Liberals praised Harris, Republicans attacked her as a “radical leftist,” but progressives say the selection underscores the need for sustained grassroots pressure.


Story Transcript

Donald Trump: This will be the most corrupt election in the history of our country.

Protestor: What do we want?

Protestors: Justice.

Protestor: When do we want it?

Protestors: Now.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor.

Joe Biden has chosen Senator Kamala Harris to be his vice presidential running mate, taking on Donald Trump and Mike Pence in November. Harris becomes the first Black woman and South Asian to appear on a major party ticket in US history. As a US senator, Harris has been described as a fierce critic of the Trump administration, backed criminal justice reform and legislation like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal. Meanwhile, Republicans describe her as a radical leftist.

Narrator: Kamala Harris ran for president by rushing to the radical left, embracing Bernie’s plan for socialized medicine, calling for trillions in new taxes, attacking Joe Biden for racist policies.

Jaisal Noor: But some progressives had opposed Harris’s nomination as VP, citing her record as California’s top prosecutor, where she advocated for arresting parents for their children’s truancy, refused to support body-worn cameras, wavered on the death penalty and defended solitary confinement. Stances deeply disconnected from the historic Black Lives Matter Movement that swept the country in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Well, now, joining me to discuss this is Branko Marcetic. He’s a staff writer for Jacobin magazine, author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, a political biography of the 2020 Democratic candidate. Thanks so much for joining us.

Branko Marcetic: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: So, Kamala Harris, she was a front-runner to be Biden’s VP, so it’s not a big shock that she was chosen, two decades younger than Biden, described to be on the left of the presumptive nominee. Democrats say they’re laser focused on defeating Trump in 2020 and Harris would ease some of the voters’ concerns about Biden and also serve as a sharp foil to Trump and Pence. What’s your response to this? And, also, a candidate that Republicans can try to argue, as we’ve seen, as soft on crime, but clearly that’s not what her record shows.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah. There has been a little bit of mixed messaging from the Republicans. To some extent, it seems like they haven’t quite figured out what the exact message they want to run against Harris is. Was it that she was too tough on crime? Was it that she isn’t tough enough, that she’s a radical, or wedded to the establishment? It does reflect the general approach, the muddled approach Republicans have taken against the Biden in general, where they’ve tried all sorts of different messaging, often contradictory, throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks.

So far, it hasn’t really worked for Trump, obviously, given the fact that the coronavirus is raging through the country, and that is the main issue on people’s minds. But yeah, I mean, the idea that Harris is a radical leftist or what have you is completely divorced from reality.

I mean, Harris was really as centrist as centrist gets. In many ways, she was the heir to the type of politics that Joe Biden had spent his career advocating for in the Democratic Party. So, it’s going to be hard for them to cast her as too radical. And really, the main complaint against her through the primary and even before then was that she was too wedded to politics as usual.

Jaisal Noor: The New York Times has described the Black Lives Matter Movement as what could be the largest protest movement in US history. It shifted public opinion and discourse against the carceral state and towards abolition.

Progressives urged Biden to not put a cop on the ticket, including a majority of Democratic delegates from Harris’s home state. They sent a letter to Joe Biden.

You’ve examined her record on criminal justice. And I want to add that this movement has urged the country to look at alternatives to using police to address issues of economic inequality. That is really what this moment in this movement is calling for. You’ve looked at her record on criminal justice in her home state. What did you find?

Branko Marcetic: Not great things, to put it into summary. Even in the Democratic Party, they obviously had embraced the tough-on-crime turn that people like Joe Biden had been advocating for through the ’80s and the ’90s. Even in that context, Harris really stands out for just how far to the right she was on criminal justice. And when she ran for Attorney General in California, she was actually to the right of her Republican opponent on the three-strikes law. She opposed legalizing recreational marijuana for a very long time. And this is another issue that, when she ran for Senate, her Republican opponent was actually to her left on.

Harris has done things like, her office has fought to keep innocent prisoners in jail. She has fought to block payouts for people who are wrongfully convicted. Her DA’s office in San Francisco withheld evidence that would have had people freed around, I think, something like hundreds of drug cases that had tainted evidence used in them. She argued for keeping prisoners in jail as a source of cheap labor to fight fires and that kind of thing. We could go on and on and on and on.

There was a great piece in The American Prospect that examined her role, more recently, in opposing a Supreme Court order to free nonviolent offenders from prison. And she very strongly resisted that. One law professor actually compared it to the 1950 segregationists who were resisting integration orders at that period. So, I mean, this really shows you just how conservative she was on this front.

