Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced yesterday that California senator Kamala Harris would be his running mate. It was something I had been expecting all along. Harris breaks a barrier by being the first woman of color to be nominated to be vice-president of one of the major political parties but in almost every other respect she is not a trailblazer. Her politics are very much Democratic party establishment. She is not a progressive and her past performance as a prosecutor leaves plenty to be desired as she vigorously used all the powers at her disposal to wage the infamous ‘war on crime’ that resulted in large numbers of people being sent to prison for long terms out of proportion to the nature of their crimes. This is one reason that her choice makes life difficult for Trump. He will try to portray her as someone who is the ideological love child of Lenin and Fidel Castro but that is highly unlikely to stick.
Biden was clearly playing it safe, as someone does who is ahead in the polls and does not want to make a blunder. It is always safer to pick someone who has been in the public eye for a long time and held major elected office because then the chances of skeletons in the closet turning up are lessened. Pick someone who is unknown and you face the prospect of one damaging fact after another emerging about their background and having to do constant damage control. John McCain was losing to Barack Obama in 2008 and decided that he needed to dramatically change the dynamic and thought that a photogenic but unknown governor from Alaska might do the trick. Almost immediately he had to deal with revelations about Sarah Palin’s family and her remarkable ignorance on a whole host of national and international issues. Walter Mondale also faced an uphill battle in 1984 in challenging incumbent Ronald Reagan and his pick of a relatively unknown congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro undoubtedly made a splash as the first woman on a major party ticket but then details about her husband’s shady business dealings came to light. For reasons such as these, I dismissed the rumors of Susan Rice and all the other lesser-known candidates whose names were floated. Rice had never held elected office and thus had not faced much scrutiny. With Harris, there is little likelihood of something bad emerging, though one never knows.
The old idea that one picks a running mate who might help win their home state’s electoral votes for you has long been abandoned. What matters is whether the candidate fills a demographic or ideological need. Biden is clearly not a progressive and after he had said way back that he would pick a woman, the issue was whether he would chooses someone like Elizabeth Warren who has considerable progressive credentials. I did not think he would, with him figuring that progressives hate Trump so much that they would vote for anyone over him. While it was assumed that the black community was solidly behind Biden already, expectations had been raised that he would pick a black woman and not doing so might have had a negative impact on their enthusiasm, increasing the feeling that the Democratic party establishments takes the black community for granted. So Harris always had the inside track.
This pick poses other problems for Trump. He clearly does not know how to deal with strong women and when he attacks and demeans her (as we know he will because he is, after all, Trump), there is a great chance that it will backfire. His remarks right out of the gate that she was ‘very very nasty’ is the kind of thing strong vocal women hear all the time and risk alienating his standing with women even more. His comment just before the choice was announced that Biden saying that he would pick a woman was an insult to men just reinforces the idea that he thinks top political positions are reserved for men. The Trump campaign has also been trying to make inroads with the black community, hoping to eke out a few more percentage points of black voters, even though they overwhelmingly reject him, to compensate for his losses among suburban women. The choice of Harris makes that task even harder.
Harris is the daughter of immigrants, her father being from Jamaica and her mother from India. One wonders if Trump and his campaign surrogates will try to energize his white, nativist, and xenophobic base by suggesting that this makes her ‘not really American’ or ‘not really black’, a reprise of their attempts to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency by suggesting that he was ‘really’ a Kenyan. Such an attack would likely infuriate the African-American community that has had no problem embracing Harris as one of their own, not to mention antagonizing the Indian and other immigrant communities, many of whose members have long fought against the perception that they are not ‘really’ Americans.
Trump will undoubtedly attack Harris with some variation of the puerile ‘Pocahontas’ charge that he was probably salivating at the thought of using in the event that Warren was selected. It would be difficult for even a highly skilled politician with sophisticated verbal abilities to walk the thin line of attacking Harris for her polices without coming across as sexist and racist. Trump lacks any such intelligence or nuance and will inevitably blunder into that minefield with his eyes blinkered. So expect to see a series of explosions.