The Pros and Cons of Kamala Harris As Biden’s VP

For the people? Photo: Alex Edelman/Shutterstock

After weeks of carefully stage-managed intrigue, Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate Tuesday.

Most of the time, a candidate’s choice of running mate is a low-stakes event that gets evaluated solely on the basis of horse-race minutiae. (Can Sarah Palin shore up John McCain’s weakness with the conservative base? Can Tim Kaine deliver the “blandly inoffensive white men you won’t remember four years from now” vote for Hillary Clinton?) But this year’s Democratic standard-bearer would be 78 years old on Inauguration Day. And this country is all but certain to remain in crisis come January. Thus, in picking Harris, Biden didn’t just select a ticket supplement. He was quite likely anointing his would-be successor.

So it’s worth taking stock of the California senator’s ostensible strengths and weaknesses in both political and substantive terms. Here are five reasons to think Harris will make for a solid sidekick and understudy and four reasons to fear that she won’t.

The case for thinking Biden just made a wise choice.

(1) She’s a plausible “day one” president.

Biden needed a running mate who looked ready to govern the world’s most powerful nation-state as soon as next January — for both electoral and ethical reasons. As McCain discovered in 2008, old nominees are liable to bleed support if their second-in-command is a political neophyte who lacks an aura of presidentiality. And as Abraham Lincoln presumably discovered in Heaven, picking a vice-president purely for their merits as a ticket balancer can have lousy consequences. Happily, Harris clears the threshold of presidential plausibility. The 55-year-old senator not only boasts experience campaigning in the national spotlight but also in running the Attorney General’s Office of America’s most populous state. Thus, as a matter of fact, she possesses the kind of bureaucratic and performative skills the job of president demands. Whether she possesses those skills in the eyes of the median voter remains to be seen, but her odds of doing so look solid.

(2) Her election as vice-president would be a historic victory for equitable representation.

Harris is both the first Black woman on a major party ticket in the United States and the first person of Indian ancestry. The psychological wages of representational equity are no substitute for high wages for working people, and policy consequences matter more than symbolic affirmation. But symbolic representation ain’t nothing! Social-science research suggests that when children are exposed to female role models who defy gender-based stereotypes, this can loosen the grip of those stereotypes — and thereby empower women to pursue male-dominated vocations. Similar research has demonstrated that Black students tend to perform better in school when they have Black teachers to look up to. So there’s some reason to believe that Harris’s ascension to the vice-presidency could positively influence how Black and/or female Americans see themselves and are seen by others.

(3) She is liked by Democratic donors and (“normie”) activists.

Harris’s leap to the front of the pack early in the 2020 primary race wasn’t an accident. By rising through the ranks of the largest, most competitive state Democratic Party in the country, Harris accrued a significant base of donor and activist support. The political scientist Seth Masket’s April 2019 survey of self-described Democratic Party activists found Harris to be the most broadly appealing. Meanwhile, the California senator has won hearts and minds (and large checks) from Martha’s Vineyard to Silicon Valley. So Harris’s selection should give Biden a better-than-average veep-rollout fundraising bounce and please a broad swath of the party’s stalwart supporters (as well as its fiercest social-media militia).

(4) She won’t cost Democrats a Senate vote.

This one is fairly straightforward. Unlike some of her other rivals for the nod, Harris hails from a state where the Republican Party barely exists, and her seat is all but certain to be filled by a rubber stamp for the Biden agenda.

(5) In theory, she’s a dynamite political talent who can mobilize African American voters without alienating the median voter.

Harris is an accomplished public speaker with some memorable debate and senatorial hearing performances under her belt. As a senator from California, her congressional record puts her to the left of the Democratic Party; as a former attorney general, her prosecutorial record places her in the sweet, semi-sadistic middle of American criminal-justice politics. If you dispatched Democratic consultants to a lab — with the instruction to engineer a candidate who could energize a crowd, mobilize Black voters, please “pantsuit nation,” and appease cop-revering Trump skeptics — you wouldn’t be surprised if they returned with Harris in tow. As we’ll see in a minute, “Harris, Democratic dynamo” hasn’t worked as well in practice as it does in theory. But the potential is still (theoretically) there.

The case for thinking Biden made a mistake.

(1) She just ran one of the most underwhelming presidential campaigns in modern memory.

As already mentioned, Harris entered the 2020 race with a strong fundraising base and a bevy of high-profile endorsements. Her campaign launch immediately propelled her to 15 percent support in the polls, putting her in second place behind Biden. Yet by the time she dropped out, last December, she was polling at under 4 percent nationally, just a smidgen ahead of novelty candidate Andrew Yang. In theory, Harris has special appeal to African American voters; in practice, when she exited the race, she was polling behind Pete Buttigieg in South Carolina.

It is conceivable that Harris’s struggles testify less to her shortcomings than to Joe Biden’s strengths; perhaps the resilient appeal of Obama’s right-hand man to African American voters blocked the lane that Harris would have otherwise occupied. But given the senator’s initial advantages — and myriad high-profile mistakes — it is reasonable to question her campaign skills and instincts. On health-care policy, for example, Harris stumbled into the unsweet spot between progressive credibility and conventional “electability,” disavowing support for Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill while publicly owning (and then disowning) one of its most unpopular provisions. She launched a theatrically unimpeachable debate-night attack on Biden’s record on busing, only to reveal later that she shared the former vice-president’s substantive position. It’s possible that Harris will prove better suited to the role of running mate than she was to that of early 2020 Democratic primary front-runner. But that by itself will be limited consolation, since …

(2) Harris is now well positioned to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2024 or 2028 — but not necessarily to win a general election. 

Given Biden’s advanced age, Harris’s campaign experience, and her strong base of intraparty support, her ascension to the 2020 ticket should make her a leading candidate (if not the outright favorite) in the next contested Democratic Party — if Biden wins, anyway. After all, we just witnessed how much caché former Democratic vice-presidents have with the party faithful. Yet as of last spring, Harris’s favorability numbers were bizarrely poor, with both the Economist-YouGov and Harvard-Harris polls showing her 12 points underwater with the general public. It’s possible that this merely reflected a temporary grudge among Biden-supporting Democrats; Harris’s approval numbers have risen sharply in recent months, and her favorability is now positive in RealClearPolitics’s average. But the fact that she ever polled so poorly amid limited national exposure — combined with the aforementioned underperformance of her campaign and her near loss to a Republican in a statewide race in California in 2010 — gives some cause for concern about her ability to carry the Democrats to victory in four to eight years.

(3) She does nothing to help the ticket geographically.

The flip side of Harris not costing Democrats a Senate seat is that she also does nothing to help Biden’s Electoral College math. Running mates don’t reliably deliver their home states, but one could imagine Tammy Baldwin giving Biden a lift in Wisconsin or Sherrod Brown doing the same in Ohio. It’s for the best that Biden didn’t gut his party’s prospects of winning a Senate majority to gain such an edge. But the point remains that an optimal running mate would offer more on this front than an opportunity to increase the Democratic margin in the Golden State.

(4) Her policy instincts are underwhelming (even from a non-pinko perspective).

Cards on the table: Your humble horse-race pundit has some ideological qualms about Harris’s prosecutorial record and wishy-washy support for progressive policy priorities. But socialistic bloggers do not (yet) make up a majority of the U.S. population. So the relative moderation of the Harris campaign’s policies is less concerning than how poorly thought out many of them were. With the LIFT Act, Harris managed to construct an anti-poverty policy that was both exorbitantly expensive and useless for the very poorest people in the U.S. By pairing this $3 trillion middle-class tax cut with a vow to implement Medicare for All, Harris called the sincerity of her own policy commitments into question. And as already mentioned, her attempts to square this circle through a series of flip-flops were less than confidence building.

In ideological terms, Harris is well to the left of Biden, let alone the 50th Democratic vote in a hypothetical 2021 Senate. But in an ideal world, given Biden’s own lack of wonk chops, it would be nice if his second-in-command had assembled a stronger set of signature policies (or, more precisely, a strong policy staff).

The Pros and Cons of Kamala Harris As Biden’s VP