Kamala Harris made it personal. The night of the first Democratic primary debate, she went straight at Joe Biden. She attacked the former vice president for his long-ago opposition to court-ordered busing to desegregate public schools. More specifically, she brandished her childhood experience to force a larger conversation that night in Miami on the issue of race.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” Harris, casting her eyes at her rival, explained. “That little girl was me.”
She rode the bus to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley every day, and soon that same little girl will become the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major political party. Biden made his announcement on Twitter Tuesday, calling his former competitor “a fearless fighter for the little guy” and “one of the country’s finest public servants.” He sought to dispel any notion that he held a grudge against Harris by linking her to his son Beau Biden, a former combat veteran and Delaware attorney general who died five years ago.
“Back when Kamala was Attorney General, she worked closely with Beau. I watched as they took on the big banks, lifted up working people, and protected women and kids from abuse,” he continued. “I was proud then, and I'm proud now to have her as my partner in this campaign.”
For her part, Harris wrote warmly of Beau Biden in her pre-campaign memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” In it, she noted that the two often talked multiple times a day and that “we had each other’s backs.”
That history may have helped the former longtime Delaware senator let go of any lingering resentment. “She knew Beau,” he said late last summer. “She knows me.” And then by December, when asked about the clash at the debates, he was ready to add that “I’m not good at keeping hard feelings.”
The new partnership comes just a week ahead of the pared down -- and virtual -- Democratic National Convention and after months of reconciliation. But Harris has shown herself adept at turning from antagonist to ally, jumping in feet first to do the fundraisers and – to the extent possible in the age of COVID-19 -- the public appearances that make up the yeoman's work of campaigning.
Even as Biden interviewed multiple candidates to be his running mate, speculation abounded that he would give the nod to California’s junior senator. An early hint came courtesy of a telephoto lens when photographers snapped a picture of the former vice president’s handwritten notes during a July speech in Delaware.
There were five talking points below the name of Harris: Do not hold grudges and campaigned with me & Jill and talented and great help to campaign and great respect for her.
Two weeks later, that list of superlatives has led to Harris’s presence on the 2020 Democratic Party ticket. She must now continue to convince her follow Democrats that her previous critique was mere politics and that the real story here is that this nominee is the first to choose a woman of color as his running mate.
Predictably, the Trump campaign was more interested in pointing out the two Democrats’ past disharmony.
“Not long ago, Kamala Harris called Joe Biden a racist and asked for an apology she never received,” Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson said in a statement. “Clearly, Phony Kamala will abandon her own morals, as well as try to bury her record as a prosecutor, in order to appease the anti-police extremists controlling the Democrat Party.”
In some ways, the Harris choice reinforces Team Trump’s narrative that Biden has forgotten the lessons of the Democratic primary – that he won the nomination because he was the best viable moderate candidate who could beat then-surging self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders.
Minutes after Biden tweeted his decision to tap Harris, the Trump campaign issued a statement calling her a failed presidential candidate who “gleefully embraced the left’s radical manifesto.” It highlighted her support for trillions of dollars in new taxes, as well as Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan.
“She is proof that Joe Biden is an empty shell being filled with the extreme agenda of the radicals on the left,” the Trump camp said. “Joe Biden is no moderate, and with Harris as his ‘political living will,’ he is surrendering control of the radical mob with promises to raise taxes, cut police funding, kill energy jobs, open our borders and appease socialist dictators.”
Certainly, over the last few years, as Harris eyed the presidency and prepared for a run, she moved leftward along with most of the Democratic Party. She was the first primary candidate to mention her support for the Green New Deal during a debate last year and teamed up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to co-author a landmark climate bill.
That transformation is perhaps most evident when it comes to her positions on police reform this year amid the country’s reckoning over its history of racial injustice.
In the wake of at-times violent protests nationwide over George Floyd’s death and concerns over police brutality, Harris took up the Black Lives Matter mantra and embraced its push to defund the police, arguing that it’s not the radical move that opponents portray it as even though Biden himself has offered a more nuanced view. She had plenty of airtime to showcase her new positions while playing a leading role in torpedoing Senate Republicans’ police reform proposal, calling it an “attempt to obstruct real progress and real justice.”
Yet her recent pronouncements tell only part of the story: She has a long record in California of courting law enforcement unions. At the 2016 Democratic convention, she proudly touted her tenure as California attorney general, telling a New York delegation that she was standing before them as “the top cop of the biggest state in the country.” During the Democratic primary, opponents assailed her prosecution of marijuana crimes and aggressive jailing of pot users – especially after she admitted to having partaken of the drug herself and now supports legalizing it.
Just two months ago, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, her de facto hometown paper, took her to task for what it considered her long-overdue transformation on police reform. “What took so long?” the paper asked, calling her out for opposing or ignoring similar reforms over several years in California, including independent investigations for police shootings and a state bill to revise the standard for when police may use force.
But prominent leaders in the black community have dismissed concerns about Harris’ background as a prosecutor.
“The question is where does one stand today? What are their positions on police reforms today?” Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a civil rights and social justice advocacy group, told RealClearPolitics in June.
He emphasized that the entire nation’s views are quickly evolving on criminal justice issues, saying Harris should be not be singled out for more moderate positions in the past when other candidates, including Sanders and Biden himself, have been given “a pass” for their support of the 1994 crime bill, signed into law by President Clinton.
Morial has gone on to applaud Harris for rising to the occasion and emerging has a credible advocate for police reform and racial equality, and not shrinking from making a play for the vice presidency when other contenders were clearly vying for job. She appeared often as a surrogate for the Biden campaign’s virtual events, sparred regularly with Republicans on the Senate floor, and used every media opportunity to lambaste Trump and his record.
And the traditional VP role of attack dog is one that suits Harris’s temperament. She had no problem mixing it up with her fellow 2020 Democratic contenders – not only Biden but the rest of the field as well. This hasn't gone unnoticed in Trump World. The second question of the day in the White House briefing room was about the California Democrat who will soon take on a mild-mannered Mike Pence in the VP debate.
Eager to sow a little discord, Trump told reporters the pick "surprised" him. But how so? "She was very disrespectful to Joe Biden, and it's hard to pick somebody that's been that disrespectful." In his estimation, Harris said things "during the Democratic primary debates that were horrible about sleepy Joe."
Those two are now on the same ticket. Trump can say whatever he wants, but the former antagonists, Biden and Harris, are now allies with a common enemy. If the past is any guide, she has plenty of sharp words left. This time, they'll be exclusively directed at Republicans.