On Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris took the (digital) stage on Night 3 of the Democratic National Convention and delivered what may have been one of the most important speeches of her career. But analysis of her speech accepting the vice presidential nomination is likely to come with a very specific qualifier. Unlike with her onetime rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, pundits haven't zeroed in on her "likability" — for Harris, it's all about "baggage." Indeed, within hours of Joe Biden's announcing his selection of Harris as his running mate, the murmurs began.
Unlike with her onetime rival Sen. Elizabeth Warren, pundits haven't zeroed in on her "likability" — for Harris, it's all about "baggage."
Sometimes, baggage was framed as a pun: "Does Kamala Harris have more baggage than Macy's has luggage?" The Published Reporter asked. Sometimes the baggage was framed as a gift: "Biden gives Trump a gift: All of Kamala's baggage," The Washington Examiner proclaimed. Senior HuffPost reporter Zach Carter tweeted that Harris had "unique baggage."
Even 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain, who died of COVID-19 in July, seemed to rise from the grave to join the chorus. "Harris has a ton of baggage and a political glass jaw," read a disconcerting tweet from his official Twitter account, which still bore his name and profile picture.
Harris is far from the first woman in politics to draw "baggage" claims. For anyone writing about Hillary Clinton, it was almost a rule that some reference to her "unique baggage" had to be included in stories about her political future.
During the 2020 primaries, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's "baggage," The Washington Times noted, included "charges of political opportunism" for switching positions on immigration and calling for Al Franken to step down from the Senate over sexual misconduct allegations.
In the weeks before Biden selected Harris, stories appeared about the "baggage" other potential vice president picks carried, like the "Benghazi baggage" of former Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, or Rep. Karen Bass' "Cuba baggage."
Certainly, it's not uncommon for reporters, pundits and others to assert that men in politics have "baggage," too. Everyone does. The term has become a vague, catchall word for any past policies or behavior that may now be seen as negative. Because it's so vague, it really shouldn't be used to describe anyone. But the "baggage" claim often attaches differently to women running for office, and Harris has been relentlessly targeted for her so-called law-and-order baggage from her time as a prosecutor ever since she launched her presidential campaign in January 2019.
As the author of the 1994 crime bill, Biden has plenty of "law-and-order baggage" of his own, though. He also has "baggage" from his time as a senator in the 1970s, when he befriended segregationist Dixiecrats and even worked with them on anti-busing legislation.
A man with baggage may face challenges, but women with baggage are all but unelectable.
Voters, though, as well as political pundits, seemed to accept Biden's past as an expected feature of any candidate who has worked in public life for a significant amount of time. And yet, after Harris dropped out of the presidential race, many, including The Appeal, blamed her criminal justice "baggage" for killing her campaign.
The disparity lies partly in the different ways we use the same words to describe men and women in politics. It's not dissimilar to the unequal way we treat the subject of "flaws" — another attribute all people and politicians share: Men in politics have flaws, but women in politics are flawed.
In the same vein, when we talk about men's political baggage, we tend to treat it as one element of a larger portrait. Once that descriptor is affixed to a woman, though, it often becomes the focal point — an immutable, ever-present, all-encompassing condition. A man with baggage may face challenges, but women with baggage are all but unelectable.
A quick search at newspapers.com shows that "baggage" is applied to women more often relative to their positions. The site records about 28,600 instances in which "Hillary Clinton" or "Hillary Rodham" appeared in news pages near the word "baggage."
President Donald Trump, a controversy magnet since the 1970s whose campaign and administration have proven rife with scandals and indictments, returns about half as many "baggage" results as Clinton.
Sarah Palin, who served a partial term as governor of Alaska and about two months as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential pick, has almost as many results as Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has run for president twice and has been a member of Congress since 1991.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the word "baggage" itself has sexist origins. The second entry for "baggage" in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is a pejorative that refers to "a contemptible or disreputable woman."
But even if we stripped away the gendered aspects, baggage is ultimately still a useless filler word that does little to help inform voters. When evaluating candidates, it is important to examine their entire records — not just the best or worst slices of them. It's also a word used to strike a false sense of balance.
For example, while discussing Trump's opposition to new anti-police brutality laws, it may be tempting to note that Biden's running mate has criminal justice "baggage" from her time as a prosecutor. But focusing on Harris' criminal justice "baggage" alone can omit key context, and it fails to provide voters with actual insights into her record as a whole. It also fails to inform them about her current plans for criminal justice reforms.
As critics will point out, Harris did not endorse a 2010 California ballot initiative to decriminalize marijuana. There is more to her record on weed than that old baggage, though. Later as a U.S. senator, she co-sponsored the Marijuana Justice Act, which would remove cannabis from the federal banned substances list and eliminate criminal penalties for possession, distribution and manufacture of marijuana. It would also penalize states that disproportionately prosecute low-income people and people of color for marijuana-related offenses.
But even if we stripped away the gendered aspects, baggage is ultimately still a useless filler word that does little to help inform voters.
Thus, the baggage lens thus deprives voters of a nuanced accounting of a candidate's record and policy plans, bolsters cynicism and, I think, reinforces systemic disadvantages for women running for office.
In an Aug. 6 letter, leaders from several women's groups urged media executives not only to avoid obvious instances of racism and sexism but also to "actively work to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in your coverage" of the elections.
Recognizing both the uselessness and inherent sexism of metrics like "baggage" or "likability" is an important step we should all take, not only to proactively fight sexism in our politics but also to achieve a better political discourse in general.
Instead of emphasizing baggage, which essentially all candidates have, we should weigh the people who are vying for our votes the way many Democratic primary voters decided to weigh Joe Biden: by examining their records in full, considering the good and the bad in context and determining whether or not their policy proposals are the best path forward.