Into the V.P. Pick: Kamala Harris
Brian Williams: I have been saying, I'm sorry? Oh, I think I am just being told we have a pick.
Trymaine Lee: Joe Biden finally has a running mate, Senator Kamala Harris.
Lester Holt: It was a low-key reveal befitting the times, a tweet from Biden celebrating his one-time political opponent as a "fearless fighter for the little guy."
Archival Recording: And if they win, she will become not just the first Black woman vice president, but also the first woman vice president of any race. And also, due to the legacy of her mother, the first Asian-American vice president. It would be history thrice made.
Lee: Biden promised to pick a woman back in March. And over the past few months, calls for him to choose a Black woman grew louder and louder. Harris is a moderate choice by former Vice President Biden. Before being elected to the Senate in 2017, Harris was District Attorney in San Francisco and Attorney General of California. Last year, Senator Harris was part of the most diverse group ever to run for president. Despite being an early front-runner, she lost momentum and dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.
Kamala Harris: Although I am no longer running for president, I will do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump and fight for the future of our country, and the best of who we are. And I know you will too.
Lee: But not before creating one of the most viral moments of the Democratic Primary Debates.
Harris: And I'm gonna now direct this at Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it's personal, and it was actually very, it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States Senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
Lee: Now Biden-Harris is the 2020 Democratic ticket. I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. We're comin' to you very late on Tuesday night with everything you need to know about Senator Kamala Harris joining Joe Biden as his running mate. There's no one better to do that with than Yamiche Alcindor. Yamiche is a White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. Yamiche, thank you so much for joining us. I know it's late. Thank you.
Yamiche Alcindor: If I was gonna do this with anyone, it would be with you.
Lee: That's what I do, I get my friends on the podcast. And that's what we do, just have conversations about politics. (LAUGH) First of all, let's get one thing out of the way here, to get any bias out of the way. You are a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, as well as Kamala Harris. Is there any bias? Should we be aware of any kind of bias because you share this sisterhood with the new VP choice?
Alcindor: No. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated is a nonpartisan organization. So we have sorority sisters that are Republican and Democrat. So I've covered Senator Harris for a long time, but there's no bias in terms of me rooting for her because of our sorority.
Lee: I like how seriously you took my question. I was just joking, Yamiche. (LAUGH)
Alcindor: That's so rude.
Lee: You're, like, "There are Republicans and Democrats."
Alcindor: Skiwi (PH). (LAUGH)
Lee: In all seriousness though, are you surprised by this pick at all? Obviously, her name has been floated around in the veepstakes. But are you surprised at all? What's your reaction?
Alcindor: I'm not surprised by the pick, because she was obviously high on the list, and there are prominent Democrats that were pushing for first a Black woman, but in particular her. I think of Benjamin Crump, who was an attorney for Trayvon Martin's family and Michael Brown's family and George Floyd's family.
He wrote literally an op-ed saying, "You need to pick this person in particular, Senator Harris." That being said, there was obviously some public pushback to her. There were those stories being leaked about the fact that she wasn't really feeling remorseful for the way that she criticized Joe Biden when it came to his stance on busing and racial issues.
But that being said, I think it is an obvious pick, while also being bold at the same time. And it's obvious because she's been a star since the moment she came to the Senate in 2016. But it's also bold, because of course, she's the first African American woman to be picked as a VP nominee. And she's the first Indian woman to be picked as a vice presidential nominee. So there's so much history here, on top of, of course, her being possibly the first woman to be a vice president.
Lee: You know, let's jump back a little bit and kinda get the elephant out of the room here. You mentioned Ben Crump's support. And if there's been any criticism of Kamala Harris from the very beginning it was that Kamala's a cop. And they look back at her record as a prosecutor in California, and there were opportunities to take a more holistic approach, a little more softer, more humane approach.
And people allege that she didn't. How much of that do you think might affect her moving forward? Even though a lot of folks will be celebrating this moment, will there be other folks, especially Black folks who say, "You know what? This isn't what we asked for."
Alcindor: Well, I think that it's gonna be a double-edged sword. There are people who are obviously in the Black Lives Matter movement who really see her as a police officer. They see her as a law enforcement official who did not do the things that she needed to do, in terms of being lenient on people, in terms of being understanding, and in terms of being a progressive prosecutor.
There is this class or progressive prosecutors. That was not Senator Harris. So I've already seen today, there are people, Black Lives Matter activists who are saying, "You know what? I have thoughts on this, but I'm gonna hold them to myself. But I will say that I'm not happy."
But she's not the top of the ticket. She had her race for the presidential ticket. She did not win. Some of it had to do with the fact that people were questioning her background as a prosecutor. And I can say frankly, Trymaine, there were people who just simply did not know who she was.
