vision 2020

Joe Biden Sees the Future in Kamala Harris

Harris wasn’t Democratic primary voters’ choice for what comes next, but she just got the biggest vote of Joe Biden’s career. Photo: John Locher/AP/Shutterstock

A few weeks into Joe Biden’s search for his running mate this spring, his closest friends and advisers started talking about how he was looking for someone with whom he could replicate his exceptionally close relationship with Barack Obama. His calculus changed on the margins as the pandemic deepened and the protests after the death of George Floyd brought a new set of issues to the forefront of the national consciousness, as well as the presidential race. He came under pressure to choose a Black woman, and to choose her soon, but also to return to the campaign trail and do something to draw attention back to Democrats. But his central concern — that he had to find someone with whom he could work seamlessly, and whose vision matched his — remained unaltered, according to a range of Democrats who spoke with him privately throughout the summer. When he announced on Tuesday that he’d chosen Kamala Harris, however, it wasn’t just because she would be Biden’s Biden, as his friends like to say. It was because selecting Harris meant picking a specific vision not only for his presidency, but for what comes after.

It took him a while to land there. Biden’s self-imposed deadline for making a choice slipped multiple times early this month. As he wrestled with his options, the trickle of negative news stories about each of the contenders turned into a messy flood. His advisers and friends leaned on each other, and on him, as they promoted their favored candidates and lobbied against some others. Some argued he should use his pick to shore up his left political flank, others that it was more important to appeal to the suburban center. By this past weekend, with the Democratic convention fast approaching, his time was running out. But his polling lead over Trump was still wide enough that he perceived space to make a choice that wasn’t dominated by short-term politics.

Though neither he nor his aides will say it out loud, the soon-to-be 78-year-old Biden clearly had a chance to influence what the future of the Democratic Party would look like with his selection. No one expects him to run for reelection, which means his choice could be the most important VP pick in generations. He knew that and felt the weight. Harris is not only the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket, as well as the first person of Asian-American origin, but, at 55, she could also easily run for president in 2024. Choosing her would be widely interpreted as a nod toward the future — more so than his potential selection of any of the candidates older than Harris, or any who hadn’t served in statewide office would. (Some around Biden still chafe at the way Obama’s choice was framed by leading news outlets in 2008. Biden was presented as too old to run for president … in 2016.)

What was often overlooked during her own presidential run, however, was how neatly Harris’s political style and ideology matched, or ran parallel to, Biden’s. It was easy to miss if you were focused on her debate-stage clash with him. (Indeed, some of his advisers are still having a hard time getting around it 14 months later — Biden was even recently caught with notes that included the reminder, “DO NOT HOLD GRUDGES”). But both Harris and Biden are consensus-builders eager to search out the center of the Democratic Party. By choosing her, Biden endorsed the long-term viability of that brand of politics over activist-style progressivism, even as the party’s left flank gains strength.

And whereas Harris didn’t become known for electrifying large crowds on the trail, she often shone when working small rooms and talking to voters one-on-one — which mirrors how Biden sees his own political strengths.

“I remember how kids in Detroit felt so seen by her, they felt like they were important, as did our members in her town hall,” said Randi Weingarten, the influential president of the American Federation of Teachers who called Harris’s choice “electrifying,” who spoke at length with Biden’s VP-selection committee, and who predicted to me last December — when Harris’s presidential campaign was winding down — that she could still run again in the future.

There were shorter-term concerns, too, of course: If elected, the pair will almost certainly have to oversee one of the biggest financial and health recoveries in history, and Harris’s four years in the Senate gave her a leg up over Susan Rice, the Obama administration national security adviser who was widely seen as coming in second place in Biden’s mind.

“It’s that combination of vision for what this country needs to survive this dark history and thrive, but also on the granular level, that warmth and ability to connect to individuals going through this,” said Ilyse Hogue, the powerful president of NARAL, the pro-choice political group. Harris, who was also California’s attorney general and San Francisco’s district attorney before she was elected to the Senate, “understands deeply how government works, and how to work the levers of power to the benefit of the people, not the powerful,” said Weingarten.

And, naturally, Biden considered the campaign itself. Harris’s own bid ended in finger-pointing shambles, but the Biden team is already maneuvering to avoid a repeat of that: On Tuesday morning, before Biden informed Harris that she was his pick, the campaign announced that the VP’s staff would be made up of a set of Obama/Biden alums, not the candidate’s own staff. But Biden still saw in her a campaign-tested option who would not only help drive much-needed turnout among Black voters, but who would also help excite the well-educated suburban-women voters who ended up backing him in the primary, or who are only leaning away from Trump right now.

The Biden camp polled voters on their impressions of his running-mate choices, and Obama political architect David Axelrod wrote on Tuesday that their research showed Harris was seen as among the most qualified to serve on Day One — a point she often made in her own speeches, and to which Biden was especially drawn. Harris, too, brings with her ties to many of the party’s biggest donors, and anticipation about her ability to take down Mike Pence in a debate — an upcoming clash that is likely to be even more important than usual given this fall’s lack of day-to-day campaigning.

