Sometimes, maybe even usually, conventional wisdom proves to be correct. Such is the case for the effect vice-presidential nominees tend to have on presidential elections. No, Joe Biden’s campaign will not sink or swim on the back of his choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate. It is hard to see how she will make a significant difference either way, but that doesn’t mean Democrats didn’t miss an opportunity in her selection.
The problem is not so much Harris herself, who was probably the best option Biden had on the table. It is the way she was rolled out. A VP choice is not so much about crossing the finish line as it is about creating a crescendo of excitement going into the conventions. A compelling choice can provide a bounce not only in head-to-head polling, where Biden is doing fine, but also in enthusiasm, where Old Scranton Joe has struggled. It is hard to see how Harris moves that particular needle.
Part of the problem here was Biden’s odd decision to announce back on March 15, during the debate with no audience against Bernie Sanders, that he would select a woman to be on the ticket. It was a very strange thing to do at the time. Mind you, this was almost two weeks after his Super Tuesday rout of Sanders, and for all intents and purposes, Biden had the nomination wrapped up. So why make any such announcement?
By Tuesday, when Biden made it official, he had also all but promised to select a black woman. So it basically came down to Harris and Susan Rice. This made the pick, which for some reason the campaign dragged out longer than a middle school Christmas pageant, feel inevitable, not exciting. Having a woman of color on a national ticket is big and historic news, but it didn’t feel that way because we all knew it was coming. It had all the suspense of flipping a double-headed coin.
Biden’s focus on demography also undermined the most essential argument he has to make on Harris’ behalf, namely that she is the most qualified person for the job. Now, maybe she is. Maybe Biden thinks that she is. But the fact that she was only competing with women to be a breath away from the most powerful position on earth cannot help but undermine that argument.
Had Biden stayed cool and coy about his pick, had Pete Buttigieg or Beto O’Rourke, or Corey Booker been in play, the choice of Harris would have had vastly more oomph. What would have been a story of an American from supposedly marginalized groups beating out the boys instead became a story about old, white Joe Biden handing out prizes and giving the ladies a hand up.
The best hope now for the Biden-Harris ticket, at least in terms of how they deploy their would-be vice president, is for a compelling relationship to develop between the two. And that could happen. This was utterly lacking the relationship between John McCain and Sarah Palin in 2008, although as a Democrat Harris can certainly be expected to be treated with softer gloves in the media.
They could still be an effective team, but the most important moment, the selection itself, has been lost. Perhaps the strategists bunkered with Biden in the basement feel that Harris plays into a narrative of inevitability surrounding Biden’s run, but my goodness, what an error that attitude was for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Tuesday’s announcement tapping Harris just wasn’t a very big deal, and it very easily could have been. It could have been a match starting a fire that blazed during next week’s convention, or whatever we are calling these virtual town halls in the times of the China Virus.
A solid convention bounce could switch a race in which Trump has recently seen glimmers of hope return to a clear double-digit rout in the making. Without such a bounce, Biden risks being the football team that lets its opponent hang around a bit too long in the fourth quarter.
The election is far from won or lost on the pick of Kamala Harris. In fact, the prevailing attitude among journalists and political junkies was a struggle to make it seem important. There is something safe about that, and Biden is in some sense running as the “safe word” of American politics, but that too carries dangers.
Biden is trying to be the first person in a long time to win the presidency by being underwhelming. His rollout of Kamala Harris was a prime and central example of that.