The odds are now very strong that Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic presidential nominee. New polling averages say they account for almost 70 percent of support nationwide, while no other candidate is anywhere near. For progressives who want to affect the news instead of just consume it, active engagement will be essential.
Biden is the most regressive Democrat with a real chance to head the ticket. After amassing a five-decade record littered with odious actions and statements, he now insists that the 2020 campaign “shouldn’t be about the past“—an evasive and ridiculous plea, coming from someone who proclaims himself to be “an Obama-Biden Democrat” and goes to absurd lengths to fasten himself onto Obama’s coattails, while also boasting of his past ability to get legislation through Congress.
As he campaigns, Biden persists with disingenuous denials. During the June 27 debate, he flatly—and falsely—declared: “I did not oppose busing in America.” On July 6, speaking to a mostly black audience in South Carolina, he said: “I didn’t support more money to build state prisons. I was against it.” But under the headline “Fact Check: Joe Biden Falsely Claims He Opposed Spending More Money to Build State Prisons,” CNN reported that “he was misrepresenting his own record.”
Biden used the Fourth of July weekend to dig himself deeper into a centrist, status quo trench for his war on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. During a repeatedly cringeworthy interview, Biden told CNN that what can’t be done includes Medicare for All, tuition-free public college and student debt cancelation. Bernie Sanders quickly responded with a tweet calling Medicare for All, debt-free college and a Green New Deal “the agenda American needs—and that will energize voters to defeat Donald Trump.”
No one has summed up Biden’s political stance better than Elizabeth Warren, who told the California Democratic Party convention five weeks ago: “Some Democrats in Washington believe the only changes we can get are tweaks and nudges. If they dream, they dream small. Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses.” She added: “When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations come first . . . they’re telling you something very important—they are telling you that they will not fight for you.”
Being preferable to Joe Biden is a low bar, and Kamala Harris clears it. But, like Biden, she stands to lose potential support from many self-described liberals and progressives to the extent they learn more about her actual record.
Overall, Harris’s work as San Francisco’s DA and the California attorney general was not progressive. Lara Bazelon, former director of the LA-based Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, wrote in a New York Times column early this year: “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.”
Last week, Bazelon said: “Kamala Harris claims to be a champion of criminal justice reform. But as a prosecutor . . . she was anything but. She needs to make the case to the voters that her change of heart is genuine. Crucial to that case is reckoning with her past.”
That past needs scrutiny, especially since Harris has refused to acknowledge there was anything wrong with it.
“As the top law enforcement official” of San Francisco and then California, the New York Times reported in a February news article, “she developed a reputation for caution, protecting the status quo and shrinking from decisions on contentious issues.” Reporter Kate Zernike wrote:
- “Years before ending mass incarceration became a bipartisan cause, she started programs to steer low-level drug offenders away from prison and into school and jobs. At the same time, she touted her success in increasing conviction rates, and as attorney general remained largely on the sidelines as California scrambled to meet a federal court order to reduce its swollen prison populations. She also repeatedly sided with prosecutors accused of misconduct, challenging judges who ruled against them.”
- When Harris first ran statewide, for California attorney general in 2010, “she had campaigned to the right of her Republican opponent on the question of easing the state’s tough three-strikes law. Once in office, she declined to take positions on ultimately successful ballot initiatives intended to reduce prison populations—one expanding opportunities for parole, the other reducing many nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.”
- “After the Supreme Court upheld the judges’ overcrowding order, the state promised to ‘promptly’ release a significant number of nonviolent prisoners, giving credit for time served. A delay in meeting that promise drew a judicial scolding in 2014. The state’s response proved embarrassing, and unsuccessful: Reducing the prison population, Ms. Harris’s office maintained, would hurt California’s ability to fight wildfires by shrinking the pool of forced labor.”
- “Ms. Harris won praise for releasing statewide data in a way that informed rather than inflamed the brutality debate: It included numbers on the use of police force but also on use of force against officers. She instituted body cameras for police agents who worked in her office, and offered implicit-bias training for police statewide. But she declined to support statewide regulations for the use of body cameras, agreeing with local departments that they should set their own standards. And she did not support a bill that would have required the attorney general to investigate police shootings.”
