Aug 12, 2020

SPECIAL EDITION: Biden picks Kamala Harris.

SPECIAL EDITION: Biden picks Kamala Harris.

A deep dive on the VP pick.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. You can also subscribe for the full experience by clicking below.

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Today’s read: 12 minutes.

We’re taking a deep dive on Kamala Harris as vice president, what it means, and what to expect. There are some quick hits and a story update at the end of this newsletter.

Photo: Joe Biden on Twitter

What D.C. is talking about.

Kamala Harris. Yesterday, the California senator was officially chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate for the 2020 election. Harris, 55, was elected to the Senate in 2016 after serving as district attorney in San Francisco and then attorney general of California, the most populous state in America.

In 2019, she ran for president in the Democratic primary, often serving as one of Biden’s sharpest critics, before dropping out in early December. She sits on several important and visible Senate committees: the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Budget Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she’s made a name for herself as a tough questioner and sharp prosecutor.

On the issues, Harris’s positions have moved a lot — in the last year, during campaigning, and over her time in public office. On health care, she sponsored Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill that would have eliminated private health insurance before releasing her own proposal in July that includes a limited role for private insurers.

As a prosecutor, she was progressive on issues like gay marriage and the death penalty but also played a role in prosecuting drug laws — including marijuana. In 2010 she even opposed Proposition 19, the first California bill to legalize marijuana. She has since staked out a more progressive position on the issue, calling for criminal justice reforms to eliminate cash bail, mandatory minimum sentences and private prisons.

On guns, she supports a ban on assault rifles and calls for universal background checks. She wants citizenship for DACA recipients and wants to repeal the statute that makes illegal entry to the U.S. a crime, and has been a strong opponent of Trump’s border wall. She also called for slashing the defense budget, bringing troops home from overseas and imposing higher taxes on financial institutions.

As a candidate, Harris is making history. She was born in Oakland, California, to a Jamaican father and Indian mother who both immigrated here. She’s the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to be put on a major party’s presidential ticket. She’s only the fourth woman to be on a major party’s national ticket and the third woman ever nominated as vice president by a major party. She’s also the first Asian-American vice presidential nominee in U.S. history. If Biden and Harris win, she will be the first woman to serve as vice president in American history.

With her nomination, Harris also brings some baggage. She’s viewed by many on the right as an extreme, far-left candidate who is now the de facto Democratic nominee for 2024 — and perhaps the de facto president. On the left, she is viewed as ideologically aligned with Biden, which for some progressives is less than they were hoping for.

What the left is saying.

On the whole, the left seems supportive of the pick. In many ways, she meets the moment as a compliment to Biden: she’s a Black woman from a progressive state promising progressive reform. She’s the youngest person on either ticket, she’s sharp, she’s great on the debate stage and she has a reputation for being genuine with the voters she meets.

The Washington Post editorial board said Harris passed the most important test there is: she’s qualified to serve as president. Joe Biden will be “far and away the oldest person to be sworn in as president” if he wins in 2020, meaning Harris needs to be ready.

“She has been elected statewide three times in the nation’s most populous state,” the board wrote. “As California attorney general, running what amounts to a parallel Justice Department, she earned executive experience and respect for her savvy and administrative skill. As senator, she gained Washington experience. And as presidential candidate last year and this, she faced the pressures of the campaign trail and the debate stage.”

In The New York Times, Chryl Laird praised the “significance of this decision and its meaning for Black women, the most loyal members of the Democratic Party.”

“It is Black women, more so than any other racial-gender pair, who have gotten behind efforts at more inclusive representation with their unquestionable support for the prospect of the first woman president in 2016 and the first Black president in 2008, as well as the re-election of the first Black president in 2012,” Laird wrote. “Further, they have never hesitated to critique and challenge the party to do better by its members and what the party stands for… Electorally, her appeal could motivate Black voters because, as one of their own, she offers a political lens that has a greater potential to focus the concerns for Black Americans.”

Nick Bruni said Harris was the “safest pick of the bunch,” dismissing concerns that she didn’t resonate with voters during the Democratic primary. “She’s running for the vice presidency against Trump and Pence, and there’s a real chance that the same Black voters who were cool to her in the primary will thrill to her now that she’s on a history-making ticket, prosecuting the case against a president who has consistently and deeply offended them.”

