Analysis: Five Thoughts on the Harris Pick

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Posted: Aug 12, 2020 1:15 PM
Analysis: Five Thoughts on the Harris Pick

It's been less than 24 hours since the Biden campaign announced California Senator Kamala Harris is joining the ticket as the Democratic Party's presumptive Vice Presidential nominee.  This pick is, as others have noted, simultaneously 'safe' and historic -- and entirely predictable.  So predictable, in fact, that I did so repeatedly.  My theory of the case was that Team Biden has been running a prevent defense-style campaign for months.  They believe they are ahead by a significant margin and have thus kept their shaky, gaffe machine of a candidate off the grid to the greatest extent realistically possible.  Given their pattern of decisions, I reasoned that (a) they would pick a woman of color (seemingly confirmed when they offered no narrative pushback when leaked lists of finalists exclusively or heavily featured women of color) for various box-checking reasons, and (b) the 'safest' selection within the resulting handful would be Harris, at least on paper.  Anyone else would have been an upset.  Sure enough, they played it safe.  A few thoughts on the pick:

(1) Running mate choices rarely move many votes, and this truism feels especially applicable in the 2020 cycle.  Basically the whole ballgame boils down to whether the dual public health and economic crises improve enough by October for President Trump to have a fighting chance at re-election.  If he can pull back into a virtual tie, other issues (plus organization) will matter at the margins.  But we are not currently witnessing a margin-of-error race.  There's a strain of thought that Harris' entry into the contest will automatically tighten things up because it will remind a substantial chunk of voters that November offers an important choice between alternatives, not just a referendum on the incumbent.  Biden has been running as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind 'generic' Democrat, and it's been working.  Harris could scramble that a bit.  The other strain of thought is that absolutely nothing will impact the trajectory of this race in a major way unless and until the public writ large starts to feel differently about the pair of aforementioned crises.  

(2) The New York Times comically hailed Harris as a "pragmatic moderate."  This line did not apply to Barack Obama, even though he actively tried to present himself as such in 2008.  It most certainly does not apply to Kamala Harris who raced to her party's far left edge as a Senator, in advance of her party's presidential primary.  And I do mean far left:


Harris co-sponsored Bernie Sanders' extreme plan to eliminate and ban 177 million Americans' private health plans, favors taxpayer-funded health benefits for illegal immigrants, advocated a job-crushing and energy-killing fracking ban, and embraced the radical and ruinous 'Green New Deal.'  (Her healthcare and environmental ideas alone carry a price tag of $100 trillion or more over ten years).  She supports decriminalizing illegal border crossings.  She is an enthusiastic proponent of unfettered, taxpayer-funded abortion up until the moment of birth.  She has pledged to use executive orders to impose new Second Amendment restrictions, unconstitutional power grabs so blatant that Biden himself called her out on it during a Democratic debate (she blithely laughed off his elementary point about the constitutional authority).  She called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez's confiscatory 70 percent top tax rate proposal a "bold" idea that "should be discussed" and is "good for the party."  She has partially embraced defunding the police, a radical backflip from her previous reputation as an aggressive prosecutor, a posture she's labored to abandon in light of her party's shifting mores.

Imbued with a deep authoritarian streak, Harris has veered into religious bigotry when it's suited her political goals.  Relatedly, she was one of the most cynical demagogues on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Kavanaugh confirmation circus, showboating shamelessly and repeatedly, and engaging in clumsy, McCarthyite tactics.  She is oleaginous and calculating, of course, and perhaps she'll modulate to appeal to a non-deep-blue electorate (something she's never had to do) in the coming weeks.  But she's a committed, hyper-ambitious, deeply illiberal San Francisco leftist -- and any attempt to pretend otherwise is Grade-A gaslighting.  I'll also be interested to see how the newly-minted duo will deal with this awkwardness, assuming they're really pressed on it at some point.  Then again, #MeToo fundamentalism seems to be passe in Democratic circles:


(3) An irony -- given item number one above -- is that more than usual, this Vice Presidential pick actually does matter.  Recent surveys show many, if not most, voters doubt Joe Biden has the stamina or wherewithal to complete a full term in office, let alone two.  A CNN analyst is already chirping about him stepping down.  Biden's running mate therefore says a lot about the sort of governance a Democratic administration would offer, quite possible sooner than later.  As established in item number two above, Harris is a leftist who's embraced policy stances well outside of the American mainstream.  Her elevation underscores conservatives' fear that Biden, who has already been yanked leftward, will serve as a rubber stamp for whatever Congressional Democrats and highly progressive aides put in front of him.  He might well end up presiding over a 'Biden administration' in name only, with others wielding the true power.  Biden's familiarity and 'old school Democrat' reputation is an appealing facade that offers Trump-weary voters a patina of moderation.  But his party, in action and spirit, is already in a post-Joe era, in many respects.  His administration would reflect that reality.  Is this sort of 'bank shot' critique viable?  


The case against Harris as the case against Biden/Harris is compelling and strong.  But it's not straightforward.  Donald Trump skewered Hillary Clinton as a corrupt, polarizing, unlikable liberal who typified a failing, decadent establishment class. It worked.  By contrast, he's struggled to successfully define Biden this cycle, and trying to make a case about the perils of a Trojan Horse Democratic administration won't be as intuitive or viscerally appealing as a direct hit.  Team Trump is going to give it their best shot:


(4) Let's face it: Kamala Harris is overrated as a politician.  Her pandering is cringeworthy.  Her grasp of even some of her own signature policies has been tenuous to the point of embarrassment.  Her penchant for laughing through answers to tough questions is an off-putting tic.  There's a reason why her impressive presidential rollout in Oakland represented a high water mark of her campaign (the other being her racially-tinged attacks against Joe Biden in the very first Democratic debate).  She failed to galvanize lasting excitement or support and dropped out of the race months before a single primary or caucus vote was cast. Yes, she's "tested" in the sense that she's been in debates on the national stage (with decidedly mixed results) and has held two statewide offices in America's largest state.  But that state is so blue that in her US Senate campaign, her general election opponent was...a fellow liberal Democrat.  Here's some candor from a Times reporter:


Coronavirus has concocted a perfect political storm for the Democrats, handing them an overwhelming, game-changing issue that has vastly eroded the president's standing for re-election (quite a bit of this is his own fault), while offering an ideal pretext to keep their flawed, 'generic' ticket out of the limelight.  This combination of factors has, at least up to this point, turned the race into almost a pure up/down referendum on an incumbent whose job approval is chronically upside-down, often by double digits.  

(5) It is true that Harris' presence on a major party ticket is historic.  Some in the media are trying to exploit identity politics as a shield against any and all attacks or criticisms of the California Senator, which must infuriate various Republicans whose 'historic' identities never protect them against vicious attacks from the Left.  But considering the moment our country is experiencing on matters of race, these realities are active testaments to the immense progress we've made as a nation and society -- and at least a partial rebuttal to the lie that America is a fundamentally unjust, ugly, nasty, bigoted place:


And since I mentioned GOP figures who've been savaged by hypocritical identity obsessives, I'll leave you with Sarah Palin's earnest, lovely advice to Harris as she enters the race: In short, "trust no one new, don't get muzzled, and have fun!"  The Biden/Harris ticket will officially debut at a joint event in Delaware later this afternoon.