In a vice presidential debate marked by at least some adherence to the rules, Sen. Kamala Harris found it necessary to ask Vice President Mike Pence not to interrupt her multiple times. She reminded him — sometimes with a hand up, crossing guard-style, other times with raised eyebrows — “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.”
At other moments as Pence spoke, Harris’ face flashed a catalogue of looks in his direction that seemed to communicate irritation, disbelief and distaste all at once, the kind of repertoire developed when one often cannot say everything one thinks.
Throughout, Harris worked to claim, then hold, new ground.
Harris, the first woman to serve as California’s attorney general, is the first woman of color to run on a major party’s presidential ticket and therefore the first to appear in a vice presidential debate. She arrived Wednesday with a complex set of challenges, expectations and demands. And, in a set of criteria identified by experts interviewed before the debate, she met them.
From the moment Harris was named as Joe Biden’s running mate, “Donald Trump got to work, pulling out the birtherism stuff, the tropes about angry Black women,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But Biden “acknowledged when he picked her that he is not the future of the Democratic Party,” Walsh said.
“He acknowledged it’s a woman, and a woman of color, and that sends a powerful message in some ways,” she said. “Whether he wins or he loses, she is positioned now to be the first woman president of the United States.”
This debate presented an opportunity for Harris to prove her mettle as the potential second-in-command to a 78-year-old president during a global pandemic. She needed to persuade groups of voters not particularly excited about Biden to attach themselves to the Biden-Harris ticket, prosecute her opponent and inspire America willing to accept a different model of leadership from what it is accustomed to.
In other words, Harris, a woman with a professional résumé about as traditional as possible for a vice presidential candidate, faced all the ordinary and extraordinary pressure of Wednesday night’s debate, along with the added labor of showing America that a woman of color can lead.
“There is no doubt that Harris is prepared,” said Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies and political science at Macalester College in Minnesota who researches Black women in politics and is not related to the senator. “She has experienced misogynoir her entire adult life,” she added, using a term that refers to bias against Black women on the basis of both their race and gender.
Kamala Harris’ father is Jamaican, her mother is Indian, and her husband is Jewish, and Harris herself attended Howard University, one of the nation’s most prestigious historically Black institutions. For many voters, the debate was an opportunity to learn more about Harris beyond those facts.
In the week before she became the Democratic vice presidential nominee and in the two weeks after, about 25 percent of media coverage of Harris mentioned and sometimes failed to label overtly racist or sexist tropes, according to an analysis released by TIME’S UP Now, an anti-sexual harassment organization.
Researchers with TIME’S UP found that another 61 percent of coverage was not racist or sexist but focused on Harris’ race and gender. Yet just 5 percent of stories published during the same time period in 2016 focused on the race or gender of the two white men seeking the vice presidency, Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine.
“What that tells us is we all normalize white men running,” said Tina Tchen, president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now, who was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and an assistant to President Barack Obama. “We have normalized white male leadership and how we continue to find women of color leadership to be surprising. That and, if we are spending two-thirds of the time talking about her race or gender, we are not talking about her record or what she has done, her positions, her accomplishments.”
On Wednesday night, prompted by an initial question about a Biden-Harris administration’s plan to address the pandemic, Harris put that experience to good use.
Harris looked directly at the camera and told viewers that the Trump administration had been informed in late January that the coronavirus could spread through airborne particles. The administration then “covered up” that truth, instead touting skepticism of critical protective measures as important as mask-wearing to appease Trump, she said.
The Trump administration’s response, Harris said, had left more than 210,000 people in the United States dead and more than 7 million infected. Because of all that, the administration had “forfeited” any right to re-election, Harris said in a tone used to acknowledge serious injury or pain. Biden, Harris said, had a plan for testing and vaccine distribution and universal, free access to them.
Unlike the contentious presidential debate characterized by voluminous cross-talk and name-calling last week, Harris and Pence sat 12 feet apart and clashed over the administration’s handling of the pandemic, the economy and other policy issues.
Harris, the Macalester professor, had predicted that the senator would be “completely prepared,” while Pence would be “dismissive.” Though the tone of the debate was largely professional, Pence chided Harris’ statements that she does not trust a coronavirus vaccine approved during a Trump administration as an unacceptable way “of playing politics with people’s lives.”
But that kind of lecturing stance from a self-assigned position of authority may also appeal to some voters in a country where, in 2018, more white men named John serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than women. On this year’s list, none of the women CEOs are Black.
Pence delivered his barb in his usual, calm tone, with a furrowed brow and certitude, a living image akin to the faces on Mount Rushmore. But Pence, who leads the administration’s coronavirus task force, also had the burden of explaining the administration’s response to the pandemic, said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national organization working to boost the political power of women of color.
Shortly following the debate, other Republican figures like Sen. Chuck Grassley said the winner of a debate is the person viewers would rather have dinner with, and Pence was the “most likable” between the two. Not to be outdone, however, Thursday morning Trump described Harris on Thursday morning as a “totally unlikeable” “monster.”
The same critiques have followed professional women through careers, including politicians like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and plenty of others, undercutting their accomplishments with debates over their palatability in ways that their male counterparts generally don’t face.
While Harris’ candidacy may register with some Americans as discomforting or too novel, she has the advantage of running with Biden after Obama broke barriers as the nation’s first Black president and after Clinton became the first woman to lead a major party’s ticket, Walsh said. That is an advantage neither Obama nor Clinton had.
Harris arrived Wednesday night, almost certainly aware of the traditions of Black women’s public rhetoric: calm but confrontational, using challenging language to illuminate hypocrisy, failure and injustice, Duchess Harris said. That is in the tradition of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a Black woman who ran for president in 1972, and Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, the first Black woman elected to Congress from a former Confederate state, who rose to national fame during the Watergate hearings.
“Setting aside race and gender, as if we can really do that,” Allison said, “this is likely the American voters’ only chance to hear about the issues. Trump and most of his distraction tactics will not be on that stage.”
“The theme is Covid-19,” Allison said, “but we women of color understand that it is also about access to the vote, pathological police brutality and access to health care. We understand that Trump just turned his back on people suffering in all sorts of ways, saying he is not going to consider any relief bill. And as ‘SNL’ made clear in their skit this weekend, I think a lot of people are expecting Kamala Harris to come in tonight and be the adult in the room.”
On Wednesday, Harris’ version of adulting included empathetic and detailed mentions of two dead young women: the aid worker Kayla Mueller, killed while being held as a captive of the Islamic State terrorist group in 2015, and Breonna Taylor, killed in a police raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, this year.
One route through the tangled maze of demands Harris faced, Walsh said, was absolute authenticity. In 2018, female candidates found record election success in sharing more of their lives and family experiences, some of which included issues like domestic violence. Harris, a prosecutor and lawmaker, is also funny and capable of real warmth and compassion — as well as a zinger aimed at an opponent.
In a brief moment of levity while discussing the pandemic, Harris responded to debate moderator Susan Page’s accidental reference to her as “Kamala Harris,” rather than the more formal “Senator Harris.” “That’s all right,” she said. “I’m Kamala.”