The Kamala Harris choice

What it means for progressives and swing-state voters

WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine issues involving race and policing practices in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine issues involving race and policing practices in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images)

Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate is not exactly shocking, but it did accomplish what the vice presidential pick is supposed to do: It gave a shot in the arm to a campaign becalmed during the dog days of August, especially needed as the coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on the usual frenetic schedule of pep rallies and town halls and swing-state flesh-pressing that would be going on in any other presidential election year.

Set aside the disappointment of progressives who see Harris as a finger-in-the-wind politician with a law-and-order background that is out of sync with moment, particularly as the Black Lives Matter protest movement sweeps across the country after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. As a California prosecutor, Harris spent 27 years sending a disproportionate number of Black people to prison (though she didn’t write the laws that led to mass incarceration). 

We already knew the window was closing for a Democratic ticket propelled by movement politics when Biden swept aside his more progressive rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

It would have been great to see Stacey Abrams elevated, along with the very timely issues she champions, fighting the Republican strategy of deliberately disenfranchising Black voters. But that was always a slim chance.

And Biden, who will be the oldest man ever elected president, needs someone ready on Day One to take his spot if he becomes incapacitated or drops dead. 

Kamala Harris fits that bill. 

Like Biden, she is a seasoned politician who has deep establishment support and is a campaigning and fundraising powerhouse.

She also brings some qualities Biden lacks – a sharpness and toughness in debate that make her well-suited to the role of attack dog, a traditional job for running mates. 

And good for Biden for looking beyond the clock-cleaning Harris delivered to him on the primary debate stage, with her devastating attack on his early opposition to school integration through busing. It says something important about Biden, and where we are in history, that he is willing to choose a strong Black woman as his partner.

Make no mistake, no matter who Biden chose, this election was going to be largely about the culture wars Trump has so effectively stoked.

Already, the birther attacks on Harris are beginning. 

Within an hour of the announcement that she was Biden’s pick for VP, my friend Lou Jacobson at Politifact was moved to write that Facebook claims that Harris “cannot by constitutional law become president” are false.

Racism and sexism will be Trump campaign staples. 

With the choice of Harris, Democrats are saying: Bring it on.

It’s actually a bit of a relief after a long spring and summer of Biden’s rope-a-dope strategy — sitting in his basement in Delaware and waiting for Trump to hang himself. It’s also better than the back-to-the-future approach of a Democratic Party that chose, in 2020 of all years, to nominate an elderly white man whose best friends are bankers to take on the most overtly racist, misogynist, self-dealing narcissist ever to lead the country. We can’t just pretend that Trump and Trumpism hasn’t happened. Harris won’t do that. 

I am bracing myself for the kind of sexist attacks on Harris as too “ambitious” and “shrill” that were aimed at Hillary Clinton. But I am also looking forward to watching her destroy her detractors — especially Mike Pence. That dazzling, toothy smile and prosecutorial stiletto might be just the combination Biden needs from the woman who has his back.

In Milwaukee, the Democratic National Convention will be so toned down next week it will be hardly recognizable. Biden isn’t even coming, and the handful of delegates who will show up have been asked to sign a pledge not to patronize Milwaukee bars and restaurants, for fear of spreading COVID-19. What a comedown.

In the strange new virtual reality we are living in, there is plenty of reason to worry that, despite Biden’s still-solid lead in this week’s Marquette University Law School poll, Wisconsin could tumble again to Trump.

Will Harris help or hurt? The Biden camp has had the magnifying glass out for months to study that question, and has apparently come up with its answer.

Anecdotally,  it appears that many young people are not thrilled with either Biden or Harris, but perhaps older voters are feeling good about the ticket. That includes the Black voters in the South who put Biden over the top, suburban white women who are turning away from Trump and rural independents.

A handful of voters from any of those groups can make the difference in November.

The latest Marquette poll, which came out hours before Biden’s announcement, offers few clues. But here is one interesting point: Biden’s relative advantage over Trump compared with Clinton in 2016 is mostly in the support he is getting in rural areas of the state. 

As one political consultant puts it, all Biden has to do to win is lose less badly in rural areas of Wisconsin than Clinton did.

Clinton’s failure to visit our state in the closing days of the election has become a legendary lesson in political mistakes. By putting the convention here, it seemed the Democrats were trying to fix that. Thanks to COVID-19, Biden hasn’t been able to pay any in-person visits, either. And now we have the don’t-spend-your-money-here Milwaukee convention, not to mention the pandemic and Republican efforts to undermine the vote. It’s a tippy time for our swing state. 

A little star power — including a visit from the Obamas, who somehow didn’t show up here in the closing days of the 2016 campaign — wouldn’t hurt.

Harris, like Biden, is closely tied to Barack Obama, and will remind voters of the last president, who was brilliant and classy where Trump is a disgusting, iredeemable boor. 

But Obama, like Biden, was no great progressive. He pursued drone warfare, bailed out Wall Street and deported more migrants than any previous president.

“Make me do it,” he told his grassroots organizer friends pressing for more progressive policies. He was quoting FDR, who told his union allies that he could not enact the New Deal without an aggressive push from that American labor movement.

Progress will be up to the public, not the politicians.

My favorite reaction so far to the Kamala Harris pick is from Alan Minsky of Progressive Democrats of America and Jeff Cohen of Roots Action:

“While her penchant for taking positions broadly palatable to the corporate donor class raises concerns about her dedication to progressive principles, her habit of aligning her stance with the prevailing political winds gives us some hope,” they write. “We will fight every day to hold Vice President Harris to the higher ideals she often espouses, and make sure those winds blow decisively in the direction of a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and a level playing field for working families everywhere.”

Time to begin the fight.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.