Harris’s biography is very interesting, of course — daughter of a Jamaica-born economist and an India-born cancer researcher; a childhood spread among the San Francisco Bay area, Wisconsin and Montreal. Her political ascent has been historic — she was the first woman elected to three different positions (San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and vice president). She is also the first Black person or person of South Asian descent to win a California U.S. Senate seat, as well as those other three jobs. Her rise to the vice presidency of the United States will be one of the most important legacies of the Biden administration, no matter what else happens over the next few years.
But as a politician, the reality is that Harris is fairly traditional. Unlike Barack Obama, she did not write a long memoir about her life before even entering politics, win a long-shot U.S. Senate campaign or vault into the presidential conversation largely because of a single outstanding speech. Nor was her husband the president (Hillary Clinton). Instead, Harris worked her way up step by step, all the while positioning herself firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, not too left or too right — like Biden and unlike, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).
The party, in turn, has embraced her. She was the party-establishment choice for attorney general and U.S. Senate. In 2008, when the Democrats wanted an older White man to pair with Obama, Biden was a natural choice; in 2020, when they wanted a woman of color to pair with Biden, Harris was the natural choice. Now, Harris is treating the vice presidency as any traditional politician would — embracing the president’s policies wholeheartedly, while also taking steps to keep the door open for a future presidential run of her own. News coverage wondering about Harris’s agenda as vice president is largely misplaced: Her agenda is Biden’s agenda.
It’s natural to be curious how Harris is specifically approaching issues of race, given her identity and how central race is to our politics. But Harris isn’t saying anything particularly compelling about racial issues either, and that’s also not surprising. Again, her agenda is Biden’s agenda. It makes sense that Harris, in recent public comments, has both rejected the idea that the United States is a racist nation and urged people in Central America not to try to come here. Those aren’t the most racially progressive views, but they are in line with Biden. But even before Harris became Biden’s No. 2, she wasn’t known for saying groundbreaking things on race. Prominent people of color pursuing mass appeal — think Lester Holt, Jennifer Lopez or Oprah Winfrey — aren’t usually the ones saying the boldest things on race. Harris, like Obama, is not trying to be a major leader on racial policy issues; she is trying to appeal to the masses and eventually become president.
The assumption that Harris is a bad politician is largely based on her 2020 Democratic primary run. It’s true that Harris wasn’t the greatest candidate. That said, Harris, like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Warren, never really had a chance to win. After the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss, Democratic voters were committed to running a man against Trump. And there was really never a chance that Democrats were going to nominate a Black woman. But many Democrats were also never going to say any of that directly, forcing them to look for ways to ding Harris and the other female candidates — “bad campaigns!” — to avoid citing their actual reason.
But outside of the 2020 primary, Harris has actually done very well politically. She rose to the top of the largest state in the country, one loaded with Democratic talent, and did it as a woman of color no less. Biden’s victory during the primaries was followed by an informal but real and heated campaign for vice president, and Harris won that, too.
Most important, Harris can woo the kinds of voters who back Democrats in this era. Biden didn’t win the presidency by getting lots of White voters without college degrees and in rural areas to swing back to the Democrats. What drove his victory was a surge in turnout, particularly among young people, African Americans and other Democratic-leaning blocs, combined with gains with White voters in the suburbs and those with college degrees in particular. Harris is a great fit for that kind of political coalition. If Biden, who is 78, opts not to run in 2024, Harris absolutely can win the presidency.
If she does, she’d certainly make history as a woman and woman of color. But in other ways — disciplined, experienced, in the ideological mainstream — she’d be the kind of president we’ve seen many times before.