Breaking down Kamala. My appearance on The Daily.
5 thoughts on what does and doesn't matter about the Harris pick, and a Q&A with a reporter who knows Harris' history.
This week’s newsletter has a 6 to 7 minute read time:
(1) Notes on Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris, including whether she matters electorally.
(2) A brief Q&A with Jamilah King, a race and justice reporter at Mother Jones who has covered Harris since her rise to the Senate and on the 2020 campaign trail. She argues that the “Kamala is a cop” narrative is reductive in light of her background and history.
(3) What I’m reading.
On a personal note: I was interviewed on The New York Times’ podcast “The Daily” this week to discuss the surreal story of the attempted “triple cancellation” I witnessed and wrote about in this newsletter. It was a fun, substantive interview, and the responses I’ve gotten — including so many messages from listeners around the world, a big wave of new sign-ups, and unexpected notes of appreciation from people across various chapters of my life — has been deeply rewarding. I feel very grateful and encouraged at this moment. You can listen to the interview here, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.
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Five thoughts on Biden’s choice of Harris
Screenshot from The Circus on Showtime.
1. Like anything in politics, a vice presidential pick is shaped by ideological concerns and has ideological consequences. But within that context, I think much of Biden’s reasoning here was fueled primarily by risk mitigation. The conventional wisdom in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Democratic and liberal media circles converged on the notion that the veep "had to be" a Black woman. Harris ticked all the boxes without introducing any obviously risky variables: she's tested as someone who campaigns as a moderate (even if she wasn't particularly adept at winning voter attention in 2019); charismatic and experienced as a politician; and in touch with the 2020 zeitgeist given the campaign grind. Biden’s campaign has been blunt about presenting him as a bulwark and nothing more — why would the logic behind choosing his running mate defy that?
2. Vox’s Ezra Klein makes the sharp point that the fact that Kamala Harris — a Black, Indian-American woman with one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate — is seen as the safe pick in 2020 is a sign how much the American political scene has changed. “In 2016, Hillary Clinton tapped Tim Kaine to be her vice president. In 2008, Barack Obama chose Joe Biden. In 2004, John Kerry named John Edwards. In 2000, Al Gore ran with Joe Lieberman. What did all these picks have in common? They were all to the right of the candidate atop the ticket — each of them was meant, at least in part, to mollify voters uncomfortable with either the ideology or the identity of the Democratic nominee. Biden’s decision to run alongside Sen. Kamala Harris breaks the trend. Harris is, by any measure, to Biden’s left.”
(If you’re wondering how to reconcile Harris’s reputation as a moderate with her more liberal voting record, I’d say she campaigned significantly more conservatively than one might expect given some of her recent positions.)
3. There is, and there will continue to be, an abundance of shallow speculation about how Harris will affect turnout on Election Day. But historically, running mates make a very small splash on voter behavior. Consider the fact that historically a vice presidential candidate has almost no effect on a president’s ability to even win the running mate’s own home state. So how could they make a huge impact nationally? That being said, if the race ends up tight — and Biden’s victory in battleground states at the moment aren’t a sure thing — an extra boost in Black voters for Harris in the Rust Belt could help clinch the victory, political scientists say.
4. What’s more interesting to me than electoral considerations is thinking through what Harris would be like as president. Not only is Biden exceptionally old and thus vulnerable to illness and death, but he and his inner circle have in the past signaled that he's considered being a voluntarily one-term president. New York Magazine’s Gabriel Debenedetti reports, “No one expects him to run for reelection” and that Harris’s selection reflects how Biden sees her as reliable vessel for his political style:
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.
Harris is also young and appealing enough to the donor class to potentially secure establishment consensus for a presidential run.
5. Democratic leaders draped themselves in kente-cloth stoles during the antiracist protests but now their future top leaders are the author of the notorious 1994 crime bill and California’s “top cop.” It’s just worth taking that in. Most Black Lives Matter protests are directed at local leaders — and should be, given how mass incarceration is administered primarily at the state level — but it’s probably not controversial to say that Biden and Harris are not particularly well-positioned to co-opt radical antiracist energy and could be a lightning rod for them. On balance, that’s good for the movement, which was never going to find a real ally in the White House.
5 questions with Jamilah King about Kamala Harris
Jamilah King is a sharp reporter for Mother Jones, a former colleague, and a friend. She’s from California and has lots of experience covering Harris, and so I sent her an email with five questions picking her brain about what kind of politician Harris is. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ZA: When thinking about Harris's potential vice presidency and presidency, what comes to mind as greatest asset and weakness as a politician?
JK: Politically, Harris is extremely cautious. That's both a strength and a weakness. She's not one to make grandiose and risky political gestures. For instance, she's often linked to current California Governor Gavin Newsom because of their shared political patronage — they both had to work for the blessing of a small group of influential power brokers who've run San Fransisco politics for decades.
In 2004, he made national headlines as mayor of San Francisco by legalizing same sex marriage, a move that was deeply unpopular nationally at the time, but looks a lot better in retrospect. While Harris declined to bring the death penalty in a highly publicized case around the same time [as San Francisco district attorney], that was about the most controversial move she's made in her career. She paid for it later on — police unions campaigned heavily against her in her first run for attorney general in 2010, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein was very critical of her at the time.
