It was always going to be Kamala Harris. Wasn’t it obvious? Joe Biden, hardly a man who has inspired excitement, needed a jolt of relatively youthful energy. The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement meant that it mattered to him and to activists, if not to most voters, that his choice possess what he deemed the right optics, given how the mainstream of the Democratic Party’s leadership has whittled the movement down into a largely symbolic one, turning its material goals into questions of representation. It would be a woman, we knew, because of Biden’s pronouncement last March, during one of the seemingly endless primary debates, that he would pick a woman to be his second-in-command. In doing so, Biden was countering critics who pointed out his spotty record on birth control and abortion, his penchant for touching women in overly familiar ways that have made them uncomfortable, and his past treatment of Anita Hill. Harris, an experienced, capable politician with the right background and politics that were neither too left or too moderate, ticked off all of Biden’s boxes.
It’s a decision that has from the beginning been framed as a historic one, one that would by its inherent figurative power be a win for women as a whole. It would also be a necessary gesture to counter some of the disappointment that, in a primary where so many women, including progressive women, were running, at the end of the day yet another old white man with milquetoast politics rose to the top of the ticket. And it has very material implications—by elevating one particular woman, Biden was essentially promising to set her up as the future nominee for the top spot, or even sooner, given Biden’s age. If we couldn’t have a woman president now, we could have a woman vice president, as a consolation prize.
But if Biden’s choice of Harris is historic and necessary for his campaign and thrilling to many, the messy spectacle of his selection process, reminiscent of nothing more than a reality television show, is a dispiriting reminder of who continues to wield authority and shape the ways we talk about women in politics. Left unspoken are the precise reasons why we’re talking about a woman as vice president instead of, well, as president. Most vice presidential picks are based on a careful calculus of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses—a VP is meant as filler to shore up some of those perceived gaps, as Biden himself was for Barack Obama. But Biden’s proclamation that he would pick a woman, and only a woman, turned the mirror away from his own failings into an invitation to evoke the predictable narratives of women, particularly Black women, who aspire to power. Stacey Abrams? She was too aggressive and ambitious in proclaiming her desire to be vice president and even president one day. Karen Bass? She was the “anti-Kamala,” pitting two Black women in opposition to one another.
It all felt like a bit of a trap, a process crafted by men—including noted sexist Chris Dodd, who served on Biden’s selection committee—to fulfill their needs, glossed over with a promise of racial and gender equality. It was The Bachelor: VP Edition, a wry acknowledgment that the sideshow flattened women who are powerful in their own right—many of whom are better and more interesting politicians than Biden—into nothing more than pawns, dissected based on whether or not they would help Biden’s election chances. The women who offered themselves up as tribute did so with agency, all keenly aware that in hitching themselves to Biden, they could advance their careers one day all the way up to the White House. But to do so, within the constraints created by Biden, only served to fit them into a neat, stifling box.
Still, here we are, after that torturous, revealing process. And it’s impossible to dwell for long on Biden’s circus of a VP selection, because a larger threat looms: Donald Trump, who waited no time after Biden’s announcement to call Harris “nasty.” If the road that got us here was littered with tired, sexist, and racist narratives, it’s about to get much worse.