NEARLY 14 months ago, before a pandemic put paid to traditional political campaigning, before anyone had heard of Gordon Sondland or Lev Parnas or any of the other minor characters who emerged from Donald Trump’s impeachment saga, the Democratic Party had a problem: how to hold a presidential debate with 20 candidates. They solved it by having the score draw lots; ten would debate on the first night, and ten on the second. The debates’ sole memorable moment came on the second night, when Kamala Harris laid into Joe Biden over his opposition to federally mandated busing to integrate schools, and what she deemed to be his too-kind recollection of two segregationist senators.
Ms Harris was not then leading in most polls, but she was widely seen as a promising candidate—the one best able to reassemble the Obama coalition of progressives, non-white voters and young people. The cognoscenti tended to write off Mr Biden’s polling lead as an artefact of name recognition; he rambled and often seemed a half-step too slow. What people remember from that interchange was Ms Harris’s line, “That little girl was me”—referring to how she was bused to a majority-white school. Less remembered was that Mr Biden, having absorbed her blows, threw a few back, reminding the audience that unlike Ms Harris, he was a public defender rather than a prosecutor (an applause line). He then held his own in an argument—no easy feat: Ms Harris is a sharp, clinical, relentless debater. In subsequent debates the two circled each other, but never really traded haymakers again. The exchange seemed to leave no lingering bad blood: on August 11th, Mr Biden announced Ms Harris as his running-mate.
The choice is at once groundbreaking and predictable. It is groundbreaking, of course, because Ms Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, is the first black woman and the first Asian-American chosen for a major-party national ticket. She is also the first Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee from west of Texas: the mountain west is ancestrally Republican, and California’s two presidents (Reagan and Nixon) were both Republicans. And she is just the fourth woman—after Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton—to appear on either party’s general-election ballot.
It is predictable because, ever since Mr Biden announced he would choose a female running-mate, Ms Harris has been among the front-runners—first, because she had the fewest flaws. Elizabeth Warren is not much younger than Mr Biden, and might have cost Democrats a Senate seat (Massachusetts’s governor, who would have nominated her replacement pending a special election, is a Republican). Stacey Abrams, the progressives’ darling, had never held higher office than in Georgia’s state legislature. Karen Bass, who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, was a vocal admirer of Fidel Castro—an impediment to any ticket that wants to win Florida. Too many people who knew Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, seemed to dislike her.
More important, Ms Harris is a talented politician. True, she ran an awful presidential campaign. It grew too big too quickly, spent too much money, and never really decided if it was a centrist or progressive campaign. But her loss in the primary was anomalous: she has won every other elected office she has sought. After dropping out, she returned to the Senate, where she helped craft the Justice in Policing Act, which would establish a national use-of-force standard for police, ban no-knock warrants in drug cases and expand the investigative powers of attorneys-general.
That was not just good policy, it was also good politics. The left never particularly warmed to Ms Harris, a former prosecutor, and putting her name on ambitious police-reform legislation added heft to her argument that she became a prosecutor to change things from the inside. But in that respect—in her comfort with transactional politics and aversion to the crusading, hectoring politics and style of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—she resembles Mr Biden. Neither is particularly ideological; both are consummate insiders. They are open to progressive ideas but remain firmly planted in the party’s centre. And people tend to like them; they connect well with voters.
The choice suggests that Mr Biden is not terribly worried about his left flank, or at least, that he thinks the groundbreaking nature of Ms Harris’s candidacy will do at least as much as choosing Ms Warren or Ms Abrams would have done to boost turnout where he needs help: among young and non-white voters. Mr Biden won the nomination, of course, on the strength of his appeal to African-American voters, but he needs non-white voters to turn out in the general election at 2012, not 2016 levels—particularly in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida.
Ms Harris also has a star quality that Mr Biden lacks. She wields a deft knife, and will perform the vice-presidential nominee’s traditional attack duties fearsomely well. No doubt Democrats are already salivating at the thought of her facing off against Mike Pence’s dour tut-tutting. Her background as a prosecutor makes her ideally suited for a law-and-order election, as this one is shaping up to be. Choosing Ms Warren would have given Mr Trump’s argument that Democrats are really a far-left party some validity; choosing Ms Rice would have let Republicans endlessly relitigate Obama-era foreign-policy failures. But finding a potent and specific attack line against Ms Harris is difficult.
Some in Bidenworld deemed Ms Harris “too ambitious”, a criticism that had more than a whiff of sexism about it (every successful politician is ambitious; nobody seems to mind ambitious men). Mr Biden, sensibly, seems to have decided that her ambition is a net positive. She now finds herself the front-runner to succeed him, whether that is in four years—Mr Biden turns 78 in November, and has been coy about whether he will seek a second term—or eight. Her path to the presidency, if they win, will largely depend on how successful she helps to make his presidency.
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