Despite Kamala Harris’ depth of experience and personal charisma, there are several reasons why she may not be the best choice for vice president. But choosing her may be the best bet for Joe Biden.
The first Democratic-primary debate on June 27, 2019 witnessed a tense confrontation between former vice president Joe Biden and California Senator and then presidential candidate Kamala Harris. In a tremulous voice suffused with emotion, Kamala Harris said that Biden made “hurtful” comments about his alliances with two segregationist senators and that he went on to work with them to oppose federally mandated busing. She recounted her personal experience as a child in the 1970s who was bused to school every day. The point she was trying to make was fairly clear: Biden had lent support to anti-busing amendment in the 70s when busing was regarded as a method of racially desegregating schools. In response, Biden called Harris’ allegation a “mischaracterization” of his position, and made a distinction between court-ordered busing and voluntary busing, saying he had never opposed the latter.
Watch: Kamala Harris blasts Joe Biden during the first Democratic Primary Debate
The debate accusation drew the ire of Biden allies, who in fact hadn’t expected Harris to take on Joe Biden, especially since she and Biden’s late son Beau Biden – both state attorneys general – had been good friends. But not only has the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee publicly praised Senator Harris several times since then, he recently mentioned that she is “very much in contention” to be his vice-president and that he harboured no grudge against her for what she said in that primary debate. Could Kamala Harris be the next vice-president if Biden wins the election?
Kamala Harris’ Place in American Politics
Born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father who met as students at Berkeley, Kamala Harris has often spoken of how her immigrant parents – particularly her mother Shyamala Gopalan, cancer researcher and civil rights activist – shaped her life and worldview. After her education at Howard University and law school at UC Hastings, Harris worked at the Alameda County District Attorney’s office prosecuting child sexual assault cases. She also served as district attorney general of San Francisco (2004-2011) and state attorney general of California (2011-2017), becoming the first woman of colour to occupy the position. Harris was elected to the Senate only in 2016, but had been catapulted into national limelight in 2012 when she gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
As Senator, Harris spearheaded efforts to combat racial discrimination and fought for immigrant rights, while remaining a trenchant critic of President Trump’s policies. She has introduced and sponsored bills to stop the cruel treatment meted out to migrant children by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and border patrol, and proposed a slew of executive actions to expand President Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) programme and help more DREAMers (undocumented immigrants who arrived at the U.S. as minors) acquire citizenship. Her other progressive policy stances include her support for single-payer health care, proposal for closing the gender wage gap and penalizing companies that refuse to do so, bridging the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors, and decriminalization of marijuana. She also introduced the LIFT (Livable Incomes for Families Today) the Middle Class Act, under which working and middle-class families would receive a monthly cash payment.
As district attorney and state attorney general, Harris defended Obamacare in court, opposed the “shoot the gays” ballot initiative in California, brought a $241 million fraud settlement against a company that illegally overcharged the state’s medical programme for the poor and disabled, and unveiled legislation to increase transparency and accountability around collection of criminal justice data. Although all this may seem to fit Harris’ self-description as a “progressive prosecutor”, her track record, particularly on criminal justice, is fraught with contradictions. She refused to seek the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer without provocation, but defended her state’s death penalty system in court. She implemented a novel racial bias training programme for police officers but stood against getting her office to investigate fatal police shootings. She instituted the “Back on Track,” programme that allowed first-time drug offenders to earn a high school diploma and get a job instead of incarceration but, in several cases, refused to release people even after they were proven innocent. Under her, the California Department of Justice became the first statewide agency to implement a body camera programme, but wearing the body camera wasn’t mandated for local policemen.
Watch: Tulsi Gabbard rips apart Kamala Harris’ record
Not Everyone’s Favourite
According to a recent Politico report, former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, a loyal supporter of Biden and part of his vice presidential vetting committee, still has apprehensions about Kamala Harris ostensibly because she had no remorse with regard to her attack on Biden at the first Democratic primary debate. In the same report, an insider is quoted as saying that so deep are Dodd’s misgivings about Harris that he has helped elevate California Representative Karen Bass during the search process, persuading Biden to choose her over Harris. And Dodd isn’t the only sceptic.
Watch: Chris Dodd’s comments about Kamala Harris
A group, including top donors, high-ranking Democrats, and close associates of Biden, is lobbying against Harris for vice president. While some still nurture a grudge against her for last year’s debate, others are wary of her loyalty, contending she’s too opportunistic and ambitious to be a trustworthy subordinate. There’s also a section that is mindful of her chequered prosecution record in California. In a poll year marred by protests sparked by a killing that served as a grim reminder of America’s iniquitous criminal justice system, Harris’ flip-flops on the issue are not likely to be ignored.
Like Dodd, many of these Biden allies have expressed support for alternatives to Harris. Choices include other women of colour, especially since Biden said he’d select a woman as his running mate. There’s Karen Bass, a progressive congresswoman from Los Angeles who is chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus and was the first black woman speaker of a state assembly. There’s also Tammy Duckworth, Thai-American senator from Illinois and a Purple Heart recipient who lost both her legs in a grenade attack in Iraq. Another experienced contender is Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser in the Obama administration.
Vice President or Attorney General?
In a recent op-ed written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco, urged Kamala Harris to “politely decline” the post of vice-president, arguing that the next few years were going to be tough owing to the coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout. He added that vice-presidency has traditionally proven to be a political dead end, and suggested that she request being considered for the office of attorney general instead. The attorney general, Brown explained, wielded considerable power and could make a real impact in areas such as racial justice and police reform. Willie Brown and Kamala Harris had an affair in the 1990s when she was assistant district attorney and he, the speaker of the California State Assembly. The affair has often been used by conservative media outlets and detractors to target Harris, and paint her as an opportunist who used sex to propel her political career.
Kamala Harris herself has neither campaigned nor publicly pitched for the vice-presidency. There is also nothing to show that this is the role she covets most. It is believed that Harris has experienced some frustration with the Washington bureaucracy, and that she misses the authority and control executive roles – such as attorney general of California – afforded her. But there are also reports claiming she’s keen on being selected, and is keeping a low profile. This is intentional; she and her team are in fact quietly working away to earn the trust of Biden and his allies and dispel notions that she is overambitious and power-hungry.
A “Fine Choice”
Kamala Harris is indubitably a top contender for the job. This is due, in no small measure, to her level of experience, range of policy decisions, and prowess as a political pugilist which many feel will help her hold her own in a debate against Vice President Mike Pence. Harris’ personal charisma and the fact that she’s the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India also add value to her candidacy.
Fully aware that his selection for vice-president will play a crucial role in the battle against Donald Trump, Joe Biden has reportedly admitted that he’ll choose the woman who he thinks will increase his odds of winning. Ironically, Kamala Harris’ liabilities – as perceived by progressives – could benefit Biden, allowing him to win the favour of centrists in his own party as well as voters across race and class lines. Even her acerbic debate exchange with him may not mean much after all. During the 1980 campaign, George H.W. Bush mocked Ronald Reagan’s economic policies as “voodoo economics”, only to go on to serve as his vice president for two terms.
For now, choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate may be the most pragmatic thing to do for the former vice president. Even his bête noire Trump said Kamala Harris would be a “fine choice” as his vice presidential nominee. Would he agree?