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Why Kamala Harris?

Here’s what Biden’s vice presidential pick brings—and doesn’t bring—to the Democratic ticket.
August 11, 2020
Why Kamala Harris?
(NOAH BERGER/AFP via Getty Images)

At last Joe Biden has chosen his running mate:

In the end, we learn, it came down to a choice between opposites: Kamala Harris and Susan Rice. So what does picking Harris tell us about Biden’s ultimate criteria?

Here one must consider the traditional metrics of selection:

1. First do no harm and, with luck, maybe even a little good.

This centers on the short-term exigencies of winning in November: finding a nominee broadly acceptable to the party, putatively congenial to the electorate writ large and, especially, unlikely to carry excessive baggage or commit egregious errors which might place victory at greater risk.

The lodestar here is caution. Even the most politically acceptable running mates can do the ticket only so much good, while a poor selection tarnishes the perceived judgment of the presidential nominee and raises the specter of a president-in-waiting deficient in character or capacity.

The most glaring example of the latter is, of course, Sarah Palin, whose unexplored baggage was that she turned out to be stupid. One exemplar of a politically constructive pick is George H.W. Bush, a tested candidate widely experienced in governance who helped Ronald Reagan knit the GOP together.

Because Bush had run against Reagan in the primaries, he had been vetted under fire, and was less likely to spawn untoward surprises. While his sharp remarks about Reagan’s “voodoo economics” raised questions about his loyalty, Bush persuaded Reagan that he would become an impeccably loyal vice president—and he did.

Still, Biden’s age heightens the prospect that an ambitious running mate, fixated on 2024, might focus less on partnership than self-promotion—while accentuating the need for a vice president of presidential mettle. To say the least, this complicated Biden’s analysis, particularly regarding Harris.

In contrast, Harris was among the beneficiaries of the rising pressure to choose a woman of color in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, creating the concern that any other choice would jeopardize party unity. And, as ever more Americans perceive the racial divide exposed by unequal law enforcement and COVID-19, an all-white ticket could strike many Democrats as retrograde.

Beyond that, choosing a non-white running mate always made sense: African Americans, particularly women, are a backbone of the Democrats’ core constituency, and their loyalty was critical in making Biden the nominee. Moreover, the breakthrough represented by a minority female may help Biden among a portion of the progressives and young people otherwise tepid about his candidacy. In an election where turnout will be crucial, this matters.

2. Pick someone who can help carry a swing state.

The instances of this working are vanishingly rare. While there is considerable debate, some historians believe that Lyndon Johnson may have helped JFK carry the crucial state of Texas while pacifying voters in other southern states.

But that was 60 years ago. In 2020, the only non-white VP finalist from a crucial state was Val Demings of Florida, who has never run statewide. In bypassing Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Biden prioritized choosing a woman of color. He may also believe that he will carry Michigan, which is likely true, and that he can take Wisconsin on his own.

3. Choose someone who could help the new president govern.

This doesn’t always work out. While it was among the presumptive reasons that JFK selected LBJ, a vastly more accomplished senator, in practice Kennedy shut Johnson out of the inner circle. One of the clearest cases of such a choice, Dick Cheney, was more than willing to help George W. Bush govern, expanding his own influence, sometimes with disastrous results.

But Biden knows this territory well—the most successful recent example of prioritizing governance was Barack Obama’s selection of a two-time presidential also-ran who nonetheless had the legislative and foreign policy experience Obama lacked. Once these quite disparate men settled into a comfortable relationship, Biden proved to be a valued advisor and a considerable help on Capitol Hill.

For a 78-year-old nominee, this is no small consideration.

4. Select the best prospective president.

Our history is replete with vice presidents who became president, and here again Biden’s age highlights this criterion.

Johnson is an interesting example. In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, he was a historically successful president, advancing civil rights and a host of domestic programs. Then came Vietnam, exposing his insecurities and blind spots in foreign policy.

