The senator has been criticized for seeming too ambitious — but that's kind of the point.
By Caitlin Flynn
After months of speculation, Joe Biden has announced that U.S. Senator and former Democratic candidate for president Kamala Harris will be his running mate when he takes on President Donald Trump in November. The pair will officially accept the nomination during the party’s virtual convention this week, making Harris the first Black woman and the first Indian American to run on a major party’s presidential ticket.
Sarah Purcell, a professor of history at Grinnell College in Iowa who specializes in the vice presidency, emphasizes the importance of this historic moment. “As only the second-ever Black woman elected senator, she well understands trailblazing, and she brings an effective set of credentials and accomplishments to the table,” Purcell tells InStyle. “She’s been a tenacious critic of the Trump administration whose prosecutorial experience brings a real edge to the ticket. Having Harris as vice president would certainly be pathbreaking.”
It’s indeed a historic and exciting moment, but Harris is already up against both sexist and racist attacks. When Biden announced that his running mate would be a woman, political talking heads and the media immediately began scrutinizing everyone on the list through a decidedly sexist lens. As reported by Politico, Chris Dodd — a member of Biden’s search committee — pushed for Karen Bass because she would be “a loyal No. 2” and criticized Harris for having “no remorse” about confronting Biden about busing at the first debate. The subtext was clear: Dodd believed Bass would be more deferential to Biden, and Harris owes her running mate an apology for daring to do her job on the debate stage as she vied for the nomination herself.
The comparisons didn’t stop there. Feminist journalist Rebecca Traister pointed to numerous comments — from former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to CNN pundits — that directly pitted the two women against one another. Villaraigosa praised Bass for being a “worker bee” who had no interest in “[being] in front of a camera.” Politico went as far as to describe her as “the anti-Kamala Harris,” prompting Bass to issue a statement that praised Harris and clarified that she, in fact, does not want to be labeled the “anti-Kamala.”
“To start, in ensuring that all contenders were female, Biden set up a cat-fight narrative for a media always salivating to cover one,” Traister wrote. And then, of course, is the issue of the allegations of sexual assault and unwanted touching against Biden. While he has denied all accusations of inappropriate behavior, many wondered whether his female VP would be forced to answer for them. How could, in the post #MeToo era, a woman support a man whose history isn't spotless?
In the end Biden chose Harris, who has presidential aspirations and doesn’t shun the cameras as women politicians are apparently expected to do. She's even addressed the allegations against him, telling reporters, "I believe [the accusers], and I respect them being able to tell their story and having the courage to do it."
In the coming months, we can certainly expect an onslaught of racist attacks, too. Trump has wasted no time in peddling yet another racist birther conspiracy theory, baselessly suggesting that Harris “wasn’t born in this country.”
But the 55-year-old is well-equipped to overcome these obstacles, and, ultimately, it comes down to whether or not she can give Biden the boost he needs to cross the finish line. Key voters who have the potential to swing the election are already expressing their excitement to support a ticket featuring Harris. A flash poll conducted by Politico found that 53% of voters approve of the choice, compared to 29% who disapprove. More importantly, key voting blocs expressed their approval. Eighty-four percent of Democrats and 79% of Black voters approve. Harris also earned majority support in every age bracket except voters between the ages of 45 and 64. As for independents, 44% approve compared to 27% who disapprove (28% have no opinion). A Reuters/Ipsos poll also showed a favorable view of Harris as vice president, with nearly nine out of 10 Democrats responding that they approve of the nomination. The same poll found that Harris is more popular than her running mate among key demographics that have the power to determine the outcome of the election: Women, young voters, and some Republicans.
Meanwhile, Biden and Harris are focused on getting to work to ensure a November victory. They’ve established a strong partnership built on mutual respect that will be invaluable during the campaign and, if all goes according to plan, the Biden administration. Biden and Harris’ skill sets and leadership styles complement each other, and experts say Harris is the perfect person to step up in areas where Biden is lacking. For example, one of Biden’s weaknesses is his tendency to wander off-topic, or fumble his words on sensitive subjects during public speaking engagements. Eboni Taylor, Michigan Executive Director of the Mothering Justice Action Fund, says this is another area where Harris will benefit Biden’s campaign and his eventual presidency. “She’s always on target with messaging and with being very clear,” says Taylor. “If she’s in a tough spot, she knows how to transition well. When Biden gets stuck, he’s just stuck and it gets worse.”
Historically, vice presidents haven’t had a significant impact on the outcome of an election, but 2020 will likely be an exception. All eyes have been on the Biden camp as pundits and voters waited for his decision — especially because he vowed to pick a woman running mate during a March 15 primary debate. Furthermore, Biden’s age means that the vice president will need to be poised to step in and govern at a moment’s notice. If he defeats Trump, the former vice president will be 78 years old on Inauguration Day, making him the oldest president in history. Furthermore, Biden himself has alluded to being a one-term president by describing himself as a “transition candidate” — meaning the VP will likely be in prime position to seek the nomination herself in 2024. However, that hasn’t stopped critics from claiming that Harris is “too ambitious” and “will be solely focused on becoming president herself” while in office.
“That’s pure sexism,” says Purcell, adding that she personally doubts Biden is concerned about Harris gunning to be his successor. “The whole point of the vice presidency is that the person is ready to be president,” she explains. “So anyone who complains that this candidate is too ready to be president misses the point.”
Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, tells InStyle that Biden is a “curious learner” who is open and eager to hear differing viewpoints. Kumar interacted with him on numerous occasions when she was part of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and says the worst choice for his VP would have been someone who’s afraid to speak up in situations where they disagree — and that’s certainly not something we have to worry about with Harris. There was even speculation that her criticism of Biden’s opposition to mandatory school busing during the first Democratic primary debate on June 27, 2019 could have cost her the VP slot. However, Biden clearly sees Harris’ ability to challenge him as a strength rather than a weakness. Let’s not forget, too, that during a later debate she took Biden to task for his previous support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars using federal funds for abortions and disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income women.
At their first joint appearance in Delaware on Aug. 12, Biden emphasized the importance of Harris’s involvement when any big decision is made. He recounted a conversation he had with President Obama when he agreed to be his running mate. “He asked me what I wanted most,” said Biden. “I told him that I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions. That's what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room."
The voters we spoke to expressed that, overall, they’re pleased that Harris is the nominee. Kenny*, a 38-year-old Vietnamese immigrant in San Diego, tells InStyle that she’s extremely happy with the choice because Harris has always been in the forefront among the women who really inspire her. “She represents the new Democrats, who are liberal and progressive,” says Kenny, adding that Harris's ethnic background and her parents' immigrant histories, are a plus for a voter like herself.
Kristin Wallace, a 37-year-old biracial woman in Boston, says she’s “thrilled” that Harris is Biden’s running mate. “She was my top choice for him,” Kristin tells InStyle. “I think Kamala Harris brings such positive energy to the ticket as well as much needed diversity. She is articulate and experienced, which are qualities severely lacking in the current administration.”
Representative Anna V. Eskamani, a 30-year-old Iranian-American in Orlando who serves in the Florida Legislature, says that although Harris wasn’t her top choice, she was impressed with her “fantastic” performance during the debates, and recognizes that the senator is an inspiration to many. “My hope is that progressives vote for this Democratic pair, while also continuing to move the needle on issues like mass incarceration, police brutality, and economic justice,” says Eskamani. “I am definitely more enthusiastic to have a woman of color on the ticket and consider her to be a safe choice for the Biden team.”
In an Instagram post that quickly went viral, Ava DuVernay responded to Harris’s nomination in a similar manner. After recounting the atrocities that have occurred under the Trump administration, DuVernay wrote that now is the time to support Harris rather than gripe about why she wasn’t your top choice. “I don’t wanna hear anything bad about her. It doesn’t matter to me. Vote them in and then let’s hold them accountable. Anything other than that is insanity. It’s ego. It’s against our own interests. It’s selfish. It’s disrespectful to our elders. It’s nonsense,” DuVernay wrote. “It’s talking to hear yourself talk. This is a matter of life or death. We need all our energy focused. This is a fight for more than can be expressed here. There is no debate anymore. Not for me anyway.”
Like many Democrats, Jennifer Longo, a 48-year-old white woman in Seattle who supported Harris in the primary, vowed to back Biden the moment he became the presumptive nominee. But she’s much more enthusiastic to cast her vote now that Harris is on the ticket. One major reason for this is the message it sends to Longo’s teenage daughter.
“Harris as VP means my young daughter, who is Asian-American and already well-versed in being subjected to the lies of racism and misogyny, can see in Kamala Harris the truth; that women, Black and indigenous women, all women of color, are the true soul, heart and backbone of this nation, and always have been, and that they deserve equal respect and human rights,” says Longo. She also notes that Harris consistently lifts up her female colleagues and encourages girls and women to embrace their power. “Kamala Harris’s life of dedicated service to humanity tells my daughter she has the right — in fact the obligation – to use her power, talent and strength to help make the world better in any way she can.”
Kumar also expressed joy about both the milestone of Harris’s nomination and the message it sends to her own young daughter. "[Biden’s] selection of a friend and Voto Latino supporter speaks to his leadership and of bridging our futures. Senator Harris' bi-cultural immigrant roots, her personal story of hard work rising through the ranks speaks to our nation's aspiration: her selection helps us come closer to fulfilling America's promise,” she tells InStyle. “Having Kamala on the national ticket, millions of little girls, my daughter included, woke up yesterday knowing that her ambition can never be too big."
Other voters said their excitement is tempered by valid concerns that racism could impact the Biden campaign, especially in the midst of a world-reckoning of race. Christine A., a 30-year-old African American woman in Miami, says she had mixed feelings when she learned that Harris would be on the ticket.
“I was happy in a sense because it showed me how far as a nation we have come to have a Black woman on the ticket, but I was also scared at the same time for the fate of the Biden campaign,” she tells InStyle. During such a volatile time in our country’s history, Christine questions whether America is prepared to move the needle by accepting a Black woman as vice president. She’s also concerned about the issue of “electability” — a phrase that has plagued women candidates since the beginning of time, while it’s rarely applied to men running for office. “Is she electable during such a tumultuous time when racial tensions are at an all-time high? Unlike the other campaigns I've experienced in my lifetime, this one is the most serious because as a Black woman, this campaign is a matter of life and death,” Christine tells InStyle. “To me, Kamala Harris serves as a symbol of hope for minorities and women, and I pray that America sees her the same way.”
*Last name withheld for privacy.