Opinion | What the Kamala Harris Pick Tells Us About Joe Biden

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Joe Biden is often described as an ideological moderate. During the 2020 Democratic primary, political analysts routinely used the term to distinguish Mr. Biden from prominent rivals running to his left, especially the self-described socialist Senator Bernie Sanders and the “big structural change” advocate Senator Elizabeth Warren.

But the term is not actually a good fit for Mr. Biden. His policy agenda and personal style are certainly closer to the political center than those of Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren — but they are also much more liberal than the moderate Democratic tradition represented by the congressional Blue Dog Coalition and senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Mr. Biden is best understood not as a member of a particular ideological faction but rather as a prototypical “regular Democrat” who has continually sought to personify the existing mainstream of his party — which explains his choice of Senator Kamala Harris as vice-presidential nominee.

Mr. Biden’s 36 years of service in the Senate spanned seven presidential administrations as well as considerable change in both parties’ social coalitions and philosophical precepts. But his voting record always remained firmly at the ideological midpoint of the Democratic Party. According to a measure of congressional ideology developed by the political scientists Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal, during his full tenure in the Senate, Mr. Biden’s party loyalty score was consistently high and his record right in the middle of the pack among Democrats.

As his party has evolved over time, Mr. Biden has evolved along with it. When Democratic leaders chose a tough-on-crime stance in the early 1990s, for example, he helped to draft major legislation that stiffened sentencing requirements and bolstered funding for prison construction while supporting an aggressive “war on drugs.” But as advocates of criminal justice reform have increased pressure on Democratic politicians in recent years to reduce mass incarceration and weaken punitive drug laws, Mr. Biden has responded in characteristic fashion.

Acknowledging that “we haven’t always gotten things right,” he shifted his positions in a liberal direction — endorsing the abolition of the death penalty, the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and the decriminalization of marijuana — even as he continued to resist embracing the most ambitious reform measures favored by some progressive activists.

Policy proposals and priorities are not the only important dimensions of party change. The presidency of Barack Obama inaugurated a period of transformation in the representation of race and gender within Democratic ranks. The proportion of white men within the congressional Democratic Party has decreased to 41 percent from 62 percent over the past decade alone, and the further rise in the number of female congressional candidates this year suggests that the demographic diversity of the party’s office-holding class will continue to increase.

Mr. Biden owes his nomination in part to some Democratic primary voters’ perception that an older white man who is not a socialist might well be an especially formidable challenger to President Trump. But the last four years have also produced mass movements led by women and people of color, both in opposition to Mr. Trump and in favor of their own group interests, that have had a major influence on left-of-center politics in the United States. Under the circumstances, Mr. Biden’s pledge to select a female running mate and his ultimate choice of Ms. Harris is a characteristic example of his tendency to row in the direction of the day’s strongest political currents.

Indeed, vice-presidential selection is often interpreted as an opportunity for candidates to attract greater support from independents or swing voters, but many previous nominees have used the position to ensure enthusiasm for the ticket among key constituencies within their own party. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter selected Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, respectively, to reassure liberal Democrats of their sympathy to the cause, just as George H.W. Bush picked Dan Quayle and Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan to assuage skepticism on the Republican right. Mr. Trump’s selection of Mike Pence four years ago turned out to be a very successful gesture of outreach to social conservatives, who had previously questioned Mr. Trump’s commitment to their policy goals.

The need for presidential nominees to maintain support from a large network of party members — other politicians, interest group leaders, activists and voters — gives them a strong incentive to respect these actors’ preferences when choosing a governing partner who also may turn out to be a successor in office. Most presidential candidates don’t merely consider their own personal inclinations during the selection process. As the political scientist William Adler of Northeastern Illinois University has noted, drawing upon research that he conducted in collaboration with Julia Azari of Marquette University, candidates also ask themselves, “What does the party stand for and what does the party want?”

If the vice-presidential nominee usually reflects the wishes of the whole party, what does the choice of Kamala Harris reveal about the state of the Democrats in 2020? As a biracial Black and Asian-American woman, Ms. Harris is a member of social groups that are important sources of party support but that have been historically underrepresented in elective office. She is an orthodox liberal, but not an ideological purist. She is young enough, and new enough to national office, to represent a generational contrast to the older cohort of party leaders.

In short, Ms. Harris is a political heir to Barack Obama. Her ascent to the national ticket alongside his own two-term vice president demonstrates how much the Democratic Party continues to follow the course charted by Mr. Obama’s presidency more than a decade after it began.

Joe Biden’s five-decade career in politics has been guided by the instinct to give his party what it wants. And he has concluded that Democrats want their future to look a lot like their recent past.

David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”

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