In 2016, Hillary Clinton made history by becoming the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate for a major political party in the United States. Four years on, Kamala Harris has confirmed her spot in the history books as a trailblazer, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated onto a major party presidential ticket as Joe Biden’s pick for vice president.
The 55-year-old Senator from California – who was, until December, a candidate for president herself – was among twelve women on the shortlist for the role who have been vigorously vetted and interviewed by Biden and his team in recent weeks, a process about which the presidential nominee knows plenty, having served as VP to President Obama for eight years.
In nominating Harris, Biden has pulled off something of a masterstroke. Her sharp mind and relative youth will bring on board some much-needed charisma and focus, whilst simultaneously shaping the future of the Democratic party in a way that both promotes rising talent and champions electability.
Perhaps more than ever, this pick is crucial to the legitimacy of Biden’s candidacy and the success of his potential administration. If elected president – something that is still far from certain – Joe Biden would be 78, making him the oldest US president ever on inauguration day (President Trump currently holds the record at age 70 on inauguration day). In the minds of voters, reliability and competence – two words not always associated with President Trump – remain nonetheless important for a successful candidate, and Biden’s age and cognitive abilities will surely become a major theme of the campaign in the months to come. Not only will Harris play a key role in energising the Democratic campaign, she will also need to convince American voters that she is ready to take the reins as president from day one, should that be necessary given Joe Biden’s age. This is a factor that likely deterred him from picking a running mate more similar to himself in age, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren (age 71), whose selection could have risked the entire ticket being branded as illegitimate and constitutionally insecure.
Senator Harris sits in the ideological centre of the Democratic party alongside her presidential candidate. With an impressive career behind her as a lawyer, attorney general, Director of the California Department of Justice and subsequently a senator, she has become known in Washington for her no-nonsense prosecutorial style of debating: her encounter with Justice Brett Kavanaugh over alleged sexual assault is testament to this. As Joe Biden has already declared himself a “transition candidate”, meaning he wouldn’t serve two terms, it’s highly likely that were Harris to be elected VP, she would be in pole position to be the frontrunner for president in 2024.
Immediately following the announcement, President Trump, right on cue, tweeted a pre-meditated campaign ad, branding Harris a “phony [sic]” alongside “slow Joe” who are apparently jointly embracing “the radical left”. If that were true, however, I think my Twitter feed would have been slightly more relaxed than it was following the announcement. Those on the left of the party’s supporters have major problems with Senator Harris. Many people – most of them young – sent out messages of disgust at the pick: ‘such a mistake’; ‘great! a cop for vice president’; ‘as if he chose her when BERNIE is right there!!’.
To be frank, it defies belief that anyone genuinely thinks that Bernie Sanders would be a more electorally favourable vice presidential pick than Kamala Harris. The evidence suggests she will use her time in the role to achieve material change through pragmatism, personality and, God forbid, compromise. But who cares about electability these days? As long as you “win the argument”, it is apparently of little importance who wins the election (see: Jeremy Corbyn).
The exhausting tribalism that has allowed those on the right to triumph on both sides of the Atlantic is based on one tiresome principle: the left would rather their candidates be ideologically pure and lose, than have the maturity to build a coalition of voters (yes, some of them former Republicans/Tories!) and win. No one should take lectures on campaign strategy from these people. It should be reiterated that these are the same geniuses who created a movement called “DEFUND THE POLICE” and then proceeded to post paragraphs on their Instagram stories explaining that the slogan doesn’t actually advocate the police being defunded at all.
I am perfectly willing to have an open discussion about Harris’s (and Biden’s) career records. As with anyone, they are not without blemishes. For instance, I find it both puzzling and concerning the lengths to which she went to come down hard on truancy in California – bills that she sponsored ended up harming working class, minority women more than anyone else. Her extensive record as a prosecutor – in particular, her reforms to the California criminal justice system – became a talking point of the Democratic primary. This was in addition to the clashes between the two nominees themselves, with Harris taking issue with Biden’s stance on segregated bussing in the 1970s. Naturally, from now on they will be obliged to resolve any differences in private and present a united front against Trump in November’s election.
With Covid-19 still looming large in the USA, Harris will inject some fresh blood into what is slowly becoming the most boring presidential election campaign for years. The vice presidential television debate, which is due to take place on 7 October, will, I anticipate, be a highlight of the political year. Harris will be a fearsome opponent for Vice President Mike Pence, a man not generally known for his quick wit and agile mind.
However, for the first time in months, both the VP announcement and the Democratic convention mean that the spotlight is finally on Joe Biden’s campaign. For a considerable time, he has sailed high in virtually all opinion polls through the gloriously simple tactic of saying nothing, leaving President Trump to self-destruct in coronavirus briefings and painful TV interviews. Trump’s interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan, in which he claimed it was an achievement that the USA’s Covid death toll is “lower than the world”, will go down as possibly the finest Trump interview of his presidency. Despite this, Senator Harris will force Biden out of the shadows, increasing the likelihood of campaign embarrassments during media appearances.
Historically, vice presidential selections rarely have a dramatic electoral impact on US campaigns. I believe this year will be no different, notwithstanding my gut feeling that Kamala Harris has the potential to outshine Biden in the next three months, something that might not necessarily be a bad thing for Democrats. Nonetheless, this VP pick has made one thing a certainty: if the Biden-Harris ticket is successful in November, after four long years, the adults will finally be back in the room.
Image: Kamala Harris from the Congress Library, via Wikimedia Commons