Kamala Harris takes the spotlight as vice-presidential candidate: A moment for her and history

Like every vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris will be judged in the coming weeks in a multitude of ways: Her ability as a campaigner, and her skill at drawing in Trump, debating Mike Pence and exciting turnout among voters etc

The New York Times August 20, 2020 07:16:56 IST
Kamala Harris takes the spotlight as vice-presidential candidate: A moment for her and history

Kamala Harris stands before the Democratic Party as the bridge between a moderate generation of leaders and younger liberals on the rise, balancing the obligations of promoting Joe Biden while offering herself to someday lead the party into a post-Biden era.

Pressures, hopes, aspirations — this was the burden on Harris at the Democratic convention Wednesday, as she sought to introduce herself to a nation and a party that really barely knows her. But this is also the burden that will be on her for the next four years if she and Biden win in November.

Rarely has a vice-presidential candidate served under a presidential nominee who well may not seek a second term. As a result, Harris carries an extraordinary weight of expectations from her party to rise to the demands of leadership.

“That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a person,” said Tim Kaine, the Virginia senator who was the vice-presidential candidate for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the tumultuous tent that is the ever-changing Democratic Party, he said, there was no one person Biden could have chosen who would appeal to everyone.

“There’s no way that you’re going to get, in this broad family, like everybody like, ‘Oh, you were my first pick’,” he said, even as he spoke enthusiastically about Harris.

If anything, the first two days of the convention were about the party trying to paper over any kinds of disagreements, aiming to present a united front of moderates and progressives, as well as some Republicans and democratic socialists. With elaborate videos and stage-managed speeches, Democrats showcased diversity — racial, gender, age — while nominating a 77-year-old White grandfather from Delaware as their standard-bearer. Party leaders gave small slots to liberals, though barely gave a platform to their policy goals like “Medicare for All.”

For the time being, the party’s desire to beat President Donald Trump overrides all over factors. But if the Democrats succeed, Trump will be gone, and the challenge of satisfying the many constituent parts of the Democratic Party will become only more difficult for Harris, the figure who is supposed to be that bridge for generations and the face of the party’s future.

Like every vice-presidential candidate, Harris will be judged in the coming weeks in a multitude of ways: Her ability as a campaigner, and her skill at drawing in Trump, debating Mike Pence and exciting turnout among voters — particularly younger voters and progressives — who might not be overly enthusiastic about turning out in a pandemic to support Biden.

But as a woman of colour seeking an office held only by White men so far, she may also be judged by some in ways that reflect deep-seated biases that remain strong in segments of the country. Harris, in remarks prepared for delivery at the convention, took this subject on directly for her Democratic audience, and it is probably not the last time she will need to address it in the months ahead.

“We must elect a president who will bring something different, something better, and do the important work,” she planned to say. “A president who will bring all of us together — Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indigenous — to achieve the future we collectively want. We must elect Joe Biden.”

She now faces some daunting tests as she steps into the biggest spotlight of her career at a pivotal moment for the nation and her party.

Can Harris, a former prosecutor and relatively moderate Democrat, navigate the complex political terrain marked by a rapid transformation in ideology, powered by the rise on the Left, and on the verge of a generational handoff?

Given Biden’s age, does the first-term Democratic senator from California, whose career in public service began 16 years ago as the San Francisco district attorney, seem prepared to step into the Oval Office should that be necessary?

She would be the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to ever serve as vice-president, and the power of such a historically symbolic choice was evident in the excitement that greeted her selection and has coursed through this convention (albeit virtually). After a primary that was dominated by two White men and one White woman, all over 70 years old, the election of a 55-year-old woman of colour signalled that the Democratic Party’s leadership is catching up with the demographic changes that have swept the country.

She has shown herself to be a fierce debater and sharp speaker during her short-lived campaign for president and, even more, as a member of the Judiciary Committee questioning Attorney-General William Barr. There is little doubt in Democratic circles that she will live up to the tradition of vice-presidential candidates wielding the sword against the other side.

“Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods,” she planned to say. “The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid. The callousness makes us feel alone. It’s a lot.”

But even the toughest campaign in California doesn’t approach what it’s like battling on a national stage, particularly in a nation as polarised as this one, and particularly in the age of Trump. She has had competitive contests in California, but her presidential campaign collapsed early, beset by infighting and a lack of clear message from its candidate.

Patti Solis Doyle, who served as a campaign manager for Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, pointed to the surge of contributions that followed Harris’ announcement — $48 million in 48 hours — as a sign of the enthusiasm she infused into the presidential race, and evidence of what she brought to the ticket.

“It’s fair to say she’s really energised the race, the ticket, and people — voters, Democrats — are excited at the prospect of the first African-American woman, the first American-Indian woman on a national ticket,” said Solis Doyle of Harris, who is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica.

Kaine said Harris could help the ticket expand its generational appeal, engaging Americans who feel it’s time for a new guard even as some older voters have indicated that they are comfortable with Biden’s centrist views and promises to restore civility and stability to government.

“There’s a segment of the Democratic vote, not all of this, but a segment that may be a little bit older that just wants competence and character and kind of old-time virtues to come back into the Oval Office,” he said. “You also want to have some excitement and energy. And Kamala really brings that.”

But her bigger challenge — for Harris as a candidate, potential vice president and future party leader — is how she responds to the rising influence of the left wing of the party. Biden won the Democratic primary on his strengths with Black voters, older voters across the board and White suburbanites, but younger and more liberal voters overall were sceptical of his Centre-Left instincts and embrace of bipartisanship, of which they were reminded of with the awarding of prime speaking spots Monday and Tuesday to Republicans backing Biden.

And while Harris, as a product of California, is more fluent in the language of the Left than Biden, her selection did not reassure many liberal Democrats, wary of her record on criminal justice and policing issues.

“She’s the choice of the party establishment to be the standard-bearer, but she’s not the choice of the party’s base, especially the next generation of Democrats,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for the prominent progressive organisation Justice Democrats. He praised her record on climate issues but said he was concerned that she had not denounced economic inequality and “oligarchy” with the vigour of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont or another liberal candidate in the primary, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the most prominent leaders of the progressive wing, never mentioned Biden or Harris when she spoke for 90 seconds nominating Sanders on Tuesday night.

That dissent has been largely submerged during this convention, testimony to the party’s hunger to defeat Trump. But that will change if the Democrats win. Harris will need to finesse this divide or risk a primary from the Left should the time come when she is the one running for president.

“The key issues for progressives are Medicare for All, a wealth tax, a commitment to free college tuition,” said California Representative Ro Khanna, a leader of the Sanders campaign. “The best way to win over progressives is to take bold positions on policy. Progressives, my experience, they are not as interested in the theatre of politics.”

Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led group of climate activists, said Harris’ nomination was a historic moment that excited Democrats across generational and ideological spectra.

“I think Harris could represent one way in which the future of the Democratic Party is headed,” she said. “But the Democratic Party has far more ideological diversity that goes beyond the Harris ticket.”

Harris does not appear to have any such doubts. She has been elevated by Biden to national stature, embraced by many in the party, and celebrated at a convention. Things will surely get more difficult in the weeks and, should she win, the years ahead. But for now, addressing Democrats with a message about unity and the future in the midst of a pandemic, presenting herself as a new leader of the party to a nation facing an unnerving future, this was Kamala Harris’ moment.

Adam Nagourney and Katie Glueck c.2020 The New York Times Company

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