Biden Picks Kamala Harris as Running Mate

The California senator is the first Black and South Asian American woman to back up a major U.S. presidential ticket.

California Sen. Kamala Harris
California Sen. Kamala Harris endorses Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign rally in Detroit on March 9. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has chosen California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, ending months of speculation and potentially placing a foreign-policy novice second in line to the American presidency.

The announcement ended months of relentless speculation over the prospects of more than a dozen prominent women, from progressive powerhouses such as Stacey Abrams and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to national security heavyweights, including former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a combat veteran of the Iraq War. 

If the Democrats prevail in the November election, Harris would be the first woman elected as U.S. vice president, as well as the first Black and South Asian American.

“I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris — a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants — as my running mate,” Biden tweeted.

Harris, the junior senator from California who came into office in 2017, vaulted to the national stage during the contentious Senate hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and then later as a presidential candidate during the Democratic primaries facing off against Biden.

Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official during the Obama administration who advised Warren’s presidential campaign, told Foreign Policy that “the fact that an African American woman born of immigrant parents from India and Jamaica and educated at a historically black university can be seen as a ‘safe pick’ for [vice president] is really heartening. In foreign policy terms, it tells countries around the world that we haven’t given up, that despite the madness of the last four years, the U.S. is still striving to live up to our ideals.”

President Donald Trump, meanwhile, launched an attack on Harris within minutes of the announcement, posting an ad on Twitter that characterized her as a “phony” and champion of the “radical left” who supported “socialized medicine.” The ad, which accused her of “attacking Joe Biden for racist policies,” also noted that Biden referred to himself as a “transition candidate.”

“He is handing over the reins to Kamala while they jointly embrace the radical left,” the ad stated. (In 2011 and 2013, Trump donated $6,000 to Harris’s run for attorney general of California, and his daughter, Ivanka, donated $2,000 in 2014, according to the Sacramento Bee. Harris’s campaign later said in 2015 she donated Trump’s contributions to a civil and human rights non-profit group.)

It remains unclear whether Harris will play a significant role in foreign policy on the campaign trail. In the final months of the campaign, the Biden camp has already amassed a team of some 2,000 experts to advise the candidate on foreign-policy issues on a volunteer basis. Biden retains a close coterie of top foreign-policy advisors, many veterans from the Obama administration, including former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and former Deputy CIA Director Avril Haines.

While Harris doesn’t have the experience of Biden on foreign policy, she is “no foreign-policy lightweight,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, a former Pentagon official who advised Harris on foreign policy during her primary campaign.

Harris isn’t starting from scratch. During her primary campaign, she was advised by seasoned foreign-policy experts, including Chavez; Matthew Spence, a former Pentagon official; Philip Gordon, a prominent Middle East scholar and former White House Middle East coordinator; and Matthew Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. She has also served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the United States’ vast array of spy agencies and has played a key role in investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Chavez said Harris was a quick study with strong instincts on foreign policy who quickly got up to speed on the issues during the primaries. “She’s smart and she understands the complex national security challenges that we’re facing.”

During her presidential campaign, Harris called on the need to confront China over its “abysmal” human rights record and “unfair trade practices,” but stopped short of supporting President Donald Trump’s trade war. Harris framed Russia as one of the United States’ top foreign-policy challenges in her primary run and repeatedly condemned the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 elections.

In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, however, Harris said that she would seek to cooperate with China on a range of issues, including by seeking agreement on a path toward easing the environmental damage caused by global warming.

Characterizing climate change as an “existential threat,” she called for investing $10 trillion in public and private investments over the next decade to promote clean energy, setting a target of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2045 and a carbon-neutral electricity sector by 2030.

Harris also weighed in on Venezuela, where the Trump administration’s efforts to oust longtime socialist leader Nicolás Maduro amid the country’s economic tailspin and political strife in favor of a democratic reformer have largely stalled. She, along with two dozen other senators, wrote a letter to Trump earlier this year urging him to grant Venezuelan immigrants escaping the country’s chaos temporary protected status in the United States. (The letter appeared to largely fell on deaf ears in the administration.)

Even before the pick was announced, Wendy Sherman, a key Biden advisor, began to prepare for the likely criticism of Biden’s selection on Twitter, cataloguing a list of likely attacks that will be leveled against her, including that her “face, hair, posture, entourage will be subject of endless commentary.”

“She will be called too ambitious, not a team player, too aggressive, hard to work for, too progressive, not progressive enough,” Sherman wrote. “If a woman of color, she will be challenged as ‘not really’ or too radical; will be called a token or merely a symbol who can’t deliver.”

The 55-year old senator has faced scrutiny from the progressive left for her record as California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney during her primary run. Harris has been a vocal proponent of criminal justice reform, particularly in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota that sparked a nationwide reckoning on racial injustice and criminal justice reform. But Harris’s nearly three-decade long tenure as a prosecutor in California’s criminal justice system, which has disproportionately impacted the state’s African-American community, drew criticism from progressive voices calling for sweeping overhauls to the justice system to root out racial prejudice and bias.

Biden’s pick came after weeks of speculation in the so-called veepstakes, where the final candidates were winnowed down to Rice, who served as national security advisor under President Barack Obama, and California Rep. Karen Bass.

Rice seemed like a far-flung pick to some political analysts. A veteran of the Clinton White House and State Department, Rice had not previously held elected office and was not perceived to have the same political clout on the domestic front as Harris. 

In a statement released after Biden’s announcement, Rice applauded Harris as a “tenacious and trailblazing leader” and slammed Trump as “corrupt and self-serving.”

Update, Aug. 11, 2020: This article was updated with more information on Harris’s foreign-policy views. 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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