Nonetheless, as one veteran Democrat close to the Biden team told me, pointing to Biden’s wide polling margin and Trump’s deep unpopularity and complete stranglehold on national attention, “This election is about Trump. This choice was not going to matter one way or another” in terms of the short-term politics.

There was nothing short-term about Biden’s approach. He spent weeks considering the information presented to him by his selection team, including the final conclusions they sent him over the weekend after multiple rounds of interviews with each candidate and their friends, and dives through their pasts that included 160-item questionnaires. And he heard from friends from across the party, each of whom had their own favorites — Harris was preferred by many Californians and top donors, but also by influential party figures like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The most important voice in Biden’s ear, Obama’s, was also supportive. The former president has long been open about his esteem for Harris, and a number of his top former aides made no secret to Biden allies of their preference for her, to whom Obama had once offered the job of attorney general. It’s one reason that, as Biden worked through his options throughout the summer, he kept coming back to Harris, said a senior Democrat close to Obama. “In every conversation about someone else, the question was always: Her or Kamala? Why would she be better than Kamala?” In his own statement on Tuesday evening, Obama said Biden “nailed this decision,” making a choice that “underscored his own judgment and character.”

Still, the pick was not always as obvious as it seems to Biden allies in retrospect, even though multiple high-ranking party officials I’ve talked to in recent weeks have been referring to her as “Vice-President Harris” all along. Until the final hours, some of the other contenders were still asking their own friends and political allies to weigh in positively on their behalf when they spoke with Biden team members, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations. Even the four members of Biden’s selection committee, who knew Harris was a finalist, still thought he might make a different choice — perhaps Rice or Congressional Black Caucus chair Karen Bass — when they handed off their final materials to him last week. When the Associated Press broke the news on Friday that Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer had flown to Delaware to meet with Biden, that led others in Biden’s tightest inner circles to whisper aloud that she might, after all, have been much closer to the top of Biden’s list than they thought.

Harris was hardly a consensus choice. For months there were rumblings around the Biden camp that Jill Biden was especially upset with Harris after she surprised everyone by personally attacking Biden’s record on race and busing on the debate stage last year. Others insisted that fear was overblown, and behind the scenes, Biden himself often reminded allies that Harris had been close with Beau, his son who died in 2015. But still, the memory of that night loomed large for some senior officials who had Biden’s ear on-and-off throughout the process. By the final days of the process, objections to Harris from former senator Chris Dodd — a close Biden friend and a member of his selection committee — were well-known enough that Harris allies felt the need to mount their own behind-the-scenes defense. And though Harris has been on the front lines of Democrats’ call for police reform in recent months, her own history as a prosecutor has put her at odds with some criminal justice reform activists over the years, including, prominently, during the primaries. Still, the Biden team came to the conclusion that, “You need someone who understands that system in order to change that system,” in Weingarten’s words — part of a political bet that most dissatisfied progressives would still vote for the ticket, even if some of them did so only out of revulsion at Trump.

In the first few hours of Harris’s time on the ticket, her record has already proven difficult for the Trump team to attack. Republicans, who have been trying to paint Biden as soft on crime for weeks, seemed unable to decide whether to characterize Harris as one of the “radical leftists” they insist are secretly steering Biden, or as a hard-liner who would turn progressives away from him. California’s GOP proclaimed that “Kamala Harris is just another left-wing socialist.” The Kansas GOP went even further, sending out an image of flames superimposed on an American flag next to a grim-looking Biden and Harris, and calling her “the far-left politician who won’t hesitate to bring her extreme political agenda to the White House.” Meanwhile, Trump campaign senior adviser Katrina Pierson accused Harris of trying to “bury her record as a prosecutor,” and the RNC claimed in an email to reporters that “liberals revolt against Biden, Harris ticket.” (Many close to Trump are clearly wary of this approach, scared of pushing even more suburban voters toward Democrats.)

Biden’s team is certain that more sexism and racism are imminent from Trump and his allies. On Tuesday, though the president claimed during an evening press conference at the White House that Harris was his “number-one draft pick” of the Democratic VP contenders, he flailed as he tried to build an argument against her. Trump repeatedly called her “nasty,” rerunning one of his 2016-era attacks on Hillary Clinton. He was short on specifics, and eventually turned to an unexpected realm: energy policy. “Trump going after Kamala for being against fracking,” tweeted longtime Democratic operative Neal Kwatra, “tells you all you need to know about how barren the initial oppo is.”

For Harris to fulfill Biden’s hope of being the Democratic Party’s future, of course, they have to win. And the Biden-Harris ticket may prove to be just as frustrating a target for Trump and his campaign as Biden has been by himself. On that front, her first half-day on the job was a good start.

Joe Biden Sees the Future in Kamala Harris