The Case for Kamala Harris

Harris never really nailed it as a candidate for president, but she can be a forceful and compelling presence.

Kamala Harris, on a background with a badge that says "2020 Veepstakes."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

This is an installment of Veepstakes, Slate’s series on who Joe Biden should pick as his running mate.

Kamala Harris has been the obvious option to be Joe Biden’s running mate for a long time. As my colleague Jim Newell wrote back in March: “Kamala Harris is a smart, charismatic black woman with high name recognition who is not old and is qualified to serve as president on Day One, and while she is not of ‘the left,’ per se, her politics are muddled enough to not come across as a concerted middle finger to the left.” These are all compelling points!

My addition to this list is: Kamala Harris has achieved the ideal stature for serving as vice president, a job that is not as big of a deal as everyone is making it out to be right now. Her elevation to the office would be neither above her nor beneath her, and it would neither put strain on a Biden administration nor weaken her party’s overall political position.

Harris never really nailed it as a candidate for president herself. She didn’t figure out a cohesive enough agenda or story that could carry her campaign, and after a promising if overhyped start, she fizzled. But even lacking a grand vision, Harris still had her moments during the primary. She frequently gave strong debate performances, including, yes, the night that she eviscerated Joe Biden for his position on busing. She’s quick on her feet and can be a forceful and compelling presence.

As a senator, she gained national attention for her work questioning witnesses and nominees as a member of the Judiciary Committee. Her charisma is perhaps particularly important considering the status of that skill in the actual presidential nominee. Also, remember that odd period of the primary when Harris basically tried to rise above the Democratic infighting and just campaign against Donald Trump? She was pretty good at that, the block-Trump-from-Twitter misstep aside. Imagine her debating Mike Pence. It would be very good.

One of the major barriers Harris faced as a hopeful Democratic nominee was her background as a prosecutor—as much as she tried to argue that she was a “progressive” prosecutor, people (rightly) saw through it and she got branded as a cop. It is absolutely true that Harris is not the most left-leaning VP option out there—but Joe Biden wasn’t the most progressive Democratic candidate out there, either. We’re not going to turn Biden into a progressive by pairing him with the right subordinate.

What’s compelling about pairing the two of them up is not the shared centrism of the ticket, but the fact that it seems that Harris has taken the criticism of her prosecutorial background to heart and is figuring out how to adjust in response, especially now. As the only Black woman serving in the Senate, she’s been speaking cogently and compellingly about police violence and racism. She’s co-written the Democrats’ bill to reform policing. Her approach—cautious incrementalism—feels like the right fit for Joe Biden, a politician who is persuadable in certain circumstances. Even her onstage debate fight shows why Harris would be good at this—even as she was calling out Biden’s own support of a racist policy, she managed to do so in a way that centered her own story and left room for him to come around to her way of seeing things. Of all the ways that Biden’s awkward, stunty approach to picking a demographically complementary vice president could play out, this might be most fruitful.

But the principal reason Harris is the right candidate for the job is simply that the job isn’t all that important. America gets swept up into presidential politics every time a campaign cycle rolls around, but if we should have learned anything from the past four years, it’s the necessity of having effective political leadership outside of the White House. Making Harris vice president would mean Elizabeth Warren can stay in the Senate. This would help alleviate concerns over the Massachusetts’ Republican governor naming a Republican to succeed Warren and flipping a seat (even if the Massachusetts Legislature could technically moot that issue). And it would allow me to hold onto the future in which the Dems gain control of the Senate and make Warren the majority leader, which would be an unbelievable upgrade from Chuck Schumer, who has completely failed to do anything useful as minority leader. Warren empowered in a legislative role is much more valuable to a progressive agenda than Warren forced to pull Biden slowly to the left through charm and friendship.

Harris, meanwhile, was at her best in the Senate as a member of the opposition, applying her prosecutorial skills to a hostile Supreme Court nominee or an investigation witness. Under a Democratic administration, California can probably replace her senatorial contributions without much drop-off.

In the same vein, she should fit smoothly into a Biden campaign and White House. Her abbreviated presidential campaign raised her profile so that it wouldn’t seem like a stretch for Biden to pick her, but it didn’t create a meaningful faction of Harris loyalists looking for her to operate a rival power center within the administration. Like the California junior Sen. Richard Nixon, she could grow into a more plausible president if needed. She’s not so vital, though, that she would be sacrificed if she ended up serving in the backup role for four years.

Why overthink it? Harris would be an energetic campaigner and seems similar enough to Biden to have a productive partnership with him. It’s embarrassing that America has never had a woman serve as vice president, but that doesn’t make the job all-important. Harris is precisely good enough for it.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.