Debra Thompson is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
Joe Biden finally announced his pick for the vice-presidential nomination: Senator Kamala Harris. After Mr. Biden promised, in March, that he would choose a woman as his running mate, Ms. Harris was always at the top of a fairly short list.
She has all the right credentials. She’s a former attorney-general of California and a current U.S. senator – only the second Black woman to ever serve in the Senate, in fact. She ran a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination that eclipsed several other impressive candidates, including Cory Booker and Julian Castro, and gave solid debate performances every time. She stayed in the race long enough to make a splash on the national stage and got out with plenty of time to endorse Mr. Biden, without seeming as though she had been angling for a cabinet position all along.
The general consensus is that Ms. Harris is Mr. Biden’s best bet as a vice-presidential pick. And in case we need reminding, this political wager isn’t just on the four years that will follow the 2020 election. It’s about whether the United States will be able to recover from COVID-19. It will likely decide at least two replacements on the Supreme Court and will shape the direction of American jurisprudence for a generation. This electoral gamble will determine whether the Donald Trump presidency will be written about by future historians as the last dying breath of a coalition that seethes with racial resentment, or if the worst is yet to come.
Ms. Harris is Mr. Biden’s best bet and it is a monumental, incredible, historic moment for Black women, who are frequently forgotten or neglected by the Democratic Party, even as they are its most loyal base.
Ms. Harris is Mr. Biden’s best bet, but Mr. Biden isn’t just betting on Ms. Harris. He’s betting, as he has since the beginning of his candidacy, on Barack Obama.
It’s fairly obvious that the Biden campaign’s not-so-secret weapon is Mr. Obama. The former president is still immensely popular and every public appearance puts him in stark contrast to the sheer ineptitude of the current president. The former vice-president regularly reminds us he was right there, beside Mr. Obama, for eight years.
Ms. Harris also campaigned on a connection to Mr. Obama, but one that was more pragmatic than personal. During the debates she argued that in order to win the election, Democrats need to rebuild the “Obama coalition” of young and diverse voters, which she was primed to do. Like Mr. Obama, Ms. Harris is young (for a politician), charismatic, whip-smart and not anywhere close to being progressive. Like Mr. Obama, Ms. Harris will happily use the rhetoric of race when it suits her, especially in her efforts to win favour with Black voters.
Of course, Ms. Harris and Mr. Obama are not interchangeable. Nor should we see Ms. Harris as a purely symbolic choice; she was a real contender for the Democratic nomination, and will probably make a presidential run in 2024. But for now, Mr. Biden is betting that Ms. Harris can channel at least some of Mr. Obama’s motivational momentum. This might not be possible in the post-Obama era.
It is 2020, and a Black woman was announced as the Democratic nominee’s vice-presidential pick nearly six years to the day after the Ferguson protests added the phrase “Black Lives Matter” to our collective vocabulary. There will be a Black woman on a presidential ticket in 2020, the same year uprisings spread like wildfire across American cities and around the world – the biggest, most diverse and longest lasting that we’ve ever seen.
A Black woman is running for vice-president of the United States, but as the former top prosecutor in California, she bears responsibility for many of the injustices that ignited the protests in the first place. A Black woman could be the vice-president, but it’s been five months since Breonna Taylor was killed by plainclothes police officers who barged, unannounced, into her home, and they have yet to be held accountable.
It is 2020, and Mr. Obama’s campaign slogans – “hope,” “change” and “forward” – now ring a little hollow. Representation is important, but in the post-Obama era, we know that Black faces in high places won’t stop police brutality. We will need more than the message that “diversity is our strength” to win over the vulnerable communities being ravaged by COVID-19. And after the American government blatantly failed its citizenry over the past six months, it’s unlikely that the ideological mainstream of a Biden/Harris ticket is the rallying cry that will mobilize voters to defeat Mr. Trump.
But Joe Biden’s all in, and so are the rest of us. Because if Donald Trump is re-elected this November, all bets are off.
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