.  

Biden is almost certainly too old for a second term, so Harris will be perceived as the potential Democratic candidate in 2024 if Biden wins. Trump, if he wins, will complete his second term in 2024 and not be eligible to compete. If he loses next month, he may try to run again in 2024 but it is doubtful that the Republicans will have him.  Will Pence be selected by the Republicans?  

Most of us are not so familiar with the candidates for vice president, so in this column I will say some words about each of these two persons.

A conservative who found Jesus

Vice President Pence is a man from Indiana; he was born there in 1959, went to school there (Hanover College, ranked 102 among US Liberal Colleges; University of Indiana Law School ranked 29th among American Law Schools), and worked there before being elected to Congress.  

After representing Indiana in the House of Representatives for 12 years (2000-2012), he was elected governor. In 2016, he was elected vice president when Trump won the national election.

Pence is a very conservative man. He was raised as Catholic by his businessman father and homemaker mother in a family with five siblings. From his boyhood, he aspired to political office and was quite successful in school-level elections. He became increasingly evangelical and in 1978 “gave his life to Jesus.”  

He remained somewhere between his Catholicism and his evangelical conversion. He also shifted from the Democratic views of his family to conservative Republican beliefs; apparently some of this from an influential college professor. In college, he was a talented public speaker and competed in and did well in national competitions.

Prior to being elected to Congress, Pence tried his hand twice at being elected to the House of Representatives, but lost on both occasions. His use of negative attacks backfired, and he wrote that he would not use such methods again, and he kept to that pledge through all of his elections up to 2016.  

After practising law for four years, he became a radio show host until he was elected to Congress in 2000. During these formative years, he got married and had a family. He developed his conservative views on social issues with strong opposition to abortion, consistent with both the Catholic and the evangelical sides of his religious beliefs. 

As acceptance of homosexual behaviour grew in the United States, he opposed accepting this as legitimate. He developed anti-labour beliefs and supported lower taxes. He opposed policies that aimed at improving the environment and opposed all policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.  

These policy positions continued as he went to Congress, where he was part of the conservative Tea Party group, and then when he became governor. During his period in Congress, he was an important organizer of the Republican members but made no legislative contributions.  

As governor of Indiana, he pursued his policy objectives using certain powers at his disposal. He had close connections with the Koch brothers who were financing part of the policy agenda of the right-wing Republicans. (This was largely directed towards lowering taxes on the rich and preventing actions to restrict use of oil and gas.)

An Indian mother and a Jamaican father

Kamala Harris could hardly be more different. She was born in Berkeley, California. Her mother was an Indian from Tamil Nadu and her father was from Jamaica. Both had come to Berkeley to study for their PhDs. Kamala’s mother was an endocrinologist who went on to make significant contributions to the biochemistry of breast cancer.  

Kamala’s father was an economist who had a distinguished career at Stanford. Only in America could two talented people from different ends of the world meet, in the midst of the social revolution going on at Berkeley, get married, finish their PhDs, find paths forward, have children, and then divorce.  

Kamala was born the same year as her mother finished her PhD (her dad took a couple more years). A younger sister came along. The two girls and their mother went to Canada where the mother was hired to do research. Kamala completed secondary school there and then attended Howard University in Washington DC (ranked 80th among American national universities).   

Upon graduation, she attended the Hastings Law School, part of the University of California system (ranked 48th among US law schools.) 

She joined the district attorney’s office in a county in the East Bay across from San Francisco. Later, she shifted to the DA’s office in San Francisco. In 2000, she quarrelled with the district attorney, resigned, and went to work for the office of the mayor of San Francisco; in 2004 she ran for the position of district attorney of San Francisco, challenging her former boss and defeating him.  

She then led the office of the district attorney in the complex problems of life in a large multi-cultural American city. 

In 2011, she was elected attorney general of California. Her record is remarkable.  She focused on the abuse of banks and mortgage companies cheating people in the great financial collapse. 

She worked hard to reduce corruption, to deal with the gangs and drugs linked to Mexico. She worked to protect LGBT rights, to improve technical support for the police, and on environmental issues. Her performance as attorney general was remarkable, and she won widespread recognition for her work.

In 2016, Kamala Harris ran for the Senate and was easily elected. In the Senate, she learned how to work on legislation. She has been working with Republican senators on a number of bills largely related to legal issues, on which there was some basis for agreement.  

She is most famous for the intense questioning of administration officials. It is clear that she works hard and is well prepared and her years of court experience cause much misery among officials of the Trump administration.

At two ends

Pence has a problem with questions regarding what the Republicans want to do. There is no platform, so when it comes to economics or the pandemic, Pence is without much to say, except what a great job we have done.  

Harris has a program as defined in Biden’s program. This may result in the main interesting areas of social norms. Abortion, same sex marriage, the right of a human being to choose their gender, controlling the social media, reducing police brutality -- these are areas where the two debaters can go at each other.

Another area is science, where Pence is absurd, rejecting evolution or even worse, believing in the simultaneous creation by God of all different species; or in his denial of global warming. Koch’s money holds all conservative Republicans to wacky scientific propositions.

These two people coming to a debate is a remarkable expression of a society that is truly free. Pence is a man of the past. He has little grasp of the world as it is. He was raised and worked in small town America.   

To be a successful politician, he has to take the positions that he does. I think his faith is genuine, but he has no deep knowledge of the problems facing the United States. He seems a very decent man who has led a clean life and followed the rules as he has seen and learned them. But he does not grasp what America is now.

A woman of the future

Harris is a woman of the future. Her life experience draws on the complicated position of new Americans, the children of recent immigrants. She has a deep knowledge of the reality of American society.  

There is no small hometown to return to. She is the future because the future is the large urban environment, the challenges of drugs and corruption, environmental challenges, and managing the privacy challenges of the great tech companies.

The United States has set out to develop a multicultural society. I do not know if that is possible. Pence stands for going backward in time. Harris going forward; she may lead the United States into a failed state where the technical issues, issues of equality of treatment, and openness of spirit, cannot be achieved.  

But if this American society is going to work, it will be through leaders like Harris.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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