Kamala: Historic, Safe, and Complicated
S1: Jason Johnson, a political scientist at Morgan State University. He’s got this problem with Joe Biden. He says Joe can’t keep a secret.
S2: Joe Biden is your friend who’s still in the driveway with a handful of balloons when you bring your wife over her surprise party. It’s like she’s doing the right thing for everybody over the last year.
S1: Jason says one of the biggest secrets Biden just couldn’t keep to himself was his presidential running mate. We all know who that is now, but Jason says he was sure it would be Kamala Harris months ago. I’m going to read you something you wrote back at the beginning of July. You said Kamala Harris is going to be Joe Biden’s vice president. We can debate the merits of that pending decision, just like you can debate the sunrise, but it’s going to happen either way. What made you so sure?
S2: Because Joe Biden talked himself into a corner about a year ago and he didn’t have many options. Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag last year. He didn’t just say, hey, I’m going to pick a woman VP. He’s like, I’m going to pick a woman VP. And then the first names, they start rattling off like Stacey Abrams, Michelle Obama, all these black women in his campaign did absolutely nothing. I know because I was in pretty constant contact with them. They did nothing to dispel the rumor and then eventually the believe that Joe Biden was going to pick a black woman. And so once you say I’m going to take a black woman as my V.P., you automatically narrow down the list to about three, maybe four people.
S1: But it’s funny you say that, because when you wrote that, it was a time when all sorts of other names were being floated. We were talking about Susan Rice. We were talking about Karen Bass and Val Demings. Did you just look at those folks and just say, there’s no way look?
S2: So all these other names, they were tossing them out because they’re like, we’re not going to get enough excitement about this when we said so. Let’s pretend that this is actually an open competition. But none of those other people were really going to not charise off her perch.
S1: A vice presidential candidate, Jason, says they have to not just bring in votes, they have to pass the smell test from the national media and the D.C. establishment.
S2: Look, objectively speaking, if he had picked Elizabeth Warren. Right. Warren is is much more likely to galvanize young voters with Utah instead of picking a black woman. How do you pick Stacey Abrams? She would have probably galvanized black people way more than Senator Harris’s, but Abrams wouldn’t have been able to pass the media or the D.C. vet because they would have said we can’t have a state senator as a heartbeat away from the president. So all of those other names were just red herrings for somebody who we always knew was going to have the job.
S1: And you wrote this piece back in April where you said she’s exciting but not scary. She’s progressive, but not radical. She’s galvanizing but not polarizing. It seems like what you’re saying is like. She’s fine.
S2: That’s a very good read. Here’s the thing, Joe. Joe Biden is emboldened. Joe Biden is a radical. Joe Biden is a big structural change guy. Joe Biden’s entire campaign and Joe Black people say to me, South Carolina is a return to normal and normal, didn’t make that many people happy. So Senator Harris was going to be the best pick out of all of those people available today on the show.
S3: Kamala Harris is a historic moment, what it means and what it doesn’t. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: So Jason expected Kamala Harris to be Biden’s VP pick, but he hasn’t always been impressed by her, used to joke that he was a Harris hater. He wasn’t really not a hater. He just thought she was a little lacking as a politician.
S2: I was critical of her because I’m a pretty equal opportunity, critical person, like most people don’t know who I really support because I’m pretty equal. I got something for everybody. But I saw Harris, I believe, was at Netroots Nation and she just gave a fantastic speech.
S1: And we should do a little bit of contextualising here about what Netroots is, because it’s a really progressive meeting.
S2: Yes, very left wing, very, very left wing meeting.
S4: Fantastic. Lots of Netroots Nation. I’m so glad to be here.
S1: This was in August of twenty eighteen, one year after the Unite, the right rally in Charlottesville.
S2: And she gave a fantastic speech in which she talked about which I thought was amazing, is she talked about white supremacy and white nationalism as a national security issue. And no one had talked about that before.
S4: And they’re still trying to divide us and conquer. The Russians know racism and other forms of hate have always been America’s Achilles heel. And we need to deal with that weakness.
S2: And I love the fact that she was staking out a different space for herself other than being, you know, I’m Obama 2.0 from California. I like that she had a policy area and a policy tape that most people weren’t brave enough to address when everybody was still tiptoeing around these issues. So that changed what I saw as Senator Harris’s potential, as somebody who has seen her speak a lot of times. I mean, she just to the room on fire. But that’s not necessary in a campaign year where we’re not going to have huge rallies, where we’re not going to have 20 or 30 thousand people. But what I can say directly is that she is a fantastic one on one retail politician. She is amazing. And I met her a couple of times. One particular time I met her in a green room. And I’m going to be candid about this. Like it also. Her staff were not happy with no one to talk to me.
S1: They tried when you said hater.
S2: Yeah. I mean, you know, there was a at which she walked right up to me and she was so it’s so look, I mean, politicians all the time, incredibly friendly, incredibly engaging. And she’s like, yeah, I read your stuff. And she’s like, you know, we should talk. Well, I mean, I there aren’t many politicians who can take criticism sincerely and not bully journalists or analysts or reporters in order to get that person’s favor. And I was impressed by her sincerity. I was impressed by her interaction and just a short conversation that we had. And so I was like, OK.
S1: I mean, there’s been a lot of time between that moment in twenty eighteen when you sort of saw this Kamala Harris emerge that you hadn’t seen before and now like a whole presidential primary, I’m wondering if that changed your perspective at all. Like did she deliver on that promise. You saw her campaign didn’t. What do you mean by that. What’s the difference?
S2: So the person who 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, I think unfortunately didn’t properly address the legitimate concerns and criticisms about her criminal justice record. Look, some of the attacks on Senator Harris are bad faith attacks, right? A lot of the criticisms of her I don’t think are fair. 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 hell she was going to be able to run as a radical progressive. She was never going to get elected that way. So you have to look at what she did within the structure, what she was doing. I don’t think her campaign made that case. Well, yeah, I don’t think her campaign address 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.
S1: You’ve really found interesting ways to articulate how Kamala Harris as a candidate brings out these different ideas in black voters about what they want and about who they want to vote for. I was really struck by the fact that last night you were on cable TV and you were just going through some texts you’ve gotten from students because you teach at Morgan State and their opinions were all over the map and surprising, like, what have you been hearing from your students and how does it reflect how? I don’t want to say the black electorate, it sounds like a monolith, but how voters are looking at Kamala Harris.
S2: So is it runs the gamut. There are lots of African-Americans in general and certainly lots of black women who like Senator Harris, who always liked her. Right. And therefore, they’re really excited about her being the nominee. There are lots of people out there who liked another candidate, but if their candidate wasn’t going to be the nominee, they for darn sure wanted somebody black on the ticket. There are some people out there that didn’t really like Senator Harris. They thought she was good. They didn’t necessarily think she would be a great VP and they’re unmoved by it. And then you got some people who quite legitimately were like, OK, I guess. And I can look I can read you out another text. It’s like I got this from from a friend of mine in Chicago with Harris. Like Girl, I guess, you know, I am emoji, right. I got this other one from this is this is a bank executive in Cleveland. She texted me and said, I think Harris is problematic, but OK, we need to get rid of Trump. There are people who feel that way. Then that’s not everybody. But I think it’s it’s naive for us to assume that there was this big magical groundswell for a candidate that, quite frankly, didn’t necessarily do as well with African-American voters as Joe Biden. So, you know, 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 super voters, people who were already inclined to vote and who are already engaged in the process. See Senator Harris. And they’re like about darn time. Good. The Democratic Party is listening to us. Good. She’s she’s intelligent and she’s capable and she’s got all these skills. Good, good, good, good, good. Yes. Thank you. Those people are all excited. But for the people who aren’t super engaged and a lot of people that I know and the people who I talked to, they’re not people who are regularly engaged, college educated professionals, but they don’t eat, sleep and breathe this stuff the way that I do. And most of them, they 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 because those people see this and they kind of give a big shoulder shrug emoji, like I’m getting to my text.
