Possibility and Actuality: Kamala Harris and Religious Conservatives
Joe Biden announced Tuesday that Sen. Kamala Harris from California would be his Vice Presidential running mate in the 2020 Presidential election. The New York Times praised the pick, calling Harris a “pragmatic moderate” who will bring political electricity to the campaign. In the Washington Post, Dan Morain said, “Harris is a quick learner and gifted political performer with genuine star power.”
Harris is the first woman of color to appear on a major party ticket, and one of the few women in American history who have been considered for these highest offices in the land. In that sense, the Harris pick is a landmark, the continuation of the freedom and promise of the American dream. Harris’ parents immigrated to America and now their daughter has a chance to be the Vice President. This story, and so many like it, underscore the uniqueness of America, the land of opportunity.
Biden announced that he would pick a woman as his running mate shortly after he locked up the nomination. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, the campaign began to focus on finding a black woman to be Biden’s running mate. Harris immediately went to the top of the list. She’s a Senator from California, ran for president, served as the California attorney general, and has nationwide name recognition. In their opening appearance together, Biden and Harris highlighted racial justice, jobs, and the coronavirus as their key campaign issues. David Axelrod cited Harris’s ability to lead the charge against Trump as one of the deciding factors in Biden’s selection.
The conventional wisdom in presidential races is that VP picks may help win a state, but don’t typically move the national needle. Harris won’t bring many electoral votes to the campaign; California is a lock for Democrats, but she’s expected to bring enthusiasm and big money. Harris is popular in Silicon Valley and among Wall Street executives. Biden has suffered from a lack of enthusiasm among voters, the best-case scenario for Harris would be a surge in support stemming from her personality and charisma. For the basement-based Biden campaign, Harris could be a powerful force on the stump and on the campaign trail.
Harris vs. Biden
Biden and Harris have drastically different policy positions. They represent the two sides of the modern Democratic Party. During the Democratic primaries, Biden was the only candidate who defended the Obama administration. Harris and others wanted to move the party to the left. Biden opposed Sanders’ Medicare for All plan in favor of expanding Obamacare, Harris campaigned on M4A. Biden has stopped short of calling for a fracking ban, Harris campaigned on banning fracking nation-wide. Biden has been tentative about the Green New Deal, Harris cosponsored it in the Senate.
Policy wasn’t the only difference between the two campaigns. The Harris campaign promised to appeal to African American voters, but it was Biden who came away with the lion’s share of the minority support. Harris never gained momentum in the primaries, dropping out before the voters went to the polls. After a year of campaigning, she was polling at less than 2%.
One of the enigmas surrounding Kamala Harris is whether she actually believes any of the positions she campaigned on. After she withdrew from the presidential race, the New York Times cited her inconsistency and lack of policy proposals. By joining the Biden campaign, she’s virtually renounced many of her campaign issues and promises. Most stunning is Harris’ sudden one-eighty on what she thinks about Biden himself. During the primaries, she was the first candidate to attack Biden personally. She said she was personally hurt by Biden’s friendship with segregationists and racist Democratic politicians. She called his busing legislation racist. She said she believed the women who had accused Biden of sexual assault. And then she joined his ticket. If she’s willing to jettison her belief that Biden is a racist who sexually assaulted a woman in the capital building, what does she believe?
Stephen Colbert asked Harris about the accusations she made against Biden. Colbert teed up the issue, “In those debates, you landed haymakers on Joe Biden… How do you go from being such a passionate opponent on such bedrock principles for you and now you guys seem to be pals?” Harris laughed off the question, “It was a debate!” Colbert replied, “So you didn’t mean it?” Harris never answered, but kept asserting that the comments she made were simply part of a debate.
Conservatives have picked up on this theme in Harris’ career. Underneath policy disagreements, the more prominent view of Harris from the right is that she’s insincere, cynical, and disingenuous. Jim Geraghty compiled twenty instances of Harris changing her position on issues from criminal justice reform to immigration. In the primaries, it was Tulsi Gabbard who landed the most powerful blow against Harris, citing her record as a prosecutor in California. After prosecuting 1500 people for drug violations, she joked about smoking marijuana, she “blocked evidence that would have freed a man from death row,” and kept people in prison beyond their term. In light of the calls to “Defund the Police” Harris’ record as a prosecutor puts her in a precarious position.
