Photo Courtesy of WSJ Opinion

The US presidential election is due in November this year. For people in Sri Lanka, as in much of the globe, that would be among the most relevant political events of the year. In the case of the Republicans, the choice of the team was largely a formality, since President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were already in place and there was no strong pressure to replace either of them. The personality of President Trump will dominate the Republican election strategy as well as the character of the prospective Republican presidency. In the case of the Democratic team, Joe Biden was selected to run for President. As a former Vice President, his claims eventually were proved to be irresistible, although many would have preferred Bernie Sanders, a declared socialist, who came close to creating a sensational and unprecedented upset. In turn, Biden chose Kamala Devi Harris as his running mate. It appears that he was looking for a woman of colour as his running mate so as to attract support from sections of the electorate that otherwise may not vote for him. Before I discuss the democratic team, I would like to refer to the 1959 presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to illustrate the importance of correctly selecting the running mate.

Superficially, it may appear logical for a Presidential candidate to choose a like-minded running mate but Kennedy did almost the exact opposite, and it turned out to be an excellent choice. Kennedy was severely handicapped in that he was a Roman Catholic, and unpopular on that issue in a country then dominated by far-right Protestant Christian fundamentalists. He had also Civil Rights objectives that made him unpopular in many southern states. It appeared that Kennedy would lose unless he could get a running mate capable of bringing about an upset. It was in this context that he chose Lyndon Johnson, although he and Kennedy disliked each other personally and were fundamentally different in their politic.

Kennedy had already the outlines of a Civil Rights Act which did not appear to be acceptable to many in the House or Senate or voters in the South. Kennedy chose a running mate whose political record and support base were almost diametrically opposite to his own. Lyndon Johnson was from Texas, in the deep South, and had voted against every item of civil-rights legislation that came up during his tenure as a congressman. He was also a wily politician and strategist, skilled in negotiating the support of political opponents for legislation that he was keen on, in exchange for his support for measures that his political opponents were keen on. John F. Kennedy did not have a history of employing such expertise in political strategy. In any event, his political base was restricted and his electoral prospects seemed to be very dim. But his choice of Lyndon Johnson as a running mate proved to be brilliant, and they won.

However, Kennedy could not complete even his first term. He was assassinated in very suspicious circumstances in Dallas on a state visit to Texas. The assassination took place before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Kennedy was expected to make far-reaching foreign policy decisions unacceptable to many higher up in the administration. His intensely ambitious Vice President Lyndon Johnson got himself sworn in as President on the flight back from Dallas to Washington. Johnson knew that he was deeply disliked and distrusted by many in the Kennedy team. To overcome that disability, he decided on a compromise. As the new President, he would faithfully promote all the civil-rights issues and the expressed domestic policy of the Kennedy administration. With regard to foreign policy, he would pursue his objectives even more vigorously than Kennedy would have. Particularly in relation to the war in Vietnam, which was already very cruel, he would escalate it to secure an early win. Both to reduce the casualties of US troops and also to maximize the damage to the Vietnamese people and their land, it was increasingly conducted by use of the air force.

This was perhaps the cruelest war in history, relying heavily on chemical warfare and on cluster bombs which scattered a large number of small objects that would particularly tempt children to pick them up. These would burst upon being picked up, killing or deeply injuring everyone around. The chemical bombs would cause the people and the land much permanent damage. A dramatic picture, circulated around the globe and which eventually helped to increase opposition to the war even within the USA, was of a little girl in flames, a victim of a chemical bomb, screaming and running. The war was particularly unpopular with US students who were motivated to oppose the war both on account of the cruelty imposed on the Vietnamese people and also the fear of being drafted to participate in a war in which there were increasing casualties for both sides. Groups of anti-war protestors would line up opposite the US president’s office and shout “LBJ! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed as drafted by the Kennedy team without amendment, which, arguably, could not have been done if Kennedy was still the President. There was severe opposition to many of the clauses in that Act from Southern whites and Kennedy may have compromised by dropping or changing some of the clauses. Johnson went further, drafted a Voting Rights Act, and got it passed in 1965. This again, might not have been possible if Kennedy was the President. Johnson justifiably claimed that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was his crowning legislative achievement. Until then, in many Southern states, Blacks were successfully prevented from voting, through one maneuver or another. Thus, Johnson carried out Kennedy’s domestic agenda even more efficiently than what Kennedy would have done.

Johnson was keen on re-election and would surely have won a second term if he had brought the war to a close by any means, even if it was seen as a loss to the USA. But he was too proud to do so, and when a successful end to the war eluded him, he reluctantly opted against standing for re-election. He abandoned seeking a second term and retired to his ranch in Texas in January 1968.

The political situation now bears some similarity to what it was in 1959. Trump is a wily campaigner and difficult to defeat. The democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, is not an aggressive campaigner and has many weaknesses that could handicap him in the presidential campaign. This was surely the major factor in his selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate. Whether or not it was a good choice will be borne out during the presidential election in early November this year. In part 2, I will focus mainly on the choice of running mate in the Democratic team in the presidential election due in November 2020.