Three pros and three cons to Biden picking Harris

The suspense is over. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced on Tuesday afternoon that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is his vice presidential running mate.

What pluses and minuses will she bring?


A history-making candidate 

Harris’s selection is plainly historic — the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket.

The Biden campaign is hoping she spurs excitement among female voters and the Black community.

Black turnout will be vital in November. In some closely fought states in 2016, the share of ballots cast by Black voters declined from the levels achieved by former President Obama. In Pennsylvania, for example, Black voters cast 13 percent of the ballots in 2012 but just 10 percent in 2016, according to exit polls.

Obama gave his blessing to the choice of Harris with a Tuesday afternoon statement in which he said, “Her own life story is one that I and so many others can see ourselves in: a story that says that no matter where you come from, what you look like, how you worship, or who you love, there’s a place for you here.”

If Biden wins in November, Harris would become the president-in-waiting in more ways than one.

There has been persistent speculation about whether Biden would run for a second term in that scenario, given he would be 82 by the time of his second inauguration. His vice president would be the obvious front-runner to succeed him.

Debating skills

As Biden himself found out to his cost, Harris is a formidable debater. During the primary, the debates were a high point for her even as her campaign sputtered in other respects.

Harris’s skills in verbal, adversarial settings were clear before then. Her questioning of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee went viral on social media after Sessions said Harris’s line of questioning about Russian contacts was making him “nervous.”

Other Harris viral moments have followed, including with Sessions’s successor, William Barr, and more recently in a pointed exchange on the Senate floor with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Harris brings lawyerly flair to these moments, having served six years as California’s attorney general. Before that, she was the San Francisco district attorney.

Harris should be strong when it comes to the vice presidential debate, which is generally the most intense moment for the running mate on any ticket.

Vice President Pence held his own in that regard against the 2016 Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), but Harris will be a more formidable opponent.

A lower-risk choice

“Do no harm” is often the maxim in choosing a running mate, especially when the candidate at the head of the ticket is leading in the polls, as is the case with Biden.

In that regard, Harris had one big practical advantage over lower-profile contenders for the running mate slot. Having faced the intense spotlight of a presidential campaign and won statewide office in the nation’s most populous state, she has been vetted by the media and political opponents.

That should, at least in theory, minimize the chances of an unpleasant surprise of the kind that has haunted campaigns for a generation. 

Back in 1972 — the year Biden was first elected to the Senate — Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern selected then-Sen. Tom Eagleton (D-Mo.) as his running mate, only for Eagleton to withdraw 19 days later after it emerged that he had undergone electroshock therapy for clinical depression.

That searing debacle has, ever since, been the nightmare every campaign seeks to avoid.


Her own campaign fell flat 

For all the excitement expressed about Harris’s selection, the fact remains that her own presidential campaign underperformed expectations in a big way.

After a huge rally in Oakland, Calif., started her bid on a strong note, Harris struggled to gain traction.

Biden is derided by some progressives on social media as the classic “old white guy” moderate, but polls showed him receiving far greater Black support than Harris did.

Harris also had some policy stumbles, notably on “Medicare for All.” As far back as June 2019, a CNN analysis appeared below the headline “Kamala Harris can’t get her story straight on Medicare for All. Again.”

More broadly, there was long a question mark over where exactly Harris stood, especially in contrast to obvious moderates such as Biden or clear progressives such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Harris’s campaign did not even make it out of 2019. She called it quits in December, two months before the Iowa caucuses.

As Harris’s boosters talk about the excitement she will bring to the ticket, it’s reasonable to wonder why more voters weren’t more excited by her actual candidacy.

That debate moment

No sooner was Harris’s selection announced than the Trump campaign was out with a statement from senior adviser Katrina Pierson alleging Harris had previously called Biden a racist.

The president himself seemed to be alluding to the same moment at a news conference late Tuesday when he said Harris had said “horrible” things about Biden at a debate.

Harris did not, in fact, call Biden a racist. But she did go all-in on an attack on his record on school busing — despite having a current position broadly similar to his. It was a fiery moment and one of the most heated clashes of the primary season.

Both Harris and Biden are likely to be asked about it for the rest of the campaign.

Will the left get restless?

Harris drew considerable fire from left-wing activists during her presidential run, in part because they argued her past record, particularly as a prosecutor, was far less progressive than she likes to suggest.

The same criticism was voiced in the media.

Law professor Lara Bazelon wrote in The New York Times in January 2019 that “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent.”

Bazelon asserted that Harris had “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions” and noted that in 2015 she had “opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers.”

The desire to oust Trump is a powerful glue holding the different strands of the Democratic Party together. Sanders welcomed her selection on Tuesday.

But there will be plenty of people on the left who have misgivings about Harris — and whose doubts the Trump campaign will be only too happy to amplify.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 election Bernie Sanders California Elizabeth Warren Jeff Sessions Joe Biden John Cornyn running mate San Francisco Tim Kaine vice president William Barr

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