vision 2020

Is Kamala Harris Inevitable?

Ticket-bound? Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Karen Bass is the latest in a line of last-minute contenders to be Joe Biden’s running mate, but longtime front-runner Kamala Harris may not have too much to worry about. I chatted vice-presidential intrigue with political columnists Jonathan Chait and Ed Kilgore.

Ben: We’ve covered Tammy Duckworth and Susan Rice in previous chats (you both possess warm feelings toward both). What do you make of Karen Bass, who, by many accounts, has rocketed into the top tier of contenders — but who now faces scrutiny over her apparent enthusiasm for Scientology and Fidel Castro?

Ed: Like a lot of the bouts of buzz we’ve seen recently, I interpret the Bass Boom as just another effort to push back against a probably inevitable choice of Kamala Harris. Bass being a Californian, promotion of her is perceived as potentially damaging to Harris. And Bass has built up a lot of friendships in California politics over the years. It’s sometimes underappreciated that she was Assembly Speaker before going to Congress.

Jon: It’s quite bizarre she has been mentioned so prominently in news stories that have taken her seriously as a contender. She has not been preparing for a job like this, and her résumé can’t survive the scrutiny. She is just not a plausible pick. So either there’s some element of subterfuge, or it’s a “favor” to her and her allies, or somebody in the Biden team floated her name without vetting — like, at all.

But I don’t see the payoff to Bass in subjecting her to coverage in which she is forced to make statements like “I am not a communist.” How is this process reputation-enhancing? To be clear, I think Bass is a well-regarded legislator. But she is just not prepared for a national election.

Ed: One theory (floated by Bill Scher) is that Bass, as someone who has disclaimed interest in the presidency, might be the one choice who would keep things wide open for 2024. Assuming Uncle Joe just serves for one term.

Jon: Why on earth wouldn’t she run for president if she was elected VP? I mean what professional pol would walk away from an opportunity like that? She would be more than 10 years younger than Biden is now. The whole thing makes no sense.

It’s not just the Cuba connection that’s the problem, either — she also eulogized a major American Communist leader. And then it turned out her explanation that she turned up at a Scientology temple because it was “in her district” wasn’t true, either. It’s just brutal.

Ed: In any event, I agree a minimal vet should have at least exposed her Cuba connection, which, while not that controversial nationally among Democrats, is a terrible fit for an election that might revolve around Florida. Suffice it to say that if the risk of picking Rice is that Republicans might depict Biden as the senile puppet of the deep state, the choice of Bass would snuggle nicely into the preexisting claim that he’s the senile puppet of the radical left.

Ben: If Harris is the inevitable choice, why not just pick her now? It is by no means unusually late in the season to select a running mate, but Biden seems to have extended his own deadline by a few days, which has led to speculation that something is going on behind the scenes.

Ed: I have no idea. It’s not like he’s going to name her and then join her on a train ride across the country to Milwaukee for the convention. It doesn’t appear either will be going there, at least that week.

Jon: My view on Harris is that there is a rational reason to have concern. Her campaign was terribly run. I was very positive on her as a candidate, and was prepared to vote for her for several months, but mistake after mistake really shook me. Maybe that was a fluke, but it does speak to managerial ability. So if I’m Biden, I want to be really sure I know why that happened and that she can do a better job. Picking a strong staff, making good decisions — those are traits that map over from campaigning to governing.

Ben: Yeah, the campaign really betrayed a kind of shocking lack of political instinct.

Ed: Well, for what it’s worth, she won’t be running the Biden campaign. And I have to say, her presidential campaign strategy made plenty of sense at the time. She (and also Cory Booker) failed to pry away Black voters from Biden, and I don’t know that it had much to do with her specifically.

Jon: Right, but you’re picking somebody who has a very strong chance to become the 2024 nominee and then president, so you don’t want that person to be bad at campaigning and governing.

Ben: Cory Booker wasn’t all over the place on every position. And he didn’t turn in baffling debate performances.

Ed: Yet he, like Harris, went nowhere deploying basically the same strategy. So I think it was more about Biden than about either of them.

Jon: And when I mention her mistakes, I am thinking especially (though not exclusively) about having four positions on Medicare for All. It was madness.

Ed: Well, if debate moderators hadn’t insisted on spending a third of every session going through the details of Medicare for All — that was madness, too.

Ben: I’m not saying she would have won even if she’d been cannier about her strategy, just that it wasn’t an inspiring few months.

Ed: Biden is probably not one to disqualify anyone who ran a losing presidential candidacy. Someone close to him did so in 2008.

Ben: Jon, you mentioned you had a theory about the perhaps curiously negative story that ran on Harris in Politico, in which an anonymous source recalled Chris Dodd being stunned that she had “no remorse” for her (well-executed) attack against Biden in last year’s debates.

Jon: It’s probably nothing more than Chris Dodd being a complete jerk. But I do wonder — the leak is assumed to have come from Dodd, but we don’t know that. The story really helped Harris, at least in the media, by framing opposition as sexist. Harris had problems on the left, and now she has gotten a lot of support from, not the far left, but progressive movement elites. If that was a play by Harris, it was a very smart one.

I don’t think it was, I’m Just Asking Questions.

Ben: You think Soros had something to do with this?

Jon: And the Comet Pizza owners.

Ed: Well, I think her reaction to the George Floyd protests did more to get rid of the “Kamala is a cop” stuff than any backlash to Dodd. Anyway, I think she’s been aided by a wave of sentiment that Harris is being subjected to sexism — which she probably is! If she has played up that story behind the scenes, I give her credit. I have a friend who thought she leaked the Bass oppo, which would also be a smart move.

Ben: If it is Harris, what would be the most potent Republican line of attack against her? Is there really one?

Jon: The Trump campaign will try to use some race/gender coded appeals around her. I don’t think they’ll touch the prosecutor stuff.

Ed: Given Trump’s (or Jared Kushner’s) bizarre efforts to pretend he’s a better friend to Black people than his opponent, I wouldn’t be surprised if her main utility to the Trump campaign is to repeat her debate criticisms of Biden. Probably no veep prospect other than the unobtainable Michelle Obama will tangibly help the ticket, and Harris won’t hurt it. Rice’s personal connection to Biden is an X factor. And I continue to think the summer of racial justice means Biden, who owed his nomination to Black voters, needs a Black running mate, all else being equal.

Is Kamala Harris Inevitable?