One of a series of reports looking at Joe Biden's potential running mates
More than a month before former Vice President Joe Biden's stated deadline for naming his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris is seen as the consensus front-runner to become Democrats' vice presidential nominee.
Speculation about running mates can be wrong, of course. Ultimately, the choice is Biden's and Biden's alone — just as it was Barack Obama's call to tap Biden in 2008.
But Harris is often the first name mentioned by Democrats inside and on the edge of the Biden campaign's orbit. She topped a recent multi-state survey asking respondents for their preferred Biden running mate. And, for what it's worth, she's the runaway favorite on online betting sites.
That's all despite the fact that Harris' own presidential campaign was a disappointment, having never even made it to the Iowa caucuses.
Still, Harris allies see the first-term California senator and former state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney as bringing needed demographic balance to Biden's ticket. They also see her prosecutorial résumé as the ideal professional background in a political climate intensely focused on racial justice and policing, and her reputation as a sharp attack dog in Senate hearings as a key asset for a running mate.
Perhaps most importantly for Harris' chances, though, many Democrats believe she has more political and governing credibility than any other potential picks, save perhaps Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
"She knows the system from inside, and she knows we have to have this whole cultural shift in policing in this country," said California Rep. Barbara Lee, who endorsed Harris' presidential campaign. "She's very well-qualified, because of her background, to understand how we have to dismantle many of those systems."
Biden is facing increased pressure from other Democrats to select a woman of color.
"There is a cry, there's a clarion call, for us to do something different, for this country to literally face structural racism. ... We feel like a Black woman could actually bring that to the ticket," LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund and a political strategist, recently told NPR.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar joined the push last week, when she took herself out of contention for the job and urged Biden to pick a woman of color as a running mate.
"If you want to heal this nation right now — my party, yes, but our nation — this is sure a hell of a way to do it. And that's just what I think after being through this in my state," Klobuchar, another former presidential candidate, told MSNBC on Thursday.
Among the Black women viewed as most likely to be considered, Harris is the only one who has won statewide office, and the only one who has run a national presidential campaign.
"I'd be honored, if asked, and I'm honored to be a part of the conversation," Harris told late-night host Stephen Colbert on CBS last week. "Honestly, let me just tell you something: I will do everything in my power, wherever I am, to help Joe Biden win."
"Joe Biden would be a great running mate"
Even before the coronavirus crisis and the outcry over systemic racism and police violence upped the pressure on Biden to pick a Black running mate, Harris was seen as a natural, maybe inevitable, running mate if Biden won the Democratic nomination.
Harris, a 55-year-old Black woman, would complement the demographic weaknesses of a 77-year-old white man trying to lead a party increasingly focused on, and energized by, younger voters and voters of color. And Biden and Harris have seemed comfortable with each other: In 2018 and 2019, the two posed for pictures together on social media after chance encounters on the street and on Amtrak trains. Harris has a close relationship with many people in the Obama administration orbit and had worked alongside Biden's late son, Beau, when both served as state attorneys general.
Campaign chatter about Harris as a veep-in-waiting percolated to the point that more than a year ago, she felt the need to deflate it with a sarcastic comment to reporters.
"If people want to speculate about running mates, I encourage that," she said at a May 2019 press conference, months after the launch of her own campaign. "Because I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice president, he's proven that he knows how to do the job. And there are certainly a lot of other candidates that would make, for me, a very viable and interesting vice president."
"That little girl was me"
The chatter suddenly came to a halt the first debate of the Democratic primary.
Just before it, Biden had caught heat from progressives for talking nostalgically about his working relationship with two noted segregationist senators.
"It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country," Harris told Biden during the debate. "And it was not only that," she continued, "but you also worked with them to oppose busing. There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me."
The attack on Biden, who was then the front-runner, had clearly been planned and practiced. Shortly after the debate ended, Harris' campaign began selling T-shirts marking the moment, featuring a picture of Harris as a little girl.
