By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 10, 2020
On Monday night I tuned into CNN to listen to the results of the Democratic caucus that had taken place in Iowa earlier in the day. By one am on Tuesday morning the Iowa Democratic Party (I.D.P.) had issued no results although some of the candidates made their speeches and headed off to New Hampshire to continue their quest to become the Democratic presidential nominee for the 2020 election.
The I.D.P. offered many reasons for its inability to produce the results of the election in a timely fashion. Many candidates hoping to use the result of the caucus to fire up the next leg of their campaign were disappointed. Joe Biden, the favorite in the race and the person who portrayed himself as the candidate best equipped to defeat President Trump, finished in a disappointing fourth place.
Paradoxically, the inability to name a winner that evening benefited Biden, the former vice president, who had the most to lose by not finishing among the top three winners. He was lucky. Katie Glueck, Jonathan Martin and Thomas Kaplan explained: “The slow drip of vote totals in Iowa—and a swirl of other major news events—may blunt the attention of Mr. Biden’s challenges. Iowa is an overwhelmingly white state, while Mr. Biden’s political strength is with black voters, who he is counting on for support in later-voting, more diverse states.”
Although Biden promotes himself as the candidate that is most likely to defeat Trump, he was unsuccessful in his previous quests (1984, 1988 and 2008) to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Barack Obama rescued Biden’s political career when he chose him as his vice president.
Biden has always been too early or too late in his quest for the presidency. He has also said some unfortunate things and taken some controversial positions that offended many of his constituents. Now, he argues that he should be given his party’s nomination because of the length of time he has served as a senator and vice president. I am not sure this approach is sufficient to warrant his nomination.
In 1836 Richard M. Johnson was Martin Van Buren’s running mate in the presidential election. Van Buren won the election with 170 electoral votes. Virginia rejected Johnson and the state’s 23 electoral votes went to William Smith of Alabama. Johnson needed 148 electoral votes to become the VP but only received 147, one less than the number required to elect him to that position.
What was Johnson’s sin?
He fathered two children with Julia Chinn, a mixed-race woman. The U.S. Telegraph proclaimed that no American would place “in the chair of the Vice Presidency a man who has for more than twenty years lived in open connection with a negro slave—who has recognized her offspring as his children, educated them, and endeavored to force them upon society, as in all respects equal to those of his free white neighbors, and now boasts that his black or yellow daughters, are as accomplished girls as any in the immediate vicinity.”
The Senate using its powers under the Twelfth Amendment selected Johnson. This led to “the dubious distinction of his being the only vice-president elected, not by the electoral college, but by the Senate of the United States” (Robert Bolt, “Vice President Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.”
Things have changed. Now that the white voters of Iowa have deserted Biden, he needs the black vote to be successful which makes him particularly concerned with what black voters do in South Carolina and other states.
Can Biden convince black voters that he is worthy of their support? Can he come up with a program that attacks the persistent inequality and discrimination under which African-Americans find themselves? Can he close the increasing wealth gap between black and white America?
Obama elevated Biden to the vice presidency and allowed him to partially achieve his presidential ambitions. Biden thanked Obama for his confidence in him. There is no doubt that Biden’s presence on the presidential ballot contributed to Obama’s election.
Biden needs the black vote and the Obama’s connection to see him through. But will these connections be enough to see Biden through? Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor of Princeton University argues that blacks supported Obama in spite of his troubling record with regards to black people.
She writes: “Mr. Biden continues to frame his own candidacy as an extension of the Obama administration. It’s unclear what that means. Will it be a continuation of Obama’s financial policies that benefited the richest Americans….Or, his dreadful immigration policies?…Will it be the same kind of reluctance to take on issues of racial inequality for fear of being pigeonholed as beholden to black interests?”
Unless Biden can answer these questions in a forthright manner, the black vote may not save him. The Senate saved Johnson even though he had a black mistress. Given how the Republicans pummeled Biden in the Senate last week, one wonders if he can survive the negative publicity that has dogged him from that quarter.
Let’s hope he can up his game and come up with an inspiring program and a message that inspire black people. Trump, it seems, is trying to cut into the black vote. It will neither be a free pass for Biden nor any other Democrat who is nominated to run against Trump.
The Senate saved Vice President Johnson in 1837. African Americans may come through for Biden in the forthcoming caucuses and primaries. If Biden is unsuccessful this time around I wonder if history will record that the Senate and the black vote as being responsible for his failure.