I think there was a lot of talk of people thinking that she was a police officer. When I went down to South Carolina just weeks before the primary, and I said, "What do you think of Senator Harris," I want to say 90% to 80% of African Americans were, "Who's that woman? I'm not sure I really know her, I'm going with Joe Biden."
So in some ways, Joe Biden already is the person who's gonna be bringing in the African American support. It's of course how he got the nomination. So I think that it's a double-edged sword, but I think for the people who are interested in justice, who are interested in Black Lives Matter, they won't deny the fact that having a Black woman on the ticket is a positive thing.
Lee: So if Joe Biden, to your point there, was already gonna get most of the Black vote, what role is she serving there, if it's not to necessarily attract Black folks? Or is it to attract Black folks? Or is it possibly to be lead prosecutor against the case of Donald Trump getting a second term?
Alcindor: I think the latter is the key to this. It's the fact that she is someone who is blunt talking, who is someone who has made her bones in having these standout clips when she questions people in the Senate. Thinking about the Kavanaugh hearings. Just today, when President Trump was kind of attacking Senator Harris, he zeroed in on this idea that she was nasty and disrespectful, he thought, to Justice Kavanaugh.
In other words, she got under his skin. Which is exactly what the Biden campaign wants. They want someone who's gonna go toe-to-toe with President Trump, someone who we know is gonna play dirty, who is gonna say some of the kind of vile things that he says.
And I say that in a way that, people who support President Trump admit that they like the fact that he's a dirty fighter. They like the fact that he's vile. They like the fact that he's brash. So it's in some ways not even a critique of President Trump to say that, because it's true. That's the way that he likes to fight.
I sat down with Senator Harris a number of times. And one of the things she talked to me about was her mother. When she get into fights at school, she would come back, and she would have a mishap. And she said, "Other parents might give their child a big hug and say, you know, let me coddle you, let me embrace you."
Her mom would say, "Well, what did you do about it?" And she learned from her mom, you need to have your power. You need to harness that power. So we can just imagine her on the debate stage with Vice President Pence. That's gonna be something to watch, something to behold.
Lee: And even though it seems that she's there not to fill necessarily the role of Black surrogate, right, get Black folks excited, because a lotta Black folks were already down with Joe Biden. But she is the child of immigrants. Her father's from Jamaica. Her mother's from India. What's the significance of that? We've never had a person of Indian descent on the ticket at all, and a Black woman, the first Black woman on a presidential ticket. That's a big deal. What's the significance?
Alcindor: The big deal is that, African American women in particular are the base and the most loyal part of the Democratic Party. So you've had Black women who for years and years, decades and decades have supported the party, have gone to the poles in higher numbers, but have never seen themselves reflected on the highest parts of the Democratic ticket.
And now all of that is changing. I think this is showing, in this pick, that Joe Biden is interested in elevating the representation of what the Democratic base wants. On top of that, he's also already made the promise to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court. So in this regard, he's saying, "Look, Black women, I'm gonna put you on my ticket, and I'm gonna put you on my courts."
Lee: Let me ask you about that pressure, right? We know that Joe Biden was struggling until South Carolina. And Clyburn came through. The Black folks in South Carolina and throughout the South came through for him. And the calls grew louder and louder saying, "We need something." Putting pressure on him to tap someone Black and especially a Black woman. Do you think that pressure is what got us to this point? Or do you think he was already saying, "You know what, I'm gonna pay this back to this base"?
Alcindor: Based on my reporting, Joe Biden didn't feel any particular pressure to pick a Black woman. I think it's because he had so many people to choose from, and his chief concern was, who is gonna govern with me, and who's gonna be loyal to the ticket. So that's why you saw someone like Tammy Duckworth who is a veteran, who has served honorably in this country, who lost parts of her body, her legs, serving this country.
You saw people like Val Demings who was someone who understood policing in a very intimate way. You had people like Elizabeth Warren who is a rock star in the progressive wing in the party, who had a pretty decent run at the presidency herself. So he had a pretty big crowd of people that he talked to.
And he met with them personally. This wasn't something where he kind of knew who he wanted to pick at the beginning. Based on my reporting, he was having these conversations, and his wife and his sister were playing into his decision-making, along with his advisers.
So I think there's this idea that people are gonna think maybe she was picked only because she was Black. And that might have added to her bona fides, but the skills and who she was as a Senator were really based on my reporting what played into this pick.
Lee: One thing I think is also interesting is that she's a moderate, Joe Biden is a moderate, and in so many ways, Kamala Harris was the safe pick. A Black woman the first time ever on the ticket is the safe pick. How much do you think that weighed into this? That, again, aside from her race and her ethnicity and her background is that she actually falls in line really well with his politics.
