many forget about Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign was that, for the most
part, she was a happy warrior. Sure, her slash-and-burn attack on Joe Biden
over busing in their first debate last June has become seared in our brains through
constant repetition on cable TV.
that was the exception.
I remember is a different and more upbeat candidate on the campaign trail, a
senator who gleefully laughed at her own jokes. In a speech to a largely Black
audience in Florence, South Carolina, in early July of last year, Harris talked
about how everyone was “going through individual and group therapy,”
trying to grasp what Donald Trump was doing to America.
of rage, Harris offered her own version of hope: “We’re going to be
fine.” She harked back to the Founding Fathers and their concept of checks
and balances as she stressed, “This is a nation that was founded
anticipating a moment just like this.” And her dramatic example was the
late John McCain casting a crucial Senate vote to break with Trump and
Republican orthodoxy to save the Affordable Care Act.
is a view of politics that Biden shares. They believe that not all Republicans
are beyond salvation—and that our democracy and our values can be saved through individual
acts of courage like McCain’s.
volumes will be written about why Biden chose Harris. But the truest bond
between them may be the simplest: They are both politicians in the best sense of
the word. They understand elections, Capitol Hill, and how to be tough without
losing your sense of humor.
of course, was always the obvious vice presidential choice who, in the cliché of the moment, checked all the boxes. She is a woman of color, who chose to
attend Howard University rather than following the Barack Obama path to the Ivy
League. As both a district attorney and California attorney general, she has a
strong enough prosecutorial background to help fend off Trump’s attempts to portray
the Democratic Party as the electoral branch of antifa. And having run for
president, she does not need weeks of introduction and buildup to be a credible
was never a particularly strong presidential candidate in her own right. Her
campaign was unfocused and erratic. It ended when she ran out of money two months
before the Iowa caucuses. Her critics claim that she was powered by ambition
and little else (though the same could have been said of Biden when he first
ran for president in 1987). But she does boast instant credibility: If, God
forbid, something were to happen to Biden, she would be a plausible president. Only
two of the other women Biden was considering could have said the same; and former
national security adviser Susan Rice has never run for public office, and
Elizabeth Warren is 71, no matter how vibrant she appeared as a candidate.
political science research and a gimlet-eyed look at recent history suggest
that a vice presidential pick has limited electoral significance.
What Biden wanted to avoid at all costs was causing any kind of distraction with
his VP choice. He also wanted to avoid sending the press pack off to rummage
through the political history of a little-known running mate. That is what
happened with Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, when reporters
discovered that she had volunteered to cut sugar cane in Cuba in the early
1970s, a youthful odyssey that seemed to suggest some naiveté about Fidel
of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the Harris pick is that she will now
be on a glide path to the 2024 nomination. In reality, Harris, whose own
ideological orientation can be blurry, may get caught in the ideological
battles that are likely to be waged if Biden doesn’t run for a second term. And
her relationship with Biden may prove to be a liability if Biden struggles to
contain the ongoing pandemic or to pull the country out of a deep recession.
surprising about Biden’s choice was Trump’s scattershot reaction. Since Harris
was the obvious pick, one might think that the Trump team would have an elaborate
game plan ready to roll out as soon as she was announced. Instead, Trump merely
called her “nasty” for her questioning of Brett Kavanaugh during his
confirmation hearings (horrors), and the campaign rushed out an uninspired ad
about “Slow Joe and Phony Kamala.”
even a president as proudly amnesiac as Trump may have a difficult time
explaining why he donated $6,000 to Harris’s campaign fund as attorney general.
And why Ivanka kicked in another $2,000 in 2014.)
the boldest aspect of the Harris choice is that she will make history by becoming not only the
first Black woman and the first Asian American woman to grace the national ticket but also the first Democrat from the West Coast. She also fits the odd Democratic tradition of almost
always picking a senator for vice president since there have been only two
exceptions to that iron rule since Senator Harry Truman was nominated in 1944.
important as Vice President Harris may be when it becomes time for President
Biden to govern, the ideal campaign outcome would be if she aces her debate
with Mike Pence and helps at the margins in mobilizing African American
turnout. In choosing Harris, Biden followed the shrewd political strategy of
doing nothing to prevent this election from becoming an up-or-down referendum
on Donald J. Trump.