Not everyone is sold, though, and the progressive wing of the party wasn’t shy about making their disappointment known. The single most important criticism from the left-wing faction of the Democratic party is related to Harris’s record on criminal justice reform, which German Lopez broke down in Vox.

“A close examination of Harris’s record shows it’s filled with contradictions,”  Lopez wrote. “She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.”

What the right is saying.

They are very critical of Harris. The president responded to the Kamala pick by calling her “nasty” and wondering aloud why Biden chose someone who failed to gain any traction in the Democratic primary. The campaign immediately released an ad, which they had cued up, calling her “phony Kamala” and claiming she supports Bernie Sanders’s “socialist takeover of your health care,” banning fracking, giving illegal immigrants health care and letting “terrorists and rapists vote from prison.”

After The New York Times called Harris a “pragmatic moderate” in its front page story on her selection, many on the right were outraged. “Harris’s track record as a ‘pragmatic moderate’ includes supporting late-term abortion, co-sponsoring both Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and calling for repeals of tax cuts,” Becket Adams said in The Washington Examiner. “The senator even tried to impose a religious litmus test on Catholic judicial nominees. And this is to say nothing of Harris’s long record of prosecutorial abuses. If Biden’s running mate is a ‘moderate’ with a ‘relatively centrist record,’ I would hate to see what the New York Times and the Associated Press consider ‘liberal.’”

Jason Riley wrote in The Wall Street Journal that liberals continue to ignore the “inconvenient truth” that Democratic voters “bypassed several female and minority candidates—including Ms. Harris—to nominate Mr. Biden.” If the goal here is to win crucial swing states, Riley argued this pick was a blunder. Barack Obama won those voters over in 2008 “by playing down racial differences on the campaign trail” while Harris’s most memorable moment in the primary was suggesting Biden was a racist for opposing forced busing in the 1970s — views that ended up being quite similar to Harris’s.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called her a “ferocious partisan,” suggested she was “one of the nastiest questioners of Brett Kavanaugh,” and a “progressive but malleable.” It argued her political views “will reassure Democrats more than independents or soft Republicans” and said she was “most appealing as an example of American upward mobility, especially for immigrants. Her father is a Jamaican-born Stanford economist. Her Indian-born mother was a breast cancer researcher at the University of California, Berkeley… Ms. Harris’s success is a living refutation of the left’s critique of America as an oppressive, racist land.”

Tiana Lowe made the case Trump can actually go after Harris “from the left” as well as the right, noting that she’s got some pretty ugly marks on her record for how she’s handled trans people, undocumented immigrants and child molesters in the Catholic Church. Lowe’s point was that it’s the totality of Harris’s baggage, from either angle, that makes her a liability.

In The Week, Matthew Walther argued she’s the “perfect embodiment” of centrist Democrats: “A politician with equivocal views on crime and drugs but rock-solid pro-abortion credentials, undeniably woke but totally uninterested in the progressive economic policies.” All that being said, Walther argued her selection will “not have much of an effect on the outcome of the race in November.”

“If there are any remaining undecided voters, they are suspending their judgment for other reasons,” he wrote. “She will not bring disaffected progressives back into the fold, but neither would any candidate Biden would have considered selecting. Instead, what Harris represents is what the Democratic Party sees as its future: the lite-libertarianism of centrist economics, open borders, and social liberalism.”

My take.

Hey — we did it! After months and months of speculation, rumors, innuendo, fake signals and oscillating punditry on the favorite, we finally have the full Democratic ticket for 2020. Harris’s path to the nomination is ironically a lot like Biden’s: she was always the favorite, repeatedly counted out, and ultimately — after what felt like years of rotating odds — the obvious pick for the nomination. Perhaps, like Biden’s ultimate win, this choice was never really close.

In my latest Tangle writing on the VP pick from late July, I said this:

I still believe Sen. Kamala Harrisis the most likely pick, but I also think she’s risky. “Kamala the cop” is a good nickname and it was well-earned. In this political moment, with police reform at the forefront of the conversation, how could Biden pick someone infamous for locking up parents of derelict students in California? I just think it would backfire spectacularly, despite the fact Harris would be a huge asset on stage and in the Senate.

I was right on the odds, and I feel similarly about my assessment from two weeks ago — though the backlash has been far less than I expected. I think it’s clear the Kamala pick has upset some influential people on the left, but now that she’s the chosen one we can dig past mere hypothetical optics: we can talk about the real reaction, her real record and what this really means.

