Presidential debates do not always pack a punch, despite efforts by debate questioners to provoke a rhetorical fight. Or two or three.
But memorable provocations from various Democratic debate stages last year included the exchange on school busing between candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. A product of community busing to desegregate Berkeley, California, public schools as a child, Harris swiped at Biden for opposing, in the 1970s, those desegregation efforts. While Biden implied his objection was grounded in federal versus state autonomy, the exchange established a not-so-subtle portrait of Biden as the white old-timer in Washington and Harris as the Black, younger, accomplished woman with a story to tell. He was the former senator who once worked with segregationists; she was the child who would grow up experiencing the hurdles of inequality.
Those dueling portraits morphed into a unity campaign Tuesday with Biden’s announcement of Harris as his vice presidential running mate. As any smooth and well-resourced rollout would include, the Biden-Harris campaign websites merged instantly, featuring glowing photos of them together, smiling, arms hitched, no whiff of the grueling early primary exchange between the pair. That’s how it goes when a presidential nominee chooses a former adversary for the No. 2 slot.
Among the key underlying questions as the race for the White House heats up: Will Harris on the ticket help Biden win crucial Midwest states that could sideline President Donald Trump? Do VP picks hold much sway anyway? We’re not thinking about reliably blue Illinois, but Michigan and Wisconsin, which both went for Trump by tiny margins in 2016, and Ohio, which polls show is close this year.
After a weekend of rampant looting in Chicago, amid the lingering coronavirus pandemic, during a summer of violence dominating nightly newscasts and tension over the role of police, the selection of Harris, a former district attorney and attorney general, slides into the “good timing” category. If voters here are searching for a law-and-order candidate, Harris can stack her resume against the incumbent president’s.
During the primary election, she was forced to defend her record in law enforcement. Progressives bristled at the notion of an aggressive prosecutor running for the nomination. And while she will continue to reap criticism from the far left wing of her party for her role prosecuting defendants, any willingness she shows to move toward the center would hold the potential to draw more centrist Midwesterners. These are voters who were willing to give Trump a chance the first time — but who have grown disillusioned; Trump voters from 2016 who are simply exhausted by the sharp partisan divisions he magnifies with his tweets and his rhetoric. Can she bring them over?
Harris cannot claim to be a moderate Democrat. But her record as a prosecutor and attorney general could be the nudge that reluctant, more conservative-leaning Democrats and independents would embrace.
Harris will showcase her American story as the daughter of immigrants. Her father, Donald Harris, born in Jamaica, came to California as a young man to study, as did her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, from India. They divorced when she was young, but their stories as successful academics who achieved the American dream is a story above partisan implications.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s first female Black mayor, told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC that she “burst out in a huge grin” when she learned of the Harris pick. “She’s tough,” Lightfoot said, according to Politico, “she’s fearless and more importantly she’s going to bring into the conversation lots of people who are looking to her as a leader and will see themselves in her and will be proud that she is on the stage at a national level.”
Harris was seen as a front-runner to join Biden, and now that his decision has been announced, party faithful have plenty of reasons to feel energized. Next, it will be up to Biden and Harris to build a convincing case that a broader coalition should join their cause.