Why Kamala Harris' historic nomination could make crucial difference for Joe Biden's election campaign

Analysis: The California senator is uniquely positioned to influence policy initiatives on women’s issues, civil rights, policing reform, and more, writes US political correspondent Griffin Connolly

Griffin Connolly
Wednesday 12 August 2020 17:15
Kellyanne Conway says White House security incident indicates people "losing their minds" over Trump re-election

Senator Kamala Harris is an historic pick to be Joe Biden’s running mate, uniquely positioned to influence the Democratic presidential nominee’s policy initiatives on women’s issues, civil rights, policing reform, and more.

Although Ms Harris hasn’t even served a full term as the junior senator from her state, she boasts an impressive resume that mixes an extensive legal background with recent senatorial experience in the realms of national security and the federal judiciary.

And if Mr Biden wins in November, Ms Harris would be the “first” in several demographic categories.

Not only would she be the first woman vice president in US history — as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she’d be both the first black vice president and the first Indian-American vice president in US history as well.

Policing reform

As one of just two black Democratic senators, Ms Harris was a chief author of the Senate version of a robust policing reform bill that went nowhere in Mitch McConnell’s Senate but passed in the Democratic-controlled House.

That bill, named for George Floyd, who died in May while being detained by police in Minneapolis, would fundamentally alter “qualified immunity” laws to make it easier to sue police and other government agencies for misconduct, a proposal the current administration vehemently opposes.

The Democrats' bill would also change the language of section 242 of title 18 of the US criminal code to make it easier to prosecute law enforcement officers for misconduct, another non-starter for Republicans.

Ms Harris’ bill would provide monetary incentives to state and local police departments to ban choke holds and no-knock warrants for drug cases.

The vice presidential nominee’s views on policing have evolved since her time as a prosecutor in San Francisco and later California’s attorney general, which she will once again need to address now that she is running alongside Mr Biden, renewing intense public scrutiny of her record.

As a Democratic presidential primary candidate, Ms Harris struggled to gain a foothold as progressives picked apart her pre-Senate legal career, arguing she was too harsh on non-violent criminals and too supportive of current policing practices.

Progressive sceptics of Ms Harris had plenty of fodder to work with.

“If we take a show of hands of those who would like to see more police officers on the street, mine would shoot up,” she wrote in her 2009 book Smart on Crime.

She added: “Virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat.”

But that was 2009, and it’s directly at odds with the tone she has struck this summer after the deaths in police custody of Mr Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and several others.

“It is status-quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong,” she told the New York Times in June.

But many of those same people who criticised her for her previous record on policing have suggested they have begun to see Ms Harris in a new, more favourable light after her response to the recent high-profile police killings of unarmed black people.

“She has improved drastically on all justice & policing-related issues since she was last District Attorney in 2011,” black rights activist Shaun King wrote on Twitter shortly after Mr Biden announced Ms Harris would be his VP, saying her selection was “encouraging.”

Mr Biden has taken heat for helping author the now-infamous 1994 crime bill that swelled the numbers of police in the US and shovelled billions of dollars into the expansion of the federal prison system.

That bill was bipartisan at the time and signed into law by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, but has since tanked in popularity as liberal politicians came to the conclusion it disproportionately put minorities behind bars, often on non-violent charges.

Ms Harris’ recent track record could help counter any lingering doubt among Democratic voters wary of Mr Biden’s past stances.

He would be smart to defer to her on hot-button issues for black Americans, such as criminal justice reform, given her demographic alignment with that community and his chequered history.

As a senator in 2018, she voted to pass the bipartisan First Step Act that reformed prison and sentencing systems and retroactively reduced the sentences of non-violent offenders, among other provisions.

But that bill was just “a compromise of a compromise,” Ms Harris said at the time it passed the Senate in 2018, and Congress must “make far greater reforms … to right the wrongs that exist in our criminal justice system.”

Foreign affairs and national security

Ms Harris is no novice on foreign affairs, serving for the better part of the last four years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose members receive exclusive access to top secret information about the US government’s involvement around the world.

As vice president, the senator would “play an important role in relationships with foreign nations,” Amy Steigerwalt, a professor of political science at Georgia State University, predicted in remarks to The Independent.

While she has never directed US administrative policy on international relations — something Susan Rice, her top rival for the VP slot, boasted — her regular briefings on the intel panel should endow her with a vast and up-to-date breadth of knowledge about the intricacies of US foreign policy and operations.

Ms Harris has also demonstrated a willingness to look political opponents in the eye and challenge them directly.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr, two Trump appointees, sat through particularly memorable grillings by Ms Harris at Judiciary Committee hearings in 2018 and 2019.

The senator’s tough demeanour at those hearings is indicative of how she could confront hostile foreign leaders as Mr Biden’s deputy abroad, Democratic strategists have suggested.

Lessons from Biden’s vice presidency

For a blueprint of a Kamala Harris vice presidency, it’s appropriate to examine Mr Biden’s own tenure in the role.

Like Ms Harris, Mr Biden was a senator. Unlike Ms Harris — who only arrived to the Capitol as a freshman in 2017 — he had been there for decades before Barack Obama tapped him for the job in 2008.

Whereas Mr Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, operated in a semi-autonomous workspace separate from the Oval Office and had unprecedented control over a certain portfolio of issues such as Middle Eastern Affairs, Mr Biden was an essential adviser on virtually every one of Mr Obama’s key decisions.

As chair of Mr Obama’s presidential transition team, Mr Biden mined his vast network of DC connections to help Mr Obama — a relative newcomer to the capital — staff his administration, a long and daunting task whenever control of the White House flips from one party to the other.

He was an essential voice opposing the administration’s surge of US troops to Afghanistan in 2009, a policy battle he ultimately lost to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who convinced Mr Obama of the plan’s prudence.

He served as the president’s liaison to the Senate on several key bills, including the sweeping 2010 health care overhaul known as “Obamacare.”

There were, of course, limits to Mr Biden’s power as vice president. The six-term senator’s reputation as a good ol’ boy from the chamber’s bygone era of friendly bipartisanship could not bridge the vast divide between his boss and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who vowed to make Mr Obama a one-term president by blocking his policy initiatives and political appointments at virtually every step.

The Obama presidency suffered from gridlock under divided government for six of Mr Obama’s eight years in power.

Ms Harris, who has been one of the most progressive senators since arriving in Washington, isn’t exactly known for her bipartisan record.

Electorally, that ideological purity as a lawmaker may not be a bad thing.

Ms Steigerwalt believes the choice of Ms Harris was meant to energise the Democratic base, not to convince independent swing voters to vote for a Biden-Harris ticket.

“Those are the voters you really need to turn out,” Ms Steigerwalt said.

“Studies find that elections are not generally won by persuading a bunch of undecided voters, but rather by getting those who support you to actually go and cast their ballots,” she said.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments