This is a false dichotomy. The implication is that if politics has influenced Harris’s views on criminal justice, progressives shouldn’t support her for vice president. But that’s naive. Because if politics hadn’t influenced Harris’s views, she probably wouldn’t be in a position to join the Democratic ticket in the first place. Commentators can ignore the way American politics actually works. Black women who want a career in national politics cannot.
Read: Kamala Harris’s very open secret
A close reading of Harris’s record suggests that she likely has shifted her views on police misconduct for political reasons. An opponent of the death penalty, she refused as San Francisco’s district attorney to seek the execution of a man who killed a police officer in 2004. Police officials savaged her. Senator Dianne Feinstein, her fellow Democrat, undercut her. When Harris ran for California attorney general six years later, the decision still haunted her. Every other California Democrat in a statewide race that year won by double digits. Harris, competing against a Republican strongly backed by the police, won by less than a single point.
It’s in this context that Harris, as the Times points out, “largely avoided intervening in cases involving killings by the police” in her early years as state attorney general. After 2014, when the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, she inched toward a more reformist stance. By 2016, she supported what the Times described as “a modest expansion of her office’s powers to investigate police misconduct.” But her demands for police oversight were nowhere near as sweeping as they have become this year.
Peter Beinart: Progressives have short memories
Were these shifts opportunistic? Probably. They were also, in all likelihood, necessary for Harris’s political survival.
They were necessary because when Harris first sought elected office, the politics of crime were radically different from what they are today. A series of Gallup polls from 2001 to 2004 found that close to 60 percent of Democratic voters supported the death penalty. In 2000, the Times described the Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore as “firmly” in favor of capital punishment. In the 2004 Democratic primary, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina attacked John Kerry, his party’s eventual nominee, for opposing the death penalty, a position that, the Times noted, “Democrats had long feared could cause” the senator from Massachusetts “a problem in a general election.” Presumably to mitigate this political risk, Kerry declared that he supported the death penalty for terrorists.
Conventional wisdom held that being deemed pro-criminal was even more dangerous for Black politicians. During his 2004 Senate run, Barack Obama bragged that as a state senator he had “passed 150 pieces of legislation that toughened penalties for violent criminals.” In The Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, he took a position more supportive of the death penalty than Kerry had.