Optimism with Action Makes It Happen: An Interview with Sen. Fred Harris

by | Nov 30, 2023 | Feature, Newsletters

By Senator Fred Harris as told to June Anglin, DPSC

On September 5, the Washington Post quoted a Wall Street Journal poll finding, “too old to run for president captures Joe Biden at least ‘somewhat well.’” President Joe Biden and his likely opponent in 2024, former president Trump, are both old. Either would be the oldest president ever elected. But the conservative press does not sigh and moan about Trump’s age. Maybe that’s because he never made sense and we are used to it. We know he cannot form a sentence or ride a bike, and yet somehow, we are not impressed that Joe Biden can do both with ease. Many societies respect the aged. We would benefit from more focus on Biden’s amazing legislative accomplishments, the respect he receives on the world stage as he flies in and out of war zones, and his clear support for democracy and freedom at home and abroad. These are realities and they merit much more attention. The fact is, no fifty-year-old has experienced being 80. They do not know whether wisdom and experience are more valuable than youthful energy. But at age 93, former Oklahoma U.S. Senator Fred Harris does have the wisdom and experience to know, and he tells us here.

Former DPNM Chair Marg Elliston, President Joe Biden, and former Senator Fred Harris during the President’s August visit to Albuquerque.

Does Joe Biden’s age prevent him from being an effective candidate for reelection as President of the United States?

Of course not.

First, we need to understand that perfect candidates don’t run for office. If they did, I would never have been elected. And as Joe Biden says, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.”

Second, people live longer than they used to, and people age differently from one another. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and my share-cropper/cowboy dad all died in their 60s. All of them had unhealthy lifestyles; all were, early and late, lifetime smokers, for example. Joe Biden neither drinks nor smokes and he’s been, and is, a lifetime fitness enthusiast. Early in life, he worked heroically to overcome the stuttering handicap he was born with and the vestiges of which sometimes unfortunately cause him to make minor mistakes when he’s tired or when he reads or talks fast as stutterers are taught to do.

I’ve known Joe Biden since I first campaigned for him when he was a 29 year-old U.S. Senate candidate. I’ve seen him regularly, and I saw him again just this last August.

Is he still the same old Joe?  

He is better: wiser, more experienced, and more optimistic. And he is fit and sharp.

As Franklin Foer’s recent book about President Biden,The Last Politician, details, Biden has the remarkable ability to work well with others, bipartisanly, to get things done—like a Franklin Roosevelt or a Lyndon Johnson—and at the same time he has the healthy lifestyle, and seems to have the longer life expectancy, of a Jimmy Carter.

The polls are not showing a high approval rating for Biden. Should we be alarmed?

Alarmed, no. But concerned enough to do something about it. Given the great polarization in the country, this presidential election is going to be a tight one. But I agree with life-long, regular-Republican New York Times columnist David Brooks who recently wrote after some year-ahead-of-time bad polls were published, “Democrats: You Can Chill Out Now! Americans increasingly use polls to vent, not to vote.”

Brooks quotes progressive political strategist Michael Podhorzer who maintains that “a lot of today’s negativity is not a reflection on particular politicians, but a broad and intense dissatisfaction with our governing institutions and political parties. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had periods of low poll numbers but still won reelection when voters had to make an actual decision.”

David Brooks writes: “Dull but effective government can win, and circus politics is failing. . . . It’s better to ask the simple question: Do I think Joe Biden is doing a good job? I look around and conclude that he is.” When it comes time for them to make an actual presidential choice, I am certain that the majority of American voters will conclude the same thing.

At the time he was running for reelection, President Barack Obama was just as down in the polls as President Biden is now. But led by the great Obama reelection campaign manager, Jim Messina, the Obama people did not give in to negative polls or negative talk. They went to work as never before—to register and turn out their voters. And as Messina recently wrote in Politico, “There’s No Need to Panic Over Biden. Don’t sweat the doom and gloom polling. We’ve been here before”—when, for example, the New York Times Magazine had Obama’s approval rating at 17 percent, a year before he was reelected to a second term.

There is no percentage in pessimism. And optimism without action is dreaming. But optimism with action makes it happen. What’s the Biden campaign doing and planning? First, they’re raising more money than Trump (and they don’t have to spend any of it to defend Biden against 91 felony charges).They are, instead, this year already spending a lot of money on television to make clear to voters that this is a choice election—a choice between Biden’s great accomplishments and plans for improving the lives of average Americans and the Trump campaign based on grievance and revenge. Then, next year, the Biden campaign will push all the chips in to fund an unprecedentedly huge ground game—registering and getting out the Biden vote—with special emphasis on key swing states.

What can we individually do as Democrats? We can realize that each of us can be an opinion leader. We can make or reinforce other opinion leaders. All we need is an opinion plus the nerve to express it: “I know all about Joe Biden. He is the best person in this race. I’m for him and he’s going to win.” Opinion leaders can make this come to pass. And each of us can be an opinion leader!

Is America’s Democracy in Danger?

Yes, for sure. We know that from the Trump-led January 6 insurrection and attack on the nation’s Capitol, which were part of his organized and unconstitutional attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election, as well as his vigorous and brazen, dictator-admiring endorsements of and efforts toward every type of authoritarianism and every possible kind of assault on our country’s democratic institutions.

In the 2024 presidential election, Americans are for the first time since 1787, and for all time, going to have to answer the question: are we for democracy or not. That’s the view of conservative Times columnist David French. And he’s right. That is exactly the question.

And that’s an encouraging thought. People know where Trump stands on that question. Nor will it be hard to remind them of it. If Trump continues to be Trump, which we can pretty much count on, he himself will remind them every day.

And Americans know, too, that democracy—its protection, preservation, and expansion—is the central reason Joe Biden ran for president in 2020 and it’s why he’s now running for reelection. All recent polls and elections show that Americans know democracy is a central issue in the upcoming presidential election. All polls show it is a winning issue for President Biden and the Democrats (just as the abortion issue is). In 2024, democracy will be a winning issue for America.

Senator Harris has a book in progress: Report from a Last Survivor. It is a memoir of his years in the U.S. Senate, where he was seat mates with Walter Mondale, Robert F. Kennedy, and Joseph Tydings. In addition to being the lone survivor of his seat mates, Senator Harris is now the senior former U.S. Senator; the senior former national chair of the Democratic Party; and the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission, the Presidential Commission formed to investigate the causes of the civil disorders in the 1960’s. We are looking forward to the history and humor in this memoir, which will be published in 2024. Fred Harris was born in 1930 in Walters, Oklahoma. At 25, Harris was the youngest State Senator in Oklahoma history. In 1964, Harris won a U.S. Senate seat for Oklahoma. While in the U.S. Senate, Harris was a driving force for the return of 48,000 acres of sacred “Blue Lake” lands to the Taos Pueblo. As Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1969 and 1970, Harris led reform to bring full representation of women, people of color, and young people into the Party. In 1976, Harris sought the Democratic nomination for the presidency as part of his work for economic democracy in the United States.[/box]



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