When push came to shove, Joe Biden went with the obvious choice, even though she spent their first debate beating up on him.
For all the last-minute media speculation, the breathless reports about whose stock was rising or falling, Kamala Harris was the finalist with the fewest negatives.
It’s true that the senator’s presidential campaign was a colossal bust, a mismanaged mess, but it made her a national name, one who had been through at least an intensive round of media scrutiny. That wasn’t true of Karen Bass, whose chances faded when the press reported on her warm views of Fidel Castro. Susan Rice was nationally known, but she had never run for dogcatcher, and Biden didn’t need a foreign policy specialist.
As for others like Gretchen Whitmer, I never thought the Michigan governor, whose handling of the coronavirus has been controversial, had a chance. And the main reason is that she is white. As the countdown neared, many prominent African-Americans made clear that Biden would play a heavy price if he picked a woman who was not a woman of color. That felt like a racial demand, but in the wake of the nationwide protests and violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd, perhaps he was bowing to Democratic realpolitik.
The Trump campaign, of course, has already started unloading on Harris, and her record as California attorney general, and district attorney before that, will provide opponents with plenty of ammunition. But while she may be portrayed as too passive about police brutality, she can’t be painted as soft on crime.
The Kamala brand is an interesting one, since she is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian parents, along with, as of this afternoon, the first black woman on a major-party ticket.
With her prosecutorial bent, Harris is well suited to the running mate’s traditional role of attack dog. And she’ll be attacked back. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel quickly put out a statement that Biden has chosen “the person who would actually be in charge the next four years.” That dovetails with the president’s argument that the 77-year-old nominee is out of it and a captive of his party’s uber-liberal wing.
And a Trump campaign ad says Harris had attacked Biden for “racist policies,” which isn’t precisely true. What is true, as McDaniel mentioned, that Harris favored abolishing private health insurance (through Medicare for All), but as with all No. 2 picks, her platform will now be that of the person at the top of the ticket.
It’s a reminder as well that Harris will now be proclaimed by the press to be the front-runner for the 2024 Democratic nomination, as well as a possible president if Biden doesn’t finish his term.
Watching a parade of guests on MSNBC deliver gushing praise of Harris, with no mention of a single liability, makes clear that Biden’s choice is a popular one on the left.
Some Fox conservatives, by contrast, suggested that Biden really didn’t pick her, but bowed to the party’s consensus, and joked that least Harris can complete a sentence.
If Harris’s aggressive style, often on display in Senate hearings, will now be employed against Trump, it was only last year that she used it against Biden. She didn’t just whack him with a one-liner; she hammered him for pushing limits on busing in the 1970s—busing that she benefited from as a little girl. She also slammed him for defending segregationist senators. It was a body blow.
How did Biden pick her when he placed such a high premium on compatibility, given his experience with Barack Obama? Biden says he doesn’t hold grudges, and Kamala was close to his late son Beau.
In cold political terms, what does she bring to the ticket beyond being a telegenic presence? Biden was already going to win California. Certainly, there will be more excitement in the black community. She will be more tightly scripted than she was as a White House contender. Perhaps, since Biden is leading in the polls, he was looking for someone who was steady enough that she simply wouldn’t hurt his chances.
Biden’s choice may or may not matter much in the long run, but one thing no one can deny: the pick was historic.