US presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris gives him a running mate who can appeal to African American voters who are core to Biden’s base of support and serve as a fierce critic of President Donald Trump’s record in office.
A former top state prosecutor in California, Senator Harris brings a law-and-order career record that will help Biden steer a tricky, centrist line between Black Lives Matter protesters and white Americans who worry about attacks on police funding.
At the same time, picking a woman who competed with Biden during the presidential primaries and attacked him memorably on race during a debate, shows Biden asserting a degree of self-confidence that he can forge a cooperative, working relationship with her, political analysts told Al Jazeera.
“Biden faced unprecedented pressure to pick a Black woman,” said John Jackson, a professor at the Public Policy Institute of the University of Southern Illinois.
“He wanted someone who is going to command some respect and will balance the ticket with demographic characteristics of gender and race,” Jackson said.
“And he wanted somebody who he has personal chemistry with that is good,” he said.
I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 11, 2020
Indeed, Biden’s selection of Harris is unprecedented and a high-risk moment for his campaign both in that Harris is a woman, and she is Black. It is only the third time in US history a woman has been selected as a vice-presidential candidate, and the first time a Black person has been selected for that role.
How the selection plays out during the next week and during the upcoming Democratic National Convention will serve to define the personality of the Democratic ticket in November’s election. President Trump, Republicans and his campaign can be expected to attack Harris and Biden’s choice, which says as much about him as it does Harris.
The choice of a running mate is one of the first big decisions that the public gets to see a presidential candidate make. Sometimes, candidates make mistakes. John McCain took a political risk in 2008 picking Sarah Palin, who proved to be a controversial campaigner, and Walter Mondale in 1984 chose Geraldine Ferraro. In both cases, the selections were surprises that did not play well with voters.
In contrast, Biden’s process has been almost painfully public and deliberate, with the names of nearly a dozen women on his list circulating for weeks in the media to speculation from all sides about their respective qualifications. It has been compared, not favourably, to the reality TV show The Bachelor.
In 2000, George W Bush picked an older adviser in Dick Cheney who had served in his father’s administration and who Bush had actually tapped to lead the vice presidential search. The choice telegraphed that Bush the son would draw from this father’s coterie of advisers and served to reassure older Republicans who were uneasy with his youthfulness.
In 1988, George HW Bush had picked Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, who immediately drew criticism as lacking sufficient executive experience and whose tenure in office was marked by comic moments.
In 1960, a young John F Kennedy selected Lyndon Johnson from Texas, who was the Senate majority leader at the time. The pick helped bring voters from Texas and the southwest that turned out to be critical to Kennedy’s election.
“Harris is a more logical choice than anyone else,” said Paul Beck, a professor of political science at Ohio State University.
“African Americans have played such an important part in his nomination and are going to be such an important base for him going forward in the election,” Beck said.
“It is also important that he designate someone who is perceptibly younger than him,” Beck said.
Biden is 77, and his age has been visible in campaign events. He has occasionally stumbled over his words, leading to speculation about mental decline, although he suffers from a lifelong speech impediment. Trump has picked up on the perceived weakness and regularly belittles Biden as “Sleepy Joe” in tweets.
Harris, 55, has demonstrated a legal mind in her questioning of Trump administration witnesses appearing before Senate committees, notably Attorney General William Barr whom she grilled about whether Trump had asked him to pursue political prosecutions as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
“Her demonstrated ability occupy a prosecutorial persona, for all the things that are new about this, that is a very time-honoured and conventional role for a vice presidential candidate,” said Jim Henson, a political science professor at the University of Texas.
“The vice president is the person to go out and be more aggressive than the candidate. Kamala Harris, given her professional background and her performance in the Senate, has that reputation,” Henson said.
“We saw that in the debate, interestingly with Biden on the receiving end,” he noted.
Harris clashed with Biden in a Democratic presidential debate in June 2019 when she contrasted herself as a little girl being bused to a white neighbourhood to go to school with his record on school busing in the 1970s. Biden stumbled in that moment and was unable to give a coherent response.
“Busing is just such a complex issue, and it was just so divisive back in those days. It didn’t lend itself to more than 60 seconds in a debate even though Joe Biden really stood on the side that prevailed,” Jackson said.
Biden is an outgoing and accommodating personality, which should allow him to mesh well with Harris, said Aubrey Immelman, a professor of political psychology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota.
His deliberation and thoughtful process suggest Biden was able to develop “personal chemistry” with her. It is quite likely as well that Harris’s friendship with Biden’s late son Beau also helped. And she may well have been a consensus pick among his close advisers, including his wife Jill Biden, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama.
“Metaphorically, Biden is led more by ‘heart’ than by ‘head”,” Immelman told Al Jazeera.