How Progressive Is Joe Biden’s New Vice President?

by Freddie Stuart and Aaron White

12 August 2020

Wikimedia Commons

After months of anticipation and media spectacle, the Democratic ticket for the presidential election on November 3 is finally complete. 

Yesterday, Democratic nominee Joe Biden announced that his running mate will be the junior senator from California, Kamala Harris. 

In many ways, Harris seems a prudent pick. Not only the first Black woman but also the first South Asian woman to be on a major presidential ticket, Harris has distinguished herself in recent years as a rising political star within the Democratic party. An eloquent orator and a fearsome debater, she covers many of the cracks in Biden’s own “gaffe-prone” campaign. 

Harris was herself a contender in the Democratic primary field for president and stood out early on for her strong performances on the debate stage, most notably for her targeted attacks on Biden’s own criminal justice record. 

Heralded from the outset as an establishment favourite, Harris’ lacklustre campaign, in which she branded herself a “progressive prosecutor”, ultimately failed to catch fire and she dropped out in December 2019, three months before a single vote was cast. 

Now the Democrats’ pick to follow Joe Biden to the White House, what does Kamala Harris’ selection mean for the future of a surging progressive movement in the United States?

On the back of progressive down-ballot victories in recent congressional primaries, and the consistent popularity of left policies with the voting public, Harris is seen by many in the establishment as a compromise candidate for the vice-presidency. 

Whilst the mainstream media styles her as a “progressive that moderates like”, Harris has had a mixed career when it comes to progressive causes. 

A former district attorney, and California attorney general, her presidential bid was plagued by her record on criminal justice. 

Scrutiny was particularly focused on her tenure as District Attorney (DA) in San Francisco (2004-2011) during which she vocally supported an anti-truancy program which “threatened prosecution for parents” whose children were chronically absent from school.  

As DA, Harris staunchly defended the ‘war on drugs’ agenda. During her first three years in the post, she increased conviction of drug dealers from 56% to 74%

She also came under fire for her ardent ‘law and order’ record as the Attorney General of California – a post she held from 2011 until her successful Senate bid in 2016. During the early months of the primary cycle, videos resurfaced showing Harris, then California’s highest attorney, openly mocking prison abolition activists and their “more schools, less jails” appeal. 

As Harris’ legal career was dissected throughout the primary season, she lost widespread support amongst key factions of her targeted ‘Obama coalition’. Labelled a “cop” by many on the left, Harris failed to connect with the growing base of the Democratic electorate demanding systemic criminal justice reform. 

Notably, in 2015 she failed to support a California state assembly bill that would have required her office to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the use of excessive force by police departments. 

The decision to put Harris, a self-proclaimed “top cop from California”, on the Democratic ticket amid the largest protest movement in U.S. history against racist policing has been met with derision by many leading figures of the progressive movement.

In addition to her prosecutorial record, Harris also faces criticism for flip-flopping on a number of key policy pillars. Nowhere is this more evident than in the one area that consistently ranked most important to Democratic voters – even before the coronavirus pandemic – healthcare reform. 

After triumphing in an open seat in California in 2016, Harris marked her first years in the Senate by carefully treading the line between progressive and moderate factions. 

In August 2017, she became the first Senator to co-sponsor Bernie Sanders’ Medicare-for-All bill, which called for a system of single-payer public healthcare and the elimination of private health insurance.

This became a cornerstone of her early campaign rhetoric, publicly proclaiming support for the policy. In the first Democratic debate of the cycle, Harris was one of only two candidates to endorse eliminating private insurance.  

Yet the following morning, in an appearance on MSNBC, she quickly reversed her stance, claiming that private insurance would not be abolished under her administration. 

Her own healthcare plan, released in July of 2019, set out to transition the US system to Medicare-for-All in 10 years, but retained a “substantive role for private insurers”. This marked a significant departure from Sanders’ plan, which would establish a universal public health insurance system in four years and eliminate private insurance. 

In August, Harris met with many of her large-dollar donors at a private event in Hamptons, explaining to them that she had “not been comfortable with Bernie’s plan”

This reversal typifies Harris’ career in Washington: publicly endorsing key progressive demands, whilst shifting in private when deemed too unpalatable to her corporate constituency. 

Unlike many of her rivals on the shortlist to become Joe Biden’s vice-president, however, Harris is not publicly hostile to leftist politics, or the progressive movement outside of DC. Instead, her political career has been marked by malleability and opportunism, consistently vacillating between the different camps of the Democratic party when electorally beneficial. 

This reluctance to commit to an ideological position is clearly evident from her political record.

Harris was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal in the Senate, and just last week, teamed up with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce The Climate Equity Act, which requires all climate-related legislation include an “equity score that will transparently estimate the impact on frontline communities”. 

In the words of Varshini Prakash, the Sunrise Movement’s co-founder, the Senator has been responsive “to activist and movement pressure to make climate a top priority and demonstrated her willingness to be held accountable.” 

This is part of a recent pivot Harris has made toward the progressive base. During the coronavirus pandemic, she has focused on resurrecting her standing with minority voters and activists, pushing legislation to confront the racial disparities of the virus, and stressing the need for police reform, and a $2000 monthly stimulus check. 

Whilst teaming up with progressives on these priorities, Harris has simultaneously upheld foundational points of the establishment agenda.

Central to this has been a hawkish foreign policy. Harris has close ties to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), speaking at both their 2017 and 2018 conferences, in which she touted her strong support for the Israeli lobby. 

Harris has also been a vehement proponent of DC’s military-industrial-complex, vocally critiquing the peace talks between North Korea and the Trump administration, and voting in favour of sanctions on North Korea, Russia and Iran

So given this mixed history, is Kamala Harris’ appointment good news for the progressive movement in the US?

Although she is not a leftist, it has been clear for some time that Biden’s vice president would not be. 

Like Biden, Harris is a politician that thus far appears to be pliant to the progressive agenda. She is someone with a history of political opportunism and, whilst maintaining an obvious attachment to a corporate constituency, is potentially susceptible to the demands of popular movements on the ground.

However, as was made more than evident by Obama’s time in office, it is not what Harris or Biden says now that matters. The progressive movement, which has seen a resurgence of momentum in recent months, will be fundamental in pushing the Biden administration’s agenda if elected. 

If these movements can successfully coalesce to hold both Biden and Harris to account, then the Democratic ticket does have progressive potential – if, of course, it can overcome Trump this November. 

The one guaranteed outcome of this announcement, however, is the California Senate seat Harris’ departure leaves open (if Biden wins). 

While the State’s election procedure necessitates that the current governor, Gavin Newson, appoint a successor for the remainder of Harris’ term (which ends in 2022), the following vacancy will provide a rare opportunity for progressives to push a candidate into the US upper chamber, particularly in a state that Sanders carried on Super Tuesday.

Freddie Stuart is the producer of the ourVoices podcast at openDemocracy. Aaron White is the North America Editor of the ourEconomy section at openDemocracy. He is based in New York. Together, they write Novara’s Beyond Bernie series, which tracks the US 2020 elections. 

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