Contrast George H.W. Bush, an able president whose downfall was his knowing, and fiscally responsible, embrace of tax hikes despite his seminal promise to avoid them. In retrospect, his one-term presidency holds up well, not least in critical areas of foreign policy: his judicious management of the first Gulf War and sophisticated response to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Both were tested by crisis and hard choices. That both men were consequential presidents was prefigured by their resumes and experience. In making his choice, Biden was more than capable of sizing up the capacity for presidential leadership—or, potentially, its absence.

5. Prioritize loyalty, trust, and a strong personal relationship.

Again, Obama and Biden provide a positive example. For a governing partnership to work, the president must have a vice president whom he knows will be candid, reliable, and committed to placing the success of the administration above her own political interests. The absence of such a bond would not only foreclose a truly productive relationship, but could be a needless distraction within the president’s inner circle.

And so to Kamala Harris. I should start with my unsparing assessment from this past April:

She’s everyone’s default choice. So why does one instinctively squirm? Because she is so obviously that—a default choice—rather than someone who should become president.

Harris’s attributes remain those praised throughout her career. Whatever office she occupied, her combination of presence, personal appeal, and performative skills caused many to encourage her in seeking the next. Rising became her raison d’être; running for president exposed its limits.

She offered no compelling reason that she wanted to be president—she just did. Her oscillations on basic issues such as healthcare exposed a lack of interest or depth. Bereft of real commitment to policy, her candidacy became a tactical exercise in serial repositioning. Her campaign organization was a fractious mess.

What would she bring? Talent—as always. And Biden could hope that Harris resonates with suburban women.

As a practical politician Biden has no doubt discounted her contrived attack in an early debate, that made-for-TV moment when she feigned outrage over a long-buried issue—busing—on which they had little substantive difference. But he may wonder whose interests she would serve as vice president.

Still, she’s Kamala Harris. That may suffice.

Unsurprisingly, it did. So now it’s time to contemplate why.

Obviously, Biden prioritized winning in November over depth, legislative savvy, presidential heft, or unquestioned loyalty. But his foremost responsibility is to depose the most destructive and malign president in modern American history. Harris’s campaign skills, and the relative unlikelihood of hidden baggage, mean that she is unlikely to prove an impediment to victory—and may even help.

While she stumbled as a presidential candidate, she should become a more disciplined running mate within the substantive boundaries imposed by Biden’s brain trust. As a canny politician, Biden has certainly assessed the question of loyalty, and satisfied himself that Harris would be a circumspect vice president—if only because this would best serve her long-term interests.

As for the highly salient question of whether she can be a genuine help in governance, let alone a worthy future president, one must hope that she has the capacity to meld her ambitions with greater substance. Certainly, Biden has much to teach her about how to get things done.

Finally, her lack of strong beliefs may not arouse much enthusiasm, but their absence means that she won’t alienate persuadable voters. As a district attorney and California attorney general, she was notable for her caution in dealing with hot-button law enforcement issues; as a senator, she has been conspicuous chiefly for carefully prepared star turns at high-profile hearings. And while her identification with the African-American community is not overly strong, the fact of her selection should generate its own excitement.

Here it is important to note that every alternative had problems that counteracted their strengths.

Susan Rice is a team player who is exceedingly qualified and capable and has a good relationship with Biden, but has no political constituency or experience on the stump.

Karen Bass is a proven legislator, but her perceived affinity for Castro’s Cuba would be a drawback in the crucial state of Florida.

Val Demings’s impressive biography came with only modest seasoning on the national stage or in crucial areas of policy.

Elizabeth Warren is an eminently imaginable president, but she is potentially polarizing among voters Biden needs to win.

Gretchen Whitmer is an untested freshman governor; Tammy Baldwin a second-tier senator; Tammy Duckworth personally admirable but politically unexceptional.

Finally, one must now compare Harris not to the ideal, but to the reality of Mike Pence, a slavish sycophant conspicuously lacking intellectual or moral integrity.

In the end, those who repose their hopes in Biden can be satisfied that he made a hard but politically prudent choice. Now it’s Harris’s turn to prove herself more than that.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.