Alison O'Connor: Kamala Harris' prospects give reasons to be cheerful

Alison O'Connor: Kamala Harris' prospects give reasons to be cheerful
Kamala Harris in 2019. Picture: AP Photo/John Locher

Maybe it’s down to a general lack of good news, but the announcement of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate in the US election, has a wonderful glow of positivity.

When it comes to women in politics, bad news long pre-dated the pandemic. However, now if you really want to lose the run of yourself, you can pitch forward to 2024 and visualise Kamala Harris as the Democratic nominee for the top job in the Oval Office.

Even if you temper your optimism, her selection for this high-profile position, particularly as a woman of colour, gives a much-needed boost to the state of women’s participation in national politics everywhere.

After almost two decades in public life Harris has an impressive list of achievements.

She was the first black woman to be elected district attorney in California's history; the first woman to be California’s attorney general; and the first Indian American senator.

As of this week, she is the first black woman and first Asian American to be picked as a vice presidential running mate on a major-party ticket.

After the despair of the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in 2016, a man who was elected despite his blatant misogyny, it was difficult to ever imagine being back in a positive place in relation to who might occupy the White House.

Harris is only the third female vice presidential running mate.

Geraldine Ferraro was the first in 1984, alongside vice president Walter Mondale.

That Democratic ticket lost badly to Ronald Reagan.

There was a wait of decades for the next female and that was Sarah Palin.

In 2008, she was chosen as the Republican running mate for the late senator John McCain.

The less said the better here in terms of what she did for the advancement of women in politics, even allowing for the fact that women are usually held to a far higher standard of scrutiny. However, in an Instagram post this week, she warmly congratulated Harris on becoming the third woman to be added to the presidential ticket, adding some further advice, including a warning that she should “trust no one new”.

Clearly there are no guarantees here.

The election does not take place until November and Trump is on the back foot, trailing Joe Biden in the polls. The boost of adding Kamala Harris — an immediately credible candidate — paints a really good electoral picture for Biden's supporters.

She is bright, likeable, charismatic, and has considerable charm — characteristics that are a bonus for any politician, but most particularly a female one.


Following the murder of George Floyd earlier this year, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, it was seen as an imperative to choose a woman of colour.

Since that shooting, increasing numbers of Americans find themselves unable to ignore the racial divide that exists in their society, particularly the unequal law enforcement, plus the huge divide in how Covid-19 has affected black and Latino Americans so disproportionately.

Black Americans, particularly women, form the backbone of the Democrats’ core constituency.

Harris’s own bid to be the Democratic candidate ended after a fairly lacklustre campaign.

She is not without her detractors and one of the main criticisms she faces is that as a prosecutor she did not go out of her way to crack down on police misconduct or prisoners’ rights.

Her own presidential campaign did have its moments, most notably when she took on her now running mate Joe Biden during a debate when racism was being discussed. She confronted him over his previous opposition to mandated busing in the 1970s, which was an initiative to integrate racially segregated schools.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” said Harris, the child of Indian and Jamaican parents, told Biden.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.”

That moment boosted her in the polls, but only briefly, and with financial donations dwindling, she pulled out of the race to be the Democratic candidate in December.

Needless to say, immediately after she was announced as the candidate this week Trump referred to her as “nasty”, just as he used to refer to Hillary Clinton in that way during the 2016 presidential race.

He spoke of how “disrespectful” she had been to Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his controversial supreme court confirmation hearings and to vice president Biden during the primary debates.

“She was the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful of anybody in the US Senate,” said Trump.

Same old, same old, there then.

Now we can expect her to breathe some much-needed life into the Biden campaign — not least with her sense of rhythm and energy. Videos online of her dancing don't leave you immediately cringing, as politicians attempting to show off their 'moves' so often do. She has a look of absolute glee on her face.

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of wanting and wishing for the Biden/ Harris pairing to be hugely successful in November.

However, the temptation to do so is just too great as we grapple with so much awfulness — not least Trump’s appalling handling of the response to the pandemic.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful panacea for at least some of our ills to see this pairing in the White House, with Trump and his vice president Mike Pence getting the boot.

If that happens, then at the time of his swearing in as president Joe Biden would be 78 years old.

In these particular circumstances when US voters look at Kamala Harris will they see her as being only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office and in that event, are they ready for a female of colour as their president?

All going well for his potential presidential term Biden’s age almost certainly points to him serving only one term.

Now it is a stretch, it does carry a huge amount of wishful, even magical thinking — but from this particular vantage point the prospect of US president Kamala Harris really does present a reason to be cheerful.

More in this section