For all the hoopla, Harris is actually a pretty normal Democratic politician. The progressive left’s criticism of her track record as a prosecutor, and the right’s freak out that she’s a radical progressive, illustrate the reality The New York Times accurately summarized: she’s a moderate liberal in 2020.

I think one of the best illuminations of this description came in an interaction I had on Twitter. Josh Hammer, a conservative columnist for Newsweek, shared a tweet from Harris saying “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” Hammer added the comment “The ‘moderate’ pick, we’re told.” His point: Harris believes undocumented immigrants are not criminals, hence she’s nothing close to a moderate.

But Harris’s view there is actually moderate. The one who is extreme is Hammer. 69% of Americans describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat” sympathetic toward undocumented immigrants, including 48% of Republicans. Just 27% of Americans say giving undocumented immigrants legal status is rewarding them for doing something wrong. In other words: Harris’s view that undocumented immigrants should not be treated like criminals is actually the mainstream position and is widely shared across the U.S.

The inverse of this works as well. Harris gets dinged by the progressive left for not throwing her outright support behind defunding the police, a policy issue most Americans do not support. But Harris has thrown her weight behind several huge criminal justice reforms that the progressive left does support, like reforming cash bail laws, scrapping private prisons, abolishing the death penalty and ending mandatory minimum sentencing.

Harris gets hit most often for having opposed the legalization of marijuana in California and for prosecuting drug crimes prior to 2010. But 52% of Americans opposed legalizing marijuana then, and Harris’s position on the issue has moved, just as the general public’s has, in the years since. I’ve even written in this newsletter about my grave concerns over the legalization of recreational marijuana right now, even if I strongly support it being decriminalized.

The truth is, naturally, Harris is viewed through the prism of everyone else’s own politics. So extremists on both sides are calling her an extremist — when she’s mostly moved with the country, yet remains somewhat in the middle.

Harris’s positions and record are mixed. She’s gone after Big Pharma and for-profit colleges, called for racial bias training before it was popular and refused to push the death penalty for a gang member after he killed a cop because she was fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. And yet, she also opposed marijuana legalization for many years in California and then refused to endorse the reformation of the three-strikes laws or a ballot initiative that would have ended the death penalty.

Black Lives Matter activists say her record is complex while many progressive activists who support Bernie Sanders say it’s a failure. Her latest criminal justice reform is extremely progressive — banning private prisons and ending cash bail, solitary confinement, and the death penalty (all criminal justice policy proposals I support, by the way). But her past policy execution has been far more moderate. So what gives?

The Intercept’s Lee Fang summed it up perfectly on Twitter: “This website has so much over the top rhetoric about politics. Both the groveling praise and the meltdown anger over Biden-Harris comes off as absurd. These are two fairly normal, moderate-liberal politicians with mixed records, heralding a return to largely Obama-era policies.”

For Biden, there’s massive upside to Harris. Republicans who wouldn’t jump ship to vote for Biden over Trump were never going to change their position based on his VP choice. That reality is obvious to me — that it isn’t to everyone else is stunning.

But Harris is so much that Biden isn’t. And I don’t just mean he’s an old white guy and she’s a Black woman and the child of immigrants (we’ll get to that). I mean she’s a young 55, she’s sharp, she’s great on stage, she loves mixing it up with the press, she’s deliberate, she rarely has a gaffe and she’ll be a “life raft” on the subject of race, as Politico put it. Let’s remember: Biden is coming off consecutive weeks where he implied Black people are not as diverse as Hispanics, sarcastically asked a Black journalist if he was a “junkie” and told a Black radio host that you’re not Black if you vote for Trump.

Anecdotally, I think the average American liberal voter loves the choice. I spoke to friends, family and colleagues on the left who follow the election and politics in many ways that I think the “average” voter does, and all of them seemed thrilled with Harris as the pick. That matters. And the polling on Harris as a VP pick reflects this. So much of the discourse now is centered around Twitter, primetime TV and activist channels — but those loud voices, as Biden proved, don’t actually represent the country as a whole.

Many pollsters have given a huge thumbs up for Harris, too. Rachel Bitecofer, who spoke to Tangle last year, wrote an entire New York Times op-ed about why Biden should pick her: bring racial, gender and ideological diversity to the ticket in a single choice. The thought there is Biden himself is already bringing the moderate, independent-friendly policies and persona to court voters who may be sour on Trump. Harris would bring most of what’s left. And the Democratic base is bigger than the Republican base. FiveThirtyEight pollsters seemed to agree, and Perry Bacon Jr. made the case that Harris is a great pick in an emergency FiveThirtyEight podcast.