- Early in this decade, responding to the house foreclosure crisis, “the banks agreed to $18 billion in debt reduction that Ms. Harris said would allow California homeowners to stay in their homes, and the national agreement included $2.5 billion for a fund to provide educational counseling and other services for those in danger of foreclosure. But critics, especially on the left, have long said that the settlement was no grand bargain. It did not require banks to pay much out of pocket; $4.7 billion of the $18 billion in relief came from forgiving second mortgages, many of which the banks would have written off anyway because they were so severely underwater, and $9 billion came from homeowners selling their homes for less than the value of their mortgages, meaning that homeowners did not stay in their homes.”
The New Republic recently summed up: “From her role in a California prison labor debate to her prosecutions of sex workers,” Kamala Harris “has a past of her own to defend.”
It’s sometimes difficult to gauge what Harris really believes in, especially in light of her tactical backsliding and flip-flops. Longtime observers had no reason to be surprised last week when she walked back her forceful debate position that the federal government shouldn’t leave it to localities to assist school desegregation with busing. “Harris muddied the waters,” the Associated Press reported, when “she told reporters she too did not support federally mandated busing and supported it only as an option for local governments.”
On foreign policy, the little that Harris has to say is often hazy while conforming with mainstream Democratic Party militarism. In the Senate, she has voted for six of eight major military spending bills.
Harris—who cosponsored a bill to withhold U.S. dues to the United Nations because of a UN Security Council resolution that condemned illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank—pandered to AIPAC while delivering 2017 and 2018 speeches to the Israel-can-do-no-wrong organization. While acquiescing to requests from MoveOn and other groups that presidential candidates not speak to AIPAC’s 2019 conference in late March, she pulled off a smooth maneuver, as Mondoweiss pointed out: “Harris is a very pragmatic politician, and the conference came to her yesterday! She met leading AIPAC officials at her office and then tweeted her devoted support to Israel.”
Harris’s tweet shared the news: “Great to meet today in my office with California AIPAC leaders to discuss the need for a strong U.S.-Israel alliance, the right of Israel to defend itself, and my commitment to combat anti-Semitism in our country and around the world.” But progressive journalist Ben Norton did not share in the upbeat mood as he tweeted: “Far-right Israeli PM Netanyahu just formed an alliance with a literal fascist party, and is bombing people trapped in the Gaza concentration camp right now, but fake ‘progressive’ Kamala Harris is meeting with AIPAC and praising the apartheid regime.”
Yet Harris does not adhere completely to AIPAC positions. She cosponsored the Yemen war powers bill introduced by Bernie Sanders. And she has expressed support for the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama that was canceled by President Trump.
The military-industrial complex might prefer Biden to Harris. But from all indications, that complex would be quite comfortable with a President Harris, and vice versa. The same goes for Wall Street and other big corporate sectors. No wonder they’re pouring many millions of dollars into the Biden and Harris campaign coffers.
However tense and testy the current relations between Biden and Harris might be, their falling out is likely to be temporary. “I adore Joe Biden,” she proclaimed in mid-spring when he was on the verge of announcing his campaign. Anyone who doubts the prospect of a rapprochement—and even a shared ticket is forgetting how easily campaign-trail conflicts can be jettisoned a little bit down the road. In 1980, George H.W. Bush fought Ronald Reagan for the GOP presidential nomination all the way to the convention, even after losing the vast majority of primaries, and tensions were raw; then came the Reagan-Bush ticket.
Among the Democratic presidential candidates, the viable alternatives to the Biden and Harris corporatist duo are the progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren and the more progressive candidate Bernie Sanders. While Warren is impressive in many ways, I continue to actively support Sanders. As an eloquent essay by Shaun King recently underscored, Sanders—like no other member of the Senate or candidate for—has boldly participated in progressive movements for his entire adult life. That orientation toward social movements is crucial in a time of profound needs for fundamental change, in an era of multiple and concentric crises—from record-breaking economic inequality to extreme corporate greed to racist xenophobia to the climate emergency to rampant militarism and so much more. No matter how distasteful or repugnant, the electoral process is an opening for progressive forces to be influential and potentially decisive.