To hardly anyone’s surprise, the soon-to-become-official 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden picked U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D) as his vice presidential running mate. Kamala Harris is the Democratic Party’s third woman to be on its presidential ticket, and she’s the first African-American and Asian-American woman to get on the ticket.
So what does this mean, and what can we expect from Harris going forward? Let’s review our prior notes from the campaign trail to find out.
First, let’s remember why Kamala Harris had trouble running for president herself.
Before we take on the present and look to the future, let’s remember this blast from the past. Here’s what I wrote about Kamala Harris’ exit from the 2020 Democratic field last December.
Just like Hillary Clinton’s past struggles to become the right amount of everything to the right amount of voters, Harris struggled the same way… Except it was compounded for Harris as a woman of color who always had to answer for her womanhood and her blackness/brownness. […] Just like Clinton, Harris had to find a way to be “tough” yet “compassionate”, and “stunning” yet “relatable”, even as their white male rivals often enjoyed much more freedom to develop their own respective narratives regardless of how “authentic” their narratives actually are.
As if on queue, we have a whole new round of “hot takes” on whether the left will ever accept Kamala Harris, how the right will attack her, and what kind of “drama” might unfold on the (mostly virtual) campaign trail now that Biden-Harris 2020 is really happening. Honestly, I can’t add much more to New York Magazine’s Ed Kilgore’s assessment of Joe Biden’s political calculus in picking Kamala Harris, but I can take us down Memory Lane as we assess how Harris’ prior experience on the campaign trail led to this HER-storic moment.
So what about that one debate where she was allegedly “mean” to Joe Biden?
Next, let’s review that June 2019 NBC Debate that got a lot of Democrats talking about Kamala Harris. This, of course, was the debate that Democratic Party insiders like former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd later cited as a reason why Biden should not have picked Harris. So what happened?
Yes, she pointed to Biden’s own record on racial justice and denounced the uglier elements of his record. She also shut down the earlier melee on that very stage involving Joe Biden, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (D), and then South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg attacking U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) over the “socialist” label, as well as Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) using that cringeworthy “pass the torch” line of attack against Biden.
When Harris exclaimed, “America doesn’t want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’ll help them put food on the table!,” she spoke for thousands, if not millions, of Democratic voters who wanted not just debating style, but also real substance.
Throughout that debate, Harris eloquently explained her policies in a very sensible way. If Harris uses this performance as the basis for her plan of attack on Donald Trump and Mike Pence this fall, Biden almost certainly won’t regret choosing her for VP, even when taking into account her past attacks on him.
What message has Kamala Harris been running on?
Speaking of substance, what was Kamala Harris’ substance? Yes, she was regularly derided for her flips and flops on “Medicare for All” single-payer health care that led to a “Medicare for All” hybrid plan that was regularly derided across the ideological spectrum. But then again, several of her rivals also flip-flopped on single-payer. Let’s zoom out and remember the rest of Harris’ platform.
Earlier this cycle, Harris was early to release thorough plans on gun violence and women’s reproductive health care. At the SEIU Forum in April, Harris presented bold ideas to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit into a $500 per month boost in working families’ incomes, create a new tax credit for working-class renters, and guarantee workers’ rights to form unions nationwide. And while meeting with local immigrant rights activists at UNLV in June, Harris announced a suite of executive actions to provide legal protection for immigrants currently at risk for deportation.
Going back to the debate stage, let’s recall Harris’ final debate performance as a 2020 presidential candidate at the MSNBC-Washington Post Debate last November. As Biden struggled to break through what was otherwise dominated by the Pete Buttigieg vs. (U.S. Senator) Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) rivalry on the moderate side and the emergence of the re-emergence of Bernie Sanders as a serious progressive frontrunner, Harris broke through with a major truth bomb.
As Harris noted last November, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. But after they help us win, they’re still paid less, more likely to lose their sons to gun violence, and more likely to die in childbirth.” That sentiment proved to be awfully prescient, considering the recent mainstream acceptance of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African-Americans at the hands of the police. But then again, this also points to another poignant criticism of Harris and her own record.
How did Kamala Harris show us “who we really are”?
While President Donald Trump and his campaign flaks have been busy attacking Kamala Harris as “radical left” and “anti-police”, those with actual knowledge of Harris’ record as California’s Attorney General, and prior to that as San Francisco’s District Attorney, have instead reminded the country of Harris’ rather complicated record on criminal justice reform. While Harris famously opposed the death penalty and proposed a series of actions on police accountability, she also cracked down hard on school truancy cases. Though Harris worked as California Attorney General to implement the state’s new policing laws and expand civil rights enforcement within her office, she notoriously passed the buck when local reporters and a relentless public defender uncovered a massive trail of corruption and abuse in Orange County’s law enforcement apparatus.
To be fair, Kamala Harris’ struggle to figure out where she stands on criminal justice reform can be seen as emblematic of the larger Democratic Party’s evolution on civil rights and criminal justice, and of the unique challenge that politicians of color face in proving “electability”. But then again, Harris herself often spoke of shattering the whole “electability” construct during her time on the campaign trail last year.
During an event in East Las Vegas last October, Harris stated, “I haven’t found one person on the campaign trail who tells me, ‘You know, the thing that keeps me up at night is the whole debate over socialism vs. capitalism.’ It’s not addressing what keeps people up tonight, and what will make people’s lives better tomorrow morning.” She later added, “We need to heal, and we need a candidate who can unify the people around what we know to be true, which is there is far more that brings us together than keeps us apart.”
Now, it’s up to Kamala Harris (and Joe Biden) to find ways to “speak truth” virtually.
Obviously, this general election is incredibly different. For one, it’s happening during an active pandemic. Also, it’s happening during the most perilous crisis facing American democracy since the (first) Civil War.
It’s incredibly hard for me to go through past articles and our vast photo archive, then realize that we almost certainly won’t see Kamala Harris on the physical campaign trail again this fall. Whether she was marching with Fight for 15 activists outside a local McDonald’s or marching with a full band at the Nevada State Democratic Party’s star-studded fundraiser, she always knew how to put on one hell of a show. And whether she was addressing African-American community leaders during brunch or answering Culinary Union workers’ questions at their storied union hall, Harris never hesitated to speak her truth and remind everyone that “justice is on the ballot”.
During Harris’ final visit to Nevada as a presidential candidate last November, Harris noted, “Let’s be clear that the Democratic nominee has got to be someone who has the experience of connecting with all of who we are as the diversity of the American people. […] My experience is that when you’ve actually had the experience of working with folks, you have a better ability to represent.”
In an exceptionally wild twist, the nominee who emerged after building a broad and diverse Democratic base of support was none other than Joe Biden… Even after Bernie Sanders and just over 100,000 Nevada Democrats put him to the ultimate test during our caucus. Now that Kamala Harris is Joe Biden’s running mate, it’s up to the both of them to connect with a wider and even more diverse audience in the next twelve weeks, and do so without the kind of real world stagecraft that Harris mastered. But then again, considering how many twists and turns we’ve experienced during these last 18 months, who am I to guess what comes next?