Two Campaign Reporters Put the Harris Pick in Perspective

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Last year, when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were still rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Astead W. Herndon and Alexander Burns, both national political reporters for The Times, were on the campaign trail covering the fight.

This week, when Mr. Biden, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, announced that Ms. Harris would be his running mate, Mr. Herndon and Mr. Burns tapped into their expertise to put the news in perspective in a live video discussion, part of The Times’s Election 2020 event series. Rachel Dry, deputy Politics editor, hosted the discussion. These are edited excerpts.

What was Senator Harris pitching when she entered the Democratic primary race, and how does that compare to what we saw in her and Vice President Biden’s first appearance as running mates?

ASTEAD W. HERNDON I remember the questions of that weekend. What kind of ideological figure would she represent? And that wasn’t really answered. She was someone who, during the course of that campaign, would go back and forth from kind of one foot in the progressive lane to a more pragmatic and moderate approach.

But when we look at this role that she’s inhabiting now, the number two does not have to really make those big ideological choices that were forced upon her at the top. She’s freed of the big picture questions that hounded her throughout the campaign. She’s able to lean into the more representational qualities. And I think that that’s part of the reason that Vice President Biden selected her.

Alex, you wrote a story last summer where you examined Harris, how she thinks about governing and what her philosophy is. What does Harris think the government is capable of doing?

ALEXANDER BURNS Astead put it well that, in some ways, the constraints of the running mate role are freeing for her because Joe Biden has set the terms of the campaign ideologically.

Going back to the story, rereading it the other day, it’s pretty clear why she and Joe Biden are a political match for each other. Her resistance to what she sees as abstractions. Her desire to square away this impulse towards inspiration and big ideas, with a real skepticism about putting stuff in front of voters that is just not going to pass Congress.

But talking to people who worked with her over the years in San Francisco, in Sacramento and in Washington, there is this sense that she’s somebody who is comfortable in the role of an executive who is making judgment calls on a case-by-case basis as policy challenges come before her. But not somebody who is going to have some expansive integrated tapestry of all her policies and how they are supposed to feed into the moment.

From your conversations with her, what is your sense of how Senator Harris thinks about her barrier-breaking role?

HERNDON This is someone who has broken barriers throughout her life and throughout her political career, and so there is somewhat of a comfort with that. She views herself as a trailblazer, she is a trailblazer, and kind of thinks of herself as creating a pathway for others.

When you think about race particularly with her, it comes first from a place of empathy. She talks about the way that representation and being in the room can create a space and a vision to see others who may not have been viewed otherwise, and she talks about that as the origin story of how she got into being a prosecutor.

I remember when she wrote out her criminal justice plan and asking her about the criticisms that, no matter how much empathy one has, that she was still taking part in the system that people are currently viewing as opposed to marginalized groups. And she was saying that we should want people of color in every position, and that that could be something that created better outcomes.

But she also admitted that she was acting within the kind of political constraints of the moment, and I remember she used the phrase, she’s “changed with the winds” that have come since then. And I think that is a kind of insight into how she views her political philosophy, somewhere in the middle, the center left of where Democratic Party politics is.

The next installment in the Election 2020 event series is Sept. 15.