With the Democratic National Convention less than a week away, Joe Biden finally announced that Sen. Kamala Harris will be his running mate. Harris is the choice that many predicted he would make, an accomplished Democrat, and an established household name who polls well with Biden supporters. She brings an impressive legislative record and killer charisma. In her short-lived presidential campaign, she was energetic and showed a penchant for zingers and quick comebacks, and picked up momentum when she challenged Biden during a debate on his busing record with a moving personal anecdote about her own history with segregated schools.
Becoming not only the first woman vice president, but also the first Black and the first Asian vice president would undoubtedly be an historic achievement contributing to more equitable political representation. If she and Biden win, Harris will have overcome not only long-held skepticism of women in power but also the white supremacist structure that has shut out candidates like herself from major party positions. That deserves a moment of acknowledgement — and celebration — for Harris, her allies in Congress and on the campaign trail, and many Americans.
"Vice President Biden is proud to announce Senator Harris as his running mate and believes she will be a great partner," according to the campaign. "He knows what is needed to be a successful Vice President, and he picked the right person for the job. From getting to know her through his friendship with his son Beau to seeing her take on Trump on the campaign trail, Joe knows she is the kind of leader he wants by his side. The American people — and women across the country — agree she is the kind of leader our nation needs right now who will fight on their behalf and will be ready on day one."
However, it’s hard for some to celebrate this nomination in a full-throated way. For many people — including many Democrats — Biden’s candidacy is already compromised because of his record on issues like banking and crime and treatment of women. To some, Biden’s offering of what is arguably the second-highest position of power in the country feels like handing out crumbs, and the reasons for that are both straightforward and frustrating.
The shadow of the 2016 election and the 2020 primary: Despite being leagues more qualified and capable than her counterpart, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost the election while also facing a barrage of sexist attacks. The framing surrounding her historic run as the first woman candidate of a major political party was incredibly gendered, from Trump’s “nasty woman” comment, to the horrifying shirts worn at Trump rallies, to the outsized media focus on her perceived physical weaknesses. This VP pick is also haunted by the shameful process of the 2020 Democratic primary, during which voters were constantly told that, amid a slate of competent women candidates, it was Joe Biden who was the only electable pick. This reinforced the idea that women are not viable as presidential candidates, and are best used in supporting roles.
The announcement: In March during a Democratic debate, Biden announced that his VP pick would be a woman so his administration will “look like the country.” Rather than the empowering olive branch he likely intended, his announcement was seen by many as a symbolic, but ultimately hollow move.
The statements from Biden staff: Throughout the last few weeks of the “Veepstakes,” statements from within Biden’s campaign itself were made to indicate that this woman’s power will come with conditions. For example:
- Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Biden’s VP search committee, reportedly campaigned against Harris, saying “she had no remorse” when she attacked Biden at the debate.
- Some of Biden’s advisers reportedly said they don’t want a running mate who is positioned to succeed him, or who would overshadow him. This is strange given that he’d be the oldest serving president in history if elected.
Sexism from the media: While right-wing media is known for its sexist coverage, mainstream outlets also often portray women candidates as more emotional, more prone to lying, or as less capable of leadership. Women’s organizations recently wrote a letter to the media detailing advice on how to overcome these biases. Unfortunately, while these efforts are laudable (and a welcome correction to what happened in 2016), they will still be ignored by many. (See: L.A. Times’ cringe-worthy Bachelor headline.) One way in which this has played out is the recent framing of Harris as devious (again, “She had no remorse”) in her questioning of Biden on his busing record, when she was asking a legitimate question — and playing politics, as might be expected of a politician. In contrast, Rep. Karen Bass, who was recently rumored to be a top VP option, has been framed as a non-threatening “worker bee” who wouldn’t cause trouble for Biden. These characterizations aren’t just untrue, they’re also damaging. Reportedly, the Biden campaign is trying to get ahead of the sexist coverage and “defend” the nominee, but it remains to be seen how this plays out. Additionally, the idea of having to “protect” a woman nominee takes on an unmistakably patriarchal tone.
Biden’s baggage on women: Inevitably, Harris will spend significant energy answering for Biden's record when it comes to women and Black Americans, including his treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault, and his flip-flopping on the Hyde Amendment. As a Black woman, she will also be asked to defend his record of working with segregationists — a point that Harris has brought up against Biden during debates. And as a former prosecutor, she will be pressured to appear focused on “law and order,” which will be complicated given that she’s already garnered criticism for her prosecutorial record from criminal justice advocates, and potentially alienate the left wing of the party. At the same time, Trump will inevitably go after Biden and Harris for being “soft on crime.” It will be uncomfortable, ugly, and ultimately unfair.
And, of course, attacks from Trump. Can any woman in the spotlight who opposes him really avoid these? He has already wasted no time calling her “horrible,” “disrespectful,” and “extraordinarily nasty” in relation to her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination hearings.
In some ways, all of this is the perfect encapsulation of what it’s like to be a woman in 2020: Life is a Catch-22 for those who vie for power. If you want it, you’re not supposed to show it. And once you get it, you’ll be attacked for it. Congratulations Kamala, but also we’re so, so sorry.