After months of speculation, Joe Biden last week announced that Kamala Harris will be his vice-presidential running mate to tackle the Trump-Pence ticket in November.
Once a favourite to win the Democratic nomination in her own right, Harris rose to national prominence after the first debate of the primary, where she delivered a scathing rebuke of Biden’s position on school bussing early in his Senate tenure. Yet, in a crowded field, Harris failed to stand out.
With Biden dominating the moderate lane, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar emerged to seize any remaining oxygen in this wing of the party. To the left, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren jockeyed for ascendancy among liberals.
With competition from all sides, Harris failed to gain traction, and her once-promising campaign fizzled out in December.
But withdrawing from a presidential contest early has one major upside – Harris didn’t compete with Biden for votes once balloting began in the Democratic primary, meaning she could endorse his candidacy as it gained momentum.
By consequence, Harris has long been the favourite to accompany Biden on the presidential ballot, not least after Biden’s commitment to select a female running mate at the final debate of the primary season.
And selected she was.
Picking a favourite may not, in some ways, seem notable, yet Biden’s choice is historic in several ways. Harris is the first African-American woman and the first Indian-American to be on a major party ticket.
Importantly, she’s the third woman to be a vice-presidential nominee, but the first with a realistic chance to ascend to the office in January.
Breaking the male lock on the White House
Neither Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 nor Sarah Palin in 2008 were ever likely to win the vice-presidency. It may sound cynical, but the selections of Ferraro and Palin (perhaps the latter to a greater extent) were designed as “Hail Mary” plays – desperate efforts to swing a flailing campaign’s fortunes.
In 1984, Walter Mondale was certain to be a distant runner-up to incumbent President Ronald Reagan even before his choice of Ferraro as his running mate. According to Gallup polling, Mondale’s candidacy leapt five points (from 38% to 43%) after he selected Ferraro, yet the Reagan juggernaut rolled to victory in November, winning 49 of 50 states.
Twenty-four years later, Barack Obama seemed destined for the Oval Office after defeating Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. With the unpopular incumbent George W. Bush a liability to John McCain’s campaign, tapping Palin – the untested and largely unknown Governor of Alaska – for VP was a desperate move to slow Obama’s momentum. Despite McCain leading a few polls in early September, Obama cruised to strong victory.
Although there were likely elements of tokenism in both choices, each broke ground in their respective parties, paving the way for female candidates of the future. Indeed, prior to the Mondale-Ferraro ticket in 1984, the extent of demographic considerations was whether the US electorate could stomach their white male nominee being Catholic.
Today’s Democratic Party, which prides itself on racial diversity and the championing of women, has selected the most diverse major-party ticket in US history – a Catholic paired with a woman of colour.
Beyond the personalities, the Biden-Harris ticket is well-positioned for victory in November. Although far from a certainty, incumbent President Donald Trump’s low popularity and “handling” of the COVID-19 pandemic boosts Democratic hopes of reclaiming the White House. At present, statisticians are forecasting Trump to be the first incumbent president to lose re-election since 1992 (see fivethirtyeight, The Economist and Electoral Polls).
Consequently, Harris has a good chance to become the first woman to join the long list of men that have served as either president (44 men) or vice-president (48 men).
Tokenism no more?
Many have considered that Biden was merely “pandering” to female voters when he pledged to “pick a woman to be vice-president”. This opinion certainly has validity, as the commitment could easily be considered an out-of-touch faux-benevolent grand gesture.
At the very least, however, Biden’s decision to campaign with a female running mate shows an awareness of his party’s supporters. Voting trends at presidential elections, according to exit surveys, highlight the majority support for Democrats among female voters. Per the Roper Center, Hillary Clinton won the female vote over Donald Trump 54-41 in 2016. Even more dominant numbers for Democratic nominees can be found when considering the votes of racial minorities.
Beyond the optics of Biden’s VP selection process, without doubt a vast number of viable choices could be considered. Seventeen Democratic women sit in the US Senate, 88 in the House of Representatives, and six hold governorships – this is not to mention previous officeholders, mayors and cabinet officials.
