Today’s Vice Presidential Debate is a chance for US voters to decide whether US Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic challenger Kamala Harris are in a position to step into the presidency at a moment’s notice.
Democrat candidate Joe Biden in August ended months of speculation when he announced Harris will be his running mate in this year’s US presidential election.
Regardless of who wins in November, the decision has already made history – Harris is the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket in the US.
And there’s one other, slightly crass thing that makes it potentially even more significant. If he wins, Biden would be 78 when he is inaugurated in January, the oldest man to ever assume the presidency, so the deputy could well find herself being promoted to chief.
Americans could plausibly be watching both the 46 and 48 presidents of the United States when they watch the first Vice Presidential Debate on Thursday.
The age of Donald Trump, 74, who is the 45 president would also put added scrutiny on his running mate Pence. Add in a coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s recent positive diagnosis for the disease, and the undercard match-up suddenly becomes even more relevant.
“You realise that due to how old and ill Donald Trump is, that Mike Pence could be president next week,” said Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley. “Conversely, Joe Biden would be the oldest president ever elected, so people will be looking at Kamala Harris.”
A woman has still never served as president or vice president in the United States.
Just two women have even been nominated as running mates on major party tickets: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. Their parties both lost in the elections of those years.
Who is Kamala Harris and what does she stand for?
Harris is a 55-year-old first-term senator with a background in law enforcement, having served as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco.
Her mother was an Indian immigrant and her father was a Jamaican immigrant and she has described herself as “a proud American” whose African American and Indian heritage “are of equal weight in terms of who I am”.
Harris won her first election in 2003 when she became San Francisco’s district attorney. In the role, she created a reentry programme for low-level drug offenders and cracked down on student truancy.
She was elected California’s attorney general in 2010, the first woman and the first Black person to hold the job, and focused on issues including the foreclosure crisis.
The presidential bid
There’s no escaping the fact that vice-president would be something of a consolation prize for Harris, who ran her own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
After being elected to the Senate in 2016, she quickly gained attention for her assertive questioning of Trump administration officials during congressional hearings.
She launched her campaign in early 2019 with the slogan “Kamala Harris For the People,” a reference to her courtroom work.
Harris was one of the highest-profile contenders in a crowded Democratic primary and attracted 20,000 people to her first campaign rally in Oakland.
In one memorable moment last year, Harris tripped up Attorney General William Barr when she repeatedly pressed him whether President Trump or other White House officials had ever pressured him to investigate anyone.
At the time, Trump was accused of trying to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with Barr in order to investigate Biden’s son Hunter over unfounded allegations of corruption.
But the early promise of Harris’s campaign eventually faded. Her law enforcement background prompted scepticism from some progressives, and she struggled to land on a consistent message that resonated with voters.
Facing fundraising problems, Harris abruptly withdrew from the race in December 2019, two months before the first votes of the primary were cast.
As a presidential candidate, Harris proposed a government-run system that would still allow private insurers to offer plans; she also supported a fracking ban. Biden has not embraced either proposal, Reuters reports.
Harris’ record as California attorney general and district attorney in San Francisco was heavily scrutinised during the Democratic primary and turned off some liberals and younger Black voters who saw her as out of step on issues of systemic racism in the legal system and police brutality.
She tried to strike a balance on these issues, declaring herself a “progressive prosecutor” who backs law enforcement reforms.
Harris also declined to defend California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage and was later overturned by the US Supreme Court, PA Media reports.
Biden, who spent eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president, has spent months weighing up who would fill that same role in his White House.
He pledged in March to select a woman as his vice president, easing frustration among Democrats that the presidential race would centre on two white men in their 70s.
Biden’s search was expansive, including Massachusetts Sen Elizabeth Warren, a leading progressive, Florida representative Val Demings, whose impeachment prosecution of President Trump won plaudits, California representative Karen Bass, who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose passionate response to unrest in her city gained national attention.
Republicans immediately tried to portray Harris as a “radical” who embraces allegedly far-left priorities such as sweeping police reform and a ban on fracking.
During a White House briefing on Tuesday, Trump called Harris “the meanest, the most horrible, most disrespectful” and “most liberal” senator and said she was his “No.1 draft pick” given her unsuccessful presidential campaign.
On a conference call the Trump campaign hosted for reporters, Republican senator Marsha Blackburn asserted that Harris supports eliminating private insurance in favour of Medicare for All and said her selection reflects the “leftist takeover” of the party.
On the Democratic side, former president Barack Obama hailed his former vice president’s running mate selection of Harris, saying: “Joe Biden nailed this decision.”
“By choosing Senator Kamala Harris as America’s next vice president, he’s underscored his own judgement and character.”
Obama described Harris an “ideal partner to help him tackle the very real challenges America faces right now and in the years ahead”.
The 2020 race comes a moment of unprecedented national crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people in the US, far more than the toll experienced in other countries.
Business closures and disruptions resulting from the pandemic have caused an economic collapse. Unrest, meanwhile, has emerged across the country as Americans protest racism and police brutality.
President Trump’s uneven handling of the crises has given Biden an opening, and he enters the autumn campaign in strong position against the president.
In adding Harris to the ticket, he can point to her relatively centrist record on issues such as healthcare and her background in law enforcement in the nation’s largest state.