S1: Yeah. I mean, it’s this interesting difference between who’s sort of pulling the levers of power and donating the most money and who’s voting.
S2: And so there’s a part of this. Right. And this is this is this is cynical. This is cynical. But this is realistic as somebody who who’s actually run campaigns and I’m a political scientist, for example, Senator Harris is announced as the VP, a huge fundraising day. Right. Awesome. Awesome, awesome. And you have Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority telling people to donate a thousand nine hundred and eight dollars or the number that is the anniversary of the creation of the sorority. So that’s good. And that’s organic. And that’s cool. Right? I’m just going to raise that money. It’s going to be this initial boost. What I also know is that these sorts of things are planned in advance. Right? They’re planned in advance from the standpoint that the campaign has large numbers of Bundall 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 is going to galvanize the voters. So we got to be honest about how this is set up.
S1: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought up the sorority because I feel like it’s a real part of the Kamala Harris story, but I’m not sure we discuss it like that a lot. Can you talk about it a little bit?
S2: So I am I am non Greek, so I will say this up front for the Greek folks who are listening. What I mean, but look, if you’re if you’re black and you’re a professional, a certain level, you know, a lot of people who are A’s or Delta status or anything else like that, the sorority is a tremendous amount of power because African-American sororities are much stronger and more consistent in groups than white sororities. And I don’t say that as a criticism is just an objective fact. You don’t usually see thirty five year old white women who are tri delts still wearing their colors. But you can go to Congress and see eighty year old African-American women dressed in all red or dressed in pink and green because they’re either Deltas or A’s or Saito’s. 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, Senator Harris is a member of a K that’s not every sorority and that represents a certain kind of black people. You have tiers just like, you know, 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, and so we can’t just assume that because she’s a graduate of Howard, which half my family went there, tons of people. God, that doesn’t magically mean that everybody in BCU is in favor of Senator Harris. If that was the case, you would have stayed in the race longer. So we we can’t generalize. We give her credit for the great things she’s done and who she’s going to galvanize.
S1: But we can’t assume that that’s all black people because that will be a mistake that leads to people, at least Abidin her losing this vote, who you know, The New York Times ran this op ed before all this where the author was arguing in favor of of Kamala Harris and she talked about how vice presidents can be ticket balancers or ticket complimentarity. The idea being a balancer is someone who kind of 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 compliment or mostly kind of shores up the brand of the presidential candidate. And the author made the case that Kamala Harris is a ticket balancer. But I kind of wonder if you’d agree with that.
S2: Oh, not at all. No, no, he’s not a ticket balancer or to take a compliment or you know, look, both she and Joe Biden are given where our politics are now. They’re they’re like centrist or center left Democrat. So she doesn’t balance anything. She doesn’t compliment him in any particular way because, you know, Joe Biden, his brand is pretty stable. He didn’t you know, Donald Trump was live this grotesque, hedonistic life. And so therefore, getting Mike Pence, who’s an ultra conservative Christian, was a balance. You know, Bill Clinton had his own problem. So getting Al Gore was a balance. John McCain seems out of touch and he was considered a RINO. So getting the red meat Republican, this Sarah Palin was a balance. That’s not to say that’s not what’s going on here. Joe Biden is running and one of the most unique and dangerous campaign environments we’ve ever had. She’s not a balancer. She’s competent.
S1: I think you said you could put a wig on Aleksa and it would be a good candidate for president. Yes.
S2: I mean, that’s all you’d have to do, you know? I mean, you could go out and you could go out to the to the to the West Wing of the White House and a Roomba in a suit. And it still be better getting from Donald Trump. You know, Joe Biden didn’t have to pick her in order to win California. Joe Biden had to to pick someone, an African-American, in order to show his appreciation for black voters. But she’s not Harris hasn’t been selected for this job the way that most other people have in the past.