And it’s one of these paradoxes or ironies or absurdities, whatever you want to say, of the current US political system and the Democratic Party, that, as you say, at a time when there is massive unrest on a scale that has not been seen in this country ever over police brutality, over the injustice of the criminal justice system.

On the one hand, on the ticket, you have the man who, perhaps more than any other, helped to construct that system, at least on the Democratic side, Joe Biden. And then with him now partnering is someone who very enthusiastically used those powers that Biden and his generation gave to people like her to really make people’s lives worse over sometimes minor transgressions, including just drug possession.

Jaisal Noor: So CNBC News reported, Wall Street leaders cheered Biden’s pick of Harris. Quote, “Financial advisory firm, Signum Global, is already telling its clients that the choice of Harris reinforces the notion that the Democratic ticket is more moderate than progressive,” which you’ve already spoken to.

Then, on the other hand, groups like the Sunrise Movement praised Biden’s choice of Harris, citing her support for the Green New Deal and said, noted, she went after big oil during her time in California as Attorney General. Obviously, there is many competing interests in the Democratic Party and one of them is Wall Street and one of them is the climate movement. What are your thoughts on that?

Branko Marcetic: I think it’s one of these things where we are in this holding pattern where we don’t know what exactly we’re going to get. I mean, Biden’s history and suddenly his pick of Harris is, as those analysts point out, does not suggest someone who is going to dramatically turn to the left suddenly if he becomes president and who is going to pursue this kind of FDR-style presidency that he’s been talking about.

I mean, in fact, almost every Democratic candidate either compares themselves to FDR or the media compares them to FDR, especially in a crisis like this. Bill Clinton did so before he decided to embark on a bunch of budget cuts. So that does not tell us very much.

I think ultimately, the thing that’s going to really tell us what the direction of the Biden presidency is going to be like is to look at who he appoints, which we’ve only gotten some glimmers of based on the leaks, or at least, some suggestions that have been made to various outlets like Axios. Whether those are actually the appointees he’s going to make, it remains to be seen.

But we know that he’s had Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel hovering in the wings. And if you want to shoot a progressive FDR-style agenda in the foot, you could do no better than getting those guys to advise you.

Jaisal Noor: I’d like to interject. Summers did say recently that he’s no longer in the running to be in the Biden Administration.

Branko Marcetic: That’s right. Although, whether he’s advising Biden just informally, that remains to be seen. We’re not really sure about that. There is also, as Robert Kuttner pointed out, he could still possibly be in the running for Treasury, although that would be a hell of a fight if Biden picked him for Treasury. But that [inaudible 00:09:48] doesn’t count as being in the Biden administration. But, I mean, Rahm Emanuel, also another very key figure to hamstring Obama’s agenda after 2008. And now, the pick of Harris does not really suggest that Biden is really eager to go in this direction that the party has been moving into.

I mean, Harris, even though she did get some important settlements against fossil fuel polluters and the like when she was in California, Harris has not always shown the greatest propensity for actually fighting against the powerful. Most, I think, famously, she didn’t prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s bank OneWest, which was engaged in a whole lot of predatory behavior and something like upwards of 1,000 cases of misconduct. Her own office actually suggested that she, or recommended, that she prosecute him and she didn’t, for some reason. And then later, Steven Mnuchin donated to her campaign.

Harris also, she made a mortgage strike force when she was California Attorney General, which was meant to go after mortgage fraud and on foreclosure consultant fraud. Her office actually prosecuted and took to court less cases than even some county DAs in California when it comes to that. We also might look at her relationship with tech firms, and we could go on and on.

But the point is, Harris does not have a consistent record of actually going up against the powerful. And given the fact that she’s such a prolific fundraiser, one of the benefits that she brings to Biden’s campaign, it’s hard to see, unless the Democrats do something that typically does not happen, which is take people’s money and then betray them, it’s hard to see how this is really going to play out in a Biden Administration.

Jaisal Noor: Worth mentioning that Donald Trump himself donated to Kamala Harris’s attorney general runs when she was running for Attorney General of California.

I think that perhaps the most important and pressing question going forward for the Left is what this ticket means for organizing. Regardless of who is in the White House, we know that it’s going to take mass struggle and mass movements to bring any type of real change, with the fear being that a Democratic ticket does not bring the needed structural change.

We’ve seen the coronavirus. We’ve seen the greatest transfer of wealth in this country’s history with billionaires taking in something like $600 billion dollars just in the first couple of months of this economic crisis. There is maybe 40 million people that are going to be kicked out of their homes across the country. What is the strategy going to be, if there is a Biden Harris ticket for the left? Does this mobilize the Left or is it going to demobilize and make it harder to [inaudible 00:12:48]?

