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15 Aug, 2020 13:58

Radical? Inspirational? A token choice? What's the truth about Kamala Harris?

Radical? Inspirational? A token choice? What's the truth about Kamala Harris?

Kamala Harris’s appointment as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate has sparked myriad opinions from all along the political spectrum. But what’s true and what’s myth?

After much rumour and debate, Joe Biden has announced his running mate for this year’s presidential election and… it’s no great surprise. Kamala Harris was named on Tuesday, months after it was known that Biden would pick a female VP candidate. 

The choice of Harris, who unsuccessfully ran for the presidential nomination, has triggered a huge reaction from all areas of the political playground. From dangerously radical to disappointingly establishment, from inspirationally different to much of the same, people are currently talking more about her than Biden or his opponent, Donald Trump.

But is Harris a radical or inspirational choice, in any sense of those words? Is she really that different or is she just like the rest? Which of the things being said about her are true and which aren’t? 

Here’s a closer look, with some myth-busting and opinion-verifying facts.

She represents a radical shift to the left by the Democrats

This comes under the myth category, despite Trump claiming that Harris will be “the most radical, far-left vice presidential nominee in US history.”

She’s definitely left of most people to run for this office, but far left and radical? Even in conservative US terms, it’s hard to make a case for that. Her voting record puts her to the left of Biden (not too difficult) but not as far as her former rivals for the Democrat presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

Economically, she’s pretty much straight down the middle. She doesn’t moot tax increases on the wealthy, so Wall Street types will be happy with her pick – indeed, they’ve said as much. Which means conspiracy theorists shouldn’t expect that ‘Marxist coup’ anytime soon. Her suggested version of Medicare for All, too, was watered down and more accommodating of private medical insurance than others.

The bottom line here is that she’s basically a centrist. She’s also seen by many as very ‘establishment’, which can be a curse or a blessing. A blessing if you’re looking to appeal to moderately conservative voters disillusioned by Trump, but a curse if you’re looking to enthral younger, more liberal voters.

She’s a soft liberal

Probably not true. When she ran for the presidential nomination, she listed several ‘carefully progressive’ rather than radical aims around the legal system. She wanted to legalise cannabis and end the use of private prisons. She also wanted to abolish solitary confinement and the death penalty. She talked of the “failed” system of mass incarceration. Not particularly controversial stuff, and she was never going to appeal to the “hang ’em and flog ’em” brigade, anyway.

However, her record as a public prosecutor in California would suggest that she’s not exactly a bleeding heart liberal. Despite criticism for not seeking the death penalty in some high-profile cases, she (ironically) appealed against a court decision that found the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. She also took a hard line on truancy that went as far as fining and even jailing parents if their kids missed enough school.

Indeed, her reputation has caused some people to see her closer to law enforcement than the public, particularly in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests. 

Whether this helps or hinders Biden is another matter. It’ll probably lose her some social justice points with certain sections but gain some tough justice points elsewhere. And Republicans won’t be able to take easy potshots at her when it comes to law and order. 

She’s a token appointment

Well, this all depends on motive, about which we can only speculate. If Biden’s team decided they wanted a black or female running mate for purely tactical reasons and then decided, "why not have both?", then that’s tokenism. If they didn’t, then it isn’t.

That’s because, either way, Harris is well qualified for the post. As well qualified as most, anyway – she’s been a public prosecutor and a senator, which is about as regular a route to the White House as you can get. 

She’ll win Biden the black vote

Born in Oakland, California, Harris is of black Jamaican and Indian parentage. The first thought that came to some minds, therefore, was that she’d help Biden win a ‘minority majority’. 

Actually, despite his best efforts to alienate them with some bizarre recent comments about black people who contemplate voting for Trump over him not “being black”, and the black community being less “diverse” than the Latino community, and despite a divisive record on race relations in his early career, Biden is still very popular with African-American voters. In fact, in the race for the nomination, they favoured him over Harris. 

So, having a black running mate probably won’t make Biden any enormous gains. However, it might improve voter turn-out and possibly get him enough ticks on the ballot to avoid Hillary Clinton’s crucial loss of support from that demographic in the 2016 election.

