When Joe Biden declared in March during a debate with Bernie Sanders that “there are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow” and that he “would pick a woman to be my vice-president,” many celebrated it as a feminist victory. Sadly, as became evident within the last month, the search itself, along with the coverage of it, descended into a political game show complete with a healthy dose of chauvinist vocabulary.
It was unfortunate that the Biden campaign allowed sexist slander to carry the narrative when such a historic moment lay in the wings. Though Karen Bass, Susan Rice, Elizabeth Warren, and others were certainly caricatured in their own ways, it was Kamala Harris, the eventual selection, who was attacked most directly by those claiming to be the former vice-president’s “allies.” She’s too ambitious, they said. That fair and severe blow that Harris landed on him during a primary debate, the one about school choice and her personal experience with busing? To them, it showed that she isn’t loyal. She’ll be after your job, Joe, they said, as if the White House is some corporation. Pardon the junior senator from California; she was just trying to win the presidency herself. That is allowed, yes? And don’t you want a vice-president who trained to be ready for the big job, especially when the nominee would be 78 years old on Inauguration Day?
A man is going to be president again, one way or another. We’re a little too used to that. But Biden’s age, plus his commitment to picking a woman as his running mate, are why we ended up pondering again whether America is ready for female authority, four years after Hillary Clinton’s loss. But Harris is the correct pick for Biden for every reason that should matter, including the fact that she is black and Tamil Indian. Despite the misogyny involved in how the pick was handled, the selection of Harris herself points to a specific difference between Biden and Trump that has ramifications far beyond the two men.
Consider why President Trump couldn’t understand the pick. He was “surprised,” he told reporters not long after the choice was announced, that Biden picked Harris after she had been so “nasty” to him, using one of his favorite insults. What the president couldn’t comprehend is why Biden, who may not serve two full terms in the Oval Office, would possibly want to prepare America for the possibility of Harris as his successor. Unlike Trump, who can’t deal with a woman challenging him from even the White House press corps, Biden recovered from the blow surely better than his “allies” did. While I surely don’t want to go anointing Biden in regards to his past behavior or attitudes toward women, it is important to note that he recognized the importance of this opportunity in selecting Harris. Harris would likely be the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in 2024 if Biden chose not to run again — and, at his age, it’s possible that she’ll be called on even before that. Biden may have well selected the first female president of the United States on Tuesday. While it would have been more heartening to see one elected outright, frankly, America may have needed the push.
This is the history of this country, in fact. When the global uprising of civil-rights consciousness began and America began its remedial antiracist training of sorts, it was only right for black voices within the Democratic Party to seize upon that moment and demand that Biden choose a black woman for his running mate. Several candidates came to the fore, but Harris was the favorite all along and should have been. It isn’t merely enough to have the experience and qualifications to be president in this particular situation, which, despite her failed campaign, Harris made the case that she does. Biden needs someone who wants the job, who will be eager to share and possibly embrace the responsibilities in perhaps the most catastrophic circumstances any incoming president has faced since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the depth of the Great Depression.
Why is desire and motivation important? First, most crucially, Biden will need it to defeat his opponent. He needs it from the electorate that rescued his campaign in states like South Carolina: black Americans. Yes, it is true that the selection in and of itself cannot afford to be purely about symbolism for these voters if the Biden campaign hopes to succeed. But there is great power in affirmation, and “overdue” seems like too light a word for what black women have been owed for their loyalty to a party to which they have delivered victories, victories for officials who have produced far too few results for their communities. Harris should be the start, not the end, of their recognition as leaders within this party for which they have served as the electoral backbone.
That recognition should produce enthusiasm in the fall. A June survey from Northwestern’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy found that black voters would be more excited about a Biden bid were he to pick a black woman for VP. Why, one might ask, would an electorate that feared picking a black woman for president in the primary, presumably for fear of white racism, now demand a running mate in the general? It makes sense if you consider the Republicans a force no longer to be catered to, and one to simply be overcome. It is smart politics, and it is playing to win and refusing to play not to lose.
Honestly, though, I doubt the representation of a black woman in the spot tipped the scales. There is also no reason for Biden to behave as if he is on his heels. He has a noticeable polling lead nationally and in key states, Trump is increasingly manic and is doing a horrible job managing the crises of the day, and the void of leadership in the country is wide open. Should Biden win, he will have to work with Harris long beyond this national moment. Biden chose who he feels most comfortable being around every day for four years, and it’s a woman who will not only help him navigate this moment, but to help him address the people in the midst of it. Harris’ interpersonal skills will prove vital in lieu of traditional campaign events. This is especially important now as the pandemic rages, misinformation reigns, and sharp communicators become even more vital. He chose perhaps the most incisive interrogator on Capitol Hill, who stood out in the campaign by making a prosecutorial case against President Trump and now stands to be president of the Senate if Biden wins.
Biden is chummy and comfortable amongst black voters, but he has had notable missteps of late. He also has the 1994 crime bill and other less-than-antiracist notches on his belt. Harris should welcome conversations about racial inequity, in particular, for few members of Congress were as visible and audible as she was during the early days of the nationwide demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. Sure, Harris may face the renewed challenge of detailing her nuanced record as California Attorney General. But she’ll do so while easily parrying sad, sorry attacks from the GOP that attempt to redefine the word “racist” so as to use it as an attack against both her record and Biden’s. There is room for critique in both, of course, and I’ve written as much. But the notion that there is any comparison here is not worth an intelligent discussion, and the stakes are far too high. Elect them now, then challenge them in office.
Besides, Harris has done many things of late worth defending. Biden also probably couldn’t have chosen someone more active of late, amongst his candidate field, in terms of legislation. In April, she and I spoke about her $5 billion VoteSafe Act of 2020, which if passed through both chambers and signed by the president would likely have solved many of the issues states and localities are facing right now. Just last week, she teamed up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce the Climate Equity Act, which aims at the consequences of environmental racism.
In every way that makes sense, both for this election and this cultural moment, Biden made the right choice. It even reflected in the droopy tone that Trump had at his daily presser today. After tweeting a limp video calling her a “phony,” the president read off a list of supposed insults with the enthusiasm of the radio announcer for a last-place ballclub in the 9th inning of a blowout loss. (“She’s against fracking!” he noted twice, as if he’d forgotten the first time he said it.) Trump barely targeted Harris during the primary, perhaps because he didn’t consider a threat. But the chauvinist-in-chief clearly has nothing for her now, either. I suspect that when Harris starts campaigning again as the running mate on Wednesday, she may have something for him.