Harris and Religion
Albert Mohler covered the religious aspects of the Biden campaign on “The Briefing” this morning. In recent weeks, Biden has been playing up his Catholicism, even as he’s been denied communion at several Roman Catholic churches over his abortion views, in the attempt to frame the Biden candidacy as recovering the “soul of the nation.” The Democrats opened their convention with an interfaith religious service Sunday night with representatives from Hinduism, Islam, secular humanism, evangelicalism, and other faiths. Is Biden really a man of faith? Mohler concluded, “on crucial issues [Joe Biden] stands in direct opposition to the teaching of the Roman Catholic church.”
If Biden wanted to alienate religious conservatives, he could not have chosen any better than Harris. Even more than most Democrats, Harris has been vocal about her support of late-term abortions, taxpayer funding, support for Planned Parenthood, and cracking down on Pro-Life opposition. In 2018, Harris insisted that membership in the Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, should be disqualifying for any judge serving in a federal court. She has opposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the name of LGBTQ rights. During her presidential campaign, she promised to head off any legislation aimed at restricting abortion. Harris was the ringleader in the Kavanaugh hearings. Molly Hemingway recounts the way Harris smeared Kavanaugh on unfounded accusations, orchestrated a perjury trap, and called for impeaching Kavanaugh a year after his confirmation.
In one of the most egregious cases of Harris’ attacks on religious conservatives, she prosecuted David Daleiden, the undercover journalist who exposed Planned Parenthood for selling organs from aborted fetuses. Instead of investigating these allegations, Harris launched an investigation into Daleiden, authorized agents to raid his house, and seized all of his equipment used to film his undercover interviews with PP personnel.
Harris and the Future
It seems unlikely that Harris will sway the election one way or the other. For Democrats, she’s a mainstream pick. For Republicans, she’s an obvious choice for Biden. The group most affected might be American Christians, particularly evangelicals. Some evangelicals had been making the case for Biden, Harris will complicate their efforts. Her history of animus toward religious conservatives may drive the “lesser of two evils” crowd back toward Trump or away from the polls altogether.
More generally, the Biden campaign has peaked in popularity and I wonder if he’ll ever have as much momentum as he did Monday before he announced his pick. Possibility is almost always more popular than actuality. Until Monday, Biden was all possibility. Vagueness on policy issues, a steady stream of blaming Trump, and very few public appearances helped everyone create Biden in their own political image. Those who hoped he would usher in the second coming of the Obama administration speculated about Susan Rice and the role Michelle Obama might play in the campaign. Others envisioned Karen Bass leading a second Civil Rights movement. Never Trumpers envisioned Biden as a harmless moderate who might level a decisive repudiation against Trump and take the GOP back to the pre-Trump order.
Now the Biden campaign is starting to take shape, and as he does, his coalition and support can only shrink. He may win in November, and it may even be a landslide, but expect the polling data and the national sentiment to move toward a tighter race between now and then. As the country recovers from the coronavirus, the economy bounces back, kids go back to school, riots in America’s cities die down, and life starts looking a little bit more normal, Biden and Harris may look less and less attractive. A campaign weak on policy and personality, modeled on blaming Trump for the nation's troubles, will fail to deliver as the country recovers from the coronavirus.
The Harris pick is less “pragmatic moderate” and more capitulation from the Biden campaign to the progressive left. Biden partnered with Bernie Sanders to write his policy proposals. He chose Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to co-lead his climate team. He’s indicated that Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren may serve in cabinet roles. Now he’s selected Kamala Harris as his running mate. There is no pushback to the far left in the Biden campaign. Biden has called his campaign a “transition” and now it’s clear what he’s transitioning to; Harris and the progressive left wing of the party are the present and the future.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.