Does Kamala Harris “Balance” the Biden Ticket?

Harris speaks at a podium bearing the Biden-Harris campaign logo, with American flags in the background
Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jason Johnson predicted months ago that Kamala Harris would be Joe Biden’s running mate. Johnson, a professor at Morgan State University and a political contributor at MSNBC, has been watching the California senator closely since he saw her speak at the progressive Netroots Nation convention in 2018. Now that Harris is officially the vice presidential nominee, Johnson joined me on Thursday’s episode of What Next to discuss what she brings to the Biden ticket, what we can expect from her as VP, and what challenges she’ll face in the runup to November. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: There’s been a lot of time between that moment in 2018, when you saw this Kamala Harris emerge that you hadn’t seen before, and now. Like, a whole presidential primary. Did she deliver on that promise you saw?

Jason Johnson: Her campaign didn’t. The person I saw at Netroots was exciting and dynamic and had eked out a policy space for herself that I hadn’t seen from anybody else. The campaign that she ran unfortunately didn’t properly address the legitimate concerns and criticisms about her criminal justice record. Some of the attacks on Sen. Harris are bad-faith attacks. I think also, let’s be perfectly honest, this is an African American woman who was attorney general of California. There was no way in heck she was gonna be able to run as a radical progressive. She was never going to get elected that way. So you’d have to look at what she did within the structure, what she was doing.

I don’t think her campaign made that case well. I don’t think her campaign addressed these issues. I don’t think her campaign had enough African American validators already in the holster when she ran, and then she was scrambling to get them after the campaign started. And I think that was a mistake.

The thing about Harris is she appeals very strongly to a certain strand of the African American community.

Who is that?

I think she does very well with supervoters. People who were already inclined to vote and who were already engaged in the process see Sen. Harris and they’re like, “About darn time. The Democratic Party is listening to us. Good.” Those people are all excited. But for the people who aren’t super engaged … most of them weren’t Harris supporters during the primary. They weren’t particularly moved by her one way or another. And those people need to be talked to. Those people need to be engaged.

Yeah, it’s this interesting difference between who’s pulling the levers of power and donating the most money and who’s voting.

This is cynical, but for example, Sen. Harris is announced as the VP—huge fundraising day. You have the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority telling people to donate. So it’s gonna be this initial boost. What I also know is that these sorts of things are planned in advance—the campaign has large numbers of bungled voters and donors across the country. It’s like, OK, the moment we announce the VP, you’re going to give cash because we need to make it look like the new VP pick is going to galvanize the voters. So we gotta be honest about how this is set up.

I’m so glad you brought up the sorority. Can you talk about it a little bit?

If you’re Black and you’re a professional at a certain level, you know a lot of people who are AKAs or Deltas or Thetas or anything else like that. African American sororities are much stronger and more consistent groups than white sororities—it’s just an objective fact. You don’t usually see 35-year-old white women who are Tri-Delts still wearing their colors, but you can go to Congress and see 80-year-old African American women dressed in all red or dressed in pink and green because they’re either Deltas or AKAs or Thetas. So these organizations are very, very strong, very good for raising money, very good for supporting people, and that will play a role.

But just as I’ve said before, Sen. Harris is a member of AKA. That’s not every sorority, and that represents a certain kind of Black people. HBCUs have tiers just like predominately white institutions. There’s a big difference in going to Howard or graduating from Spelman and Morehouse and graduating from Bowie State or Jackson State or TCU or FAMU. We can’t just assume that because she’s a graduate of Howard … everybody in an HBCU is in favor of Sen. Harris. If that was the case, she would have stayed in the race longer.

The New York Times ran this op-ed, before all this, where the author was arguing in favor of Kamala Harris. She talked about how vice presidents can be ticket balancers or ticket complementers. A balancer is someone who brings a different perspective and signals to a constituency you’re not bringing on on your own that they should vote for you, and a complementer mostly shores up the brand of the presidential candidate. The author made the case that Kamala Harris is a ticket balancer. I wonder if you’d agree with that.

Oh, not at all. She’s not a ticket balancer or a ticket complementer. Both she and Joe Biden are—given where our politics are now—centrist or center-left Democrats, so she doesn’t balance anything. She doesn’t complement him in any particular way because Joe Biden’s brand is pretty stable. You know, Donald Trump lived this grotesque, hedonistic life, and so getting Mike Pence, who’s an ultraconservative Christian, was a balance. … John McCain seemed out of touch and he was considered a RINO, so getting the red-meat Republicanness of Sarah Palin was a balance. That’s not what’s going on here. Joe Biden is running in one of the most unique and dangerous campaign environments we’ve ever had. She’s not a balancer. She’s competent.

Are there ways that she might push this presidency, if it happens, left or in a different direction—places where they do differentiate in some way?

I don’t think she’s going to push it left. Harris’ strength is, as attorney general of California, she was responsible for a bigger staff than the White House staff, and her most important job is somebody who knows the law, who’s done these hearings where she’s held people’s feet to the fire. Her job is going to be to go through this entire administration with a microscope, a fine-toothed comb, and get rid of all of the Trumpists, the white nationalists, and the maniacs and the incompetents that Trump has put into office—and come up with the rules and the laws and the statutes that we need to put in place to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. I mean, there are so many statutes and so many rules and norms about American government that were never encoded in law. We just assumed that was the case because we thought a decent person would have the job, or we thought that another branch would’ve held them in check, and we’ve seen that that’s not what’s happening now.

I don’t think that’s a left or right move because Harris and Biden are running on a campaign of competence, and part of her competence will be rebuilding a government that’s been destroyed.

What are Harris’ challenges in reaching out to Black voters? Because she really did not win the Black vote as a primary candidate.

Her challenge is that lots of people never found her to be particularly authentic. They don’t find her believable and connectable in the way that they do, say, a Michelle Obama or a Maxine Waters or even a Val Demings. You know, Sen. Harris has a background and a lifestyle—it’s a lot like Barack Obama. It’s not the story of most Black people in this country. Most Black people in America aren’t biracial who are raised in Kansas and Hawaii. [Obama] had to do a lot of work. But you know who did the most work? Michelle Obama. She was his ultimate validator. In South Carolina, when people were like, “I don’t know if I trust this guy,” it was his Black wife, who went to Princeton from the South Side of Chicago, who went down there and said: “Hey, church moms, he’s good. He’s a good husband and a wonderful father, and by the way, he listens to Jay-Z.”

Sen. Harris doesn’t have that. [Her husband] Doug Emhoff is a great guy. He seems like the nicest cul-de-sac neighbor you could ever have. But Doug Emhoff is not the person that you’re going to send to central Georgia to talk to a bunch of working-class Black people. So her challenge is going to be—as it was during the primary—finding validators who are local who can say, “This is gonna be a Black woman in the White House who feels your pain, who understands your needs and is going to prioritize the things that you want prioritized.” That will always be her challenge.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.