Branko Marcetic: It could very well make it harder. It really all depends. What tends to happen is when a Democratic president [inaudible 00:12:58], a lot of people who might have been outraged at things that a Republican president does suddenly lose that outrage when it’s the person on the right team doing it. So we saw with Obama, a lot of Democratic voters actually came around to the War on Terror, even though Obama had run on the reverse saying, Bush’s War on Terror are excesses. And so, there is always a danger of that happening.

One thing that makes me a little bit more hopeful about this, that it won’t just be a repeat of the Obama era is, one, Biden is coming into the presidency with a very weak standing. He doesn’t have a lot of enthusiasm behind him. A lot of voters are, they admit they’re just voting for him to get rid of Trump and they don’t really have any particular passion or feel inspired by him. So it’s not like the Obama wave where he came in with this very enthusiastic grassroots base and he had this massive wave of enthusiasm and support when he came in and used some of that for more nefarious ends like cutting Medicare and Social Security. Biden does not have that mandate to be able to necessarily get away with reactionary things as easily as Obama was able to.

This is also a moment of crisis and mass unrest, the protests against police brutality, and by extension, the federal government’s wider botching of the pandemic response. And that’s not going to end just because Trump leaves. I mean, protests are still happening in Portland even though it’s no longer federal police that are brutalizing protestors. This stuff is going to continue. That has the potential to push a Biden-Harris White House to possibly do things that they would otherwise not if there is this level of unrest and unhappiness.

I mean, at the same time, of course, we can also look at it the other way, where it could also spur a Biden administration to embark on some very repressive measures. I mean, we’ve seen most of the repression that’s happened throughout the country at the hands of the police, it’s been at the hands of Democratic-led governments. So it’s far from clear that Biden wouldn’t also take this kind of position.

Like I said, it’s going to have to depend, I think, on the conditions and it’s going to have to depend on what exactly happens, what the coronavirus crisis even looks like six months from now. But, maybe, I think people should get used to the idea, and I think people should tell, particularly their older relatives who may just see Trump as the main problem and plan to just go back to brunch or what have you once Trump is defeated, that the problems that are facing the United States and the world are still ongoing and that a Biden administration could really do some real damage if people stopped paying attention and don’t get mobilized.

But, given the energy in the streets, I do feel a little more hopeful than I did maybe in April that some of these systemic changes that have to happen, at the very least, have some possibility of being addressed in some way. But, yeah, we’ll have to see.

Jaisal Noor: And it’s definitely worth mentioning that even if we’re talking about Biden and Harris that the progressive left within the Democratic Party is growing. All the squad members defeated well-financed opponents in their primaries. We’ve seen the likes of Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman knock off incumbents, powerful incumbents that have been in office for two decades.

And the DNC gave AOC a slot to speak at the convention next week. So, there certainly will be that voice within the Democratic Party going forward. As we know in the polls, the Democratic base agrees with policies like Medicare For All and a Green New Deal, even if its leadership doesn’t quite feel the same way.

Branko Marcetic: Yeah, and I think that’s really important. I mean, Ilhan Omar just won her reelection. There was a lot of news reports saying, in her run up, oh, she’s under threat, she could lose her seat. They said the same thing about Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They’ve all held their seats. They’ve got a couple more members.

It may well be time for the progressive wing of the party, particularly in the House to, even in their small numbers, throw their weight around and do what the Tea Party did, be that pain in the neck for Democratic leadership in order to get what they want. The Tea Party proved that you can have, you can create some pretty radical change with very small numbers.

One thing with this Harris pick that we should keep in mind as well is that, to me, in my mind, Harris has been chosen to shore up some of these deficiencies of Biden. The fact that he’s not a particularly grassroots popular presidential candidate, the fact that he isn’t particularly inspiring, that people aren’t willing to get behind them and see them as her standard-bearer.

I think Harris has been compared to Obama for a very long time for good reason. And she does have that charisma and that political skill to be able to rally Democratic voters to her. Similar to, perhaps, how Sarah Palin did with Republican voters in 2008. And we should be aware that the eventual Biden Administration, if it does come to pass, could very well use Harris as a way to sell voters in a way that Obama did on a more right-wing program, or to narrow their political imaginations and expectations. So that’s one thing that I think people are going to have to be cognizant of.

People are going to have to keep organizing and keep criticizing this ticket. I don’t think it’s going to do any good to just say, well, Trump has to be defeated, so let’s just close our ears and eyes and pretend that this ticket is something it’s not.

Jaisal Noor: Branko Marcetic, staff writer for Jacobin magazine, author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, thank you so much for joining us.

Branko Marcetic: Thanks for having me.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.