Joe Biden Has Found His Neoliberal Match in Kamala Harris

It should be no surprise Kamala Harris has been chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate. From her career-long pursuit of right-wing goals to her flexibility with the truth, the two are remarkably similar politicians.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" event at Bellagio Resort Casino in Las Vegas, 2019. (David Becker / Getty Images)

Well, it finally happened. After months and weeks of wrangling, sniping, bowing, and scraping, and several missed deadlines, Joe Biden has finally chosen his running mate: former career prosecutor and California senator Kamala Harris.

We may well look back on the path it took to get here as a preview of what’s to come should Biden win. This year’s VP-selection process was particularly chaotic, with different, opposing factions — from Biden insiders to progressive activists to Democratic officials to groups of major donors — jostling for influence and nudging, even threatening, Biden to make their preferred choice.

Eager contenders would rise to the top, meet privately with Biden, appear on TV with him, fundraise desperately for his campaign, then suddenly fall out of favor. Sometimes he would cruelly dash their hopes live on TV; sometimes they would sink under a hail of leaks meant to undermine them. Through this shambolic process, Biden ultimately blew at least three of his own self-imposed deadlines.

This was far from unique to the VP search. Biden has long had a reputation for lacking discipline and being indecisive, something he carried over to the current campaign, nearly sabotaging himself before he began with a late start that saw him miss out on top hires. Even the Times can barely find the euphemisms to garnish these flaws, referring to his “nonlinear decision-making processes” and “habit of extending deadlines in a way that leaves some Democrats anxious and annoyed.”

To wit, Biden ran a campaign that can generously be described as leisurely, and his eventual comeback and primary victory owed almost entirely to a coalition of centrist media and Democrats working and self-sacrificing to drag him over the line in spite of himself. While we can’t yet know for sure if this process will also characterize Biden’s presidency, we’ve seen how the jockeying among different factional interests in the party has now produced the choice of Harris for his running mate.

Harris’s possible ascension to the White House solidifies what Biden’s nomination already represented: the defeat, at least temporarily, of the left of the Democratic Party by the party’s corporate faction, and the determination of its elites to barrel ahead with the shallow, corporate politics of the Obama era, a politics mainly concerned with lowering the expectations of ordinary people.

Indeed, one of the reasons it was hard to imagine anyone else but Harris ending up on the ticket is that she so snugly embodies the modern Democratic Party — which also means almost everything you’re about to hear about her has little to do with who she actually is.

Far from the “progressive prosecutor” Harris has been masquerading as since angling for a 2020 run, her record bears no resemblance to figures who might actually fit that description, like Larry Krasner or Keith Ellison. Even in a party that embraced Biden- and Clinton-style tough-on-crime policies, Harris stands out for her cruelty: she fought to keep innocent people in jail, blocked payouts to the wrongfully convicted, argued for keeping non-violent offenders in jail as a source of cheap labor, withheld evidence that could have freed numerous prisoners, tried to dismiss a suit to end solitary confinement in California, and denied gender reassignment surgery to trans inmates. A recent report detailed how Harris risked being held in contempt of court for resisting a court order to release non-violent prisoners, which one law professor compared to Southern resistance to 1950s desegregation orders.

Harris loves to laugh. Watching Harris cackling like a cartoon villain about prosecuting parents of truant schoolkids is one of the more bone-chilling things you’re likely to see in politics. Other things Harris found funny? The idea of building schools rather than prisons, and the concept of legalizing pot. Five years later she laughed again, this time while running for president and fondly recalling her pot-smoking days, as she mugged for a younger audience. Extra hilarious was the fact that her office had convicted nearly 2,000 people for marijuana offenses while she was San Francisco’s district attorney.

Harris’s callousness toward the poor and powerless has been matched only by her sympathy for the rich and powerful. Most notoriously, Harris overruled her own office’s recommendation to prosecute the predatory bank of current Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, who later donated to her Senate campaign, then allegedly tried to cover up her inaction.

Despite California’s status as the epicenter of foreclosure scams, Harris’s Mortgage Fraud Strike Force prosecuted fewer cases of foreclosure consultant fraud than many county DAs. Rather than use her office to constrain the growth of tech monopolies, emails recently obtained by the Huffington Post show she courted them, receiving significant financial backing from Silicon Valley in return.

It’s recently been declared out of bounds to refer to her ambition, but the fact is that Harris, like Biden, Obama, and, sadly, the majority of politicians, has been driven above all by concern for her own career prospects. Just look at these clips of a forty-four-year-old Harris explaining in August 2008 — as poverty, war, and a ballooning housing crisis gripped the country and her state in particular — what would be different about the country after eight years of her presidency: that “we would be willing to embrace the idea that we actually have an incredible talent pool,” that the US would have “a population of people who were informed not only about the great history of our country, but also world history,” and that “we all would decide proudly that we are all, as Americans, patriots,” all of whom would wear flags on their lapels.

