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What the Kamala Harris Pick Says About the Biden Campaign

August 11, 2020
What the Kamala Harris Pick Says About the Biden Campaign
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 02: Democratic presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during the 2020 Gun Safety Forum hosted by gun control activist groups Giffords and March for Our Lives at Enclave on October 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nine Democratic candidates are taking part in the forum to address gun violence one day after the second anniversary of the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas when a gunman killed 58 people in the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris is now the presumptive 2024 Democratic nominee.

I kid! Sort of. We’ll get to that. But before we do, for the last few weeks I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the 1998 NFL draft.

Even before the 1997 college football season began, the 1998 draft was regarded as the Peyton Manning Lottery. Manning wasn’t very mobile and had only an above-average arm. But he had pocket presence and a quick release and next-gen software between the ears that allowed him to make lightning-fast checkdowns and read defenses at the line of scrimmage.

Anyone who had seen Manning play knew that, barring injury, he was headed to Canton eventually.

But in the weeks leading up to the draft, the sports world fell in love with Ryan Leaf.

Leaf was a good quarterback at Washington State who had an absolutely bananas junior year. He led the Cougars to their first-ever Pac-10 championship and lost a nail-biter in the Rose Bowl to Michigan, the eventual national champs.

On the strength of a dozen or so games, scouts and sportswriters talked themselves into believing not just that Leaf was an NFL-caliber QB, but that he might be a better prospect than Manning.

Leaf is taller! Leaf has a stronger arm! Leaf has more upside! These are serious things that serious people said about Leaf as they tried to talk themselves into believing that, while Manning might have been the consensus pick, actually the sharp play would be to take Leaf #1 overall.

In the end, the Indianapolis Colts decided not to outsmart themselves. They made the boring decision to pick the blue-chip stud.

The San Diego Chargers traded up to get Leaf with the #2 pick, giving up a future first round pick, a second round pick, and three-time Pro Bowler Eric Metcalf.

You know how this story ends. Peyton Manning became Peyton Manning. And Ryan Leaf became Ryan Leaf.

There is a lesson in all of this about fundamentals and recency bias and the wisdom of not being overly clever.

Which brings us to Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris. There are a number of things to be said about this decision: some good, some bad.

(1) This pick isn’t for you.

Maybe you don’t especially like Kamala Harris. I don’t especially like Kamala Harris. She would not have been my first, second, or third preference. Her politics are not my politics and her record as California’s attorney general exemplified a great deal of what’s wrong with law enforcement in America.

But just because you or I might not prefer Harris does not mean that she was the wrong pick as a matter of electoral politicking. That’s the pundit’s fallacy.

(2) Upside vs. Downside

Harris has weaknesses. Every potential VP has weaknesses. But she also has a unique set of strengths.

First and foremost, she is instantly credible as a potential president. You might not like her politics, but she is obviously smart enough and experienced enough to execute the job.

Second, she has been largely—although not completely—publicly vetted.

Third, she is shrewd and politically malleable. That can be a liability, but it’s also an advantage because, unlike Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, she is not a true believer. She will go where the votes are. And she will go where Biden goes, for at least as long as it is advantageous to her.

Fourth, you can trust that she will at least hold her own in the VP debate. Those debates never really matter, but with Harris, you can basically forget about the possibility of it turning into a disaster that eats up three days’ worth of news cycles. That’s a luxury that very few of the other potential VPs would have afforded.

Fifth—and there’s no delicate way to put this—Harris’s presence on the ticket is a daily invitation to the president to go Full Trump. Which would only hurt him more with suburban voters.

(3) The Consensus Choice

Let’s pretend you could go back 24 months and survey 1,000 political professionals. You tell them, “Kamala Harris will not be the Democratic nominee, so who should the nominee choose as his/her VP?”

What percentage of them would answer, “Kamala Harris”?

50 percent? 70 percent? 80 percent?

Point is, the only reason this was ever even in doubt was because Harris ran a bad and uninspiring presidential campaign for a few months.

On the one hand: That’s not nothing!

On the other hand: Harris has been a stud politician on the national political scene for six years. She has a staggering amount of raw political talent, with charisma, charm, and toughness to spare. None of that went away because she couldn’t figure out how to execute a breakout in a presidential primary race.

Here is a line I expect to hear a lot over the next 72 hours:

I was seriously leaning toward Biden, but then he picked Harris and that was a bridge too far for me. She’s [too liberal / too ambitious / too whatever]. I’m out.

I’m sure that for some voters this line will be true. Kamala Harris will be the off-ramp they were desperately looking for with Biden.

But on the other hand, most of the people who  decide their vote based on Biden’s VP choice probably weren’t going to pull the lever for him anyway. Those most marginal of the Biden-curious folks were going to find some excuse to come home to the Republican ticket (or stay home, period), no matter what. If it hadn’t been Harris as VP, it would have been something someone said in a speech at the DNC, or some slip-up Biden made on the trail.

I just don’t buy that there are a meaningful number of truly undecided voters who, with everything else being equal, would have voted for Biden if not for Harris.

And further, I absolutely do not believe that, however large that group might be, it meaningfully outnumbers its mirror image: people who would not have voted for Biden, except that Harris brought them onboard.

The VP choice doesn’t, in terms of actual votes cast, matter. That’s not universally true, but it’s true enough to be an axiom of modern American politics.

But the VP choice does tell you a great deal about the campaign that makes it and what they think about the race internally.

Dick Cheney was an admission that George W. Bush thought he needed grownup help.

Sarah Palin was a recognition that without shaking up the race, John McCain couldn’t beat Barack Obama.

Joe Biden was a tacit assurance to voters that Obama wasn’t a radical and could work with the establishment.

Mike Pence was a blood-oath to white evangelicals, who were not yet fully on board the Trump train.

You get the picture.

So what does Kamala Harris tell us about how the Biden campaign sees the race right now?

Her selection suggests that the campaign believes their position is very strong. They think that the progressive wing of the party is with them and did not need to be tended to. They believe the heart of their coalition in November is going to be African Americans and college-educated suburban whites, both of whom should respond well to Harris.

It also shows that this is a steady, well-managed campaign that has the discipline to not get cute and out-smart itself.

But the biggest thing the Harris pick says is this: They think they’re going to win.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.