The Events Behind Klobuchar’s Exit Pose Opportunities & Challenges for Harris & Demings in the Vetting Process
Political Reporters That Parrot Double-Standards on Women in Law Enforcement Don’t Understand the Law
By Al Giordano
Note: This is Part II of a series on Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential nomination process, the costs and benefits that potential nominees under consideration bring to his ticket. Part I (Warren’s Successor Will Not Be a Republican, April 20, 2020) appears here.
Joe Biden’s vice-presidential selection pick is still a month or more away and has already been a roller-coaster ride on which various potential running-mates have seen perception of their stocks rise, fall, and rise anew, due to shifts in the news cycles in a country with the shortest of attention spans.
The events of the past month since the May 25 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis are said to have shaken up the search anew. Two on the short-list – Kamala Harris and Val Demings – have seen perceptions of their chances rise while media mentions of two others – Amy Klobuchar and Keisha Lance Bottoms – ticked downward, and, now, Klobuchar has withdrawn from consideration.
If we’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s that news media flares up rapidly on a story, erases its previous obsession (Tara who?), the punditry and social media voices convince themselves that the new, big news event will remain fixed as the dominant theme of the presidential campaign, only to lose focus and turn on a dime toward the next bright, shiny bauble of controversy and conflict.
It’s likely that before Biden’s self-declared August 1 deadline for choosing his VP, new events will emerge as dominant, or an “old one” that never went away, say, the pandemic’s rebound, Trump administration corruption, or an economy newly in crisis, returns to center stage. The current – long overdue – focus on racism in the criminal justice system feels unprecedented but has only scratched the surface of a longstanding ignorance on the part of the press and public alike as to how the wheels of justice and injustice in America truly grind.
News organizations that promote reporters to cover elections who themselves have no experience working on political campaigns – I’ve written this so many times it might one day be on my tombstone – commit malpractice. And the negligence doesn’t end there. That they send such naifs out to offer political “analysis” without first having assigned them to the crime and court beats has ill-served the public interest.
Crime and justice stories almost always become hot-buttons in presidential campaigns (remember the Comey letter a week before the 2016 vote?) but most political reporters don’t understand the basics of a single court case, much less the manifold layers of a multi-leveled justice system. Few issue areas provide politicians with such fertile terrain for deceptive demagoguery in a land where courts and racial justice are so deeply intertwined. It was former prosecutor Chris Christie who, at the 2016 Republican convention led the chant of “lock her up” against Hillary Clinton. Did a single national reporter who took dictation on that one ever ask the question, “on what charge?”
Let’s unpack the new dynamics in the vice-presidential selection process post-May 25 and at least try to use the opportunity to understand them fully before the fickle news media begins its next cycle of obsession over something it will tell us is new and impose a corresponding amnesia over the last month’s headline-generator.
The Unseen Undertow of Klobuchar’s Exit
Senator Amy Klobuchar withdrew from consideration for the vice-presidential nomination on June 18, but May 25 was the date that her chances at being nominated took a steep tumble downward. Until then, Klobuchar had by all accounts been in the top tier of serious consideration. Polling data consistently showed her as the strongest candidate for an important swing vote: white, suburban independents. She was one of just three under consideration – along with Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren – to have already been under the klieg lights of a presidential candidacy, giving those three a huge head start on the vetting process. Klobuchar is from the electoral battleground of the northern Midwest. She enjoys a strong working relationship with Joe Biden (and a solid friendship with Jill Biden as well).
All that changed with the May 25th police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in Hennepin County, Minnesota where Klobuchar had been elected district attorney in 1998, ran unopposed for reelection in 2002 and served until her 2006 election to the US Senate.
A single news story – and a bogus one, at that – ended up disqualifying Klobuchar to the point where she took herself out of contention. The swift turn of fortune had, at its root, the wide abyss between press and public ignorance about the workings of the criminal justice system and how it, in real life, functions.
Let’s review the facts behind the “Klobexit”: In 2006, Klobuchar’s final year as Hennepin district attorney, the police officer now facing charges for Floyd’s killing, Derek Chauvin, had been involved in the shooting of a civilian named Wayne Reyes. Klobuchar’s successor as DA sent the case to a grand jury which determined not to prosecute the officer.
That Klobuchar had no direct involvement in that earlier Chauvin case did not prevent the news reports about it – the earliest of which had errantly reported that it had been Klobuchar who had declined to prosecute – from all but sinking Klobuchar’s chances to become Biden’s nominee. The hit on Klobuchar – particularly heavy from social media partisans of other potential Democratic VP nominees – drew blood: That, as DA, she had routinely sent police misconduct cases to grand jury instead of opting to prosecute them directly, and that became weaponized against her VP chances.
Unmentioned in virtually all of the news stories on the matter was an important mitigating factor: That Minnesota is one of eleven states that have a “Police Bill of Rights” that grants sweeping additional protections to police charged with committing crimes on the job.
Every prosecutor and law enforcement official in the United States, at every level, has to practice a form of triage daily. The sheer volume of accusations of crime and wrongdoing far exceed the system’s resources to properly investigate and prosecute each claim. In the United States, dispatchers receive 650,000 calls a day from citizens reporting an alleged crime, fire or health emergency – 240 million calls to 911 a year. Law enforcement agencies make more than twelve million arrests annually, the vast majority of them at the state and local level (federal law enforcement agencies make only about 150,000 arrests a year, two-thirds of them for alleged immigration law violations). Those twelve million arrests are processed by only 30,000 judges in state courts. The system is overwhelmed and backlogged.
What few outside the legal profession understand about prosecutors – district attorneys, attorneys general and US attorneys – is that to maximize the limited staff and resources they can deploy they prioritize only those cases in which the evidence is strong enough to bring a substantial shot at winning the case.
The obstacles to winning a prosecution against a police officer in all 50 states are made higher because a significant sector of the jury pool is prone to believe a police officer’s testimony above that of rank-and-file citizens, and in criminal cases a jury must vote unanimously to convict. A single hold-out can, and often does, derail a conviction.
In Minnesota and fifteen other states, a Police Bill of Rights raises those hurdles much higher. These laws provide accused law enforcement officers with steep additional due process rights, severely limiting a prosecutor’s powers, including virtually prohibiting the prosecution from attempting to persuade a charged officer to turn state’s witness against other officers in the case. Imagine being a defendant in a conspiracy in which the prosecutor may not even ask your codefendants to turn evidence against you! Law enforcement personnel, in those states, are guaranteed access to their own personnel files and right of rebuttal to anything contained within them: rights that no other class of criminal defendant enjoys.
Every prosecutor has wanted to prosecute a case but had to conclude that the case was unwinnable or had such a high risk of defeat that it could not be charged. The public opinion backlash against an elected prosecutor who brings a case and then loses it is generally greater than that of not bringing a case to court in the first place. It is usually the trial itself that raises the profile of a case to that level of public attention. Prosecutorial reluctance to bring those cases to trial is common because the rules they have to work under are stacked against successful conviction.
California and Florida Have ‘Police Bill of Rights’ Laws, Too
Some partisans of California Senator Kamala Harris and Florida US Rep. Val Demings – and other potential VP nominees – seized upon the news reports that sought to place responsibility on Klobuchar that Chauvin was still in the Minneapolis Police Department, believing that by tearing down one possible nominee they therefore could increase the odds for their own favorite. It’s doubtful many were aware of Police Bills of Rights or which states have them as law.
Despite what many on social media seem to believe today, Harris and Demings’ chances of becoming VP were not necessarily boosted by Klobuchar’s exit. They may end up harming them as unfairly as they fell on Klobuchar. The chain of events that led Klobuchar to withdraw from consideration have now opened a door to and established a formula for similar lines of attack on any potential nominee that worked in law enforcement.
Two of those “Police Bill or Rights” states are California, where Harris was San Francisco district attorney and state attorney general, and Florida, where Demings was a police officer for 23 years and then police chief of Orlando from 2007 to 2011.
There is a zero percent chance that there were police officers accused of misconduct that did not end up prosecuted by Harris when county and state prosecutor. There is a zero percent chance that some officers accused of wrongdoing while Demings was police chief are not still on the force. Possibilities are also high that Demings’ own personnel file from 23 years as an officer contains accusations or claims made about her that – true or false – will now be pored over by GOP oppo research teams – and Biden’s vetting team now has to pay added attention to any potential claim that could derail Demings or Harris with similar underlying dynamics of the reports that sank Klobuchar’s chances.
In a July 2008 op-ed essay in the Orlando Sentinel, then-Police Chief Demings wrote, “Looking for a negative story in a police department is like looking for a prayer at church. It won’t take long to find one.” Demings’ department was then under fire for “98 claims of excessive force over a five-year period.”
Those 98 cases were in a county with a population today of 285,000. San Francisco County in California, where Harris served as district attorney, has 883,000 residents. And the state of California, where Harris was attorney general, 39.5 million. One doesn’t need to pull out a calculator to deduce that the sheer number of law enforcement cases increases where the population is greater. It’s not realistic to expect that any county or state law enforcement official can somehow magically end the deeply-ingrained patterns of police and prosecutorial misconduct once serving at the post. (The new San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive darling with a pedigree, will surely see plenty and result powerless to prevent as them on his own watch; these problems are systemic.)
When John Kerry won the Democratic nomination for president, not a single negative story surfaced from his years as first assistant district attorney in Massachusetts’ most-populous county of Middlesex. But as Harris’ ten-month campaign for president showed, when a woman prosecutor seeks national office, especially a black woman, a bizarre fixation emerges from some corners of the left and right alike that seeks to blame and castigate her for anything that was alleged to happen in law enforcement under her watch. And yet here we are. A single negative news story, even one of dubious factual claim, and Amy Klobuchar was driven out of contention.
The Nightmare Scenario Already Happened to Atlanta’s Mayor
Imagine, for a moment, that at any moment from now through November, another police-perpetrated shooting or crime occurs in Orlando, Florida or anywhere in California, and that the perpetrator had a misconduct complaint filed against him when Demings was chief or Harris was prosecutor. Whether before or after the Democratic National Convention, the corresponding media storm around it could wreak havoc on the chances for a potential VP nominee – or for the ticket of an already-nominated running mate.
Think the chances of that are so slim that it’s not something Biden’s team now has to do due diligence and vet? Let me introduce you to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Until Friday night, June 12, Mayor Lance Bottoms’ name was as frequently mentioned as a possible VP nominee as Rep. Demings’. The mayor was being vetted by Biden’s team and seriously considered. As a popular chief executive of one of America’s most important cities, in a borderline swing state, Georgia, where not just one but two GOP-held senate seats are on the November ballot, there were strong arguments in favor of Lance Bottoms as nominee, both for Electoral College and senate majority purposes, and also for the executive experience she would bring to the job of governing. The Atlanta mayor enjoys the strongest of alliances with Joe Biden, who she endorsed and vocally promoted even during the early primaries when Biden was down in the polls. Of everyone on the “short list,” only Lance Bottoms was Team Biden from the start.
On that night Rayshard Brooks, a black man, felt tired while driving, did the responsible thing, pulled into a Wendy’s fast food parking lot after business hours, and took a nap in his car. A police cruiser arrived at the scene. Although a man asleep can commit no crimes, the officers woke him. The altercation was captured on camera. The officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in the back has since been charged with felony murder, with a possible sentence of life without parole or capital punishment. In the tinder box of police and race relations in the US at this moment, the murder became the latest match to relight the flames, in this case resulting in the literal burning down of the Wendy’s restaurant. The news media blamed that arson on protesters. Since, we’ve learned that a white former Wendy’s employee with a reported grudge is now wanted for the crime.
Atlanta’s police chief has since resigned, and we don’t hear Lance Bottoms’ name mentioned as prominently as under VP consideration at anywhere near the volume and frequency as hers had been gathering steam prior to the murder. Whether or not the mayor had any actual responsibility for what had happened – in a news cycle like this – becomes secondary to public demand for heads to be rolled and careers to be ended.
The chances that a potential vice-presidential nominee’s city or state would become the next flashpoint for the chain of events set off in Minneapolis on May 25 would have been considered slim prior to its actual occurrence. The events fell more heavily on Mayor Lance Bottoms also because she is a woman, and more so as a black woman, where in much of American culture it is women who are considered especially responsible for what goes on within their homes, or on their home terrain.
Biden’s vetting team could choose to believe the chances are low that the same could happen in the next five months in the entities where police operated under Harris’ or Demings’ watch. One could hope simply that the November election will arrive without any such incident and might well be proved correct in that gamble. But it is far more likely that what happened to Klobuchar now forces them to conduct due diligence and investigate every single case of alleged police misconduct under their respective law enforcement watches to, at minimum, have the facts and plan lined up to push effectively back against the inevitable social media stampede mob that will call for either’s head on a stick if anything like that does turn into a news story.
The Klobuchar denouement has already cued up the script for the significant sector of the social media mob that wraps hashtags and causes around its more dominant penchant for character assassination and its never-ending thirst for somebody new to “cancel.” Why a particular public figure gets disqualified from public life is often secondary to the ritual human sacrifice element of the game, as old as the lions and gladiators of the Roman Coliseum. And is this not also a primary dynamic behind the daily injustices in the criminal justice system itself? The system’s alleged “presumption of innocence” runs time and time again up against public opinion’s easily provoked and manipulated presumption of guilt and bloodlust for punishment ahead of any due process whatsoever. Or, to paraphrase Pogo, we have met the injustice and it is us.
The Other Edge of the Sword: GOP “Swift-Boating”
Because Republican opposition research staffers have also seen what happened with Klobuchar, they are surely now leaving no stone unturned in a search for cases that happened – or even cases like that of Chauvin’s in 2006, close enough in proximity to the target – that could be weaponized against the former law enforcers on Biden’s short list: either to foment a cycle of news stories once nominated to define his nominee in public opinion, or to knock one out of contention before the pick is made.
“Swift-boating” is a term that entered the American political lexicon in 2004, when John Kerry won the Democratic nomination for president. One of Kerry’s historic strengths as a candidate was as the highly-decorated Vietnam veteran – a silver star, a bronze star, three purple hearts wounded in combat – who had then led Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kerry was a rare political leader who had receipts on both sides of that divide. Much of his story centered around the swift boat he captained in the Mekong Delta and the stories told by his “brothers in arms” on that boat.
The Republican opposition research machine – determined to market one of Kerry’s biggest electoral strengths into a liability – dredged up other veterans who claimed to have served with Kerry to tell negative stories about his military history. The alternative storyline succeeded in planting doubts among sectors of public opinion, enough to begin to chip away at public perceptions about Kerry, who went on to lose the election to George W. Bush much as Al Gore had before him, essentially by a single swing-state’s results. Ever since then political reporters and pundits have referred to this style of GOP attack as swift-boating.
Kerry was not the first Democratic nominee to be successfully swift-boated. It was a script that had been invented to derail Governor Mike Dukakis’ 1988 campaign against Bush’s father. After that July’s Democratic National Convention, Dukakis enjoyed a wide lead in the polls over then-Vice President George Bush: Gallup had him at 55 percent to Bush’s 38 percent. Although Dukakis had never been in law enforcement himself, it was a single case involving criminal justice that unraveled Dukakis’ lead and opened a path to his Electoral College pummeling that year: the case of Willie Horton.
The Willie Horton case had all the ingredients of the intentional inflammation of white racism that Donald Trump keeps pounding away at today.
Convicted of murder in 1974 and sentenced to life without parole in the state of Massachusetts, Horton had, in 1986, while Dukakis was governor, obtained a weekend furlough allowed under Massachusetts state law. Dukakis did not enact the state’s furlough law. That was done by a Republican governor, Frank Sargent, back in 1972. The law was written to exclude first-degree murderers from the program, but the state supreme court then overturned that exception to the law. As governor, Dukakis did not personally sign off on Horton’s approval for furlough. That was done much farther down the state bureaucratic food chain.
Horton took the furlough, did not return, committed various crimes including rape and assault while in Maryland. He was apprehended and sentenced to multiple life sentences and remains in prison today.
The name Willie Horton was made infamous during that 1988 campaign through a TV ad aired by Americans for Bush. William Horton himself never had gone by the name “Willie” but the ad named him that nonetheless and showed his mug shot prominently, that of, surprise, surprise, a black man.
GOP image-man Lee Atwater would later tell the Baltimore Sun, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton was Dukakis’ running mate.” Then vice-president George Herbert Walker Bush, the Republican nominee, repeatedly raised the Horton case in his speeches and public appearances. His campaign committee brazenly denied the ad had been at all racist.
When in 2016 Donald Trump continually raised the cases of undocumented immigrants who had committed violent crimes and blamed them on Hillary Clinton – whose only statutory authority in the executive branch of government had been over US foreign policy – it was a blatant attempt to deploy the Horton script to inflame racist passions and fears.
The Horton case shows the two-edged nature of these kinds of criminal justice story swords. Whereas for many inside the Democratic coalition, candidates – especially women – are attacked and punished for not successfully removing bad actors in law enforcement, the Republican flip-side of this formula of attack is to rile up voters, especially white voters, to view a Democratic candidate as personally responsible for every criminal act that has ever escaped justice under her or his perceived watch.
The Biden vetting team, thus, when investigating the backgrounds of potential VP nominees, has to pay at least as much attention to how some past events can be distorted by Republican opposition researchers and spin-makers. Even cases – such as that of Klobuchar and the Minneapolis police officer – in which a public official had zero direct responsibility at all over events but in which the perception of responsibility can be created have to be studied, researched, and strategies gamed out for how they would be countered if the stories are flamed on erupt later by a sensationalist media.
None of This Is Disqualifying – If Democrats Don’t Fall into the Trap
In Part I of this series on potential vice-presidential nomination picks by Joe Biden, we began with the obvious, because what is obvious is also too often overlooked: “There is no such thing as a political or personnel decision that doesn’t risk potential costs and that brings only benefits. Risks are not themselves disqualifying. Denying risk instead of managing it what tends to turn a risk into a problem. The challenge is to accurately measure risk and weigh it to make choices in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs and risks.”
By addressing the costs, benefits and risks inherent in a possible VP nominee’s selection, this series does not seek to disqualify any of them. Every name reported to be on Biden’s short list would, if nominated, be worthy of enthusiastic support. Rather, we seek to identify the potential costs and risks, arm the reader with the facts and arguments that mitigate against those costs and risks, and explore matters that Biden’s VP vetting team is digging deeply into even if they remain largely unaddressed in the news media. An informed base is a prepared base. The biggest potential problem inherent in fomented “scandals” based on criminal justice cases stems from the overall ignorance by political reporters and social media bounty hunters (the perceived “payment” they receive for every head they roll in comes in the form of more follows and shares) about how the courts work.
And to those who, having a different favorite to be named Joe Biden’s VP, might feel the temptation to weaponize such cases against Harris or Demings, behaving as if Biden’s selection is some kind of replay of the Democratic primaries is folly. Social media accusations back and forth about why “he must choose” this one or claiming that another one “can’t win” haven’t – and will not – make a dent in his decision. Joe Biden doesn’t even look at social media! And any news or opinion pieces the online “VP wars” might generate don’t have any sway at all over his vetting team’s due diligence nor two biggest factors in who he’ll choose: the polling data and his own comfort level with the individual he selects. The only tweets Joe Biden hears come from the orioles outside his Delaware window. (Not even the state bird there, the blue hen, in fact, “tweets.”)
As former US Rep. Donna Edwards, a veteran of the Congressional Black Caucus from Maryland wrote this week in the Washington Post, “Call me crazy, but I have decided to not be invested in former vice president Joe Biden’s selection of a running mate. The stakes are simply too high to declare bright lines based on whom Biden chooses. And, while it is interesting to listen to the arguments for or against various prospects, I’m far more interested in getting Biden elected to end the reign of incompetence, cruelty and racism of the current occupant of the White House.”
Edwards makes an important point: That because Biden has already declared he will select a woman, the eventual VP nominee, whoever it is, will inherit all the pent-up sexism and misogyny that Hillary Clinton endured four years ago, and become the receptacle for it. The arguments we might make today disqualifying of one or another in public space may easily open a lane of attack not just against the VP nominee but against Biden and the ticket. Donald Trump keeps trying to turn Joe Biden into Hillary Clinton and it’s going spectacularly poorly for him. Be ready for the change-up when he starts unloading his daily tweets on the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
Edwards continues, “More than three decades after we first tested a woman as vice president, we will see whether the sexism that prevails among voters at the idea of a female president continues to hold true for the number two. We will see whether times have changed. Virtually every woman who has ever run for office knows this danger zone. We saw that in 2016 and through the short 2020 Democratic primary season. Is she likable enough? Is she electable? What is she wearing? What is it about her voice that irritates me?… Each of the prospects who have been identified publicly has strengths and weaknesses — wrong geography, problematic record, untested, unknown — including things we do not know that will be revealed only in a thorough background inquiry.”
There may be some partisans of one or another who think that to even speak about the “background issues” of the different potential VP nominees is akin to throwing shade on one or another, but I think most people can tell the difference in tone between a discourse that seeks to disqualify and one that seeks to prepare each other in the kinds of attacks that will have to be endured and countered on any of the potential nominees. If we know in advance where the attacks are most likely to land, we win the time and space to be armed and ready for them.
There is, in fact, potential upside for a running mate with law enforcement experience, but it’s not one that many Democratic partisans are going to like if it goes that way: Any accusation that a former prosecutor or police chief was overzealous about a prosecution or an arrest would provide, in a general election setting, an opportunity to show hard-nosed “tough on crime” attitudes and credentials: Yes, my job was to put violent criminals behind bars might be a poor Democratic primary message but more often than not “tough talk” proves a winner in November.
There are still some who are angry at Barack Obama for his reluctance to mouth every “progressive” sound bite slogan in the oft-inflammatory language of the activists. Yet the tone he set brought Democrats votes from more moderate Americans who were not fully on board for his progressive policies. Likewise, a black woman former prosecutor or police chief on the ticket may discover electoral gold to be mined by sounding tougher on crime than many Democrats and liberals normally want to hear. Here’s one no-brainer: “No, I’m not for ‘defunding the police.’ As a law enforcer, I know police are necessary to intervene against domestic violence, child abuse and other predatory crimes. How do we get the bad guys without police?” If Biden does choose one of the former law enforcers, be ready to hear that tone. It wouldn’t work in a Democratic primary, but in a general election it’s pure gold.
Misreading the Moment, Then & Now
The reckoning of recent weeks around matters of racial and criminal justice in the United States has long been overdue. It is especially encouraging that public opinion, according to recent polls, has shifted so dramatically. The change of heart among, now, a majority of white Americans who for the first time now tell pollsters that racism is “a big problem” and that the George Floyd murder was indicative of systemic problems in America’s justice system, has been called a “seismic shift” in media as traditionally tepid on racial justice as Politico.
It also reminds of how many white Americans reacted to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president. The initial chatter about a “post-racial America” and beliefs expressed that the country’s long racist history was finally behind it did not take long to collapse and give way to an ugly white backlash. From the White House, Donald Trump lights a Christmas tree once a year but daily lights a cross on the national lawn.
The speed with which so many white Americans then projected upon Obama to confirm for them that those wishful beliefs were in true – when they never were based on anything he actually said or did on the campaign trail – is echoed by some of what is happening at this present moment. Today’s presumption that the sudden shifts in public opinion herald a permanent, irreversible change are so reminiscent of expectations early in Obama’s presidency that they risk repeating the history of illusion followed by disillusion followed by backlash of the last twelve years.
Nobody other than Joe Biden and the few in whom he confides have any clue still as to who Biden will tap as his running mate. It’s possible Biden himself still doesn’t know – and won’t until polling-data closer to decision time, and vetting lanes newly opened up, provide more up-to-date evidence. But public perceptions that recent events mean he has to choose a black woman may be raising expectations in ways that, if he does choose Harris, Demings, Lance Bottoms or Susan Rice – as recently as this week the New York Times speculated that those four (along with Elizabeth Warren) make up the top tier of those under the most “serious consideration” – carry risks, not just upside, for that nominee and vice president if chosen.
If on January 20, 2021 Biden takes office and a black vice president is sworn in, and during that presidential term, as is highly likely, events occur that demonstrate that a single presidency can’t fix the United States’ deeply ingrained troubles with white racism, bigotry, discrimination and injustice, is the backlash going to fall upon “Teflon Joe?” Or would a black woman vice president suddenly become their scapegoat in similar ways Obama did, but with the extra elements of misogyny and misgynoir?
The experience of Kamala Harris’ 2019 presidential campaign is instructive. From the moment of her January 2019 announcement there was plenty of presumption – including on my part – that she was in the top tier of frontrunners for the nomination. There were stretches during the long campaign – a high point came with her “I was that little girl” moment calling out Joe Biden during a summer debate for past statements against school desegregation through busing – where her star and standing in the polls rose dramatically. With those gains, the expectations upon Harris elevated. When at a subsequent debate she was not perceived as meeting those lofty expectations, her fortunes slipped and her polling – among black voters and all voters – did not recover. By December, she suspended her campaign, two months before the Iowa caucuses.
Each time perceptions of Harris’ chances rose, attacks on her increased. The same happened to Beto O’Rourke when in the spring of 2019 he got off to a spectacular start, to Elizabeth Warren when briefly in the fall she led in the polls, and to Bernie Sanders when he was perceived to have momentum heading into the early 2020 primaries. But the ways in which the attacks came upon Harris were uniquely infused with both racism and sexism. Many of her supporters are still – and very legitimately – angry about it.
A certain cohort of white progressives and activists were particularly focused on tearing down Harris at the moments they perceived her to have a shot. One of their favorite slogans, going back to 2018, was “Kamala Is a Cop.” (I wonder what they might have said about a Val Demings candidacy by one who actually was a cop.) The attack was on its face racist: to punish black women for having worked in law enforcement is one and the same as saying law enforcement should continue to be the exclusive domain of the white male. (Many, this past week, saw a similar dynamic in a viral video in which a white man at a protest over racial injustice angrily singled out a black police officer, shouting at him, “nigger.”)
The “Kamala Is a Cop” smear also misread the moment and spoke more about those who promoted it than it did about Harris. It was evident back in January of 2019 when she launched her candidacy. “Whether it’s FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly railing that she isn’t sufficiently for due process (as if he ever cared about civil liberties) or white progressives who seem to think by calling her a ‘cop’ they will somehow cost her African-American support the major policy critiques of Harris mainly have to do with her work as a prosecutor,” I reported then (Issue #73, January 29, 2019). “The ‘cop’ gambit is itself based on racist stereotypes… Thankfully, in the current political life of America, this kind of attack serves to elevate her.”
The obstacles between any first-time candidate for president and the party nomination are historically greater than they’ve been for candidates who had the experience (and name-recognition) of having already run. Party nominees of the past 52 years have included three presidents who had run before but lost – Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. – and also nominees who had run before: Dole, Gore, McCain, Romney and Hillary Clinton. Thirteen of the last fourteen presidential elections have included at least one Democratic or Republican nominee for whom it was not their first attempt (and the only exception, the Ford-Carter race of 1976, included an incumbent president). Joe Biden is the latest reflection of that trend. While being a first-time candidate, once nominated, has in some cycles brought certain advantages (Clinton ’92, Bush ’00, Obama ’08, Trump ’16), in more than 70 percent of the recent half-century of contests the eventual winner was someone who had run before.
While “Kamala Is a Cop” proved an ineffective attack line – it didn’t raise her negative rating – the coded racism and sexism behind it left a lot of legitimate anger in its wake. After all, the logical extension of casting a black woman’s work in law enforcement as somehow something to be considered negatively – and that it mainly came from white progressives and Republicans – is tantamount to declaring that law enforcement jobs should continue to be the domain only of white men. It is a segregationist impulse.
There was plenty of “Klobuchar is a cop” smearing going around, too, in and leading up to the primaries, perhaps less noticed because at most points in the campaign Klobuchar’s candidacy was not as widely considered at all likely to succeed in the way that Harris’ was. But it is the sentiment at the root of why Klobuchar ended up having to take herself out of consideration last week.
Joe Biden Knows that Representation Matters
When, at the final Democratic presidential debate, Joe Biden vowed to select a woman as vice-presidential nominee he was showing, not just telling of, his belief that representation matters. The same was true when he said he would like to nominate a black woman jurist to the US Supreme Court. In the 2017 Virginia legislative races, Biden championed transgender candidate Danica Roem, who he had met at his son Beau’s funeral. He called her the night she won her primary to congratulate her (she later endorsed him for president). These are the actions of a nominee that understands that representation matters, and it matters a lot.
Biden also knows that winning in November and maximizing the vote for down-ticket Democrats matters. And he’s surrounded himself with smart people on his campaign staff and vetting teams who know what it takes to win elections because they themselves have won them, either as candidates or by running campaigns.
A common event in political discussions – on and off social media – is the tendency of many people to meld expressions of values with perceptions of electability. When it comes to representation, we hear these claims a lot: If a woman runs, women will vote for her. If an African-American is on the ballot, more black voters will turn out. Hispanics will surely vote for Hispanics. A younger candidate will attract more younger voters. But in the experience of elections, there are many, many cases where it didn’t work out that way.
In the Democratic primaries, had Julian Castro won the support of Hispanic voters, we might be having different conversations today about the nominees for president and vice president. If Pete Buttigieg had won the support of most young and LGBT voters, he’d be in this VP conversation today. If Kamala Harris or Cory Booker had won the support of black voters, they wouldn’t have exited the contest so early, and Joe Biden might not be the nominee today. In 2008, polls showed African-American voters did not favor Barack Obama – until he won Iowa and showed that he could also win among white voters. Had Hillary Clinton, a white woman nominee, won the votes of more white woman voters than Donald Trump, we’d be talking instead about her reelection campaign today.
The view expressed by many that black women are the most reliable heart of the Democratic coalition and therefore deserve representation on the ticket is a powerful one. It is a statement of values. And yet there is no publicly available data that suggests it would raise black voter turnout in November. It’s likely that the only place where that question is being tested right now is in the internal polling and focus groups of the Biden campaign, as it carries out the part of the vetting process that is testing how different ticket options will fare on the ballot in November – especially in the most crucial swing states.
People can and will continue to argue that Biden “must choose” this one or the other for VP because “that’s the ticket that wins” or “that other one can’t win.” All of that is largely a consequence of people’s tendencies to take value statements and apply them to strategic considerations, where when the rubber meets the road they may or may not pan out.
Biden doesn’t need to be convinced that representation matters. He’s shown time and time again that he believes very deeply that it does.
There is literally no argument that can be made to the campaign team around him that one or the other potential VP nominee more improves the electoral outlook in November that can be stronger than whatever their internal research data is showing them as they poll and test. Nobody outside that circle has any clue as to which Biden determines also best match the intangible factors of the personality traits he seeks for that teamwork. Biden’s own experience as Barack Obama’s partner in governing for eight years surely will profoundly shape his own conclusion on those factors.
Anybody who is so invested in their belief that one person (or one demographic) is either the only acceptable choice, or a uniquely disqualified choice, risks painting ourselves into a corner. What happens if the confluence of factors ends up in the nomination of one that we didn’t favor or had pronounced disqualified?
There are four key factors at play: values, survey data on voter turnout and persuasion, matters that turn up in the vetting process that, because they may reveal hidden weaknesses or secrets of a given candidate, will never be made publicly known, and the intangible of Biden’s own perceived working relationship and trust level with people who are, in the end, human beings, each with strengths and weaknesses and their own chemistry and history with him.
The circumstances of Klobuchar’s exit, and the impact of a single act of racist police misconduct in Atlanta on perceptions of Lance Bottoms’ vice-presidential chances, might end up boosting one of the law enforcers under consideration who have not, so far, been impacted by those kinds of events. They might also lead the vetting process more deeply into histories that could end up lowering the possibility that Harris or Demings are chosen. None of us outside of a very tight-lipped inner circle directly involved with the vetting, the strategy and the survey research, count with – or will ever know – the full scope of information that Team Biden has at its fingertips in the coming month.
I share Donna Edwards’ wise reluctance to get too invested over a decision over which my opinion really doesn’t matter to the outcome. I don’t want to be that person who then has to adapt to something I had declared would be unacceptable, because in the end Joe Biden is running against Donald Trump, and wild horses couldn’t pull me away from organizing for that ticket in November. I’m so enthusiastic about it that I’m ready to extend that excitement to whoever Biden chooses to accompany him on this journey. The more of us who can do that, the better the results – up and down the ticket – will be.
If you had told me a year ago that Joe Biden would be the nominee and that today I’d be, gasp, excited about it, I would have given you a side eye and a funny look. But here we are today, and you would have been right. I can likewise bet you right now that whoever Joe picks, you’re going to grow to be excited about it and so will I, even if we don’t believe it yet. Necessity is the mother of enthusiasm.
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