This doesn't make her any sort of political martyr; far from it. But I think it really shaped how she ran her AG's office. By California standards, she was fairly moderate, and actually got a lot of pushback from progressive groups. But politics is a long game. And I think, in this case especially, her caution is what made her a good pick for the Biden team.
To be clear, Harris has spent most of her life as a public official in law enforcement. There's only so much reform you can make inside a system that's working exactly the way it was designed. I think Harris's work in the Senate has allowed her a bit more freedom, politically.
On the campaign trail, Harris backed away from Medicare-for-all and campaigned on a strikingly centrist middle class tax cut even at a time when heirs of New Democrat-style politics like Julian Castro and Cory Booker were moving firmly to the left on policy. What do you think this says about her political instincts and how might that shape her potential vice presidency and possible presidency?
Again, she's cautious. She and her team are always thinking about the long game. But I also think it's important to note how much her self-proclaimed "non-ideology" plays into her thinking. When reported in depth by the New York Times, which is definitely worth reading and listening to, she's portrayed as a fact and evidence-based policymaker.
I think it's a bit more intuitive than that. The best way I can describe it off the cuff is like this: in San Francisco, everyone is ostensibly liberal. But there is a long and historic chasm between moderate liberals and progressives. And more often than not, the city's Black leaders are on the moderate side. That's not a knock so much as it is about practical, lived experience. The question is what can you do for people right now, and not so much how can we transform this system in ten years. It's not the most inspiring approach to politics. But I think in moments of extreme duress, like now during the pandemic and a possible recovery, that approach will win a lot of people over.
The Times has said Harris, alongside Biden, has in recent months "appeared to move further to the left" and that she has "emerg[ed] as a strong voice on racism and police misconduct." Do you agree with that, and how much should we believe that will stick over time? How do you think she perceives the insurgent left?
Working in the Senate is a very different job than running a state or county's law enforcement agencies. She's only three years in, and was certainly angling for a presidential run from the start, but the tangible requirements of the job seems to have allowed Harris to say and do things she wouldn't have while she was in law enforcement. She marched in recent protests against the murder of George Floyd. Again, she's no martyr. But it's been interesting to see her cautiously develop her outward-facing political persona within the relative freedom that the Senate offers.
As for how she views the insurgent left, I think she'll listen. I think she'll have folks around her who are more connected to grassroots and radical circles than she's ever been. But I don't see her as a very patient person. I always tend to think of that scene from “The Devil Wears Prada” where Meryl Streep flippantly asks, "Why is no one ready?"
I think she'll listen to meaningful critiques of her record, but if the critique starts and ends with "Kamala is a cop," she'll probably not engage.
You've said in the past that the "Kamala is a cop" frame is "messy and complicated." Could you explain what you mean by that?
Harris has been an elected public official — in law enforcement, no less — for 20 years. The world was a very different place when she was climbing the ranks in California. Progressive prosecutors didn't exist. It's important to note, as my friend and prison abolitionist Lex Steppling who works at Dignity and Power Now often does, that California is home to some of our most draconian law enforcement policies. Three Strikes, SWAT teams. To make even incremental change within that system at that time was a huge victory, even if it doesn't seem that way in hindsight. She didn't always get it right, of course. But she built relationships that will hopefully carry over and push her when needed.
The "Kamala is a cop" frame, to me, is ideologically lazy. It's reductive and ahistorical. It doesn't take into account the very specific structural barriers that dictate who gets to be in politics, what you have to do to survive, and what the job entails. She made the decision to work in law enforcement, which ultimately propelled her to the national stage. She didn't go to Harvard, or work at a big firm out of law school. She went to a historically Black college and then a public law school in California where she was, by all accounts, a pretty average student. These are real differences that I don't think get talked about enough. Black people in the public eye often have to be exceptional to prove that they're worthy, and that's especially true if you're a Black woman. She grew into her gifts, which I think is something that a lot of people can relate to.
I'm not saying this will be the case, but in the event that Harris has some significant sway over the direction of the presidency, what would you guess her priorities might be?
Her main priority might be immigration. It's something that's close to her heart, and an issue that she advocated for a lot in the Senate. It's also a huge component of helping to expand the democratic electorate in places like Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada. If and when she does run for president again, she'll need that base of support.
You can follow Jamilah King here on Twitter.
What I’m reading
What’s actually in Trump's coronavirus relief executive orders. [My quick comment on the orders: The orders are, like everything in his career, a scam. Like any decent scam, from a distance it seems potentially reasonable, perhaps even appealing; viewed more closely it's quickly revealed to be rotten trickery, designed only to enrich the scammer. Virtually nothing in Trump's orders do what he's said they'll do. It's all gamesmanship; ultimately it’s a cheap tactic for buying time, and meant to try undermine the Democrats’ advantages in Congress here.]
The Atlantic’s much-talked-about deep dive on how the pandemic defeated America.
The window for police reform may be closing.
Economic historian Adam Tooze discusses the world after Covid.
Joe Biden has found his neoliberal match in Kamala Harris.
1 in 3 Americans would decline a Covid-19 vaccine.
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