“Now that the White House finally seems within reach, [Joe Biden] does not want to be outshone, according to people who know him,” reported The Atlantic last month in explaining why low-key Rep. Karen Bass was being considered for vice president.
“[T]here’s less speculation that [Susan] Rice would run for the Oval Office the way [Kamala] Harris almost certainly would post-Biden. That might give Rice an edge,” reported Politico soon after.
It didn’t. Biden actually didn’t mind picking a running mate who shines brightly. He passed over the contenders who signaled a lack of presidential ambition in favor of one who we all know wants the top job, because she applied for it last year.
Kamala Harris will now almost certainly be the front-runner in the next open Democratic primary, whether it is 2024 or 2028. As I noted in my July 27 RealClearPolitics column, current and former VPs have almost always won presidential primaries in which they run. (The lone exception being Dan Quayle, who was widely mocked while vice president and ran against his former boss’ son in the 2000 primary before quickly dropping out. We could also count Hubert Humphrey’s losing effort in 1972, though he was burdened by having already lost a general election in 1968.) And Harris, barring health problems or a scandal, would run.
Biden’s choice was greeted with cheers throughout the Democratic Party, suggesting a high degree of comfort with a Harris-led party in the near future. The few voices of discontent on the left came from outside the party, in the Twitter accounts of socialist activists, where Harris’ record as a prosecutor and ties to Silicon Valley donors are targets for criticism.
Jacobin, the socialist magazine, posted links to old critiques of Harris, with teasers such as “Kamala Harris has matched every one of her progressive achievements with reactionary ones.” “Crime bill author Joe Biden selects ‘top cop’ Kamala Harris for VP as racial justice and police abolition protests continue across the country,” posted Walker Bragman. “Wall Street rejoicing over @KamalaHarris as president in 2024,” wrote Jordan Chariton. These are people who wanted Bernie Sanders to be the nominee, and probably would have settled for the populist-but-not-socialist Elizabeth Warren as Biden’s running mate.
The Trump campaign immediately attacked Harris’ selection as evidence Biden is embracing the “radical left.” But the Republican National Committee picked up the smattering of socialist complaints for an email sent to reporters with the subject line “liberals revolt against Biden, Harris ticket.” The two lines of attack are not readily in sync with each other.
The socialists know full well that the choice of Harris isn’t an embrace of them. Biden, who always said he wanted someone “simpatico” with his views, was never going to pick a far left candidate. But clearly some on the left held out hope for an unambitious politician like Bass who might not ever run for the job. Picking Harris greatly complicates any plans to run another presidential candidate in the mold of Bernie Sanders — the most likely option being Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the next most famous socialist elected official in the country and, being born in 1989, just barely constitutionally eligible in 2024.
Harris could move towards the left over time. Her ideological zigzagging in the presidential primary prompted some criticism that she didn’t hold any deep convictions. (The Trump campaign is trying to square the competing criticisms of Harris by labeling her a “phony” who, along with Biden, will get pushed around by the “radical left.”)
But Harris made some comments in the primary that suggest she does have a deeply held governing philosophy: pragmatism. In July 2019, she said to New York Times reporter Alexander Burns, “I’m not trying to restructure society. I’m just trying to take care of the issues that wake people up in the middle of the night.” That was an implicit swipe at Sanders, who often called for “revolution,” and Warren, whose mantra was “big structural change.” In a separate Times interview two months later, Harris added, “I have this saying, which is: ‘No good public policy ends with an exclamation point.’”
Burns noted, “There are points when Ms. Harris appears to miss her own standards for practicality, envisioning trillions of dollars in new benefits without enough new revenue to fully sustain them.” Fair enough, but she is hardly the first politician to propose big in the campaign with an eye toward more modest compromise once in office. And to state flatly that she prefers policies that don’t have an “exclamation point” — that aren’t superficially stirring — is something a politician would only say when she means it. It’s not exactly a slogan that lights up a bumper sticker.
The Atlantic posed this question last month: “Will [Biden] decide [his party’s] future by anointing a successor, or pick someone, like Bass, who’s less likely to run for president?” The question is now answered. Biden has anointed a successor in Harris. He anointed a successor who can be expected to keep the Democratic Party rooted in pragmatism. He anointed a successor who is well positioned to stave off any socialist or populist insurgents from claiming the next presidential nomination and steering the party in a more ideologically severe direction.
In other words, Biden picked a woman like him.