Why I Support—but Fear—a Kamala Harris Candidacy

Jill Filipovic / Slate

The case for the vice president to replace Biden is strong. And then there’s this.

Let’s just come out and say it: The prospect of the vice president replacing Joe Biden on the 2024 ticket would be much easier if the vice president were a white guy.

This fact is foundationally, fundamentally unfair and deeply enraging. As much as conservatives are branding Harris a “DEI candidate,” the truth is that, in electoral politics, race and gender work overwhelmingly to the benefit of white men. The United States has had 235 years of unbroken male rule. In that same time, we have had one Black president—a man of outstanding, once-in-a-generation political talents. Kamala Harris is the first female vice president, and the first female vice president of color, in a country where both houses of Congress remain largely white and largely male. A Harris win would usher the first woman, and the first woman of color, into the presidency—a history-making possibility, and a deeply exciting one.

But then: 2016.

Those of us who were sure Hillary Clinton would smoke Donald Trump may be uniquely ill-situated to evaluate Harris’ potential candidacy. Here is a truly horrifying and humiliating admission: I was equal parts appalled and relieved when the Republican Party chose Donald Trump as their candidate, because while I thought selecting him certainly signaled a deep rot in the GOP base, I also thought he was the weakest, most beatable candidate the party had run in my lifetime. In other words, he was a uniquely helpful one to pit against a highly competent feminist woman. Coming at the tail end of the Obama years, I genuinely believed that Americans would watch Trump sputter incoherent nonsense, go on racist and misogynist rants, and demean his female rival, and they would watch Clinton put forward lucid, reasoned policy proposals and approach the office of the presidency with the dignity and respect it deserved, and that victory would be easy for her. Sure, lots of conservative voters didn’t like her, and I was under no illusions that America had somehow solved sexism by electing a Black man and then seeing Democrats run a white woman. But Trump was such an obvious con man who said such disgusting things and comported himself like such an all-out bozo that I simply could not imagine a critical mass of Americans, no matter their politics, listening to him and concluding: This is the guy who should have the nuclear codes.

And yes, Clinton did win the popular vote by a margin of nearly 3 million votes. But she still lost the election—and I lost a whole lot of faith in the American public, and trust in my own perceptions of it.

Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the 2016 election is that, faced with the prospect of a female president following a Black president, a huge number of mostly white American voters absolutely lost their minds. Yes, Clinton had drawbacks as a candidate. But a politics of rage coalesced around Clinton’s candidacy that simply cannot be explained by the fact that, say, she’s a liberal and leftists wanted a socialist (or she didn’t campaign in Michigan.) Joe Biden, after all, ran as a centrist and with a legislative record more moderate than Clinton’s a mere four years later and did not draw nearly the same level of unhinged ire. The misogyny that rained down on Clinton was mostly a right-wing storm, but there was a sexist tempest on the left, too.

It’s now 2024, and perhaps the country has changed. Maybe, after eight years of two old white men, the voters who fear and resent a woman in power have been duly pacified; some of them have probably died. The fear, though—my fear—is that the same dynamics that triggered a full-on post-Obama meltdown over Hillary Clinton will come roaring back if Harris is at the top of the ticket.

But then here is the rub: If we fear the candidacy-killing potential of racism and sexism too much, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we hand forever rule to white men.

The risks of running Harris are different than the risks of running Biden again, but I am not convinced that they are larger. In fact, it’s hard to argue that Harris is the weaker candidate at this stage. She is part of an administration that has accomplished a great deal, and she’s the most visible member of that administration who is capable of talking about abortion, the one issue Democrats are strongest on. (She’s also capable of simply talking for more than a few minutes at a time and past 8 p.m., which is a plus.) She has enough distance from Biden on foreign policy that she may be able to avoid being totally hamstrung by the Israel/Gaza issue, which deeply divides Democratic voters and seems guaranteed to disrupt the Democratic convention. Her weaknesses in 2020—primarily her history as a tough-on-crime prosecutor, which was summed up by the leftist jeer of “Kamala is a cop”—were specific to an extremely odd election year, and look a whole lot more like assets in a 2024 race against a convicted felon.

And from a purely practical perspective, one of the biggest benefits of elevating Harris on the ticket is that she will likely have an easier time using Biden-Harris campaign funds for her own run. There is little doubt Republicans will challenge her candidacy in court—it should tell you something that many of them want Biden, not Harris, as the Democratic presidential nominee—but the fact that she’s already running with Biden certainly makes any replacement of him a simpler financial proposition.

Plus, she’s been nationally vetted. Perhaps the hyper-ambitious and well-groomed politicos whose names float to the top of the potential replacement pool are serially well-behaved Girl Scouts whose closets are as clean as their noses. Or perhaps they’re John Edwards.

There’s one more key way in which the America of 2024 is not the America of 2016: This America has experienced 2016 and its aftermath. Voters who thought they would see the first female president felt the shock and sting of her loss, a seismic event that spawned the Women’s March, the #MeToo movement, and elections that put record numbers of women in office. Just a few years later, American voters also saw women’s rights rolled back by a half-century (and in some states, to a time before women could vote) by unaccountable far-right Supreme Court justices, three of whom were appointed by the profoundly misogynist vulva grabber who beat out the woman who seemed poised to be the first in the White House.

Voters who care about women’s rights know the stakes; we know, in a way we could not have known in 2016, just how hard it hits when we collectively butt up against America’s oldest and strongest glass ceiling.

So yes, it’s rational to be nervous about a potential Harris run, and to be nervous about factors that are entirely out of Harris’ control. But it’s not rational to conclude that, because one woman lost eight years ago, this woman can’t win. Of course she can. We—and the guy currently at the top of the ticket—just need to give her a chance.