In picking Harris, Biden makes history and plays it safe
Joe Biden's selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate was both historic and conventional - historic as she becomes the first Black woman and first Asian American to join a major party ticket, but conventional because, in the end, she appeared to be the safest of the finalists on his shortlist.
Politics and history conspired to lead Biden to Harris. He had pledged in the spring to pick a female running mate, an acknowledgment of the increasing importance of female voters to the Democrats' success in 2018 and hopes in 2020. But in a summer of racial reckoning, following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Biden came under increasing pressure not just to pick a woman, but to pick a Black woman.
The choice was revealing of Biden for another reason. Though Harris was a conventional pick, she may not have been a truly easy pick. Her attack on Biden during the first Democratic debate over his past stand on forced racial busing left him bruised and many of his supporters angry. Despite those feelings, Harris fit better perhaps than any of the other finalists, given the first rule of vice-presidential selections, which is to do no harm.
As one Democrat put it, by picking Harris, Biden demonstrated that he will do what he thinks he must do to win the election. That Biden was able to put aside that debate moment and look to the larger goal of winning in November says something about both his character and his ambition to be president, a quest that began with his first run for president, in 1988.
That takes nothing away from Harris - or for that matter from many of the others who were under serious consideration. Harris has the advantage of being a national figure and, not incidentally, someone who went through a presidential campaign and, though she fell well short, experienced the political combat that goes with running for the highest office in the land. More important, she is likely to be seen as someone who meets Biden's first criterion, which is a vice president who is prepared to be president.
Even before the nationwide protests that followed the Floyd killing, Biden was indebted to Black voters. In South Carolina, they resurrected his battered candidacy, moving him from the endangered list to the front of the Democratic field. He had finished poorly in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Without Black voters - and a timely endorsement from House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., he might have ended the nominating season 0-for-3 in his presidential campaigns.
Biden has talked about himself as a transitional figure in the Democratic Party, someone who will help to usher in a new generation of leaders. Harris fits that mold in two ways. First, she is considerably younger at 55 than is Biden, who would be 78 when he takes the oath of office in January, should he prevail over President Trump.
But if he is a transitional figure, he now will be seen as a White Democrat who played a uniquely important role in bridging racial divides in national politics, first as vice president to Barack Obama, the first African American president, and now as the presidential nominee who elevated a Black woman politically higher than any before her.
Harris also represents a coming of age for Black women in the Democratic Party. Black women now constitute perhaps the most loyal voters in the party's coalition but have not often gained the power or recognition that their loyalty might be expected to command. As a candidate, Harris made their lives and their standing a central part of her message and will be able to speak in their behalf in the White House if she and Biden are elected.
Biden had other choices. Early on, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who also had run against Biden but gave him a glowing endorsement after South Carolina, appeared to be a likely finalist. But she took herself out of the competition and said publicly it was time for a woman of color to be on the ticket.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., had made her mark in the campaign as the candidate with the plans, and the Biden team quickly embraced some of her ideas when the nominating process unofficially ended. She had any number of conversations with Biden and his team about policy and about the vice presidency. But to moderates in the party, Warren was always viewed as too far to the left.
Biden looked seriously at other Black women. One was Susan Rice, the former national security adviser in the Obama administration. She and Biden had formed a strong bond and a good working relationship. In the realm of a governing partner, Biden might have seen her as the ideal choice, able to form a partnership akin to the one he had with Obama. But she had never run for office, let alone experienced the rigors of a national campaign.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., was another prospective candidate whose stock seemed to rise later in the process. She had been the speaker of the California State Assembly before winning her House seat. But the jump from the House to the national ticket seemed risky, as did some of her past statements about Cuba and Fidel Castro.
As the vice-presidential selection process played out publicly and the competition intensified, Harris also had her detractors, who said, variously, that she had run an ineffective campaign, that she was thin on policy, that she might not be a true governing partner. Some liberals did not like her record as San Francisco district attorney or as California attorney general, which echoed criticism she received during the time she was running for the White House.
There were Democrats who said the debate dust-up should make Biden especially wary about picking Harris. The presumptive presidential nominee looked at something different, however, which may speak to his campaign message of wanting to try to unite people.
In the statement he released in announcing his choice, he noted that Harris had served as attorney general of California when his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, had been attorney general of Delaware, and how he had gotten to know her through that working relationship.
"He had enormous respect for her and her work," Biden said of his son. "I thought a lot about that as I made this decision. There is no one's opinion I valued more than Beau's and I'm proud to have Kamala standing with me on this campaign."
This is hardly the first time a presidential nominee has chosen a running mate who ran a tough campaign against them. Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush in 1980, even though Bush had called Reagan's signature economic platform "voodoo economics."
Sometimes in making history in a vice-presidential pick, there are political potholes. That happened to Walter Mondale in 1984 when he selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. As a last-minute choice, the vetting process was short-circuited, and issues quickly arose about her husband's finances, a significant distraction for a time.
Candidates in trouble politically can be led astray in their choice. In 2008, some of Sen. John McCain's advisers persuaded him to take a gamble on little-known Sarah Palin, then the governor of Alaska. She wowed the Republican convention but quickly became a liability. He lost for other reasons, namely the financial collapse that hit in September of that year, but his selection of Palin remains an example of what not to do.
Biden is in a good position as he heads toward his convention. He holds a strong lead in national polls and a lead in many of the most important battleground states. He was in no position to take a risk with his vice-presidential choice, and in the end he didn't have to.
Harris's selection drew plaudits across the breadth of the party, and for some Black women it was a moment of pure emotion. For Biden, it was the end of a long process of elimination that brought him to the place many Democrats anticipated when it began.