Martin Kettle – The Guardian
Such is the scale of rebuilding the US after Trump and Covid, Biden might already be futureproofing the Democrats
‘Kamala Harris has now become overnight the presumptive next Democratic presidential nominee after Joe Biden.’ Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his Democratic vice-presidential running mate in November’s American election is by turns audacious and cautious, radical and conservative, historic and same-old. Nevertheless, although there were several other qualified candidates for the role, Harris is likely to prove a smart choice.
You can see this, in a brief and minor way, by the tsunami of abuse and contempt from Donald Trump and his supporters that didn’t materialise after the announcement on Wednesday. With next week’s mainly virtual Democratic convention in Milwaukee days away, the vice-presidential pick was always going to open a window of opportunity for Trump to get into the Biden henhouse and make trouble. That hasn’t happened yet – though doubtless he will try. But it suggests Harris was not the pick Trump had been hoping for.
Even on day one, the choice reminds us that Biden is very serious about winning the election. But the radical and historic aspects of Harris’s place on the ticket cannot be passed over as mere add-ons. Biden announced months ago that he would choose a female running mate. But Harris will still be only the fourth woman on a major party ticket in US history following Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. Her three female predecessors were all defeated. If she is elected, Harris would prove once and for all that women can win. The choice suggests that Biden, the lifelong Washington pragmatist, recognises the power of female voters to his party and that men are ready to help elect a woman too.
But Biden has also chosen the first woman of colour on a major party presidential ticket. That’s hardly a minor milestone in US history, as recent events underscore. Nor was it a foregone conclusion. There were qualified alternatives available, including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.
But a summer dominated by the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movement would have been a catastrophically bad moment to pick another white candidate. Biden also came under a lot of pressure at the business end of the process to choose a black woman. It was a timely reminder of something he knows better than anyone – namely, how much his own nomination owes to black voters, who brought his campaign back from the dead in February’s South Carolina primary. Once again, the pragmatist has revealed an openness to new ways that some might have thought beyond him.
This openness has also extended to the policy process that has been undertaken in the wake of the fight for the nomination. Since May, Biden’s team has been working in six policy task forces on the economy, healthcare, immigration, criminal justice, climate and education. Each is co-chaired by a Biden supporter and a former Bernie Sanders backer. The climate group, for example, is co-chaired by John Kerry and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The process seems to speak to two things: the influence of significant parts of the pro-Sanders left within the party, and Biden’s readiness to engage with it in ways that Hillary Clinton, for example, did not in 2016.
Nevertheless, the Harris pick also shows some of the limits of Biden’s embrace of new movements. Harris has often been charged with being too pro-police in police shooting cases as district attorney in San Francisco then attorney general in California, though supporters say she has shifted her view in recent years. Critics also charge her with being light on policy. Yet that was not true when she was San Francisco district attorney and began a programme of alternatives to custody for drug offenders. If she were to spearhead something similar from the vice-presidential office two decades later, it could help to transform America’s catastrophic and destructive incarceration obsession.
It is easy to exaggerate the importance of a vice-presidential pick. It’s the presidential candidate who wins or loses the contest. Biden certainly didn’t need to put Harris on the ticket in order to carry California. But the vice-presidency itself is too easily dismissed. Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice-president’s memorable comparison of the job is still often quoted. Yet, in spite of Mike Pence’s performance since 2017, some recent vice-presidents have been significant, both politically and as executives. George HW Bush, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Biden himself have been substantial vice-presidential players in ways that Dan Quayle, for example, was not.
Harris is in the substantial category for the overwhelming reason that it is possible to imagine her as president. That’s partly because, post-Trump and post-Covid, there would be substantial work for all hands in the new administration. But the main reason is Biden’s age. He will be 78 in November. It has been hinted, though not definitely stated, that he might serve only a single term. He has referred to himself as a transitional figure in the party, paving the way for a new generation. Either way, Harris has now become overnight the presumptive next Democratic presidential nominee after Biden. That gives her a lot of power. For the next generation of Democrats, it is suddenly important to get close to her, and to take what she says seriously.
Trump and Covid mean that American government in the 2020s will not be steered by the compass of the past. Yet it is a mistake to imagine that only one part of the Democratic party understands this. Biden’s choice of Harris, like his approach to the Sanders wing over policy, is part of an effort to unify a very divided party to defeat Trump and measure up to the issues facing America and the world.
There are more grounds for thinking this unity may happen than either some Bernie-or-bust revolutionaries or identity politics movements care to admit. An Obama-type centrist like Harris isn’t the worst thing in the world to be when running against Trump. Now, though, there is the mother of all election battles to win, whose outcome remains deeply uncertain.
- Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist