Rob Sutton: Kamala Harris is an uninspiring choice for Vice President

12 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Former Vice president Joe Biden has announced Senator Kamala Harris will be his running mate for the November presidential election. Harris was previously in the running for the presidential nomination and will be the first woman of colour to run for Vice President on a major party’s ticket.

The choice comes as a surprise to no-one. Biden announced he would choose a woman months ago, and Harris has been a consistent favourite for betting markets and pundits. Photos of Biden’s notes at a campaign stop recently prompted further speculation that she would ultimately get the nod. Yet on closer inspection, the decision is at best uninspired, and at worst a liability.

A presidential nominee’s choice of VP is generally considered through a strategic lens. Members of the campaign team will ask how a potential nominee could aid the campaign by shoring up support in key states and target demographics. They should be a unifying force within the party. It is also helpful if they are a close ally of the presidential nominee and an effective campaigner themselves.

On none of these points in Harris an unqualified success. The state she represents, California, is a safe state for the Democrats, so her popularity there adds little. The question of demographic is more difficult. The nominee should be both popular and inspiring enough to get voters to turn out. It is often noted that Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was a consequence of disinterested voters in key demographics not turning out to vote.

As a black woman, one might think that she is a natural choice to turn out two groups the Democrats will be targeting: women and black voters. Yet these were two groups which she failed to gain much momentum with during her run for the presidential nomination. Furthermore, these are two groups Biden is already performing well with. Women and black voters were key to his primary success. It is therefore not evident that she will be able to add much in delivering their votes.

Prominent black Democrats reportedly pushed hard for Biden to pick an African American woman. In a party which is increasingly shifting to left and defined by its activist elements, Harris is a potential liability. Her former career as a public prosecutor will not sit well with anti-police activists following the death of George Floyd. And the Leftists within the party would have preferred Elizabeth Warren. When your opponent is well versed in exploiting divisions, there is a real risk that Harris’ background will haunt her all the way up to November 3rd, and Trump has wasted no time going on the offensive.

Harris and Biden do not have a close relationship, and he reportedly clicked better with other potential candidates. Their exchanges during debates for the presidential nomination have been tense and memorable. Given her chaotic run, it is unlikely she will add organisational excellence for a veteran like Biden.

The decision to pick Harris is perhaps symptomatic of a broader trend within the Biden campaign. As a nominee, Biden is viewed as safe but does little to excite voters or activists. His decisions have seemed uncertain and slow – both his choice of VP and his announcement that he would be running came late. Harris might be a compromise candidate in an increasingly fractious Democratic party, but by perpetually taking the middle of the road, Biden risks isolating many and inspiring none.