Now that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has officially announced former presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, the only surprising thing about the pick is that his team waited so long to announce it. After all, Harris has long been considered a front-runner for the position, but the Biden campaign nonetheless stalled, dragging the vetting process out for months while lending openings for Biden allies to snipe at VP hopefuls in the press. Targets included Harris herself, whom former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Ct.) tried to tar as too ambitious—a tone-deaf jab that teed up sharp rebukes on social media.
In retrospect, the reason for the delay was likely an abundance of caution, which makes perfect sense in the context of Biden’s longtime pitch: he’s the “safe” candidate, a plain-but-pleasant reset button we can push to dump Trump. Unfortunately, Biden’s political vision doesn’t offer much in the way of upending the conditions that made Trumpism possible. But his point that getting rid of Trump is of utmost importance is correct. As of today, that argument appears to be persuasive enough, with Biden trouncing Trump in most polls despite a lack of traditional campaigning. (Making sure the election is held in a safe and fair manner is another story altogether.)
Harris has now been anointed as the safest option to help carry that strategy forward—a woman who’s already recognizable at the national level and who has served in office for long enough that claims of “inexperience” don’t distract from the steady, undistinguished campaign that Biden is trying to run. Harris’ status as the first-ever Black woman—born of Jamaican and Indian heritage—on a major party ticket is also likely an asset in appealing to the young Democratic voters among whom Biden was largely unpopular during the primary.
For progressives and those on the Democratic Party’s so-called “left wing,” Biden’s candidacy has been a tough pill to swallow. After all, with an ongoing nationwide uprising against structural racism amidst a crushing pandemic and economic collapse, what circumstances could better illustrate the need for the type of confrontational, systemic change proposed by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? Yet now, with unemployment spiking, and millions taking to the streets to assert that Black Lives Matter and demanding officials defund the police, we’re in the unenviable position of being forced to acknowledge that voting for Biden—the author of the gruesome 1994 crime bill—and Harris—a former tough-on-crime prosecutor—is undeniably better than the alternative.
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If there’s a silver lining to this pick, it’s that other frontrunners for the VP nomination, like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice, are, on paper, all more conservative than Harris. Moreover, there’s some evidence that Harris is something of a political weather vane: if she rose to national prominence as a moderate prosecutor, she’s moved markedly to the left since 2016, and has developed one of the most progressive voting records in the Senate. For example, in the current 116th Congress, she’s voted with Sanders 92% of the time—and even signed onto his Medicare for All bill, before introducing her own more watered-down version during the primary campaign.
More recently, she’s joined democratic socialist Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in calling for monthly direct cash assistance of $2,000 during the pandemic, and introduced a sweeping housing bill calling for a year-long eviction freeze. Her leftward shift has even been acknowledged by Lara Bazelon—the San Francisco law professor who authored a New York Times story that was arguably the most influential case against Harris’ prosecutorial record. As Bazelon described Harris’ evolution in an NPR interview, “Her record has been consistent, and it's been good. And my hope is that she's going to continue in that vein, first of all, because it's the right thing to do but then, second of all, pragmatically, because that's where the country is moving.”
The groups RootsAction and Progressive Democrats of America were slightly more blunt in their assessment of Harris’ selection: “While her penchant for taking positions broadly palatable to the corporate donor class raises concerns about her dedication to progressive principles, her habit of aligning her stance with the prevailing political winds gives us some hope.”
Ultimately, while defeating Trump remains a priority, it’s up to those of us on the left to generate the winds we want to prevail by building power outside of presidential politics. Taking to the streets for racial justice, strengthening the labor movement, demanding universal healthcare, establishing tenants’ unions, electing more candidates up and down the ballot who are committed to taking on corporate power to benefit the working class—this is how we can reorient politicians’ incentives and priorities. The weather vanes will follow.