What’s less clear is how her popularity among the growing South Asian vote will affect the bigger picture. 

She’ll win Biden the female vote

Black female voters are the most loyal Democrats around so that demographic doesn’t need much persuading. But what about women in general? Far more of them vote in elections than men (there are more of them in total, after all) which is why Biden was always going to pick a woman as a running mate. 

It’s hard to know if Harris will win votes simply by being a woman, but if she does, those votes have to be in all the right places. Hillary Clinton took 59 percent of the female vote in 2016, compared to 39 percent for Trump and, while she comfortably won the popular vote, that didn’t translate into power, as Trump took the White House. 

She and Biden don’t get on

“When she said things during the Democratic primary debates that were horrible about Sleepy Joe, I would think you would not have picked her,” Trump said, failing to see the irony. In fact, he said she was “nastier than Pocahontas”, reviving his racist nickname for Warren. 

As you'd expect in a debate, mud was slung between the two rivals. As you’d expect, this mud will now be portrayed as water under the bridge. However, the one sod that might not wash off is the one that got turned into T-shirts. 

Also on rt.com Kamala Harris’s race and gender are a beautiful wrapping. Underneath, same old establishment – but what America needs is change

In an effort to dent Biden’s popularity with African-American voters, Harris accused Biden of past opposition to ‘bussing’ - a policy introduced to racially integrate public schools.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day,” Harris said, before delivering the killer line: “That little girl was me.”

She later endorsed Biden for president, however, and though they might not be pals, it seems unlikely that Biden would pick someone with serious beef against him. That said, the public might take some convincing, and Republicans certainly won’t let it lie.

She will want a pro-environment campaign

Without doubt. We’re not talking Extinction Rebellion levels, but Harris’s policies and track record will add environmental weight to Biden’s campaign. As District Attorney in San Francisco, she formed an environmental justice unit aimed at investigating eco-crimes that affected low-income people. As Attorney General of California, she took on ExxonMobil and Chevron. She also refused donations from gas and oil companies when running for the presidential nomination. 

Her environmental policies in that race were centred around the Green New Deal and her pledge to see it passed, even if it meant getting rid of the filibuster to do so. 

“From wildfires in the West to hurricanes in the East, to floods and droughts in the heartland, we’re not gonna buy the lie,” she said when launching her campaign. “We’re gonna act based on science fact, not science fiction.”

In short, she has green credentials but isn’t seen as radical. The growing importance of eco issues with US voters could make putting her name on the ticket a smart move. 

She’s an historical choice

You can’t really argue with this. Only two women in US history have previously been appointed as presidential running mates by a major party – Geraldine Ferraro (D) in 1984 and Sarah Palin (R) in 2008 – and Harris is the first VP candidate from a minority background. So, firsts have been achieved, barriers broken and so on. Will her getting the job lead to the kind of social and political change that goes down in history? With her fairly middle-of-the-road views, that’s much more debatable. 

She’s an inspirational choice 

Again, it depends what Biden’s looking for.

If he’s looking for someone to upset the Republicans, then you could make the claim that she’s a smart choice. The stream of abuse since her appointment, much of it racial and misogynistic, and some of it coming from Trump, proves she’s feared on the right. Trump has even launched one of his false ‘birther’ conspiracies. The panic has set in, for sure, but was she the only running mate who could have achieved this effect? Maybe. Maybe not.

If we’re being literal, as the first woman of either black or South Asian heritage to get this far up the US political food chain (and only the fourth woman at all, when you include Hillary Clinton), then she could well inspire a lot of people who might find, or think of, themselves as marginalised. But that’s not Biden’s concern – he’s all about November.

However, if we’re talking about a radical, out-of-the-box, left-field, Trump-slaying masterstroke by Team Biden, then it’s a no. Her differences are mainly symbolic, which isn’t to belittle them, but dig deeper and you’ll find a solid centrist politician, albeit one with seemingly few skeletons in her closet (not that such things seem to be a barrier to success these days). 

This doesn’t make her a bad choice – she’s a very good operator who’s already battle-hardened after the nomination debates and clearly gets the Republican goat, and it’s arguable who else would have been better. But inspirational isn’t the word. She’s different but not that different.