The great Peggy Lee song comes to mind: “Is that all there is?”
Sen. Kamala Harris checks off two big boxes for 2020 Dems — gender and race. But the moment, if not the actual choice, feels underwhelming because of the amateurish way Joe Biden and his team let the process spin out of control.
The drawn-out, overhyped vetting often made it seem as if the running mate would save the ticket. A month ago there were six finalists, then maybe 12.
Some openly campaigned, with Stacey Abrams and Karen Bass enlisting supporters to speak to Biden directly. Susan Rice talked up what she saw as her qualifications on television as if picking her was a no-brainer.
Much of the time it seemed as if the campaign was putting out leaks to give the impression there were developments when there were none. With Biden mostly basement-bound in Delaware and slow to roll out serious policy proposals, the veep hunt and the speculation took on outsized importance.
Throughout, there were two acknowledged subtexts. The first was Biden’s decision, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, that it had to be a woman, a vow that immediately undercut the credentials of the winner, no matter whom it would be. That’s what quotas do.
Would Harris have gotten the spot if men had been considered and acceptable? Merely to ask is to cast doubt on her.
The selection was even more tilted because it increasingly became clear that the veep candidate had to be not only a woman, but also black. The lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among black voters helped sink her four years ago.
Although Biden largely owes his nomination to the turnout of black voters in the South Carolina primary, being Barack Obama’s vice president could not by itself guarantee him sufficient loyalty and turnout in November. He needed to shore up his party’s most important and reliable bloc, so the intrigue was really about which black woman he would select.
The second subtext is Biden’s obvious mental and physical frailties, with more than one observer noting that there was a good chance that the running mate could become president within a first term, should the Dems prevail. The president-in-waiting, as even Biden supporters put it.
His advanced age, 77, needed to be countered, and Harris does that, turning 56 in October. At her best, she’s quick and appealing, a contrast to his often befuddled and halting appearances.
Measured against those specific requirements, then, Harris is definitely qualified, though she’s not the superstar she once seemed destined to be.
Her trajectory in the primaries offers ammunition to both supporters and detractors. She started fast, yet ironically peaked after a debate in June 2019 — by attacking Biden over his friendships with Southern senators and his anti-busing stance decades ago.
Harris had, in effect, one good sound bite, “That little girl was me,” and one good debate. After that, she became a target and quickly wilted over charges from also-ran Tulsi Gabbard that she had been an overly aggressive prosecutor in California on relatively minor marijuana cases.
In the end, Harris did not give the kind of performance that leaves the public wanting more. Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for two examples, stayed until just before the deciding contests and got far better reviews than they got at the beginning.
Moreover, the simple fact that Harris was a prosecutor could be a big mark against her among many of those on the far left whom the ticket will need to attract. It’s possible the selection signals that Biden wants to separate himself and the party from the violent radicals leading riots and looting in many urban areas, but that would be unusual given how quiet he has been on the subject so far.