Restoring our splintered democracy, reversing a shredded economy, and healing a racially divided country are aspirational goals that are usual fare in campaign stump speeches of presidential candidates. But, against the backdrop of an infectious pandemic and nearly 163,000 American COVID-19 deaths, the 2020 Presidential race will be unlike any other to date. The pandemic agenda combined with the constitutional damage inflicted by the Trump Administration frames the extraordinarily difficult governance challenge that Vice President Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris will have to navigate.
The choice of Senator Harris is the best chance that the Biden campaign has to build momentum quickly. Harris is a well-known national name and has a proven ability to generate real excitement and to be embraced by younger voters.
The importance of this historical pick cannot be underestimated. Sen. Harris’ selection on the 55th anniversary of the Los Angeles Watts Riots is of remarkable significance in our nation’s history. For the first time since its founding, a woman of color would hold the second highest elected office and play a crucial role in shaping our governance infrastructure. Biden’s choice explicitly states that the Democratic party values the long history of support it has continued to receive from Black women, and it also makes it possible for all the African-American, Asian-American girls, and sons and daughters of immigrants of color, to understand that they do belong here in the United States. Rarely has a VP pick announced something so significant.
Harris is an exciting pick and she generates real campaign energy and could be the final piece of the ticket to explicitly address the burning issues of race and equity. Harris will be excellent at dissembling Trump talking points on a range of issues and will do so with a level of empathy, humor, and intellect that will be hard for Trump or Pence to counteract.
Harris brings national name recognition. She played a high-profile role in the confirmation hearings of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and of course, she ran her own presidential campaign. She is known to be very charismatic and that could serve her well as she campaigns on issues of economic security, racial equity, and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, each of which has generated enormous national pain and suffering.
The fact that Harris is an African American woman of biracial and immigrant origins puts her in an excellent position to credibly deliver messages about racial equity, diversity, and inclusion. Recent polls have demonstrated that an African American woman with this credibility is very important to Gen Z, Millennials, and white women. Harris should have no problem helping the campaign to continue to appeal to these voters. Harris is on record in support of strong policing reform and she introduced a Senate bill to make lynching a federal crime. Her credentials on these issues of the moment are not in doubt.
At a moment when so many Americans are facing personal financial crises and downward mobility, Senator Harris’ well-known positions on cutting middle-class taxes and on gender wage inequality will help her quickly amplify the reputation Biden has for fighting for average Americans.
Senator Harris is a known campaigner—she has successfully run for San Francisco District Attorney, California Attorney General, and U.S. Senator and has been tested on the presidential campaign trail.
While we think that Harris supercharges the campaign and puts into stark relief the current mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of empathy for struggling Americans, and callousness on racial justice and equity issues, there is perhaps one open question.
The selection of Senator Harris, a former prosecutor and Attorney General, would neutralize any charge that Biden is soft on law and order, and would likely force a rethink of Trump’s strategy of linking the image of suburban disorder with the Democratic ticket. While her law and order credentials would appeal to more conservative Democratic and independent voters, her record of putting Black men behind bars makes for a complicated sell for Black male voters, in particular. Biden and Harris’ election fortunes, in part, depend on their ability to attract all African Americans under a unified rainbow coalition. Both candidates have troubled legacies on criminal justice issues and simply selecting Harris will not erase her prosecutorial record or absolve Biden of his legislative choices that have hurt Black families. Biden and Harris need to be fully transparent about their evolving political views in order to gain the trust of Mainstreet Black America.
Beyond the symbolism of Biden’s historic selection—the daunting task of governing both home and abroad looms large. Harris’s leadership will be crucially important in healing the substantial political ideological, racial, and inequality gaps that have emerged under President Trump’s watch. This is going to be an energetic campaign. Buckle up!