By Spencer Bokat-Lindell/New York Times
New York, August 13: This week, Joe Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his running mate, the first Black woman as well as the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for a major party’s presidential ticket. “We need more than a victory on Nov. 3,” Harris said in an appearance with Biden on Wednesday. “We need a mandate that proves that the past few years do not represent who we are or who we aspire to be.”
Are Harris and Biden the right pair to win that mandate? Here’s what people are saying about what her nomination means for the election and the future of the Democratic Party.
For many Democrats, it was the right choice
The reaction within the Democratic Party, from Beltway professionals to grass-roots activists, was largely relief, Astead Herndon and Jonathan Martin reported for The Times. There was obvious excitement, too: Within 24 hours after the announcement, the Biden campaign reported raising $26 million in donations, including from 150,000 first-time contributors. “Her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate was conventional by some political standards,” Herndon and Martin wrote. “But it was historic most of all, and especially sweet for many Black women.”
As Melanye Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, points out in a Times Op-Ed, Black women have been the most loyal major demographic in the Democratic Party for decades, even though they have never before been represented on the presidential ticket. (Harris is herself only the second Black female senator in American history.) “Millions of Black women and their political labor have made this historic day possible,” she writes.
Manisha Sinha, a professor of African-American history at the University of Connecticut, writes in The Times that Harris’s nomination is also deeply meaningful to many Indian-American immigrants like her. When she arrived in the United States in 1984, she says, “I could have ill imagined that one day an African-American man would become the president or that a woman of Jamaican and Indian descent would be a candidate for the vice presidency.”
Both Sinha and Price stress that the nomination is not a victory just for Harris. Rather, Price says, “The selection is a win for Black women politicians who have higher political ambitions, Black women operatives who want to have more say in how campaigns are run, and Black women voters who want to see themselves among the many candidates the party fields every election.”
Politically, Harris is something of a more orthodox choice: She is “a thoroughly establishment-friendly figure,” as Herndon and Martin write, one who, like Biden, has toed the Democratic Party line for years, “shifting left with the times but always with an eye on the broader electorate and higher office.”
Even so, many progressive activists and elected officials have thrown their support behind her. They’ve done so partly out of political expedience, but also because Harris has been consistently to the left of Biden on certain issues, perhaps most notably climate change. In a statement, Varshini Prakash, the co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, praised Harris for taking on the oil industry as California attorney general, campaigning on a Green New Deal and being one of the first candidates to call for eliminating the filibuster to pass it. “Throughout the course of her campaign for president, Senator Kamala Harris showed her responsiveness to activist and movement pressure to make climate a top priority, and demonstrated her willingness to be held accountable,” Prakash said.
“She’s running for the vice presidency against Trump and Pence, and there’s a real chance that the same Black voters who were cool to her in the primary will thrill to her now that she’s on a history-making ticket, prosecuting the case against a president who has consistently and deeply offended them,” he says. The same may be true of Indian-American voters, too, as Philip Bump reports for The Washington Post.
And sure enough, a poll released on Wednesday suggested that Harris has the potential to expand Biden’s support: Nearly nine out of 10 Democrats approve of her, and she is more popular than Biden among women, young voters and even some Republicans.
But on both the right and the left, some see deep flaws — and risks
Predictably, the Republican establishment has responded to Harris’s nomination by painting her as an extremist. “It’s going to be President Trump and Vice President Pence on the ballot against two of our Nation’s most RADICAL Democrats: Sleepy Joe Biden and Phony Kamala Harris,” said a fund-raising email from Trump’s campaign. “Both of them are corrupt career politicians who LOVE anarchy and HATE America. … It’s REAL Americans vs. SOCIALISTS.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board advanced a more restrained version of that assessment, describing Harris’s nomination as a sign that “coastal progressives” now “dominate the Democratic Party.”
This line of attack may well become the dominant one against Harris in the next few months, but it obscures the depth of criticism she has received from people on both the left and the right who see her as embodying a kind of triangulating centrism that has defined the Democratic Party for decades. In The American Conservative, for example, Rod Dreher laments how executives both in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street greeted her selection with excitement.
That perception is shared by many on the left. In The Guardian, Malaika Jabali points out that when she was California’s attorney general, Harris declined to prosecute Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, then the C.E.O. of OneWest Bank, for allegedly violating foreclosure laws more than a thousand times after the 2008 financial crisis. “Today, hundreds of thousands of Black men and women on the front lines of a deadly pandemic face death, evictions and massive unemployment,” she writes. “I wish I could believe that Vice President Kamala Harris would make a material difference in our lives, but I find it hard to.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton, tweeted:
On criminal justice issues, too, the Trump campaign may find it difficult to cast Harris as a radical. During her tenure as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general, Harris adopted a “tough on crime” approach — championing legislation that permitted arresting parents of truant children, for example, and fighting an order to release nonviolent inmates even after the Supreme Court found that overcrowding in California prisons was unconstitutionally facilitating “needless suffering and death” — that alienated criminal justice advocates during her presidential run.
At the same time, Harris’s relatively conventional politics may not make her a strategically safe choice, as Herndon and Martin explain. By choosing her over candidates like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, who might have attracted more white moderates and even Republicans in swing states, “Biden is now taking direct aim at Trump’s brand of racial grievance politics.” That may come back to bite him if Trump tries to use Harris’s prosecutorial record to cut into her appeal among Black male voters, as the Times columnist Charles Blow suspects he might. And as the 2016 election reminded Democrats, white women, a majority of whom backed Trump, do not vote as a bloc.
Harris will also face obstacles because of her sex and race that her running mate and opponents will not. “Research on attitudes toward Black women shows that there are expectations and stereotypes often leveraged against them to be more assertive and tough, while also nurturing and caring,” Chryl Laird, an assistant professor of political science at Bowdoin, writes in The Times. “She will be expected to be everything to everyone.”
For many progressive Black women, Derecka Purnell writes in The Guardian, the prospect of having to defend Harris against sexist, racist attacks while attempting to push her and Biden left on issues like health care and police reform is wearying. “This generational fatigue, from Nina Simone to Nina Turner, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Cori Bush, compounds with the political fatigue of doing progressive work around a party that undermines progressive values,” she says. “Together, they will affirm the power of the Black vote, while daring, do you really think you have any other choice?”
(The featured image at the top shows Kamala Harris with her husband Douglas Emhoff)