Kamala Harris' high-wire act
Ever since Democratic nominee Joe Biden selected Kamala Harris as his running mate, liberals have been itching to see the former prosecutor go head to head against Vice President Mike Pence. "Kamala Harris will shred Mike Pence in the vice presidential debate," The Nation wrote within 24 hours of Biden's VP announcement. "About half of Americans believe Kamala Harris is a better debater than Mike Pence," a YouGov poll found. And "Kamala Harris is as eager to destroy Mike Pence as you are to watch her do it," LGBTQ Nation reported in August.
Though giddy Democrats anticipate a bloodbath, Harris will face an uphill battle. It's not that she isn't a strong debater — her most memorable moment on the national stage to date is still likely the haymaker she threw at Biden during the Democratic primary — but the fact that, as a woman in politics, she faces double standards and stereotypes before she ever steps foot on the stage. Accounting for Americans' sexist perceptions of women politicians will be a tightrope act, and a frustrating and unfortunate secondary challenge for such an accomplished candidate.
As only the fourth woman to be on a major party's presidential ticket, Harris has a short history to reference when preparing for her unique position in the debate. What's clear, though, is that Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton all endured sexist attacks that ranged from critiques of their appearance and clothing to claims that they were simultaneously overambitious and under-experienced. In preparation, Harris' team has been diving into research about how "women are judged more on 'likability' and held to a higher standard to prove they're qualified" in addition to being evaluated "overwhelmingly more on physical appearance than on what they say," Axios reports. Even Biden is guilty of once reducing his former vice presidential debate counterpart, Palin (who was often dismissed by Democrats for her "beauty queen" looks rather than her "problematic or meaningless" ideas), to her appearance back in 2008, wisecracking: "There's a gigantic difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and between me and I suspect my vice presidential opponent. ... She's good looking."
In the lead up to Wednesday night, Hillary Clinton has addressed what Harris will be up against, telling donors: "She has to modulate her responses because we know there still is a double standard, alive and well when it comes to women in politics, so she's got to be firm and effective in rebutting any implication that comes from the other side — but do it in a way that doesn't scare or alienate voters."
Pence will likely try to downplay his own performance to do just that: lure Harris into alienating voters by coming on too strong. It's a tactic he used against Democrats' previous VP candidate, Tim Kaine, who was criticized after he came out swinging in 2016. "Kaine entered the debate under less pressure," CNBC recapped. "Yet he followed an aggressive strategy nevertheless, sometimes to his detriment." Pence might be the human personification of spackling paste — the most colorful he gets is an occasional smug, cat-that-ate-the-canary smile — but his bland denials and mild-mannered redirections made Kaine "[come] across as a nipping chihuahua," The Guardian's Jamie Weinstein reflected. His lack of personality could be deployed again on Wednesday, blending into the background to leave Harris to face "stereotypes that paint women, and especially Black women, as angry and overly emotional," BuzzFeed News reports.
Harris would be facing a tough debate regardless. The Wall Street Journal has already deemed Wednesday night's event "the most consequential vice-presidential debate since they began in 1976." With President Trump sick with COVID-19, there is a chance it could also be the last debate of the 2020 election cycle; what's more, it will give Biden's campaign its highest-profile opportunity yet to pin the White House for its mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak, seeing as the issue is now a personal one (Harris and Pence have already engaged in a bit of a pre-debate skirmish over the use of protective plexiglass on the stage).
Unlike Trump, Pence is a composed opponent on the debate stage; he takes his preparations seriously, and has a professional polish to his speech that comes from his years in radio. "He's a good debater," Harris has acknowledged, joking, "So I'm so concerned — like I can only disappoint." But while Americans might be sexist to the point of aggression toward women seeking executive office, that is not the full story. Harris has a knack for sounding authentic while Pence has been criticized for "trying too hard." She can speak directly to the experience of half the nation's electorate, while Pence has been mocked for his puritanical squeamishness about being alone with a woman other than his wife. Harris also has a prosecutorial nose for sniffing out an opponent's reluctance to offer an answer on a sensitive topic, while Pence has been called vague and evasive for refusing to engage on the topic of his boss' erratic behavior.
"Every time a woman runs, women win," Ferraro, the first major party female VP candidate, has said. Still, even three forerunners weren't enough to fully clear Harris' path of the deeply rooted sexism in American politics. Wednesday will require her walking the fine line between being authoritative but not overbearing, and of nailing Pence for the Trump administration's failures without coming across as overheated. It is an infuriatingly unfair ask — but it is also not insurmountable. "I know a thing or two about the slings and arrows coming her way," Hillary Clinton said at the Democratic National Convention. "Kamala can handle them all."