So, who didn’t see this coming?
Oh, there was some buzz surrounding Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice, but ultimately Joe Biden was not going to opt for someone who would represent a look backward rather than forward.
But the selection of California Senator Kamala Harris invites its own look backward—to June 27, 2019, and the debate-stage punch that caused myopic analysts to instantly crown her as the obvious eventual nominee.
Before we get to various questions about the shared future path of the former vice president and his new partner, let’s settle once and for all the matter she will at some point face: Didn’t she call Joe Biden a racist?
Of course she did.
Not in the fashion of “Hey, Joe, you’re a racist.” Democrats reserve that bluntness for Republicans. But before Harris properly observes that primary rivalries can get pretty heated before they magically heal, let’s let her words speak for themselves. In recounting his long track record, Biden had described working with Senators Herman Talmadge of Georgia and James Eastland of Mississippi, whose legacies contained no small amount of segregationism.
“To hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and careers on segregation of race in this country,” she began, pivoting to a personal testimony meant to stain Biden with the smear of insensitivity. “You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.”
What possible reason is there to juxtapose those two sentences if not to cast aspersion on Biden’s racial enlightenment? This was a harsh attack even by sharp-elbowed primary standards. Jill Biden registered her offense at hearing her husband besmirched in this fashion, even as South Carolina’s venerable Congressman James Clyburn revealed that even he had worked with members of Congress who opposed civil rights.
Of course he did. Because a high school civics student knows that a legislative career will often contain alliances between figures who may have vast disagreements. Kamala Harris knows that, too, but there was no way she was going to miss the opportunity to play the race card to wound the party’s frontrunner to gain an advantage.
The Harris campaign did not make it out of 2019, while Biden survived multiple doubts to reach the delegate count necessary to win the nomination. Now they are together on the campaign trail for the next 12 weeks. The questions as their journey begins: Was the “safe pick” smart?
Conventional wisdom would say so. Biden leads most polls, and he did not need to jostle that narrative with some surprising curveball pick. And who might that have been? Having painted himself into a corner of race and gender preferences, the usual list of prospects was decidedly shorter. Surely there were possibilities in swing states, but none who had Harris’ benefits of high-level experience and national vetting.
Will Republican criticism be attacked as sexist and racist?
Of course. But one person unbowed by that threat is Donald Trump, who devoted time in his Tuesday press conference to highlight his view of Harris as radical and to revisit her earlier harshness to “Sleepy Joe.”
House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney did not seem timid moments after the announcement: “She would re-create America in the image of what we’ve seen on the streets of Portland and Seattle. We won’t give her the chance.”
Most conservatives have about had their fill of reflex charges of racism and sexism from the left. In these particularly vicious times, we might see pushback deployed with particular relish.
Is there much excitement for Harris among Democrats?
The easy answer is to say, “not enough, it seems,” in view of her campaign flameout last year. But now that she is the other half of the only ticket that can deny Trump a second term, look for prior rivals to gush with praise, and millions of voters who were previously lukewarm about her to develop sudden affection. Such is the drill as soon as a ticket is solidified.
She is surely a better campaigner than the instantly forgettable Tim Kaine in 2016. It won’t be long before she makes it clear she will be a vocal, engaged partner.
But can she overplay that ambition? Does she run the risk of seeming to be in it for herself more than Biden?
Sure, especially among critics. But remember: a hefty percentage of voters have to wonder if Biden will actually survive his first term; few expect him to seek a second, which would feature an inauguration at age 82. A running mate “ready to serve on day one,” as the saying goes, is probably a plus when the nominee himself has called himself a “transition candidate,” a bridge to a younger generation of leaders.
Harris, who was eight years old when Biden was elected to the Senate, is of that generation. Her ambition right now is to actually become vice president. That means a successful defeat of Trump, which will leave Democrats sufficiently gleeful that they are unlikely to split hairs over her inclinations as a team player.
Will today’s anti-law enforcement Democrats blame her for her past as a prosecutor?
Some will. But here’s the fact about Democrat America that gets lost amid the smoke of rioting: the Antifa-loving, cop-hating, defund-the-police mobs in the news every day do not constitute a majority in the party. It’s a bigger slice than party leaders want to admit, but a voter base that elevated Biden is not filled with enough radicals to damage her credentials in the long term.
Does that mean she cannot be pegged as too extreme?
Of course she can. And she will. And it will be for the usual laundry list of modern liberal excess. Again, Liz Cheney sets the playing field: “Kamala Harris is a radical liberal who wants to raise your taxes, take away your guns and your health insurance, explode the size of our federal government and give it control over every aspect of our lives.”
If that sounds like a laundry list of the usual conservative criticism of Democrats, there’s a reason. With the ticket set, the home stretch to November 3 will take on the familiar flavor of negative themes anyone could have expected, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Biden and Harris will surely weave tales describing a hell that awaits us in a second Trump term; it is the job of the president and his supporters to counter with images of what America will look like if Biden wins
So what does the vice presidential debate on October 7th look like?
Just as expectations are high for a Biden collapse against Trump (if those debates even happen), it’s easy to think the sharp, streetwise Harris might score frequent points against the more prim, conventional Mike Pence.
Both assessments are too glib. With expectations as low as any in history, Biden will be viewed as successful if he completes a sufficient number of sentences. As for Pence, just as his traditional steadfastness has been a valuable balance to the freewheeling ricochets of Trump, his demeanor should compare well with Harris in view of what she will have to do that night—sell the broad party agenda while making sure not to anger its most radical wing.
So, bottom line—how much does she help Biden?
On day one, she brings an enviable resume and a considerable skill set. She will be boosted by fawning media attention, but any Biden selection would have been similarly coddled.
The X factor is how they function as a team. Will she be handling most of the TV appearances? Will she and Biden ever strike dissimilar tones that require reconciliation on the fly? Much is made of “chemistry,” whatever that looks like, and it’s easy to suggest that might be a challenge as fall approaches. But Obama and Biden came from wholly different worlds, Clinton and Gore were never really chummy and Reagan and Bush never really liked each other at all, so it’s not as though that’s a deal-breaker.
The Harris effect on the Biden ticket is yet to be revealed, in dozens of daily news cycles and future moments featuring her contributions to a Biden attempt to beat Trump, and her ability to withstand criticism that will surely come her way, every day.
In other words, in this campaign like no other in a year like no other, the basics are about to play out in ways that seem almost comfortably familiar.