Alcindor: I think that played a key role in it. If you're president, what you want is someone, at least based on my conversations with people who are close to Joe Biden in particular, you want someone to turn to who will carry out what you want done, and who will not be contradicting you.
They obviously have some policy differences when it comes to healthcare and other things. But overall, Joe Biden wanted someone that was not gonna also in any way call into question whether or not his will was being done. That being said, there was this idea that Joe Biden didn't want someone who was gonna outshine him. That's something that's a little bit interesting now.
Alcindor: Because Senator Harris comes with her own star power. She comes with her own entourage. She comes with people who have been rooting for her for a long time. So I think that it's gonna be very interesting to see how the dynamics play out, because in some ways, in picking Senator Harris, he may have already started the Democratic primary for 2024 and 2028. Because now she is gonna be seen as someone who could be the next presidential nominee, even though of course, that's a long way away, and we're so exhausted with 2020. I probably shouldn't be thinking about other years. (LAUGH)
Lee: Right. It's called self-care. Like, you're already jumping ahead to 2024. Let's make it through this first. (LAUGH) Yamiche, we're gonna take a quick break, but stick with us. We'll be right back. (SILENCE) So in this moment of reflection and reckoning and the hue and cry has died down a little bit, but people were talking about Joe Biden and mass incarceration, right?
And then you have that moment in the debate last year when Kamala Harris came at Joe Biden saying he basically was being buddy-buddy with segregationists and racists, and that he opposed integration efforts in the '70s, right? And she talked about how she was a product of busing, and he opposed that. They got over this clearly. What does it say about their dynamic, who they are, and how they see not just history informing the president, but in this moment what it means?
Alcindor: It's so critical and interesting to me that Joe Biden was able to get over that and able to pick Senator Harris. Because obviously, if you read the stories that were coming out in the weeks right before this pick was made, there are people in Joe Biden's inner circle who were leaking that they were still not getting over that.
That they were still looking at Senator Harris and saying, "She needs to be more apologetic." And then Senator Harris essentially was saying, "Well, this is politics, and if I wanted something, I went out and got it." I think likely Joe Biden looked at how she came after him and thought, that's exactly how I want her to come after President Trump and Vice President Pence.
She studied Joe Biden. She was friends obviously with Beau Biden, his late son. But she decided, if I want something, I have to go full throttle. And she went full throttle. And it's probably one of the most memorable debates in the Democratic primary, having had so many debates. But that moment sticks out.
Joe Biden's also saying in this pick I think that he's willing to be challenged. That he's willing to look at somebody in the face and say, "Okay, I saw what you saw. I see the flaw that you're trying to bring out. I'm either gonna defend myself, or I'm gonna own up and say, that wasn't really good." I mean, he used to call the crime bill, the Joe Biden crime bill, right? That's gonna be something that he's gonna have to atone to, and that's gonna be something that people are gonna ask him about going forward.
Lee: And speaking of atonement, you know, Kamala Harris once called herself "the top cop." And she's been dogged by those claims that she was lenient when police officers committed crimes. And on one hand, you wonder how this tandem will play in those Black progressive circles and Black Lives Matter circles.
But then I wonder if it a smart move, because as we are reckoning with race, there are still a lot of people, a lot of white folks in particular who are still very pro-cop. I wonder if actually having Kamala Harris actually might siphon off some of that pro-cop but still kind of open space of voters. What do you think?
Alcindor: I think so. I think that, if you're someone who wants to reform the police department, but maybe doesn't think that they should be abolished, or that you want to see some change that maybe is them thinking through how they approach Black people in Black neighborhoods, but you don't want it to be completely upended, then Kamala Harris is someone that you're gonna look to.
I think that if you're a white person who's really worried about kind of the Black Lives Matter movement going too far, Senator Harris might be someone who makes you feel good. I think that that's why the complication comes in, because I think there are a lot of Black Lives Matter supporters and activists who are gonna say, "We do not like this pick. She was someone who was not progressive."
That being said, the decision is really gonna be, do you want to stay home, or do you want to vote for Senator Harris? Because we already know, and Black voters have shown, that they are not supporting President Trump, because he's been very clear about the fact that he thinks there need to be more cops on the streets. That there needs to be this law and order presidency.
That Black folks and white folks sometimes are just outta line when it comes to going to these protests. So he's been someone who has not even tried to embrace this protest movement. He doesn't want anything to do with it. Instead, he's moving people out of the way with tear gas and all sorts of things to have photo ops. So the president is obviously not a choice that's gonna siphon off anybody who's not happy with Senator Harris.
Lee: And what about Black voters? I mean, obviously there are whole cohorts of Black voters who are gonna vote no matter what, right? They are loyal, loyal voters. This Democratic base, right? This block is mighty and strong, comes out every single time.