"It was a debate!" Harris said just last week, laughing, when Colbert noted on his show that Biden's "teeth were like Chiclets all over the stage" after the attack, and asked her how she and Biden can now get along. "It was a debate! The whole reason — literally, it was a debate. It was called a debate."
She added: "In all seriousness, I've known Joe a long time and I care about him deeply."
Many Democrats do not view the confrontation as something that would block Harris from getting the vice presidential nod.
"[Biden has] been in politics long enough that nothing is irreparable," said one Harris ally who asked for anonymity to speak about the issue. "He gets primaries and debates and yelling one day and getting along the next. It's a Senate training."
Perhaps more harmful to Harris' chances as a running mate, though, is the fact that the debate exchange marked the high point of her campaign. Harris briefly surged in the polls after the first debate, and Biden sunk. But soon after, Harris did something that would occur time and time again during her run: She appeared to retreat from the bold position she had previously taken. On busing, she struggled to make it clear how her views were substantially different than Biden's.
"Kamala is a cop"
During the primary, Harris also faced withering progressive attacks about her time as a prosecutor. "Kamala is a cop" became a shorthand attack in the vocal world of progressive activists on social media.
Up until the presidential run, Harris had tied much of her political identity around the idea of being a more progressive, more nuanced prosecutor who championed what she called "smart on crime" approaches: addressing systemic problems like truancy, and trying to return people with criminal records to the workplace.
University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon crystallized the critique just as Harris launched her campaign, writing a New York Times editorial blasting Harris for repeatedly shying away from progressive fights over policing reform, wrongful convictions and drug reforms during her time as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.
"At almost every inflection point when there was a progressive alternative or a centrist alternative, she chose the safe centrist alternative," Bazelon said in an interview.
Harris struggled to respond to the sustained attacks, and her campaign stopped highlighting her prosecutorial background.
By mid-summer, she was running on what she called "3 a.m. issues": economic policies designed to appeal to "a parent, after feeding the kids and putting them to bed, is sitting at the kitchen table until midnight, figuring out to to make everything run, make everything work."
By the fall, facing dropping poll numbers and campaign contributions, Harris returned to her time as a prosecutor, telling rallies that "in 2020, justice is on the ballot."
"She's found her voice again"
"There was never a clear rationale of why her, and why she was running. She was running for too many reasons — every week there was another major policy thing," said Brian Brokaw, a longtime Harris adviser who ran her two campaigns for California attorney general. "People knew they liked her, but didn't know what she stood for."
But since the coronavirus crisis began, Harris has been at the forefront of the congressional Democratic response. She's played a leading role in highlighting the fact that COVID-19 has hit the Black community harder than any other demographic group, and has repeatedly pressured the federal government to collect more data on that.
She also joined Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other lawmakers pushing for monthly $2,000 payments to every American for as long as the pandemic lasts.
"People should be able to count on their government to see them and create a safety net for them, so that these families don't fall into poverty, or further into poverty, during the course of this pandemic," Harris told NowThis News.
Then, Harris leapt to the next crisis. When protests filled streets across the country to rage against the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans in police custody, Harris was one of the first lawmakers to join the protests herself. She appeared in front of the White House, and on Washington, D.C.'s newly designated Black Lives Matter Plaza.
The longtime prosecutor with the reputation for playing it safe played a lead role drafting a broad bill ending so-called qualified immunity for police, the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and making several other changes demanded by protesters. Joining House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and other Democrats to unveil the broad measure, Harris put it bluntly: "We're here because Black Americans want to stop being killed."
"She's found her voice again," adviser Brokaw said. "This focuses her."
Even critics like Bazelon have taken notice. "She did champion progressive causes," Bazelon said. "And her record has been consistent, and it's been good."
Bazelon said she was particularly impressed by an appearance Harris made on The View, where conservative co-host Meghan McCain pressed Harris on whether or not she supported the "defund the police" movement.
"I thought that Kamala Harris did a really masterful job of defining what needed to happen to reform the police," she said. "And then when Meghan McCain pressed her to say yes or no, she said, 'What do you mean by defund?' And Meghan McCain had no answer for her."