S1: Yeah, I mean, when I thought about it, I wondered if maybe Kamala Harris has the appearance of being a balancer, but is perhaps a compliment to her in some ways, because I kept thinking about that moment at the debate where she confronted Joe Biden about segregation and bussing and it was so strong and she got a surge of support afterwards. But then when she was asked about it later, it was clear that she didn’t really have strong feelings about busing.
S5: Yes, busing is a tool among many should be considered. When you address the issue, which is a very current issue of desegregation in the schools.
S1: So and to me, I was like, this is this is the issue, which is that she’s she very much kind of aligns with Biden philosophically, but she seems different.
S2: Maybe you make this big, big thing about Joe Biden and his position on busing, but then when they ask you, you know, it’s it’s it’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm, is there something like we feel about this? Right. And those are the kinds of things that people don’t like because then it makes it seem performance as opposed to a sincere criticism.
S1: Are there ways that she might push this presidency if it happens left or in a different direction, like places where they do differentiate in some way?
S2: I, I don’t think she’s going to push it left. But what I’ve always said that I think will be here is the strength is and some people have mentioned us as A.G. of California. She actually, like 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 who’s done these sort of fantastic hearings where she’s held people held their feet to the fire is her job is going to be to go through this entire administration with a microscope, a fine tooth comb and a pen and pad and and and get rid of all of the trumpets, the white nationalists and the maniacs and the encompass. That Trump has put into office and come up with the rules and the laws in 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 the law. We just assumed that was the case because we thought of a decent person would have the job or we thought that another branch would held them in check. And we’ve seen that. That’s not what’s happening now. And I think Harris as a manager, Harris as a prosecutor, Harris is somebody who knows the law very well. I think she’ll be excellent at going behind and making sure we rebuild this government that has been torn down to the nuts and bolts. So I don’t think that’s a left or right move, because, like I said, I think Harris and Biden are running on a campaign of competence and part of her competence will be rebuilding a government that’s been destroyed.
S1: You’ve had this one particular word of warning about the Biden Harris ticket in the last month or so. You wrote an article entitled Can Biden and Harris Take a Punch? History says no and Trump can’t wait. What did you mean by that?
S2: I mean that neither Joe Biden nor Senator Harris, if we go by the debates, if we go by recent conversations, the speeches, they are particularly weak on things that they should already have solved. Look, Joe Biden could have said a year ago, yeah, I’m sorry about the crime bill. There you go. Just say you’re sorry. It’s called move on. Right. You’ve had tons of people say they were sorry about their vote for Iraq. And then it’s a done issue. Joe Biden’s general refusal to take responsibility for that or he gives these sort of gobbledygook answers. Well, we didn’t want the mass incarceration, but we did want to you know, we wanted the midnight basketball. It’s like, do just say you’re sorry and then keep it moving. Senator Harris sometimes has the same problem where when it comes to criminal justice reform, when it comes to criticism of, oh, you didn’t prosecute enough dirty cops, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do that. She doesn’t always give the most direct answer. Now, she gave an amazing speech in June of twenty nineteen at the Iowa end at the South Carolina NAACP. She made she took on this whole argument that she threw people in jail, that she threw black men in jail. And she said, look, I think personal safety is a civil right.
S6: And let’s talk about a myth, a myth that black people don’t want public safety. That is simply not true. Every community wants to be safe.
S2: It was a fantastic speech. That needs to be what she says. Mike Pence isn’t going to beat Senator Harris in a debate. All he’s got to do is make her stump. And that’s what needs to have to be prepared for. They’ve got to be prepared for the hits, both legitimate and illegitimate, because that’s what they’re going to face.
S1: Yeah, I mean, you mentioned that already the Republicans have been running this ad in Georgia, which has a black woman over and really hits Biden hard on crime.
