It’s a good sign that with his first important decision as a presidential nominee, Joe Biden got it right.
Kamala Harris was the best available choice for a few reasons. Obviously, she’s history-making, the first Black woman to be a major-party veep nominee. She’s smart and tough and will probably be an effective attacker of the incumbent. She has charisma, she’s relatively young, and standing up there next to Biden, she lowers his age about five years.
And while she's only been in the Senate a brief while, she's made her mark for sure. Most people talk about her questioning of Trump administration officials at the Judiciary Committee, and she's had some very strong moments there questioning Bill Barr and Kirstjen Nielsen, most notably (I thought her Brett Kavanaugh questions didn't quite end up going anywhere). But that isn't all she did. She was also a tough critic of the Trump administration's separation of immigrant families. She's been strong on labor unions and good on LGBTQ rights.
But she’s the right choice mainly for one very simple reason: She was the most expected choice. I realize that my reasoning here is a little tautological, but here’s what I mean.
Biden is ahead. I don’t want to quite say comfortably ahead, but: ahead. Eight or so points. And when you’re ahead, just do the safe and expected thing. If you’re behind, you may feel you need to “shake up the race” (see John McCain and Sarah Palin; that worked out). But if you’re ahead, that is the last thing you want to do. You want the race to continue along its current narrative glide path.
And that’s what choosing Harris does. Because her selection won’t surprise anyone, it should be a comfortable and predictable story. Anticipation will build toward her convention speech next week, and then of course Biden’s. But after that we’re back to Donald Trump and the virus and all his lies and excuses—in other words, to a news narrative that has been murder for Trump for several weeks in a row.
Whereas a surprise choice would have disrupted that news narrative. I think well of Susan Rice and Gretchen Whitmer and the others. But why do something unexpected and introduce unpredictable variables? They just haven’t been vetted the way someone like Harris has as a candidate for both Senate and president. Just ask Walter Mondale about that; his choice of House member Geraldine Ferraro, while historic, did not work out. And Rice would have just enabled Fox News to Benghazi the election to death (although I hope she takes a prominent foreign-policy role in a Biden administration).
That would have left Elizabeth Warren. I have loads of respect for her and for the race she ran. As a governing partner for President Biden, she would have been better, I think, than Harris, because she has the greatest expertise in precisely the areas (economics) where Biden needs to be pushed the most.
But I think Warren’s a terrific senator. If the Democrats capture the Senate, she would chair the subcommittee on financial institutions and consumer protection. Oh, and by the way, Sherrod Brown would chair the full committee. Imagine them working together on those kinds of issues. Plus, Massachusetts’ governor is a Republican. I know there are workarounds to that, but I remember when Martha Coakley was a shoo-in back in 2010, too.
Biden was faced here with a number of good choices. But there was no obvious great choice. They all had good and bad points. Harris was the best option.
And let's stop and note here: It's interesting that the safe choice is, first of all, a woman, and second of all, a woman who is half Jamaican (father) and half South Asian (mother, from India). This would have been impossible just a few years ago. And no, she didn't just luck into this. OK, maybe it's fortunate that she's from California instead of Rhode Island, but she has worked her way up to this, and she has earned it every step of the way.
And besides all that, Harris just brings more to the table. The fact that she attacked Biden on busing in that early debate? That’s a plus. All that does is make Biden look like a guy who doesn’t hold grudges, and it gives them both a chance to dispense that old boilerplate about what unites us is far more important than what divides us yadda yadda.
As for the Black vote: Whether Harris will bring that out in large numbers is admittedly hypothetical, since she didn’t stay in the presidential race long enough to get any votes. But I suspect she’ll do well on that front. Given that Biden may serve only one term, I think Black voters will be enthusiastic about the idea that she could be the nominee in 2024, and I suspect that’s true even if a lot of young Black voters have reservations about her record as a prosecutor. And she’ll have to answer some questions about that, and she’ll have to answer them well. But… running against Donald Trump and Bill Barr?
Last thing: I can hear some people saying, “Yeah, well, Hillary Clinton didn’t want to disrupt the news narrative either, and she chose the expected person in Tim Kaine, and that didn’t end well, either.”
That’s true. Kaine turned out to be a meh choice. But I don’t think Harris is Kaine. By definition, putting a Black woman a heartbeat away is more interesting than a white guy. Also, Biden is further ahead than Clinton was. Also, the FBI director isn’t going to announce 11 days before the election he’s reopening an investigation into Biden.
And most of all, Trump is not theoretical today the way he was in 2016. He is reality. The midterm elections and virtually every single special election in the last two years have shown that Democrats are laser-focused on getting to the polls, which wasn’t remotely the case in 2016.
So yes, there is such a thing as playing it too safe. Football teams that go into ball-control mode prematurely often end up losing. To extend the metaphor, if we agree that a presidential campaign lasts 18 months, well, we have a little less than three months to go, which football-wise would mean we’re at the 9:30 mark in the fourth quarter.
But here’s where the metaphor—fortunately—doesn’t hold up. These days, most football teams can score two touchdowns in a minute or two in crunch time. But that’s not possible in politics. Too many voters’ minds are made up (plus, millions will have voted early).
If Trump—or Bill Barr or Ron Johnson—manages to do something brilliant that changes the basic narrative of the race, then Biden will need to change his current m.o. But until such time, his m.o. is working. Steady as she goes. And steady means Harris.