No one said that being the vice president would be easy. But as Joe Biden’s lieutenant, California Sen. Kamala Harris would be faced with a uniquely challenging balancing act: pioneering the Democratic Party into the future – while navigating the party leadership’s retrograde mores.
“If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact, pick a woman to be vice president.” When Biden said these words during the CNN-Univision debate in March, many people took notice.
Before Biden announced Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, only two women had ever been vice presidential nominees for a major American party: then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008 and New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.
Biden’s statement in March, then, evoked what had become something of an inescapable buzzword during the 2020 Democratic race: representation. And indeed, Biden’s right-hand woman would have important representational value.
Following a primary season that began with the most diverse slate of candidates in American history but then predictably contracted toward straightness and whiteness and maleness, a Black and South Asian woman as vice president would signal that, at least in some ways, times are changing. She may gin up enthusiasm for a party whose top brass rarely meaningfully reflects its base, and even transform what power looks like. (Biden himself has said that he’d be a “bridge” to a new “generation of leaders.”)
In particular, the message that a Vice President Harris would send to Black women, long the most reliable and committed Democratic voters, is nothing to sneeze at.
“Black women are sick and tired of being considered the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist, recently told Errin Haines of The 19th, a new nonprofit newsroom that focuses on the junctures of gender and politics. “We want to be recognized as leaders. We want all the things. We’re due.”
Notably, it’s very likely that Harris’ power would be more than just representational. If Biden wins in November, he’ll inherit a country beleaguered by several crucial issues: a pandemic that President Donald Trump has actively made worse, a recession that’s the deepest on record since the Great Depression and systemic racism in policing and beyond.
Which means that Harris, too, would likely assume a lot of responsibility in the White House.
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“History tells us that consequential presidents and vice presidents come out at times where they’re tested and tried, and I can’t imagine a period of time where the president and vice president are going to be tested more than in January 2021,” Michael Feldman, who was a senior adviser to Vice President Al Gore, told The Atlantic’s Christian Paz in July.
“There’s just no chance that the person who he picks is not a consequential vice president or consequential historical figure. They just will be,” Feldman added.
For all that potential, though, Harris, in all likelihood, would have to grapple with age-old, gendered thinking, including within her party. Already, there have been previews of the shape that this thinking could take.
“She laughed and said, ‘That’s politics.’ She had no remorse,” former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, who was part of Biden’s vice presidential search committee, told a Biden supporter and donor, according to Politico. Harris was responding to a question about how she had shellacked the former vice president during the June 2019 Democratic debate, and Dodd wasn’t a fan of Harris’ answer, shorn of shame.
In the other direction, Dodd advocated for California Rep. Karen Bass, who also was among the contenders for vice president, because he viewed her as “a loyal No. 2.”
The vice presidency is an inherently deferential office. But the aforementioned comments, and the tut-tutting over 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ swaggering, have had the queasy, if unintended, effect of suggesting that only modest, self-effacing women are fit for the role – a notion that afflicts Black women, especially.
Elsewhere in the Politico story, a Harris ally pointed out that the senator is “often more comfortable talking up others rather than herself.” In its own way, the remark was a quiet “corrective” for Harris’ straight talk and general refusal to shrink her ambitions.
Such warping of ambition and nitpicking are virtually nonexistent when men vie for political office.
Harris, then, will have to do two things under the microscope if she becomes vice president. She’ll have to serve as representation for those voters who seldom see themselves reflected in the upper echelons of power, and do work that will be much more than representational – and that will surely test whether her party can leave certain prejudices in the past.
None of this is to minimize the undeniable thrill of Biden’s historic announcement.
After all, as Harris tweeted on Tuesday: “Black women and women of color have long been underrepresented in elected office and in November we have an opportunity to change that.”
Rather, the point is to acknowledge that if Biden and Harris win in November, the latter will be in a far more treacherous position. But then, Black women always are.