In picking California Sen. Kamala Harris to join the Democrats’ 2020 presidential ticket, Joe Biden has shown that, unlike the man currently holding the job he seeks, he’s not afraid of strong women.
It would have been disappointing but understandable if Biden had dismissed the highly qualified Harris as his running mate. She had also sought the nomination, and during the course of the primary she harshly criticized Biden’s position on busing to integrate schools and other racial justice issues. Before one CNN debate, Biden quipped, “Go easy on me, kid.” She didn’t. That’s not Harris’ style; she’s been a prosecutor for most of her professional life, not a therapist.
For this, Biden aides reportedly tried to block her selection as vice president, suggesting she lacked sufficient loyalty and deference and had too much ambition to make a good sidekick. And if Biden won, critics warned, she might spend most of her time in the West Wing preparing to run for president. That’s an absurd reason to reject a candidate. The vice presidential spot has always been seen as a launching pad for the presidency; it’s not like veeps have a whole lot else to do.
Besides, isn’t ambition something you want in a leader? Or is that a trait admirable only in men? Indeed, Harris is ambitious. She had to be to overcome the obstacles she faced as both a woman and a person of color (her mother is from India and her father is Jamaican). And Harris didn’t just advance, she pioneered. She is the state’s first Black district attorney, the first woman to serve as California’s attorney general and the second Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator.
Now, she’s the first woman of color to join the Democratic presidential ticket.
As Biden heads into the most consequential president election in modern history, he sees what we do: Harris has a lot to offer the campaign and the ticket beyond being a symbol. For one thing, Harris brings an unusual blend of social justice progressiveness and law-and-order conservatism. She has a long career of fighting to protect the downtrodden and looking for ways to reform the criminal justice system while still locking up plenty of the proverbial bad guys. She’s gone after for-profit colleges and the mortgage industry when they preyed upon her constituents. She’s outspoken (at least when she wants to be) on issues she cares about, will not be cowed by bullying, and is not afraid of being seen as overly aggressive, which can be a career killer for women. Just ask Hillary Clinton.
Her debating skills are not in doubt, as Biden well knows from personal experience. After seeing her recent exchange with Senate colleague John Cornyn (R-Texas) over a police reform bill, we look forward to watching Harris go head to head with Vice President Mike Pence in the fall.
As any elected official with a long record of service, Harris has had missteps along with the successes. She pushed some policies as a prosecutor that were harmful, such as her wrongheaded if well-intended campaign to curtail truancy, which fell particularly hard on low-income families and communities of color. (In her defense, Harris saw chronic truancy as a theft of a child’s future prosperity.) The offices she led sometimes made the wrong decisions in specific cases.
Our chief criticism of her over the years has been her aversion to taking firm positions on controversial topics, including some that should have been in her wheelhouse when she was attorney general. For example, when California voters were considering a major criminal justice reform initiative in 2014 to reduce certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, Harris refused to take a stand on it or distance herself from the law enforcement community’s fear-mongering. The initiative passed anyway.
That tendency carried on to some extent in the presidential primary campaign, when Harris took safe and seemingly malleable stances on some major issues, such as enacting “Medicare for All” and allowing felons to vote. That’s not a deal breaker for a vice presidential nominee, but presidential candidates must be clear on their positions. Win or lose in November, Harris has at least four years to get that right.
— The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board