It’s also worth noting the Biden campaign has witnessed this upside in person: in Michigan, during a fundraising event, Harris was by far the most engaging speaker — something that left an impression on many in Biden’s team. And then yesterday, in the two hours after Harris was announced, ActBlue brought in $6 million in donations.

Most Democratic voters spent the night salivating at the thought of Harris debating Vice President Mike Pence, which will happen in 56 days. That’s because they remember when Harris gutted Attorney General William Barr during witness questioning, and he was a far more formidable opponent than Pence will be. The vice president will have to defend all the racially charged language and racist comments Trump has made in the last five years. He’ll have to answer for failed promises about trade, the border wall and health care. And given the stakes of this election, a lot of people will be watching.

It is also obvious that Harris presents problems for the right’s attack plans.

Prominent right-wingers spent yesterday afternoon mocking her looks, accusing her of sleeping her way to the top or going after her for allegedly lying about what year she tried smoking pot. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson lost his temper after a guest corrected his pronunciation of her name, something he repeatedly butchered (pro tip: it sounds like “Comma-luh”). Speaking of her name, in the first 15 minutes of her being chosen, someone changed her name on Wikipedia to read “Cuntala Harris.” None of these stunts are particularly compelling “arguments” — and some of them will serve to drive away more of the suburban women who are already abandoning Trump in droves.

Trump himself may run into issues, too. Yesterday, he repeated the same thing he said about Hillary (he called Kamala “nasty” while also mispronouncing her name). His nickname, “Phony Kamala,” doesn’t really have the same ring to it as “Crooked Hillary” or “Sleepy Joe.” His first attack ad, released immediately after she was announced, predominantly featured Harris smiling, debating, shaking hands with Biden and generally looking very presidential, as some observers noted.

Trump has claimed Harris was his “number one” pick — a claim which members of his team have admitted is false off the record to numerous news outlets. The truth is the campaign is already having trouble defining her (in large part due to how so many of her positions have changed over time) and would have much preferred Susan Rice or someone who was really on the far-left like Elizabeth Warren. That was evident during a Trump appearance on Sean Hannity last night, where he struggled to hit a number of softballs Hannity threw him to dunk on Harris’s record.

Oh, there’s also this little nugget: Trump donated $6,000 to Harris’s campaign fund when she was attorney general in California (just as he donated to Hillary Clinton). And Ivanka Trump threw Harris $2,000 as recently as 2014. That’ll be an interesting dynamic for all parties to explain.

The smart attacks on Harris would be aimed at aggravating the progressive left: point to how thrilled Wall Street and the establishment are that she’s the pick. That might disaffect some younger, more progressive voters. She supported ICE targeting illegal immigrant students, she once threatened to lock up parents whose kids didn’t attend school and she refused to prosecute child molesters in the Catholic Church. She also said she believed the accusers who said Biden sexually assaulted or harassed them, which seems like red meat for the campaign.

Those are the kinds of attacks that may rile up enough vitriol to move people off the Biden-Harris ticket and to a third party, but Trump and his supporters don’t seem to realize that — or they understand those attacks actually undermine some of their own positions.

Finally, I want to comment on the historic nature of this pick. A lot of stories led with the fact Harris is a Black woman, the child of a powerful immigration story and the first Asian-American on the national party ticket. To me, there’s something insidious about making this the central value of her as a person, which many stories did, and you may have noticed I tried to avoid that. There are two implications: that Harris on the ticket will simply manifest Black support for Biden-Harris over Trump, and that Harris’s race and gender are the most important things about her being tapped as the vice president pick.

As I’ve said before, Black voters are not a monolith — not in thought, political allegiance, values or loyalty. And while it is true that research shows Black women are more likely to support Black women who run for office, and to offer that support more enthusiastically than may occur with other race-gender pairings, Biden has largely dominated the Black Democratic vote already. He didn’t need Kamala to do that — and I’m not sure how much she’s going to change his fate with Black voters, if at all.

What’s more important to me, though, is that this moment is worth pausing and reflecting on. America is 244 years old, and if Biden wins, Harris will become the first woman ever in one of the top two spots of a national ticket. She’ll be the first Black woman and the first Asian American woman in such a high office. Some may cry “identity politics!” at that element of the story, but it really does matter.

