I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to you, but politics is a rough game.
There are rules regarding how elections are conducted and laws you can’t break while campaigning — but other than that, the art of politics resembles nothing more than a combination of adult Calvinball and a bar fight. That doesn’t mean unethical or needlessly cruel behavior isn’t going to get called out, but even when played fair, you’ll end up with bruises.
However, the media quickly sent a message when California Sen. Kamala Harris was picked as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate: Play the game as it’s ordinarily played and you’re probably going to get called a sexist or a racist.
Harris is the first black and South Asian woman to make a major ticket. A former candidate in the presidential race, she’d briefly surged to the top by landing a vicious hit on, um, Joe Biden during a debate last June. Then came a similarly vicious hit by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard in a subsequent debate. It was difficult to call that sexist or racist, Gabbard being female and half-Samoan. (And, well, speaking the truth about Harris’ hypocritical record on criminal justice reform.)
There also wasn’t any sexism or racism involved in Harris’ implosion in the wake of the Gabbard hit. As chronicled in a clear-eyed and brutal New York Times piece just days before she pulled out of the race, Harris’ campaign was a hive of factional infighting helmed by a candidate who frequently shifted positions.
While Democrats would complain loudly when the field of competitors was whittled down to only white people — and then to two sclerotic white men — no one doubted that Harris was the author of her own demise.
In other words, there was a lot not like about Kamala Harris before Joe Biden picked her on Tuesday, and almost all of it carried no racist or sexist baggage: She was a hypocrite and an organizational disaster.
But now, of course, the messaging is that the GOP is readying its misogynist, racist attacks against Harris.
It began in earnest when former Obama national security adviser and veepstakes participation trophy winner Susan Rice appeared on NBC’s “Today” to talk up Harris and pretend she wasn’t disappointed. (Rice, in case you were curious, was seen by the Biden campaign as too much of a risk because the career bureaucrat was untested as a political candidate, according to The Times.)
The interview was, for the most part, an invitation for Rice to repeat slightly different permutations about how Harris “is going to make a tremendous running mate for Joe Biden” and how the occasion was “historic.”
It didn’t take long for “Today” host Savannah Guthrie to transition into the possibility of racism and sexism rearing their ugly heads with Harris.
“You know, there is a flip side to that history,” Guthrie said. “You know, Hillary Clinton was very blunt, saying that she feels that sexism was one of the contributors to her loss in 2016. Do you worry about racism and sexism affecting this race with Kamala Harris on the ticket?”
Saying that “this ticket is going to win,” Rice added that “there are going to be those who employ racism and sexism.”
“Look at Donald Trump yesterday, calling her ‘nasty,'” she said. “He would have done that to any person Joe Biden selected to be on the ticket. And that’s the undertone. There are those who will not retreat from that kind of divisiveness and hatred, and Donald Trump exemplifies it.”
“Frankly, we’re going to have to just bust through these barriers, Savannah,” she continued. “You and I and all the women watching this understand that this is a challenge we face every day — but it’s time and I think we will do it.”
To be clear — Trump specifically referred to Harris’ role in the Brett Kavanaugh character assassination circus as “nasty.” Rice was trying to connect this to Trump’s “nasty woman” comment about Clinton — and in both cases, the word was pulled out of context and deemed a misogynist slur.
As for Harris’ conduct during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation hearings, what word would Rice prefer Trump to have used? “Vicious”? “Underhanded”? “Unethical”? “Revolting”? Or would anything short of refraining from bringing up the senator’s duplicitous attacks on Kavanaugh have been seen as sexist?
Of course, Rice kind of undercut her own argument here when she said Trump “would have done that to any person Joe Biden selected to be on the ticket.” So I guess it’s not sexist or racist, since he would have done it to Gavin Newsom.
This is going to be the playbook, though: Be careful what you say about Kamala Harris, lest you be labeled a bigot.
From The Associated Press on Wednesday: “In the weeks before Joe Biden named Sen. Kamala Harris his running mate, women’s groups were readying a campaign of their own: shutting down sexist coverage and disinformation about a vice presidential nominee they say is headed for months of false smears and ‘brutal’ attacks from internet haters.
“The groups put the media on notice in recent days that they will call out bias — one campaign is dubbed ‘We Have Her Back’ — and established a ‘war room’ to refute sexist or false attacks as they happen.”
The first sexist or false attack they “refuted?” “[F]alse information was circulating on social media, claiming that Harris had called Biden a ‘racist’ and that she is not eligible to be president.”
The last part is tinfoil-hat nuttery, but the first part is pretty much true. No, during her infamous attack on Biden during the June 2019 Democratic debate, she didn’t directly call him a racist. She said he wasn’t a racist — and then accused him of doing racist things while working with racists.
“This time we understand the patterns, and this time we have the organizational infrastructure to push back,” Shaunna Thomas, executive director for women’s advocacy group UltraViolet, told the AP.
This is a constant pattern, though. Opinion piece at The Washington Post: “Why Joe Biden’s running mate will survive the coming sexist attacks.” The Boston Globe: “As Kamala Harris faces racist and sexist online attacks, women’s groups and Democratic operatives say they have her back.” NBC News: “Kamala Harris is already facing sexist and racist attacks — and they’ll only get worse.”
Aside from the terminally stupid theory that Harris might be ineligible to run (a conspiracy first advanced in an article published that fringe-right publication Newsweek, a fact most commentators elided over), commentators seemed to feel that any criticism of the senator must originate from her race or gender.
Let’s take, for instance, Anthea Butler’s NBC News piece, in which she said criticism of Harris’ record as a prosecutor sprang from racism and labeling her notoriously protean political stances as “flip-flops” is misogynist.
“For instance, being of Jamaican and Indian descent has exacerbated criticism of Harris’ record as district attorney of San Francisco and California state attorney general: She is not judged strictly on her accomplishments or failures in those roles, but on what she did or did not do on criminal justice reform as a Black woman in those roles — even though it’s just as likely that, had she been seen at the time as acting on her identity in those roles, she never would have been elected to them at all,” Butler wrote.
Anthea Butler is in academia, which explains why she thought that tangled string of thoughts was passable. Peek behind the structure of that ungainly paragraph and you can see the argument pretty well, though: Any criticism of Harris’ time as a prosecutor or district attorney is necessarily tinged with racism, particularly if your positionality isn’t melanated.
We continue: “Then there are the criticisms of Harris — as with Hillary Clinton before her — as being too apt to change her mind. As Peiter Beinart aptly wrote in The Atlantic, it is a false dichotomy to ask if Harris’ stance has changed because of political calculations or personal feelings. People can change, and we should want them to if they are wrong,” Butler wrote.
“But the troubling aspect of this criticism when applied to Harris is that it is often meant to convey to voters that they can’t trust her because she flip-flops. But women — and especially women of color — are often deemed untrustworthy compared to men, and Black women are supposedly even more untrustworthy than white women. Repeating this canard about Harris because she chose to learn from criticism of her political positions plays into our implicit sexist and racist biases — and liberals especially ought to know better.”
But every politician who flip-flops is attacked for it — and Harris is notorious in this department.
The most infamous example was her health care plan during her presidential run — or should I say plans, since her position would change so often as to make the issue electorally worthless to her.
Those sorts of frequent shifts don’t just happen because “people can change,” and criticism of her isn’t sexist or racist because people find black women untrustworthy.
This is the plan, though. Democrats aim to insulate Harris from any sort of normal criticism a candidate might face by claiming it comes from a position of sexism or racism. The rules of the game don’t apply to Joe Biden’s running mate, at least if you’re a Republican.
How convenient, especially with such a flawed candidate.
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