The news of Joe Biden’s Vice-Presidential pick, when it finally came, arrived by a cheery text sent a little after 4:15 p.m. Tuesday to the campaign’s supporters. “Joe Biden here. Big news: I’ve chosen Kamala Harris as my running mate. Together, we’ll beat Donald Trump.” It was big, important, historic news—Harris is the first African-American woman and first person of Asian descent to be nominated to a major-party national ticket—and yet, in the moment, it was dimmed by the enforced anti-spectacle of Zoom. On cable television, ex-senators and columnists squinted and grinned from their home offices and tried to think of something helpful to say. Next week, instead of appearing at a convention hall in Milwaukee, Biden, Harris, and a long roster of Democratic National Convention speakers will weigh in via online video. Picking a running mate lost some of its pageantry and corporeality, but not its significance. Biden, who is seventy-seven, has said throughout this campaign that he is just a “transitional” figure—a generational bridge. Now we know a bit more about who may come next.
The year began with the Democrats scattered and a little frantic. The early primaries revealed a stark generational divide over who would lead the Party and, beneath that, a more profound one over what the Party wanted. Fourteen months ago, at the first Democratic debate, Harris criticized Biden’s efforts to claim credit for working with segregationists, and his history of opposing mandated busing in order to integrate schools. “It was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two U.S. senators who built their careers and reputations on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said, and then evoked an image of her childhood, as “a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools.”
As Biden floundered, and as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren ascended, more moderate Democrats cast about for an alternative. During the winter, there were flurries of enthusiasm for Pete Buttigieg, in Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar, in New Hampshire. Then, in February, when Biden was losing momentum and Sanders seemed, narrowly, the front-runner, the veteran South Carolina representative James Clyburn gave a crucial endorsement to Biden. “We know Joe,” Clyburn said to Black Democrats in South Carolina. “But, more importantly, Joe knows us.” Clyburn remembered long conversations with Biden not just about Brown v. Board of Education but also about the lawsuits over school segregation that produced it, one originating in Clyburn’s South Carolina and another in Biden’s Delaware. Clyburn said, “I know this man. I know what’s in his heart.” Biden went on to win forty-eight per cent of the vote in South Carolina and a large majority of Black voters; no other candidate surpassed twenty per cent. That was February 29th; by March 8th, the former candidates Harris and Beto O’Rourke had endorsed Biden, and Buttigieg and Klobuchar had dropped out and done the same.
Now Biden’s selection of Harris has lent his campaign a thematic clarity that it didn’t have before. In a year of calamities whose effects have been especially painful in Black communities—the coronavirus pandemic, massive unemployment stemming from enforced shutdowns, and the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis—each of the signal moments of Biden’s campaign has concerned the legacy of the civil-rights movement. Late last month, Barack Obama, who has kept a low profile throughout the campaign, appeared at Martin Luther King’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church to eulogize the Democratic congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis, interweaving the language of the civil-rights movement with that of the Democratic Party. Lewis’s life, Obama said, had “vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love.” Obama noticed the image of King’s movement in the Black Lives Matter marches in the streets. He also struck some transactional notes, endorsing an electoral-reform package and the abolition of the Senate filibuster if that was preventing its passage, and suggesting that the righteous path included statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The line on Biden has always been that he lacked vision. Here was the Party’s great visionary, lending him one.
Pollsters will tell you that, despite Biden’s long career in politics, his candidacy has been undefined. It lacks a clear economic message, for starters—“Build Back Better” isn’t winning any propaganda awards. At his campaign events, back when there were campaign events, his focus often wandered; at times, he sat down before the end and let a surrogate deliver the closing case for him. In contrast, Harris came through vividly in her campaign’s version of her biography: an early life adjacent to the political militancy of Oakland, with a Jamaican-American father and an Indian-American mother, both academics; participating in civil-rights marches as a child and as a young woman at Howard; law school at the University of California and an effort, as San Francisco’s District Attorney, to reform the criminal-justice system from the inside; and, finally, as a politician, the practice of eternal crusade. Other contenders in the Democratic primaries—Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro—dove deep into policy, mastering it, but it was often hard to understand just what Harris’s plans were. She went back and forth about whether she supported Sanders’s vision of Medicare for All. She tried to argue that she had fought as California’s attorney general for ordinary citizens against predatory financial institutions, but that was Warren’s turf. Her effort to position herself as a criminal-justice reformer was undermined by the Party’s activist wing, which pointed out her consistent preference for policing and carceral solutions. In a chaotic race eventually decided by Black voters, Harris drew such little interest and money that she dropped out nearly two months before the first primary.
Political lives, lately, have had unexpected late acts. Until his seventies, Bernie Sanders was a gadfly. When he was nearly a senior citizen, Donald Trump was donating to Anthony Weiner (as dissident Republican operatives like to point out). Biden himself ran for the Presidency in 1988 and then again in 2008, each time scraping along in the single digits. Credit to Biden: nearing eighty, having spent decades telling his father’s story, about the shame of unemployment, he has realized this year that he has to tell someone else’s—about the long fight for equality of the Black voters and leaders who have formed his base. He has pledged to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. Now he has picked another, a senator who defined her political career around campaigns for justice, as his running mate. The Harris choice is not an ideological commitment but a thematic one—to the civil-rights tradition and its politics.
Biden sometimes mentions that his deceased son, Beau, had worked closely with Harris when both were their states’ attorneys general, but he himself is not obviously close with his new running mate. Some of Biden’s allies, especially the former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, reportedly spent time in recent weeks pitilessly—and, arguably, misogynistically—criticizing Harris’s alleged lack of “remorse” after she turned on Biden in that early debate. But the two running mates aren’t so dissimilar. Each carries some of the shine of the spotlight; each can be a little hard to pin down. It makes sense that the news of Harris’s nomination arrived by text, with the big pageant delayed. Harris, like Biden, has carefully stayed at the center of her party. And, like him, she has understood that definition can wait.