It is often said — so often that it may even be true — that vice-presidents have little to no impact when it comes to the actual presidential election. No one goes to the voting booth, or, more likely now, to the mailbox, to pick a vice president.
But what does matter — and we’ll be saying this often, too — is what picking Kamala Harris tells us about Joe Biden.
For instance, it seems to say that Biden, a white male from another generation, understands the moment in which we find ourselves. No one could miss the fact that Biden would never have won the nomination if Jim Clyburn and Black voters in South Carolina hadn’t rallied to him. But I wasn’t sure Biden understood that in this time of Black Lives Matter, with both Blacks and whites rallying to that cause, with young people rallying to that cause, that failing to pick a Black running mate would have been a grievous mistake, a terrible unforced error.
Instead, we have history, and for Biden, it’s history two times over. He was, of course, Barack Obama’s vice president, and now he will be the first presidential nominee from a major party to run with a woman of color as his running mate. Harris is a daughter to Jamaican and Indian immigrants and, yes, she is female. And at 55, in this race, she is the young candidate — basically two decades younger than Biden and Trump.
And so, the race is now lined up. We have one candidate running a clearly racist campaign and we have another who makes clear that racism is not what made America great and not where America needs to be.
According to the polls, Americans have shown overwhelming support for Black Lives Matter, which Trump has called a “symbol of hate.” I don’t know what percentage of those polled are talking about the organization itself or how many — more I would guess — are looking at the fact itself, that Black lives should matter and that, 400 years later, we still haven’t gotten there.
And yet, it’s not just dog whistling when Trump recently tweeted that those living the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” should no longer be worried about the possibility of low-incoming housing being built near them. It’s a punch in the gut.
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Harris’ nomination was a counter punch. And while Harris may not have been the perfect presidential candidate — if she had been, she’d be the one picking a running mate — she can take a punch and she can punch back. Ask Bill Barr. Ask Brett Kavanaugh. Ask, for that matter, Joe Biden. Many were worried that Biden would bypass Harris for her early-debate slam on Biden’s 1970s stance on busing, telling him “That little girl was me.”
That was probably the high point of Harris’ campaign, which slumped from there, but I doubt it was that much of a hurdle for Biden. In his tweet announcing that he had picked Harris, there was also this: Biden noted Harris’ friendship with his late son, Beau when they were both attorneys general. That probably meant as much as anything to Biden, who must have laughed when some called Harris “ambitious.” Biden has been ambitiously running for president for basically forever.
And so we’re off to the conventions and then to the home stretch. What’s the line about politics and beanbag? This fall, it will be politics and brickbats.
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Donald Trump is already calling Harris Phony Kamala. We’ll see if that sticks. The campaign has a video out saying that Democrats had rejected Harris but that “Slow Joe” was not smart enough to figure it out. And in a statement, the Trump campaign talked of Harris’ choice as part of Biden’s “living will.”
They’ll go lower. They’re just getting started. It must be hard for Trump to decide whether to hit Harris first for being Black or for being a woman. Trump had already called her his favorite n-word — “nasty” — which he usually reserves for women. On Tuesday, he called her nasty to Biden, more nasty than “Pocahontas,” his racist term for another female candidate, Elizabeth Warren. He also chipped in “mean” and “disrespectful,” and we can see where it’s all headed.
But it turns out, according to the Washington Post, that Trump contributed money to Harris’ campaign for attorney general as recently as 2013 and that Ivanka Trump contributed to her campaign in 2014. That must have been in Harris’ pre-nasty period.
There were also story lines suggesting that Biden was worried about being overshadowed by his vice-presidential pick. It happened for John McCain — with, yes, a female pick — but that was in large part an indictment of McCain’s judgment in attempting to put Sarah Palin one tragic mishap away from the Oval Office. Clinton picked Tim Kaine, who has rarely been charged with overshadowing anyone.
In this case, Biden is already overshadowed by Trump, which is probably a good thing for him. The more the race is about Trump and his failures on the coronavirus, on the economy, on race relations, the better it is for anyone hoping to beat him. And Biden, to this point, is leading Trump by eight points, according to five thirty eight.com. In picking Harris, he has selected someone who can make the case forcefully against Trump and with just a touch more star power. OK, a lot more star power than a touch more.
If a president picks someone to fill in the gaps of his own resume — as Obama picked Biden for his experience in the Senate and for his experience on foreign policy — Biden has made a generational choice. As I said, she was hardly a perfect candidate. As a San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, Harris was seen as a top-cop, tough-on-crime prosecutor with a few truly problematic cases on her record. She had trouble winning progressive voters in the Democratic primary, but where she figures to be strong in a general election is with college-educated suburban women and with young people looking for change.
The issue isn’t simply black and white. It would be a miscalculation to think so. It’s pretty hilarious that some Republicans seem to think that putting Kanye West on the ballot will take significant Black votes from Joe Biden. That’s why he’s on the ballot in Colorado, with Republican assistance. That’s an insult, of course, to Black voters. It brings to mind that old George W. Bush line about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Bush’s line was used in a different context, but the Republican support for a West candidacy is soft bigotry at its finest.
It wouldn’t have been bigotry, soft or otherwise, for Biden to have picked a white female to run with him. There are plenty of qualified women out there of all races and ethnicities. But it would have been a mistake. In picking Harris, Biden was able, at once, to do both the bold thing and the safe thing. Obama said he “nailed” it. I doubt many Democrats disagree.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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