S7: Joe Biden’s policies destroyed millions of black lives. Joe Biden may not remember, but we do.
S1: And it’s just strictly an anti Biden ad. That’s all it’s saying. And it’s sort of fascinating to me. In some ways, it seems to be like stealing the ideas of election interference last time around to create questions in people’s head and try to just, you know, cut the other candidate off at the knees wherever you can.
S2: Yes. The goal of the Republicans is going to say, if you look at Joe Biden’s crime bill and you look at Senator Eiris, these guys are going to do you any good. That’s their only goal. Their only goal is to try and suppress the vote by attacking as much as they can at what Harris has to do, in particular because Joe is Joe. What Harris is going to have to do is go out and make those arguments about competence and difference. What Harris is going to have to do is go out and tell the twenty seven year old who lost her job as an assistant manager at Verizon because of covid shut down. She’s going to go to that woman and say, you know what, we’re going to help bring your job back. You know what? We’re going to protect your health care. She’s got to go to the school teacher who’s like, look, I can’t go to school because I care for my mom. And she’s going to say, look, with our new administration, we’re going to take care of you. Their competence argument. That’s going to be her difference maker. And that’s how she can galvanize the black vote by saying these are practical things I’m going to do in your life, because that’s symbolic nonsense that I’m going to stand on your shoulders. That’s good if you’re already up there. But if you’re in the muck standing on her shoulders in a symbolic way, it’s not going to change your life or pay your bills.
S1: Hmm. Knowing what you know about the senator as a candidate. What are her challenges in doing that, in reaching out to the young voters and black voters and people who are struggling right now because she really did not win the black vote as a primary candidate?
S2: Her challenge is that. Lots of people. That I know in some of this we speak anecdotally, they’ve never found her to be particularly authentic. They don’t find her believable in connectable. And the way that they do, say, Michelle Obama or Maxine Waters or even about Deming’s. Right. And so when we have these conversations about the black community, about being seen, do I feel seen? Do I feel validated? Senator Harris has a background and a lifestyle. It’s a lot like Barack Obama. 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. And Barack Obama had to do a lot of work as they were. Exactly. He had to do a lot of work. But, you know, he did the most work. Michelle Obama, he did the work. She was his ultimate validator in South Carolina when people were like, I don’t know if I trust this, this guy with the funny name and everything else like that. But it was his black wife who went the president 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 he takes care of my daughters. And by the way, he listens to Jay-Z. Right. Senator Harris doesn’t have that. Doug Imhoff is a great guy. That’s her husband. Everything about Doug Imhoff that you ever see on TV, he seems like the nicest, nicest Cul-De-Sac neighbor you could ever have. But but Doug Imhoff is not the person that you’re going to send to to to to central Georgia to talk to a bunch of working class black people. That’s not where you’re going to send Doug Imhoff. So her challenge is going to be, as it was during the primary, finding validators who are local who can say, look, this is going to 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. It will also be her challenge to make young people care, because most young people that I speak to, they lived through eight years of Barack Obama and it made them feel good. And then it got followed by. So they want something big because they have this sense of disappointment of like, man, we thought things were changing and we’re not just going to be satisfied with the same old, same old, because that didn’t prevent us from trumping that and prevent us from covid. So that’s that’s going to be a challenge. But I think she can do it because like I said on one on one small settings, Senator Harris is really fantastic. So get her on like a bunch of zoom calls where she’s just like face to face with you face to face zoom calls with 50 or 60 people at a time of which you can line up all day. Now, you don’t have to get on a plane. I think she’s magnificent. And I think that’s that’s going to have to be the way she goes about doing.
S8: Dr. Jason Johnson, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Had a fantastic time. Jason Johnson is a politics and journalism professor at Morgan State. He’s also a political contributor at MSNBC and The Grio. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Danielle Hewitt. We’re getting a little help this week from Daniel Avis. We always have the support of Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. But meanwhile, I’ll catch you back here on Monday.