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Kamala Harris, the 2020 Democratic VP pick, is attacked for flip-flops. But they're an asset.

Though the Trump campaign is painting the senator’s shifting policy prescriptions as a liability, they could be the political tonic we need in these divisive times.
Image: Kamala Harris, emocratic presidential candidates  Attend \"She The People\" Forum In Houston
Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd at the She The People Presidential Forum at Texas Southern University in Houston on April 24, 2019.Sergio Flores / Getty Images file

Within a day of Joe Biden announcing that Kamala Harris would be his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket, Trump backers unleashed a torrent of criticism that included a surprisingly conventional tactic: charging that Harris flip-flopped on health care, marijuana legalization, immigration and other policy positions during her ill-fated bid for the nomination.

That Harris is willing to change her views on controversial issues shows that she’s open to listening to public opinion and adjusting her policy prescriptions when necessary.

That may end up being a mistake for Team Trump, as it’s a charge the Biden-Harris campaign and its supporters could turn on its head to make into a positive. That Harris is willing to change her views on controversial issues shows that she’s open to listening to public opinion and adjusting her policy prescriptions when necessary.

And it’s just the kind of approach the country needs now in our highly fractured and polarized state. Though the Trump campaign is painting Harris’ shifting policy prescriptions as a political liability, they could be just the political tonic called for in these divisive times.

After all, Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, has shown an admirably pragmatic streak in her decades as an elected official. She’s consistently backed a left-of-center policy agenda, but in a way that’s left plenty of room for calibration. In doing so, Harris has indicated that she’s willing to process new information about pressing problems and to find common ground with different sides.

Harris undoubtedly paid a price for this ideological malleability during her primary bid, which she ended in December 2019, after she faced criticism for changing positions. Most prominently, she waffled on support for “Medicare for All,” the signature program of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and a key Democratic primary rival, that would effectively end private health insurance and replace it with a government-run program.

Harris for months was forced to explain her changing stances on Medicare for All. Initially, she said that private insurance should be abolished. After blowback from more moderate Democratic rivals, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she said she favored alternatives to Medicare for All that had the same goal. That included maintaining some role for private insurers.

Many of those who took umbrage with her shifting stands were among the most extreme voices in the Democratic coalition. Though they tend to be involved more in the primary process, their views are not indicative of the American population — or even a Democratic Party that overwhelmingly chose the centrist Biden as its nominee.

There’s a long history of politicians’ strategically changing positions in pursuit of broader public policy aims. While that can rankle ideologues, there’s a word for it that’s a positive one to many Americans: compromise.

Many of those who took umbrage with her shifting stands were among the most extreme voices in the Democratic coalition.

Twenty-plus years ago, President Bill Clinton turned consensus-seeking and triangulation into an art form. Facing an ascendant and assertive Republican Congress, the Democratic president was able to compromise through a series of issues that upset the party’s liberal base but were broadly good public policy. That included the 1996 welfare reform law and the balanced budget agreement of 1997 that resulted in budget surpluses in 1998-2001.

He was widely mocked for his finger-to-the-wind strategy, but his tactic of hewing closely to public opinion polls meant he was largely reflecting the will of the country — which tends to be fairly moderate despite the shrillness of party rhetoric. And this approach tends to provide good outcomes: Among other successes, the poverty rate declined from 15.1 percent in 1993 to 11.3 percent in 2000, and average real GDP growth rose 3.9 percent, more than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

There’s another benefit to Harris’ wishy-washiness, however: It melds well with Biden, whose candidacy is based largely on his broad appeal, bipartisan spirit and calculated leans to the left. PolitiFact in May 2019 found that during Biden’s 36 years representing Delaware in the Senate, his “record has been that of a moderate Democrat.” Among Democrats, the future vice president under Barack Obama was in the middle of the pack, Politifact wrote, adding, “On average, he stood at almost exactly his party’s center line.”

Former Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said Wednesday that Harris’ ideological nimbleness could well be an asset. “In the first 12 hours, @KamalaHarris has been attacked by the @realDonaldTrump campaign for being too far Left, and by the Left for being too tough as a prosecutor. This probably suits @JoeBiden just fine,” Axelrod tweeted.

This all stands in sharp contrast to extremes on the left and on the right such as Sanders and Trump. Ask them a question and you're likely to get the same answer they gave 30 years ago.

Such rigidity can have more dire consequences than losing an election. Trump robotically spouts tired rhetoric on a number of subjects, but in the present moment it’s far worse: Trump has for months refused to embrace the full danger and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, an attitude that has cost American lives.

And amid widespread protests of police tactics and societal racism, Trump has failed to show empathy for victims or their families. These attitudes on policing-related issues are quickly changing. His response to the coronavirus and protests are diametrically opposed to what the majority of the public want.

Harris, in contrast, has shown that she’s willing to both evolve and temper her stances on issues. During her presidential bid, Harris was unapologetic about her prosecutorial record and broadly defended the profession even as she faced an array of criticisms from both the left and the libertarian right for being too zealous a prosecutor. But in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody, she’s been particularly outspoken in favor of proposals to overhaul policing and making lynching a federal crime.

Those are the kind of nuanced and well-thought-out policy positions that ought to be celebrated. And it’s likely a harbinger of much more to come if there’s a Biden-Harris administration.