WASHINGTON — While many Democrats have been jubilant that Kamala Harris could be the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, progressive activists have been warier of her, expressing mixed feelings about the woman Joe Biden selected as his running mate.
Reaction from foot soldiers of the progressive movement ranged from outright disenchantment that Biden didn’t pick one of their own to cautious optimism that she could be pressured to advance their causes.
“The fact that the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party praised Biden's VP choice is probably not a very good sign for progressives,” said Max Berger, an activist for liberal causes and a former aide to Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
Berger said a Biden-Harris administration would be “responsive” to progressives. But he doubted that Harris would become a force for the movement as Warren would have, and fretted that as vice president she would become the favorite in the next presidential contest against more left-leaning figures.
“From an electoral perspective, it's a great pick,” said Berger, who argued that Harris could excite women as well as Black and brown Americans. “From a governing perspective, it's a wash. From a long-term perspective, it's a disaster.”
Briahna Joy Gray, the press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, was more blunt, accusing Biden of displaying “contempt for the base” by picking a “top cop” in Harris, referring to her past actions as a California prosecutor that have drawn fire from some criminal justice advocates.
Other liberals said Harris recognizes the power of the movement.
“She may not be the first or even second choice for many people, but there’s no question that she’s someone the progressive movement can work with,” said Charles Chamberlain, the chair of the Democracy For America, an advocacy group that backed Sanders.
Chamberlain said he would have preferred to see Warren or former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams, who have closer ties to the progressive movement, claim the VP nomination. Still, he said, “Kamala Harris is a smart leader who is capable of understanding the winds of change.”
Underlying the hesitation with Harris are her relatively thin record on the national stage and her shifting stances in the Democratic primary. She endorsed the Sanders-led Medicare for All Act in 2017, just months after first becoming a senator, but waffled on the elimination of private insurance under pressure in the 2020 presidential race and eventually backtracked from it.
As a presidential candidate she was quick to embrace transformative causes on the left, but took steps to be viewed as moderate and pragmatic. Sometimes, her actions were difficult to square: She embraced the idea of a Green New Deal to abolish fossil fuels even as she insisted she was not trying to “restructure society.”
The effort to appeal to competing wings of the party at once faltered, and led to Harris’ undoing in the primary. But the attendant difficulty in defining her has now worked to Biden’s benefit, with the Trump campaign's confusing and self-contradictory initial attacks on Harris as both a determined “radical” and “phony” who was merely pretending to hold those positions.
Chamberlain said that for progressives, it would be “absolutely critical” to exert pressure from the outside to force Biden and Harris to deliver on movement priorities like health care, climate change and more, while adding that “Joe Biden could have done a lot worse” in his running mate selection.
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, also cited the importance of "pressure from outside" to push Biden and Harris. She noted that the party's current platform is more progressive than it was under President Barack Obama or 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton.
"With a growing Squad, the Democrats in Congress in 2021 are much more progressive than who Obama had to deal with in 2009," said Rojas, whose group supported Sanders in the Democratic primary. “The Biden-Harris team is running on a more progressive platform than Obama and Hillary, so I'm hopeful we can continue to create the pressure to deliver solutions as big as the problems we face.”
Still, while progressive activists said they believed they might be able to achieve some victories in a Biden-Harris administration, some expressed concern that the decision could block the movement from elevating one of their own figures into the presidency for the remainder of the decade.
“The left would have been in a prime position to actually win the nomination in 2024 or 2028. And Kamala Harris will now represent the moderate wing of the party as a Black woman who has served as vice president, and that will be tremendously difficult to dislodge,” Berger said. “There's an argument to be made that the moderate wing of the party has just secured control for maybe the ’20s.”