But sometimes when I hear the criticism of Kamala Harris, it rings true to the criticism that some folks had against Obama, Black people. And they weren't voting anyway, right? They're saying that, "We don't believe in the system, period." And we don't believe in these Black folks who white folks have tapped for these positions. But are they important at all, those fringe voices?
Alcindor: I think it might have some effect. I think if you're someone who saw Barack Obama and didn't really want to support him, then you're probably not gonna want to support Senator Harris. If you're someone who was excited about Barack Obama, excited about voting for a Black person on the ticket, then you're also gonna be excited likely about supporting Senator Harris.
I will say that, there is this swag factor, if I can say that, right? When I talk to voters who are familiar with Senator Harris, they talk about the fact that, not only is she someone who has good questions during the Senate, but she's also someone with a little swag.
Who knows how to laugh, who knows how to have a conversation, who knows how to turn an interviewer on their heels, who knows how to kind of finesse things in a way that things might need to be finessed when you look at the long, long history of Joe Biden and Senator Harris.
Lee: But she also has that prosecutor still in her. And to watch her go to work in the Senate, to watch her put on the prosecutorial show, how do you think that will play out in the debates?
Alcindor: I think it's gonna be so interesting to watch Senator Harris and Mike Pence go head to head. Because Mike Pence, the way that he's been able to be successful in this presidency has been to be kind of quiet and supportive of President Trump and not be the face of some of the things that the administration has done.
Think about family separation, think about the struggles through the coronavirus pandemic, think about the Mueller report, impeachment. Mike Pence has kind of been the guy in the background who can be quiet and who can support the things that are happening but still kind of center himself as, I'm really focused on the religious right, and I'm focused on kind of being someone of faith.
I think Senator Harris, especially if someone who's a Black Baptist is going to go very quickly to this idea of faith, this idea of what do their shared faiths call for in this moment. So I think it's gonna be feisty. And I think Mike Pence is gonna have to really think through how he responds to Senator Harris.
I'll also say because she's a woman. President Trump, his first few words about Senator Harris were, "She's nasty, she's disrespectful." A lotta people see that as gender language. So I think that Pence is gonna have to choose his words wisely.
Lee: So let's talk about Joe Biden's age here. He's 77 years old. Kamala Harris is 55. She has a lot of experience. Do you think that she's ready to assume the presidency? And again, I'm not asking for your, you know, you've been covering this stuff. But do you think she's ready and prepared?
Alcindor: I think Senator Harris is as ready and as prepared as Vice President Pence. If you are a Republican, you probably feel very comfortable with Mike Pence being the president. And if you're a Democrat, I think that you also are very comfortable with Senator Harris being the pick. I think obviously, especially after Obama, there has been this kind of upending of the traditional way that things are done, the traditional resume that one has to have in order to be president.
But at the end of the day, she's won in statewide twice. She's been vetted, first as running for president herself, then going through the vice presidential vetting. She's someone who has had a long history in academics as well as someone who's well-educated, who understands America.
She also understands foreign policy. She understands all the things that you would need a president to understand. So I think in some ways, she would be ready on day one if needed. The question is whether or not the policies that she's gonna enact are the policies that you support.
Lee: And the policies that we've seen, some can be lasting, we see over these last almost four years, all the federal judges. We see how the political landscape and the policy has shifted so dramatically. But we're also looking at history here and how these administrations will be remembered. How proud of a moment is this, not just for Black America, but America itself?
Alcindor: Well, I'll say this. Because I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, I'm involved in a lot of group chats, a lot of message streams. And there was a collective gasp and a collective celebration among people of color, Black women in particular, immigrants in this country.
Because she is living this dream of her ancestors. That she is a child of people who were not born in this country and ancestors who were not born in this country, and that she could rise to the vice presidency says something about America. Even as America is as flawed as it is, again, the country being stolen by (SIC) Native Americans, enslaving African Americans for hundreds of years.
There is this feeling like, even with all of these terrible things that America has done, that someone like Senator Harris can rise above all of that to be the vice president, I think there's something that's quintessentially American about that, that has people feeling like things will be okay. That the future will be okay.
Lee: Yamiche, I want to thank you for joining us. I know it's late, and you are, like, the hardest-working woman in media. Every time I turn around, I see you, and when I hear you, I know it's rooted in truth and passion. And you are a class act. Yamiche, thank you very much.
Alcindor: Thanks so much for having me.
Lee: Yamiche Alcindor is a White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and a political contributor for NBC News and MSNBC. And we wanted to leave you with this little moment from way back in May 2019. Then presidential candidate Kamala Harris was asked about the rumor she'd be a good VP pick for Biden. Here's what she said.
Harris: I think that Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice president, he's proven that he knows how to do the job. And there are certainly a lot of other candidates that would make for me a very viable and interesting vice president.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow with our week-long series, Coronavirus In The Classroom.