The issue is Harris’s blistering attack on Joe Biden’s record on race and busing during a 2019 presidential debate, where she blasted his relationships with segregationist senators and reminded the audience that “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.”
Politico reports that when asked about the sharp exchange, Harris told former senator Chris Dodd: “That’s politics.” She also laughed.
Dodd, a member of Biden’s vice-presidential search team, apparently, couldn’t handle the fact that Harris wouldn’t apologize. “She had no remorse,” he reportedly told Politico’s anonymous tipster, making Harris somehow sound like a miscreant caught in the act of doing wrong. This is, the article goes on to say, a “matter of trust.”
As my colleague Karen Tumulty pointed out Monday, this sort of political rough-and-tumble is somehow not frowned upon when it comes to men seeking higher office. George H.W. Bush called supply-side economics “voodoo economics,” only to get asked to serve as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Biden himself cast aspersions on Barack Obama’s foreign policy chops. It is, as Harris said, just part of the process.
But for women, the behavioral double standard is alive and well. Questions of trustworthiness, grasping ambition and inappropriate anger always come up when women are perceived as rivals, or as a little too close to achieving power — whether in politics, the corporate world or the local Parent-Teacher Association.
Women learn early on that if they are openly ambitious, they open themselves up to attack. They are expected to look out for themselves, but also to take into account the possible hurt feelings of those they challenge on their path to success. Many eventually retreat and take themselves out of the running in the face of such pressure. Others learn to cloak their aspirations — to say sorry.
It’s a complicated dance, to seek advancement when society frowns on a direct expression of ambition. Very few manage to pull it off without encountering blowback. In fact, it’s something of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. Apologize for your ambitions, and you are untrustworthy because you are hiding your true self. But acknowledge them openly, and you are untrustworthy because you don’t take others into account. You are supposed to somehow achieve goals by accident — “OMG, I can’t believe I’m a candidate for vice president!” — while knowing that this is an impossibility.
In politics, there are so many examples that I could run out my space listing them, but Hillary Clinton is the most famous of them all. Multiple polls found voters deemed her untrustworthy. She was haunted by fake scandals, while Donald Trump, a boastful, disreputable, dishonest businessman, all but skated on by. Think about it for a moment: Voters preferred a man who regularly and maliciously lies over a woman who gave nuanced, truthful answers to complicated questions.
Then there is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). She was the anti-Hillary — honest, a straight shooter — until she actually ran for president. Then, suddenly, she was deemed traitorous by a segment of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters — for, apparently, having the temerity to challenge a man they favored. They took to regularly tweeting snake emojis at her online accounts.
Women of color — such as Harris — face an even thinner tightrope. The trope of the “angry black woman” is so ingrained in American culture that there is a Wikipedia entry for it. It’s not just a coincidence that the so-called Squad — freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley — are all minorities.
And I’m sorry — oops — to say that condemnation comes around for every woman. Right now, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is getting cast as the good girl, the perfect candidate for vice president. She’s so self-effacing, Politico reports, that she needs “to be dragged into risks to elevate her political career.” “She is the best person,” Republican campaign consultant Frank Luntz told Biden on Monday. “So kind,” he said. “So decent.” But you know what? She’s also ambitious. No one just happens to get elected to the House of Representatives, never mind become head of the Congressional Black Caucus. There is no doubt that if Biden selects her to be his vice-presidential wing woman, we’ll hear all about her drive to achieve — and not in a flattering way.