Joe Biden obviously did not pick Kamala Harris to be his running mate in order to please the American left. (At least I really hope that wasn’t the idea.) Progressive activists have long eyed the California senator with a combination of suspicion and disdain. That’s in part because many view her as an uninspiring and moderate political striver who’s overly friendly with Wall Street, but mostly thanks to her record on criminal justice in California, which spawned the phrase “Kamala is a cop.” Already, some of those feelings poured out on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon after her selection was announced:
I, too, have had my qualms with Harris, especially when it came to her policy platform during the primary, which seemed a bit like a sloppily nailed together afterthought. But I also think there’s a case that progressives should be optimistic about her as VP, and not just because she’s a smart, charismatic politician who at her best can truly command a stage, or because as a Black woman of both Jamaican and Indian descent she’s a historic pick who will clearly please large parts of the Democratic Party’s base. Harris might also be a good policy influence on Biden if he treats her as a real governing partner, as he hopefully will. Here are three reasons why.
1. Harris clearly wants to prove that she isn’t really a cop.
Harris likes to say that she was a “progressive prosecutor.” But much of her résumé from her years as San Francisco’s district attorney and attorney general of California has not aged well in the era of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. To offer just a taste: She backed legislation that threatened parents with jail if their kids skipped school, fought to uphold wrongful convictions, and battled tooth and nail to keep nonviolent offenders incarcerated even after the courts had ordered California to reduce its overcrowded prison population. The list of iffy choices goes on.
To be fair, Harris did have a real record of progressive reforms, and as a woman of color in law enforcement with her eye on higher office, one whose career began before Ferguson, it’s understandable why she was cautious about appearing too soft on crime. But to her critics in 2020, she’s still a cop.
Here’s the thing, though: Kamala knows that much of the left thinks that she’s a cop (“I’m fully aware of that whole meme,” she said last year) and clearly wants to prove them wrong. She’s consistently been on the side of reformers in recent years, and the ambitious criminal justice plank of her presidential platform, which covered everything from marijuana legalization to abolishing mandatory minimums to curbing police use of force, was clearly designed to quiet her naysayers. Amid the nationwide wave of protests sparked by Floyd’s killing, she and Sen. Cory Booker took the lead on policing reform in the Senate. Despite her record in California, she’s aligned with the spirit of the times. The fact that she clearly sees criminal justice reform as one of her marquee issues now could make her a potent advocate for it within the Biden administration as she tries to carve out her own record of accomplishment and shore up her left flank before she inevitably mounts her own bid for president, whether that’s in 2024 and 2028.
This all gets at a larger meta-point. For ambitious politicians who try to track their party’s mainstream, their actual record is sometimes not that useful an indicator of what they’ll do in higher office, because by definition they try to move with the country’s and their party’s mood. This is the optimistic case you often hear for why a Biden presidency could result in real progressive achievements. But for a historical example, consider President Lyndon Johnson. The man spent the first decades of his career opposing pretty much any and all civil rights legislation, because he was a Democratic politician from the segregationist South. During his master-of-the-Senate phase in 1957 and 1960, he helped pass bills on the issue by largely allowing them to be watered down to near meaninglessness. If you’d told activists then that LBJ was destined to be the man who muscled through legislation ending Jim Crow and guaranteeing voting rights, they’d have been very skeptical. But that’s how history worked out, partly because he was an ambitious politician who could read the room (or, you know, turn on a television).
2. She’s pro-marijuana.
Biden says he is not in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana, because he’s still worried about its health effects. On this issue, he seems determined to remain a stodgy throwback. But if you actually look at his platform, it leaves room for legalization in pretty much everything but name—depending on exactly how it’s implemented. He’d decriminalize cannabis on the federal level, expunge convictions, reschedule it so researchers could look into the effects of its use, and “leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states.” Depending on how all of this was codified, you could imagine a scenario where states are finally allowed to create fully legal, above-board marijuana markets within their borders without any of the ambiguities that exist today, but where you probably wouldn’t get a federal tax and regulatory scheme (which would be a waste, but c’est la vie).
Again, all of this is a maybe. It would certainly help if the administration’s point person on criminal justice reform was someone who was also solidly pro-pot and wanted to curry favor with skeptical progressives. Someone like Harris. And maybe if we’re lucky, she’ll nudge Biden to finally inhale on fully legal weed the way Biden pushed Obama to say I do to gay marriage.
3. She wants to give people money.
Economic policy is pretty clearly not Harris’ main passion, and her awkwardness with it has sometimes become a bit of a punchline, like when she proposed limited student loan forgiveness for Pell Grant recipients who start a business in a disadvantaged community and manage to keep it running for three years while also competing in at least one winter biathlon (kidding, but only the last part).
Harris does seem to have one very clear-cut, very strong instinct on economics, however: She thinks we should just give poor and middle-class families more money. She never quite came out in favor of a universal basic income, like Andrew Yang, but her first major policy proposal of the Democratic primary was an idea known as the LIFT Act, which would have essentially given working lower- and middle-income families a cash boost of up to $500 per month through a tax credit. The idea had some serious design issues, but in spirit, it was a major statement that she favored big cash transfers.
LIFT never really caught on during the campaign. But Harris, much to her credit, has stuck with the idea of handing people cash. During the coronavirus crisis, for instance, she co-sponsored a bill with Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey that would give most Americans $2,000 a month.
Even before the coronavirus struck, and the Trump administration started mailing checks, giving Americans more straightforward cash transfers was one of the most popular ideas among congressional Democrats. The American Family Act, which would expand the Child Tax Credit into a European-style monthly child allowance that even the poorest families would be eligible for, has 37 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Harris herself. As far as I can tell, though, Biden has yet to embrace the idea, even though it would cut child poverty by a third from its pre-recession levels. As vice president, it’s possible Harris could become the country’s most important advocate for dropping families much-needed gift baskets of cash. She might not be the veep candidate of the left’s dreams, but she’s not exactly the candidate of its memes, either.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.