For the people who want to see Harris on the Democratic ticket, it wasn't too far of a leap to envision the fall debate, with Vice President Mike Pence in the spot of McCain.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to a slogan on a Kamala Harris campaign T-shirt. There was an image on the T-shirt but no text. Additionally, a survey of possible running mates was clarified to be multi-state, not national.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former Vice President Joe Biden says he'll announce his running mate by early August. A lot of Democrats think California Senator Kamala Harris will get the nod. During her own run for president, she faced progressive attacks about her complicated past as a prosecutor, but the senator has played a central role in her party's response to protests against police brutality.
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KAMALA HARRIS: We're here because Black Americans want to stop being killed.
MARTIN: With the increased focus on racial disparities and a push for Biden to pick a Black running mate, Harris seems well positioned. NPR's Scott Detrow reports.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Kamala Harris has long been seen as a possible, maybe even inevitable running mate for Joe Biden. Speculation about that pairing came up so often that when she was running for president last year, Harris once had to shoot it down with sarcasm.
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HARRIS: Sir, if people want to speculate about running mates, I encourage that because I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice president, he's proven that he knows how to do the job.
DETROW: The pairing seems likely to so many Democrats because Harris, a 55-year-old Black woman, would bring diversity to a ticket headed by a 77-year-old white man. Harris knows many people who worked in the Obama administration, and most importantly, she developed a close relationship with Biden when she worked alongside his son Beau when they were both attorneys general. Harris dropped out of the presidential campaign in December. She endorsed Biden in March.
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HARRIS: We need a president of the United States who has the courage and the power to see and feel and understand that is a sign of strength and then, through that strength, lift up the people. That is Joe Biden.
DETROW: Many Democrats see the current focus on policing and racial justice as an even bigger argument for making Harris the vice presidential pick, especially as more and more Democrats urge Biden to pick a woman of color. Allies like Congresswoman Barbara Lee say Harris' long tenure as a prosecutor gives her the credibility to advocate for big changes.
BARBARA LEE: And she's very well qualified because of her background to understand how we have to dismantle many of those systems, but how she can move forward to try to help bring unity and bring safety.
DETROW: It's a big shift from how the primaries played out. Harris had intended to run as she had in California, as someone who spent her time as state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, fighting tough on crime trends and instead addressing broader systemic problems. But right away, many progressives pushed back. In a new era where major changes to criminal justice are much more popular with voters, critics like Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said Harris hadn't done enough.
LARA BAZELON: At almost every inflection point when there was a progressive alternative or a centrist alternative, she chose the safe centrist alternative.
DETROW: The criticism followed Harris for most of 2019. She ultimately backed away from emphasizing her time as a prosecutor for long stretches. The result? A campaign that many felt never made a clear argument for why voters should back Harris over any of the other two dozen candidates. But back in the Senate, Harris played a lead role when the coronavirus hit. Harris repeatedly highlighted the fact COVID-19 harms African Americans more than any other group and demanded the government collect more data about that fact. She pushed for monthly $2,000 stimulus payments.
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HARRIS: People should be able to count on their government to see them and create a safety net for them so that these families don't fall into poverty or further into poverty during the course of this pandemic.
DETROW: Harris has been even more front and center in the wake of George Floyd's death and the national outcry it sparked. She was one of the first lawmakers on the streets in big protests and helped lead a sweeping Democratic policy response. Harris' recent steps in the Senate have even impressed critics like Bazelon.
BAZELON: Her record has been consistent, and it's been good. And my hope is that she's going to continue in that vein, first of all, because it's the right thing to do but then, second of all, pragmatically, because that's where the country is moving.
DETROW: Bazelon points to a recent appearance Harris made on the TV show "The View," where she simultaneously made her case and swatted aside attempts by a conservative host to pin her down. This Harris - the sharp former prosecutor who can dismantle witnesses during high-profile Senate hearings, not the presidential candidate who couldn't quite make her case in a crowded field - is the one her supporters say would make the perfect running mate for Joe Biden.
Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.