Updated on August 12 at 4:15 p.m. ET
The racial-justice movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd had two quite different effects on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. It intensified the pressure on Biden to choose a Black woman as his running mate. And it also intensified the pressure on him to choose a running mate with a history of challenging police brutality. Those two political imperatives collided in the debate over whether Biden should pick Senator Kamala Harris—a former prosecutor whom some progressives in California have characterized as too deferential to police.
Biden had previously vowed to choose a female running mate, and the typical vice-presidential pick is a senator or governor. Harris is the sole Black woman in either category. In one sense, therefore, she has clearly benefited from the new political reality that the Black Lives Matter movement has created. But that new political reality has also amplified criticism from progressives. In Sunday’s New York Times, the reporters Danny Hakim, Stephanie Saul, and Richard A. Oppel Jr. quoted David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who argues that when Harris “had the opportunity to do something about police accountability” as the city’s district attorney, “she was either not visible, or when she was, she was on the wrong side.” Criticisms like these, the Times notes, have led progressives to ask: “Is Ms. Harris essentially a political pragmatist, or has she in fact changed?”
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.
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.
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.
This was the context in which Harris entered politics. By the standards of the early 2000s, her opposition to the death penalty made her a progressive on criminal-justice issues, and that progressivism almost ended her political career. She responded by largely avoiding confrontations with the police, a wariness she has now jettisoned as the public has grown more critical of police violence.
Not every politician behaves this way. It’s no surprise that two of the progressives who criticize Harris in yesterday’s Times story are supporters of Bernie Sanders. For decades, Sanders stood outside the Democratic mainstream, spurning the centrism of the Bill Clinton and Obama years. That’s part of his appeal today. But as a Black woman working in law enforcement, Harris didn’t have the luxury of Sanders’s ideological purity. Since Reconstruction, only six Black candidates have been elected to the Senate. Tellingly, two have been Republicans. And none of the four Democrats—Carol Moseley Braun, Obama, Cory Booker, and Harris—has been a leftist firebrand. Perhaps the current wave of progressive activism will create national career paths for politicians of color with more radical views: If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez runs statewide in New York, she will become a fascinating test case. But those paths did not exist—not even in California—when Harris was taking the cautious stances on police violence for which she’s now being blamed.
None of this means that Harris is the best choice to be Biden’s running mate or the best person to oversee criminal-justice reform in the White House. What it does mean is that commentators judging her record should acknowledge the political constraints under which she labored. The fact that Harris didn’t boldly confront police misconduct earlier in her career says less about her than about the country in which she lived.