Talking Points

Why birtherism won't go away

In a slightly different universe, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) would be America's vice president right now instead of Kamala Harris. A new book reports that it almost happened, except that Joe Biden was worried about having to spend the campaign against Donald Trump fighting "birther" accusations. 

As Barack Obama's vice president, Biden saw up close how Trump rose to political prominence using false accusations that America's first Black president wasn't really American. And he reportedly determined that Duckworth — an American citizen and war hero born in Thailand to a Thai mother and American father — was just too politically risky to join his campaign. 

"The senator got the sense that Biden felt bad about the message he was conveying to her," The New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander say in their new book. "His campaign was about to engage in a preemptive surrender to the most vicious of Donald Trump's political tactics — to a version of the same lie that had made Trump a celebrity folk hero to the paranoid right."

That didn't work out well as Biden might have hoped. 

After Biden announced Harris as his vice presidential pick in August 2020, Donald Trump's first response was to suggest she wasn't quite American, either. That was wrong: Harris was born in Oakland, California, to immigrant parents, and met the Constitution's requirements that the president and vice president be "natural-born" citizens. Trump — a natural-born liar — didn't care.

"I just heard it today that she doesn't meet the requirements," Trump said, "and by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer."

"The lawyer" was John Eastman — the conservative attorney who would go on to gain notoriety with his proposal to have then-Vice President Mike Pence reject Joe Biden's electors on Jan. 6 and throw the 2020 election to the House of Representatives to crown Trump the victor. (Pence wisely rejected Eastman's counsel.) Before that, though, he wrote a Newsweek opinion piece suggesting that Harris didn't meet the citizenship requirements.

Concerns "about divided allegiance that led our nation's Founders to include the 'natural-born citizen' requirement for the office of president and commander-in-chief remain important," Eastman wrote. Newsweek soon apologized, saying the piece was being "used by some as a tool to perpetuate racism and xenophobia."

But the legal argument was never the entire point. Trump's birther accusations — against both Obama and Harris — suggested his Democratic opponents as foreign to America in spirit, if not in constitutional truth. It's not a coincidence he used the slur against the only two candidates of color ever to share a major party's presidential ticket. 

So yes: Duckworth would've faced birther accusations from Republicans. So, probably, will any Dem candidate of color who joins the party's presidential ticket in the foreseeable future. There's no advantage in ducking it. Tammy Duckworth might've made a great vice president. Too bad we didn't get to find out.