Looking at the Senate, where Harris currently serves, 11 of the 20 most prolific lawmakers in 2019 were Democratic women (judged by the number of bills they cosponsored) – among their number, Harris. Interestingly, the bottom 32 senators in this category were Republican – 31 of them male. With Harris (eighth) in the top 10, were Amy Klobuchar (second), Elizabeth Warren (third) and Kirsten Gillibrand (ninth), each of whom also competed for the Democratic nomination in 2020.
Harris is a career public servant. Before entering the Senate, she served as district attorney of San Francisco for seven years, before twice winning election as attorney general of California.
In 2016, she was elected to the Senate, where she’s proven to be among the most effective legislators in the chamber, known for her prosecutorial style during Senate hearings, and for championing a progressive agenda.
Some on the left of the Democratic Party may be disappointed that Harris, rather than a liberal firebrand of the Elizabeth Warren ilk, has joined the devoutly moderate Biden on the Democratic ticket. It would then surprise many that Harris was ranked the most liberal senator of the 2019 calendar year (by legislative behaviour), ahead of Bernie Sanders (second-most liberal) and Warren (26th).
Kamala Harris has all the requisite qualifications of a vice-presidential – or, indeed, a presidential – nominee, while her short but effective time in Washington should balance any criticism of spending either “too much” or “not enough” time in Congress.
Her tenure in elected office exceeds that of Obama before he entered the White House (two-thirds of a Senate term apiece, while Harris served 13 years as an elected official in California, compared with Obama’s eight in Illinois).
Perhaps an element of tokenism remains in Harris’ selection. But regardless of her gender, regardless of her race, she’s a strong choice for vice-president.
An ambitious path forward?
Harris, at 55, though not young, represents a new generation in Washington – one promised by the energetic candidacy of Barack Obama a dozen years ago. Her relative youth balances out Biden who, if elected, would take office at age 78, and would be the oldest president in US history. Indeed, Biden is older than all living former presidents, bar 95-year-old Jimmy Carter.
Balancing an older president with a younger running mate is an age-old tactic. Examples include Theodore Roosevelt, 15 years the junior of William McKinley; Richard Nixon, 22 years younger than Dwight Eisenhower; and Dan Quayle, also 22 years younger than the first George Bush.
Fair or not, however, there’s likely greater pressure for Harris – or any female VP nominee – to perform than a male counterpart. Indeed, where Geraldine Ferraro campaigned adeptly in 1984 in defeat, the inept Dan Quayle survived an embarrassing debate performance to win the vice-presidency four years later.
Gender in politics consists of many double binds. All at once, a female leader is expected to demonstrate typically masculine characteristics to display a classic leadership style while not shirking her femininity and, in all likelihood, she will be criticised regardless. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton was the object of countless sexist attacks in her pursuit of the White House.
Harris is already facing similar rebukes. Before her selection as the Democratic VP nominee, critics labelled her “too ambitious” – an attack line that, if attached to one politician, surely must be affixed to them all.
All at once, a female leader is expected to demonstrate typically masculine characteristics to display a classic leadership style while not shirking her femininity and, in all likelihood, she will be criticised regardless.
This kind of chastisement, however, is highly gendered, with ambition deemed a positive attribute for a man, but negative for a woman. Ambition, however, is a necessity for any candidate seeking elected office, but even more so for those seeking to break through societal barriers such as race and gender.
It’s also worth remembering the sheer ambition, blatantly visible, of presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton (to name just the most visible examples) in their pursuit of office that went uncriticised.
With a view to November, Harris is certain to face gendered scorn from pundits and voters. Yet thanks to trailblazers such as Ferraro and Clinton, the American public is far more accustomed to female leadership in 2020 than a generation ago.
Harris, however, also has racial prejudice to overcome. Within days of her selection, President Trump targeted her with the same birther conspiracy with which he attempted to smear Barack Obama.
But as it stands, the Biden-Harris ticket is moderately favoured to flip the White House blue in November, and if successful, would be a historic victory.
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