Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his Democratic vice-presidential running mate in November’s American election is by turns audacious and cautious, radical and conservative, historic and same-old. Nevertheless, although there were several other qualified candidates for the role, Harris is likely to prove a smart choice.
You can see this, in a brief and minor way, by the tsunami of abuse and contempt from Donald Trump and his supporters that didn’t materialise after the announcement on Wednesday. With next week’s mainly virtual Democratic convention in Milwaukee days away, the vice-presidential pick was always going to open a window of opportunity for Trump to get into the Biden henhouse and make trouble. That hasn’t happened yet – though doubtless he will try. But it suggests Harris was not the pick Trump had been hoping for.
Even on day one, the choice reminds us that Biden is very serious about winning the election. But the radical and historic aspects of Harris’s place on the ticket cannot be passed over as mere add-ons. Biden announced months ago that he would choose a female running mate. But Harris will still be only the fourth woman on a major party ticket in US history following Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Her three female predecessors were all defeated. If she is elected, Harris would prove once and for all that women can win. The choice suggests that Biden, the lifelong Washington pragmatist, recognises the power of female voters to his party and that men are ready to help elect a woman too.
But Biden has also chosen the first woman of colour on a major party presidential ticket. That’s hardly a minor milestone in US history, as recent events underscore. Nor was it a foregone conclusion. There were qualified alternatives available, including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.
But a summer dominated by the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movement would have been a catastrophically bad moment to pick another white candidate. Biden also came under a lot of pressure at the business end of the process to choose a black woman. It was a timely reminder of something he knows better than anyone – namely, how much his own nomination owes to black voters, who brought his campaign back from the dead in February’s South Carolina primary. Once again, the pragmatist has revealed an openness to new ways that some might have thought beyond him.