In other words, she had no idea.

So if Harris isn’t actually a progressive with ambitious policy commitments, what exactly does she bring to the ticket? Democrat-aligned media is citing her mixed Indian and Jamaican heritage, which they hope will excite voters of color for November, and her toughness and aggressiveness, which they envision being deployed against Trump and, particularly vice president Mike Pence in their eventual debate.

Both of these are hard to square with reality. Contrary to the strange world of liberal consultants and media, people of color don’t mindlessly vote for just anyone who shares their skin color or national background. After she dropped out of the presidential race, pundit after pundit marveled at how she had failed to win the support of black voters, barely registering in her own home state by the end. She ultimately dropped out before a single primary was held, saving herself the embarrassment of a Biden ’08–style showing in Iowa and beyond.

As for the second point, Harris’s feeble showing in the polls was matched by a dithering campaign that saw the former prosecutor underwhelm in debates and run away from her own positions. After cosponsoring Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill in 2017, she joined Sanders as one of only two candidates who said they favored abolishing private health insurance in a June 2019 debate, before swiftly walking it back the day after, claiming she misunderstood the question.

She then came out with her own health care plan, which expanded private insurers’ role in health care and added an absurd transition period of ten years, or two-and-a-half presidential terms.

Much the same happened with Harris’s most memorable debate moment: attacking her current running mate over his leading role in the racist anti-busing movement. Harris’s campaign somehow had T-shirts commemorating the moment ready to sell mere hours after the debate was over, but she soon helpfully clarified that she herself had in fact held the same position on busing as the one she had just attacked Biden over. After that, Harris was left speechless by Tulsi Gabbard’s debate-stage criticism of her prosecutorial record, and her attempt to challenge Elizabeth Warren to call for Twitter to ban the president fell embarrassingly flat.

No, Harris’s real value to Biden is threefold. One is her popularity among the donor class, having raked in massive amounts of cash during her campaign from not just big tech, but Wall Street, health insurers and pharmaceuticals, and various billionaires, among others. Soon after Biden picked her, Wall Street executives gushed to CNBC about the wisdom of the decision, particularly the fact that it signaled Biden was not, as we have been endlessly told, moving significantly left.

That brings us to the second point. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Biden is planning an administration that is roughly on par with, if not more conservative, than Obama’s, but with a far less popular and inspiring standard bearer at the helm. While Biden himself lacks the charisma and grass-roots base to be an effective caretaker of a dysfunctional, crumbling system, it’s a role that Harris — who has the genuinely rabid fan base and history-making attributes missing from Biden’s candidacy — could ably step into, in a way that a relative unknown like Karen Bass, or someone with less charisma with no popular base like Susan Rice, could not.

With Biden’s campaign focused on letting the public see and hear as little from their diminished candidate as possible, expect to see the lion’s share of attention and propaganda devoted to boosting Harris. Expect, too, to see Harris deployed to justify any reactionary measures a President Biden could not by himself.

Harris may well have the Obama-like charisma to rally the party’s rank and file, and sell them on a conservative policy program, as the former president did. But this also carries risk: it would still be Biden’s presidency, and she could end up chained to the boulder of whatever unpopular measures he may pursue.

On the other hand, she would be poised to lead the party once Biden is gone from the scene, thus neutralizing any future left-wing takeover of the Democrats and keeping both the party and Washington firmly in the hands of the corporate establishment.

Lastly, Harris fulfills Biden’s desire to find a vice president with whom he’s on the same wavelength. Put aside the superficial differences, and Biden and Harris are essentially the same politician. Both have been chronically on the wrong side of history; both pursued cruel, right-wing goals for most of their careers in order to advance their personal ambitions; and both have a habit of misrepresenting their beliefs and records. It’s fitting: Biden, after all, is one of the old-school originators of the corporate-friendly Democratic politics that Harris has pursued her whole career.

Call it absurd, or call it paradoxical. But as the United States is engulfed in unprecedented civil unrest over brutal police repression and its people rage against historic wealth inequality and corporate domination, the Democratic Party has chosen as its avatars one of the leading architects of that system, and one of its most enthusiastic foot soldiers.

Both Harris, and to a lesser extent, Biden, have shown a limited but encouraging propensity to gesture leftward under pressure. The current unprecedented conditions, coupled with the still small but growing power of the US left, mean the next four years aren’t necessarily doomed to be a repeat of the Obama years.

We’ll see if that makes the difference between getting the systemic change needed to stave off disaster, or merely getting a “student loan debt forgiveness program for Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in disadvantaged communities.”