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 for the presidency, 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 exhilarating and daunting 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 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.
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.
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, leaving the race even before the Iowa caucuses. But Biden flopped as miserably in the 2008 primary, and that didn’t scare off Obama.
And oh, can she be nimble and fierce. That’s what Biden learned in that tense primary debate, cheap shot or no cheap shot. That’s what Jeff Sessions, 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 is a New York Times columnist.