Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s decision to choose Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential running mate has catapulted her back into the national spotlight.
Harris bowed out of the Democratic presidential race because her campaign strained to balance policy stances that toggled between her party’s moderate and progressive wings. This led her to change her position on certain policies. For example, she reversed her position on healthcare when she removed herself from the “Medicare for All” Bill sponsored by Bernie sanders. Sander’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, accused her of being inconsistent on the issue of healthcare. In a statement to Vox, he said, “Folding to the interests of the health insurance industry is both bad policy and bad politics.”
She also struggled with how to spin her record as a prosecutor, vacillating between defending herself against progressive criticism and embracing it to win moderate votes. Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law in her opinion piece for the New York Times, beginning of last year, accused her of being “often on the wrong side of history when she served as California’s attorney general” discussing how she opposed criminal justice reforms, remained silent about official misconduct and fought to uphold wrongful convictions.
Interestingly, the reasons that led to her not being favoured to become the presidential nominee, have come in handy for Biden to make his pick.
First, Harris, the first Black woman ever selected for a national ticket, has faced criticism from young voters and progressives in the past because of her propensity to fence-straddle but because she is a “pragmatic moderate”, as characterised by the New York Times, holding a “centrist record” that can help solidify Biden’s position among centrist voters and even moderate Republican voters, according to longtime political analyst Doug Schoen. At a time when the Democratic party has taken a turn to the left, Biden needed a vice-presidential candidate who could unify the progressives as well as the centrists.
Second, her career as a prosecutor in California gave her the image of a “tough-on-crime cop” and made her oppose key criminal justice reform measures. But this stand also revealed her stamina of preserving her legal career, balancing, and navigating through a flawed and racist legal system. She deliberately pushed for some reforms while looking to avoid landmines that would turn the entire police force against her.
Change in an unconventional manner
Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, recently stressed that in looking at Harris’ tenure as attorney general, one should take into account that she was acting as a prosecutor applying the law, rather than a legislator. Her smart-on-crime, moderate positions helped her bring about change in an unconventional manner.
Her two successful programmes are ‘Back on Track’, which helped non-violent first-time drug offenders avoid jail by getting a high school diploma, and ‘Open Justice’, an online portal that made a wide range of criminal justice data available to the public. Such programmes, and her ability to understand the winds of change, criminal justice advocate Charles Chamberlain said will enable the progressive movement to work with Harris. Also, as Erol Louis points out in his opinion piece for CNN, “(Her) prosecutorial background deals a devastating blow to President Donald Trump’s efforts to claim the Democrats are soft on crime.”
Third, with the coronavirus pandemic revealing fundamental flaws in the healthcare system and the economic structures and institutes in the US, all presidential and vice-presidential candidates have had to go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate their policy positions. So, Harris’ flexible policy statements in the primaries, which came under criticism from some, will not be held against her to make a new policy plan for the country along with Biden.
Why Harris is a good choice
There are several other reasons why Harris is a good choice. First, from an electoral perspective, she will be an asset to Biden. She has been a successful fundraiser and a “supporter” list builder. Nathan Ballard, a Democratic strategist who worked for the San Francisco mayor when Harris was the district attorney, calls her as a ‘political athlete’ who can campaign for somebody else with even more enthusiasm than she campaigns for herself. She is a good speaker who adds enthusiasm to Biden’s comparatively quiet campaign. She has a vibrant online presence, evident from how the limits forced on traditional campaigning by the pandemic have prompted her to become an active user of Instagram to engage with the public from her home.
Second, though she is being labelled as the first Black woman on a major Democratic ticket, her mixed racial heritage is bound to rope in other ethnic groups as well.
Her Indian background is likely to draw in the Asian-American community. According to the Pew Research Center, Asian-American voters are the fastest-growing demographic of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the US. AAPI Data, which provides demographic data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, shows that 50% of Indian-Americans have identified themselves as Democrats in 2018, Biden’s choice of Harris is likely to inspire more young Indian-American and Asian-American voters to turn towards the Democratic Party. The key swing states in the 2020 election like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have high Asian-American and Indian-American populations.
As a child of immigrants and a person who has a pro-immigration policy stance, Harris extends her appeal to most immigrants who are struggling in the Trump-led US. She can be a major draw for the Latino voters, whose numbers are projected to be 32 million for the upcoming election, because she has a strong record of fighting for Latinos in California, including farmworkers.
Third, whoever Biden picked would automatically have become a target for attacks from the Republican party. So, Biden needed someone seasoned and tough to face a constant fire. Harris’ long experience in executive and legislative roles, as well as her prosecutorial sharpness, fit the role.
Fourth, Harris’ policy ideas fit into Biden’s broader policy vision concerning the most important issues in the 2020 election, as identified by Pew Research Center.
Economy: The experience of the pandemic has taught the US that its factories depend on parts that are produced in foreign countries. Harris has addressed the economic crisis in the past few months in the US Senate, co-sponsoring legislation to give to Americans $2,000 a month and banning evictions, foreclosures, rent increase and utility shut-offs for the duration of the pandemic. This helped people to have the money necessary to keep food on the table. Her economic policies help from below and compliment Biden’s overarching framework of focusing on immediate relief for families, small businesses and communities struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic but also emphasising on manufacturing and innovation.
Healthcare: Biden is calling for expanding the Affordable Care Act as a part of his healthcare plan. Harris has supported efforts to bolster the Act and is also on record as supporting Medicare expansion. Biden’s plan includes implementing California’s 2006 maternal health strategy across the entire country. He could use Harris’ help here, as she has been a champion for women’s health.
Immigration: Harris aligns with Biden’s pro-immigration agenda. But Biden’s plan has been more clearly pro‐legal immigration than Harris’, whose plan barely mentions the subject. Her plan has mostly detailed how she would use executive authorities to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status. A vocal opposer of Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, she has supported the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She is a co-sponsor of the NO BAN Act that restricts presidential authority to ban legal immigrantion.
Becoming an ‘insider’
Harris brings to the table what no one else does. She brings tenacity and grit of starting from scratch and making it big. She made the decision early on in her life to become a lawyer. Not just any lawyer but a public prosecutor, for she wanted to become an insider, a part of the system. Her pragmatism made her by-pass lofty legislative promises and lean more heavily on achievable executive actions that don’t require changing laws.
The lived reality of the US is such that a woman, that too of mixed race and ethnicity, faces many a roadblock in her journey to join the upper echelons of power. Yet, she made it because of her practical approach of making things work instead of burning down the bridges she had worked hard to build. It’s a lesson that she learned from the politics of her Berkeley youth, where the children of first-generation activists watched as their parents either succumbed to the system or went rogue. It is also the foundation for her moderate stance and the reason why Biden finally picked her.
Sreya Sarkar is a public policy professional based out of Boston, who has previously worked as a poverty alleviation specialist in US think tanks. At present, she writes non-fiction articles and op-eds for Indian policy blogs and magazines.