Kamala Harris Faces Intense Pressure, Double Standards Leading Into Vice Presidential Debate

October 6, 2020by Emily DeRuy, The Mercury News (TNS)
Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA.), delivers remarks during a campaign event on August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images/TNS)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — With Donald Trump’s positive coronavirus test casting uncertainty on the final two presidential debates, the pressure is on for Kamala Harris to make the case to American voters that she and Joe Biden belong in the White House when she faces off Wednesday night with Mike Pence in the only vice presidential debate of the election.

Suddenly, this debate matters much more than it did prediagnosis. And those who know and study the California senator say Harris will arrive at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City having done her homework.

“I can tell you she is studious and prepared and I’m sure her team is reviewing a lot of tape and they are rehearsing intensely because the stakes for this are way too high,” said Rebecca Prozan, who managed Harris’ successful campaign for San Francisco district attorney in 2003.

The campaign has tapped Pete Buttigieg for debate practice to stand in as Pence, who served as governor of Indiana while Buttigieg was mayor of South Bend. Pence’s camp has reportedly called on former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to play the role of Harris during prep.

Walker also served as a stand-in during the 2016 campaign, assuming the role of then-vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine.

“Oh that’s dumb,” Barbara O’Connor, a professor emeritus of communications at Sacramento State University who spent decades working as a debate coach, said of the Walker choice.

Beyond choosing someone who communicates similarly, O’Connor said the Republicans should have chosen a woman and someone with a similar ethnic background. But, she pointed out, there aren’t many examples of someone like Harris in the GOP.

As far as style, O’Connor expects Harris to be measured and exacting; “surgical” was her assessment of the senator’s intense questioning of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

“I think she will probably be very calculating and look directly into the camera and talk to the folks watching and the moderator and pretty much ignore Pence,” she said.

If Pence comes at Harris with a hint of condescension, O’Connor added, “she can slice through him like he does not want to be sliced.”

But, O’Connor warned, the Golden State’s former top cop will also have to be careful not to turn off suburban women who cast their ballots for Trump four years ago but, polling suggests, may opt for Biden this November.

“It’s not prosecutor; it’s vice presidential candidate,” O’Connor said.

Harris is well aware of the double standards she will face. Pence, a white man, does not receive criticism for being too aggressive or too ambitious as Harris has.

“There’s this trope of the angry Black woman and she knows she has to avoid that,” said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College. “She’s had half a century of practice.”

Lateefah Simon, the current BART board president, worked for Harris in San Francisco and considers her a mentor. Like many black women trying to succeed in the face of systemic racism and other barriers, the vice presidential contender “shows up early and leaves late,” Simon said.

Bay Area members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the Black sorority Harris joined at Howard University, declined to discuss their sister specifically — worried about making a political comment that could jeopardize the group’s nonprofit status — but say they’re doing everything they can to mobilize voters.

“We’re just working to get out the vote,” said Zina Slaughter, president of a Silicon Valley chapter.

Still, the pressure for Harris to perform well is intense and in some ways intensified by the multi-ethnic Black, South Asian background that has appealed to many of her supporters.

“She’s carrying with her the Dreamers (young people brought to the U.S. without authorization as children), reproductive health rights, the stories of migration, of the Black diaspora, of the (Asian Pacific Islander) diaspora,” Simon said. “There is a lot of pressure not just because of the politics but the intersectional life experiences that she brings.”

The pressure to articulate clearly her campaign’s message to voters may also be greater after Tuesday’s presidential debate — which was marred by interruptions and insults, largely on Trump’s end — and little substance.

“I think the American public will get a more clear sense of what the policies of the two tickets are” on Wednesday, O’Connor said.

Michelson thinks that the news of the president getting COVID-19 will lend new importance to the vice presidential debate. But she predicted many people will still opt for Netflix or something else — anything else — especially after the debacle of Tuesday’s first presidential debate.

“Really this is about Biden and Trump,” Michelson said. “If you tune in for this, you are a political junkie, you are a partisan.”

———

©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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