Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.08.25

Tokyo wonders who Kamala Harris is

the japan times on August 18, 2020

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A.

Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party in the upcoming U.S. presidential race, finally picked Sen. Kamala Harris as his vice presidential running mate. She praised the former vice president, saying “Joe Biden had the audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate.” She may be right. Some in Tokyo, however, may not take her words at face value.

In Japanese newspapers, a typical headline for articles about Biden’s choice was “What kind of person is Kamala Harris?” Despite the media frenzy in the United States, in Tokyo only one major daily quickly carried an editorial about her, partly because the announcement came during Japan’s mid-August summer holidays.

The editorial was titled “A Black woman vice presidential candidate, a choice to restore diversity.” It commended the historic selection, saying “the decision was aimed at sending a message of reconciliation and change to the United States divided by COVID-19 and racial discrimination.”

Among the many articles written in Japanese, typical headlines were: “Is Harris a goddess or weak point?”; “Some around Biden wanted someone other than Harris”; “Can Harris win Black votes?”; “Harris a positive signal for stricter environmental regulations?”; “Wall Street welcomes Harris”; or “Will Harris energize Biden?”

That said, Japanese readers need some context. Although a most favorable running mate, Harris may not be a Wonder Woman. Despite excitement among Democrats, the Biden-Harris ticket has a long way to go before the finish line, and could hit some steep hurdles. Here are the reasons why.

Dual heritage

Harris has often focused on her Black identity. She was raised in Berkeley, California. Her mother, an immigrant from India, was a breast cancer researcher and her father, a Stanford University professor emeritus of economics, emigrated from British Jamaica.

Although she was bused in Berkeley to a school in a predominantly white neighborhood and studied at Howard University (a historically Black school) in Washington, she is an American woman of not only African but also South Asian ancestry. Like Barack Obama, she is biracial.

Is the ticket well-balanced?

This leads to another question about her “electability.” Having served as a local prosecutor and attorney general of California, Harris is often criticized for not being progressive enough. Reportedly she was a prosecutor “who waited rather than led, who moved on controversial issues only once she saw what was politically viable.”

Tokyo often fails to appreciate the concept of “balancing the ticket” in American politics. Biden is an old white man from the East Coast and Harris a younger woman of color from the West. They may make a perfect center-left balance representing America of the 2020s vis-a-vis the all-white Trump-Pence ticket of the 1950s.

Can Harris endure Trump’s verbal attacks?

Harris may pose a serious threat to the incumbent president. Donald Trump started calling her “the meanest, most horrible, most disrespectful, MOST LIBERAL of anyone in the U.S. Senate, and I cannot believe that Joe Biden would pick her as his running mate.” Such attacks will definitely intensify until Election Day.

Trump’s verbal offensive — which even Hillary Clinton could not survive — should not be underestimated. Harris may find it difficult to avoid. Trump will continue bashing Biden and Harris as “two corrupt career politicians” who “DESTROY America.” The 2020 presidential race will be a mudslinging contest.

Does Harris have a foreign policy?

Many in Tokyo, including myself, are immensely curious. My answer is yes and no. Yes, Harris is critical of “China’s abysmal human rights record,” especially in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. She said she will never accept “North Korea as a nuclear weapon state” and is willing to “work closely with our allies.” So far so good.

The answer is no in the sense that in the U.S. system, the vice president is not always a major decision-maker in foreign policy. That said, Harris may not be satisfied with a ceremonial role. In any case, if elected Nov. 3, she will most likely start campaigning immediately for the 2024 presidential election.

Can Democrats win easily?

Since Aug. 11, Democrats and the GOP’s “Never Trumpers” seem to be excited about the Biden-Harris ticket. Most U.S. media, probably except for Fox News, emphasize the historic importance of the Harris selection. Having said that, many in Tokyo are still skeptical that Biden will coast to an easy victory in November.

Some pundits in Japan, despite holding a favorable view of Harris, argue that Biden’s decision was either a big gamble or an act of self-conceit on the part of his campaign headquarters because the choice was neither good or bad and probably won’t provide any momentum to the Biden campaign.

One of them even argues that Biden picked Harris because “given the diversified political environment in the Democratic Party, she was politically the easiest choice for him.” I agree. If Harris was the most favorable choice among the Democratic leaders, why did it take Biden so long to pick her? Something is wrong.

They’re just at the starting line

Trying to guess the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election would be foolish at this point, and I am not naive enough to predict an easy win for Biden. I do not underestimate Trump’s election tricks and tactics. Neither do I overestimate Biden’s skill to re-energize the Democratic political machine.

What we must understand here in Japan is that Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate marks just the beginning of the final phase of the 2020 campaign. It is still premature to bet on either side because the Biden team has only just come to the starting line for the less-than-100-day sprint to the finish line. Tokyo will be keeping its fingers crossed.