Kamala Harris Steps Up

Kamala Harris Steps Up

US Senator Kamala Harris attends the United State of Women Summit at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, on May 5, 2018. (Photo by CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images)

August 11, 2020

The big news of the day is that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden named his running mate: California Senator Kamala Harris.

Harris was born in Oakland, California. Her mother was an endocrinologist who immigrated to the US from India; her father is an economist from British Jamaica who is now retired from the Stanford University economics department. Harris has a degree in political science and economics from Howard University and a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She spent seven years as the District Attorney of San Francisco, then six as the Attorney General of California. Both are elected offices, and in both she developed a reputation as a tough prosecutor. In 2016, California voters elected Harris Senator with more than 60% of the vote. Shortly after arriving in Washington, she was placed on the important Senate Judiciary Committee, so she has had a front-row seat at the hearings and proceedings of the past three years.

Harris is perceived as solidly in the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Her inclusion on the ticket disappointed members of the progressive wing, who had hoped for someone closer to their own principles to balance out the moderate Biden. It seems likely that Biden himself would have preferred former National Security Advisor Susan Rice, with whom he has a close relationship, but her association with the attack on Benghazi, Libya, would be prime fodder for Republican attacks.

Still, Harris stakes out some important turf for the Democratic ticket. She is a woman with both Black and South Asian American roots, enabling the Democrats to illustrate their commitment to a multiracial democracy by nominating her. She is crackerjack smart, a quality that many Americans would like to see in an administration. She is seen as a defender of the rule of law at a time when it seems under attack—she caught Attorney General William Barr in a falsehood at his confirmation hearing, noticeably throwing him off and forcing him to avoid her question out of fear of perjury. At 55, she is a generation younger than Biden (or Trump) balancing out the older ticket. And since she was hard on Biden during the primaries, his invitation to her indicates his willingness to accept criticism and continue to work with those who are not yes-men, a significant contrast to Trump.

Finally, I’m pretty sure Harris is the first Democratic nominee for the top of the ticket who has ever hailed from California, and one of the first from the far West. In 1988, Michael Dukakis’s running mate Lloyd Bentsen was from Texas, where of course LBJ also hailed from, but I can’t think of another. This is significant because since World War II, the far West has been Republican turf. It is where Reaganism rose in the 1970s to win the White House in 1980 and take over the nation. That the Democrats are cracking into that Republican stronghold with a national candidate suggests they are marking a sea change in American politics.

Already Republicans are insisting that Harris, a former prosecutor, is, as Trump tweeted, part of a “radical left.” National Review ran an article titled “Kamala Harris Is Farther Left than Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.” Trump campaign advisor Katrina Pierson said that Harris had “gleefully embraced the left’s radical manifesto” during her own run for the presidency, and that Biden’s choice showed that he was “surrendering control of our nation to the radical mob.”

The Republicans are clearly hoping to convince voters that Harris is an extremist. It will not be an easy charge to make stick to a former prosecutor, especially on a day when a Republican candidate who supports QAnon conspiracy theories won a congressional primary in a solidly-Republican district in Georgia, virtually guaranteeing that she will go on to Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene seems the definition of an extremist. She has spouted anti-Semitic, anti-Black, and Islamophobic comments, and called George Soros a “Nazi.” She has defended QAnon, a mysterious source of a belief that Trump is secretly fighting against a well-connected ring of Satan-worshipping pedophiles that has taken over the government, praising the source as “someone that very much loves his country, and he’s on the same page as us, and he is very pro-Trump.”

When Trump talked to Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity tonight on his show, though, there was something else on his mind. Asked about Senator Harris and her previous comments about Biden and race, Trump responded by talking about the 2016 Russia investigation. According to the transcript, he riffed on how bad the media is and how the “fake reporting” got the Russia story wrong. Then he complimented Hannity on getting “the Russia hoax correct,” and finally, after complaining about Pulitzer Prizes, moved on to how “we caught Obama Biden. That’s why I didn’t think that [Obama’s National Security Advisor] Susan Rice could get it because he’s part of this whole illegal thing that happened, which is one of the worst perhaps the worst political scandal in the history of our country, and they got caught. Now let’s see what happens but they’re caught red handed…. Russia, Russia, Russia was made up fabricated….”

Russia is clearly on Trump’s mind. This morning, he tweeted “John Bolton, one of the dumbest people I’ve met in government and sadly, I’ve met plenty, states often that I respected, and even trusted, Vladimir Putin of Russia more than those in our Intelligence Agencies. While of course that is not true, if the first people you met from… so called American intelligence were Dirty Cops who have now proven to be sleazebags at the highest level like James Comey, proven liar James Clapper, & perhaps the lowest of them all, Wacko John Brennan who headed the CIA, you could perhaps understand my reluctance to embrace!”

What might be behind this is that Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), chair of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee, is under fire for his ongoing investigation of the debunked theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked the US in the 2016 election, and of the idea that Hunter and Joe Biden were involved in corruption in Ukraine. Intelligence experts and the chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee have warned Johnson that he is amplifying Russian disinformation.

This weekend, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post warning that Johnson was taking information from Ukrainians with ties to Russia. The accusations hit close enough to home that Johnson responded yesterday with an 11-page single spaced letter denying he was spreading Russian lies and instead accusing Democrats of trying to hurt Trump by attacking Johnson’s investigation.

But, as Ryan Goodman and Asha Rangappa at JustSecurity pointed out, the letter was disingenuous, at best. They write, “the letter itself contains apparent products of Russian disinformation. And while Johnson denies taking information directly from two specific Ukrainians linked to Russia and its disinformation efforts, he makes no mention of his staff taking information directly from one of those individuals’ principal collaborators, which reportedly occurred over the course of several months.”

This controversy might be bothering the president. One of the things not on Trump’s mind, though, is the bill to help Americans weather the coronavirus pandemic by extending federal unemployment benefits, shoring up ailing states and cities, and preventing evictions, all things that his executive actions did not, in fact, do.

Senior administration officials say there is little chance of talks about a new coronavirus relief bill any time soon. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is away for the week. More than that, though, the White House thinks it has Democrats in a “real pickle” because if they try to stop Trump’s executive actions of last Friday, they will look like they are refusing to help ordinary Americans. While this was clearly the plan for those three memorandums and one executive order, it doesn’t look to me like it has worked. Democrats are not pushing back on legal grounds, but on the grounds that the measures don’t actually do anything, and that seems to be the story that is dominating the media.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.