Is Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris a tick-the-box exercise?

She is hard to ignore in a party that has made diversity an organising principle

At the outset, let me just say, I vote Democrat and in the state of Florida. But even I find myself less enthused than I should be by Joe Biden’s decision to run again and that too with Kamala Harris.

Is that just a tick-the-box exercise, one might wonder.

Everyone understands that Ms Harris made history the first time round. The daughter of a Jamaican economist and an Indian scientist (with her first name meaning “lotus” in Sanskrit), she is America’s first female, first African-American and first Asian-American vice-president. Everyone knows, as a canny writer once put it, that she is hard to ignore in a party that has made diversity an organising principle. But Ms Harris has, unfortunately, done little to build her reputation as an empathetic and effective politician in the past three years. Shouldn’t performance (or lack of) be the determining factor?

A caveat is in order. It is patently unfair to blame Ms Harris for failing to carve out a properly defined ‘veep’  role because the vice-presidency is an unusual job. Most occupants spend four years desperately trying to make themselves useful and then a second term, if it happens, laying the groundwork for a presidential run. With Ms Harris, most people rather unfairly seem to think she should have done both things at the same time. But this is probably to do with the unusual nature of her position. Not only is she a political trailblazer, she is second in line of succession to the oldest serving US president. If re-elected, Mr Biden would be 82 when he is sworn in for a second term and 86 at the end of his tenure. (When Mr Biden named Ms Harris to the ticket in 2020, I gloomily warned in The Independent that “The world expected too much from Obama. Now it expects too much of Kamala Harris”. I wish I’d been wrong. Click here to read it.

That said, Ms Harris has grown a bit of a reputation as a bungler and someone who laughs at the wrong moment. For instance, when she was questioned about why she had not yet visited the US-Mexico border even though the immigration crisis was part of her portfolio. She responded by laughing and offering the strangest explanation: “I haven’t been to Europe.”

It was admittedly early in her vice-presidency but she should have known better. Her gaffes are on a par with Mr Biden’s, but without the excuse of being old. Unsurprising perhaps then that Ms Harris has low public approval ratings.

Even so, I suppose it would have been hard for Mr Biden to pass over his first-term vice-president – that too, a black woman – and swap her for a new running mate. The last time time this happened was in 1976 when Republican Gerald Ford ditched Nelson Rockefeller to run on a ticket with Bob Dole. He went on to lose to Jimmy Carter.

The best thing of all perhaps is that the choice of vice-president may not particularly matter. Matt Bennett, co-founder of the Democratic think-tank Third Way, is quoted by the Financial Times to say it’s not a big deal. “It is very hard for the vice-president to help or hurt the candidate in any significant way. Presidential elections are about the top of the ticket.” He added: “Harris can be an asset as a campaign spokesperson, as the number-one surrogate, but ultimately this is going to Biden versus Trump, or whoever [Republicans] nominate.”