In the history of presidential politics, it is rare that a major party candidate has an obvious best choice for a running mate.
This year is different. California Senator Kamala Harris is the right choice for Joe Biden.
Harris’s political skills and experience on the state and national political stages make her a strong vice presidential contender, but what solidifies her case is that the person at the head of the ticket is an older, white male in a party that is trending in the opposite direction. Biden has already pledged to pick a woman as his running mate, and since he is 77, it is important that he selects someone who is younger and who will be viewed as able to take over the job.
Harris is 55 years old. She has won statewide election in California, has already run for president, and has executive experience, having served as her state’s attorney general. She is Black and would bolster Biden’s already strong support among this critical constituency. Turnout among Black voters in key battleground states is absolutely crucial for Democratic hopes in November. If Harris can move the needle even slightly with Black voters that could make the difference between victory and defeat.
Harris didn’t exactly energize Black voters in her run for the White House. Yet it’s hard to imagine that the opportunity to cast a ballot for the first African-American woman (and first woman of Indian descent) on a presidential ticket would not excite voters of color.
If Harris has any liability it is that she is not a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, in the mold of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. But she is not mistrusted by liberal voters, and though some will recoil at her background as a prosecutor, for many other voters, that past experience may be viewed as reassuring.
More than anything, however, what Harris brings to the table is that she is a polished and effective campaigner, who would bring excitement and magnetism to a ticket not currently overflowing with such attributes. Vice Presidential candidates have historically been tasked with the job of attack dog. Biden can attest to her ability to land a political punch, having been on the receiving end of one of the iconic moments from the 2020 Democratic primary: her lacerating attack on him for previously opposing busing as a tool for desegregating schools.
Harris is not the only Democratic politician who likes to mix it up. Warren helped to kill Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived presidential ambitions on the Democratic debate stage. But Warren is 70 years old, and she and Biden do not appear to have the warmest relationship. Plus, if she becomes VP it might allow Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to fill her seat with a Republican, at least until a special election is held. Warren can also be a polarizing figure, and isn’t even all that beloved among hard-core liberals who bizarrely blame her for Bernie Sanders’ failure to win the Democratic nomination. Liberals are even less fond of another potential VP pick, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who ran as a Midwest moderate in 2020. There is likely not an ideal liberal candidate for Biden to pick, but Harris has the advantage of being far less of a lightning rod.
Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has vaulted to the top of Biden’s short list because of her response to the coronavirus pandemic. Still, she has only been a governor for less than two years and lacks a national profile.
The same can be said of Senator Catherine Cortez Mastro of Nevada, who would boost Biden’s chances among Hispanic voters; or Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin and Florida Representative Val Demings, who both hail from crucial swing states. All would be fine selections, but none are well known nationally and would be unlikely to generate the same kind of buzz as Harris.
A year ago I likely would have made the case for the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, but her lack of experience and ostentatious efforts to get the VP nod should give her boosters pause. It’s long been true that female politicians have been unfairly denigrated for appearing overly ambitious, but one needs to be a bit more subtle than Abrams. Not only did she sit out a very winnable Georgia Senate race in part because it would derail her chance to be Biden’s running mate, but the revelation this week that she has been calling Democratic “power brokers” and asking them to lobby for her is a flagrant rookie mistake. It’s one thing to be ambitious — it’s something else to look ambitious. So clearly running for VP shows a real lack of political deftness and it glaringly contrasts with Harris’s recent work as a loyal surrogate on behalf of Biden.
But there needs to be another serious consideration for Biden. Due to his age — and the almost certain Trump campaign attacks on his cognitive abilities — he needs to pick someone who can credibly become president on day one . . . or perhaps in four years.
Harris would not be the only VP candidate who could make that claim, but considering how much else she brings to the table, she is far and away the best option for Democrats this fall.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.