Frank Bruni: Kamala Harris is the future, so Mike Pence may well be history

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Joe Biden’s running mate, speaks to reporters following the Democratic presidential debate in Miami on June 27, 2019. "She represents an America that’s evolving, fitfully, toward equal opportunity and equal justice," writes Frank Bruni.

Already, I am dreaming of the debate.

There’s Mike Pence, white of hair as well as cheek, his demeanor more starched than his dress shirt, his smile so tight it’s the twin of a grimace. He represents more than the Trump administration, God help him. He represents an America that’s half memory, half myth.

And there’s Kamala Harris — younger, blacker and more buoyant. She’s only the fourth woman on the presidential ticket of one of the country’s two major political parties and she’s the first woman of color. She represents an America that’s evolving, fitfully, toward equal opportunity and equal justice.

Under her gaze, Pence has to defend a racist, sexist president. As he watches helplessly, Harris gets to talk about how that racism and sexism feel to a Black woman like her. This isn’t any ordinary clash of perspectives and philosophies. It’s an extraordinary collision of life experiences.

And that’s exactly what Joe Biden wants.

Throughout his campaign, Biden has defined himself as the opposite of President Donald Trump in experience and earnestness and as the antidote to Trump in how he sees America and what he values about it. He has used his choice of a running mate to hammer home that last bit.

Harris is a distinguished public servant with a résumé — U.S. senator from California, state attorney general — unquestionably suited to this opportunity, which she has earned. She is also an agent of contrast, emphasizing the difference between the Republican ticket and the Democratic one, between Trump’s politics of division and Biden’s politics of inclusion.

But even as she affirms Biden’s orientation toward the future, she reflects his appreciation of his own past. She enables him, for a second time, to be part of a presidential ticket that sets a precedent and blazes a trail. It’s almost as if he’s trying to recreate the established magic, to repurpose the victorious script.

Twelve years ago, he was the running mate of the first Black nominee of one of the country’s two major parties, Barack Obama, who then became the country’s first Black president. Harris would be the country’s first Black vice president, its first Asian American vice president and its first female vice president, in excellent position to be the country’s first female president down the line. Having a hand in that no doubt excited Biden.

In selecting her, he echoed Obama’s selection of him. Obama and Biden competed against each other in the 2008 Democratic primary, and Obama had to forgive Biden for insulting him by saying that he was a rare “clean” and “articulate” African American candidate.

In selecting Harris, Biden had to forgive her attacks during a Democratic primary debate for his past alliances with segregationists and his opposition to busing to integrate public schools. He and his aides considered that a cheap shot. They clearly got over it.

Choosing any of the Black women on Biden’s list of prospective running mates would have sent the kind of signal that Harris’ selection does. Choosing any of them would have recognized how crucial Black voters were to the success of Biden’s primary campaign and how crucial they’ll be in the general election. Choosing any of them would have been a fitting response to the country’s current soul-searching about its racism.

So why Harris and not Susan Rice, Karen Bass, Val Demings, Keisha Lance Bottoms or Stacey Abrams? Because Biden obviously believes the polls that give him a significant lead over Trump and wants above all to protect it. Harris is the safest of the bunch.

Rice would have been a more comforting choice — Biden knows her much better — but she has never run for political office and might come across as too wonky for the Rust Belt. She and the others have less conventionally, unequivocally vice-presidential résumés.

And because of Harris’ high-profile participation in the Democratic primary, her life has been more thoroughly hashed over and her warts more exposed than is the case with those other contenders. She has liabilities, including a record from her long career as a prosecutor that many progressives deplore, but those have been out in the open for a while now.

No sooner had her selection leaked than several Democratic operatives emailed me to say, anxiously, “I hope she’s better in the general election than she was in the primary!” She certainly flopped then. But Biden flopped as miserably in the 2008 primary, and that didn’t scare off Obama.

A primary and a general election are different beasts. Harris ran for the Democratic presidential nomination against a huge field of other Democrats. She’s running for the vice presidency against Trump and Pence, and there’s a real chance that the same Black voters who were cool to her in the primary will thrill to her now that she’s on a history-making ticket, prosecuting the case against a president who has deeply offended them.

She brings to that ticket some of the balance that presidential candidates typically want their running mates to bring. Biden is 77. She’s 55. Biden is East Coast. She’s West Coast. Biden is a white guy, like all but four of the major-party presidential or vice-presidential nominees before Harris. She’s not.

And oh, can she be fierce. That’s what Biden learned in that primary debate, cheap shot or no cheap shot. That’s what Brett Kavanaugh and William Barr learned when they appeared before Senate committees and endured her grilling.

That’s what I hope and trust Pence will learn on Oct. 7, at the University of Utah, where the sole vice-presidential debate is scheduled to take place. A man who reputedly doesn’t like to eat alone with any woman other than his wife — it looks weird and is a recipe for trouble — will face off against a woman who’s big trouble indeed. I suspect she’ll have him for breakfast.

Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.