I’m not suggesting it’s a reason to vote one way or the other, though I know for some Americans it is. What I am suggesting is that we are a diverse, multicultural nation that is built on a promise of representative government. Race and gender and color do not (and should not) define someone, but our country should be in a place where all Americans can see people in power who look and sound like them — who can offer a bond over a shared reality and a shared experience.

Harris does that for millions of women of color, immigrant women and women in general, who have never seen a woman like her on a presidential ticket and who are still underrepresented in government. And she does it at a time when the issue of race and lived experience is prominent in America’s consciousness. It’s especially important for the millions of young girls, and young girls of color, being raised in this country that they get to see someone like Harris break through at this moment. That’s an important thing to acknowledge, and it does, in fact, make her a remarkable candidate for office in 2020.

On the whole, Harris checks off most of the things Biden needed. She won’t do much harm. She’s experienced enough to serve as president if (or when) she has to. She’s moved more to the left on issues many progressives care about in recent years but she’s also “simpatico” with many of Biden’s policy proposals. She’s going to energize a base of Democratic voters that Biden does not excite. And in an era where optics seem to matter more than actual policy, she’s dynamite on the left. She’ll be great on stage, great with voters, and absolutely unrelenting in her criticisms of the one person motivating the left to action more than anything else in 2020: Donald Trump.


Yesterday, a quick hit on the shooting outside the White House noted that the victim in the shooting had died. A reader wrote in and pointed out to me that the story had actually been updated — and the person who was shot by the secret service agent survived. He was identified as Myron Berryman, 51, and is in the hospital. He’s being charged with assaulting a police officer. The Washington Post published additional details about Berryman in an updated story.

Quick hits.

  1. Senior White House officials have clarified their plan for unemployment aid, noting that the enhanced benefit will be $300 a week and not the $400 Donald Trump promised on Sunday. The issue has been a major snag in negotiations between congressional Republicans and Democrats, and President Trump signed an executive order trying to extend some of the benefits — which had previously been $600 a week. Unemployment experts say Trump’s executive action won’t do much of anything, as it will require an entirely new system to be set up to execute, and that could take months.
  2. House Democratic freshmen are agitated over Congress’s failure to pass a second wave of coronavirus relief, worried that it will hurt American workers and their re-election prospects. "I share the concerns that I'm hearing from my constituents: I'm pissed. I'm angry," Rep. Max Rose, a freshman Democrat from a New York district Trump carried in 2016 said. "At this point, it's a middle finger to the American people."
  3. Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota Democrat, fended off a well-funded challenger in her primary on Tuesday. Omar faced serious opposition after accusations of anti-Semitism and financial support for her opponent from outside Democratic groups. The local paper, The Star Tribune, endorsed Omar’s opponent Anton Melton-Meaux. Omar’s victory caps off a complete sweep for “The Squad” — an informal group of four women of color in Congress who have come to represent the progressive movement — in the first defenses of their Congressional seats. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) both won their primaries in recent weeks. Omar was ahead of Melton-Meaux by more than 15 percentage points on Wednesday morning.
  4. Marjorie Taylor Greene won her GOP primary race in northwest Georgia, all but assuring she’ll become the most controversial member of Congress next year. Greene is an avowed supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory and has shared the lie that George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist, sent Jewish people to die in the Holocaust. After Politico unearthed racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic comments Greene made in a series of Facebook posts, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called her comments “appalling” and Republican Steve Scalise called them “disgusting.” But Republicans did little to help her opponent — nor did President Trump shy away from endorsing her on Twitter last night. Greene promised to go after Democrat Nancy Pelosi in her victory speech. “She’s a hypocrite. She’s anti-American,” Greene said. “And we’re going to kick that bitch out of Congress.”
  5. Across 20 American cities, the murder rate surged 37% higher at the end of June than it was at the end of May, The New York Times reports. While crime overall is down, murder and aggravated assault — and in some places, car theft — seem to be up. Experts are pointing to the pandemic while police advocates are pointing to the “defund the police” movements and consequential police retreat. The truth is: nobody is sure yet which — or what mix of events — is causing the spike.

Special edition.

This is a special Tangle edition focused entirely on the VP pick, which is the biggest political news in weeks. This news interests a lot of people and it’s a great opportunity to spread the word about Tangle. If you enjoyed it, I encourage you to share this newsletter by forwarding it to friends or clicking the button below.

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