Kamala Harris, Gen X's Moment, and the Fall of House Boomer

As a candidate in the Democratic primaries, Kamala Harris stood astride the fault lines of the Democratic Party. The Californian presented herself as an establishment politician (reaching the Senate after serving as San Francisco’s DA and California’s attorney general) whose platform was responsive to the idealism of the party’s grassroots. Harris backed the Green New Deal, a version of Medicare for All (albeit with some vacillation on the details), and marijuana legalization. Harris embodied a classic Gen X straddle: She’d navigated a path to power through a system controlled by older, whiter, more-conservative politicians, and then proposed to wield the levers of that power in the service of ideals she shared with the enormous, diverse, and progressive millennial and zoomer generations coming of age behind her.

In the Democratic primary race, Harris’ attempt to transcend the party’s ideological and generational divides briefly sizzled, with a masterful debate performance targeting Joe Biden as a creature of the Democratic Party’s old white-guy past. But as the race bifurcated into a struggle between the stalwart (Biden) and the insurgent (Bernie Sanders), Harris’s once-promising straddle became an untenable split. She was caught between Democrats seeking safety and progressives seeking purity, and her campaign collapsed.

Yet today, the same promise of center-left synthesis makes Harris a powerful choice for vice president. And as a woman who owns her power, Harris is now poised to sweep the party into the future — past the boomers who once promised “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” but who’ve mostly thought of preserving their own political influence. Biden-Harris is the first Democratic presidential ticket in a generation not to feature a bona fide boomer. Biden, born in 1942, is a member of the Silent Generation, and would be the first of his cohort to serve in the Oval Office. Likewise, Harris, 55, promises Gen X its first taste of executive-branch power. (While many demographers mark 1965 as the beginning of Gen X, that’s, culturally speaking, horseshit. Harris was born in late 1964, the same year as Eddie Vedder, Courtney Love, Chris Cornell, Eazy-E, Sandra Bullock, Lenny Kravitz, and Keanu Reeves.)

In the present moment, Harris balances out Biden. She brings a sense of youth and vitality and a razor sharpness to the ticket. By selecting a black woman as his running mate, Biden has kept faith with the most important constituency in the Democratic Party, and rewarded the confidence black voters placed in his primary campaign. By choosing his most successful debate antagonist as his governing partner, Biden is telegraphing his ability to make peace with fierce rivals and move forward — the essence of his political pitch to America. By selecting the daughter of immigrants (her father from Jamaica, her mother from India), Biden is also rebuking the nativist politics of Donald Trump. With Harris as his political partner, it’s not difficult to imagine how Biden can energize the Obama coalition that bested the Republican candidacies of John McCain and Mitt Romney, but that field to consolidate behind Hillary Clinton and the forgettable Tim Kaine.

Looking to the future, Harris has become the new frontwoman of the Democratic Party. By winning the veepstakes, she’s vaulted into the pole position for the nomination in 2024 or 2028. And because of Biden’s advanced age, there’s heightened reason to imagine that a Vice President Harris could assume the duties of the presidency sooner than that. This vision of Harris in the Oval Office is compelling on its own. She’s shown herself as a fearless fighter on the national stage, with a questioning style in Senate hearings that’s made Jeff Sessions whelp and Brett Kavanaugh quiver. The premonition of a President Harris also makes a Biden administration more palatable to voters of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generation, who are rightly exasperated by a political system that has kept old white men (see: Hoyer, Steny; or Schumer, Chuck) in top positions of leadership in a party whose political power increasingly depends on young women of color. For these next-generation voters, having Harris on the ticket helps dissolve the cognitive dissonance of identifying as a Democrat.

Like any vice presidential candidate, Harris also brings baggage to the ticket. In an era when progressives are demanding root-and-branch reform of the criminal-justice system, Harris’ history as a prosecutor is problematic, particularly in conjunction with Biden’s long history of championing tough-on-crime politics. But Trump — who has made “law and order” a last-gasp centerpiece of his re-election campaign — will have a hard time simultaneously demonizing Biden as an Antifa pushover and Harris as a cop.

Whatever her political vulnerabilities, the aspiring vice president is chiefly characterized by her power. Some old-guard advisers in Biden’s inner circle told him to pick an innocuous running mate, whose selection would not so obviously herald a generational changing of the guard. Biden was right to reject this caution and to commit boldly to the future with Harris, who looms in stature over the feckless yes man who currently holds the office of vice president. In looking to the future, a wide swath of America will also be eagerly anticipating the vice presidential debate — watching and waiting for that moment when Harris makes Mike Pence cry out for mother.

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