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Letter from Washington: Kamala Harris and the meaning of ‘moderate’

What the views of Biden’s VP pick say about America

Is Kamala Harris a moderate? As with many questions in American politics, it depends on who you ask.

According to a New York Times news story on Joe Biden’s selection of the California senator as his running mate, the answer is yes. That characterisation is in keeping with conventional wisdom, which identified Harris as Biden’s safest veep pick. And it’s perfectly clear what Harris isn’t: she cannot be described as being part of the democratic socialist wing of the party. AOC she is not. Indeed, her pick was seen as something of a blow to the left.

None of this has stopped Donald Trump from describing Harris as “radical left” in recent days. He would have said that whoever Biden picked, I can hear you saying. And that’s true. But he does have more credible evidence to support his claim than you might think, not least, the finding by the nonpartisan, independent GovTrack.us that Harris was the most liberal member of the Senate last year.

Intuitively, the claim seems wide of the mark: surely Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or several other Democratic senators are more liberal (in the American sense of the word) than Harris?

However, it is less surprising when you understand GovTrack’s methodology, which focuses on which bills senators sponsor and, in particular, who they co-sponsor them with. Co-sponsoring a bill with Republicans will put Democratic senators closer to the centre. Co-sponsoring a bill with other Democrats pushes you further to the liberal end of the spectrum. That liberal score will creep even higher if, in turn, those Democrats generally don’t co-sponsor bills with the other side.

In other words, the GovTrack analysis of her voting record last year first and foremost reveals Harris to be partisan. She tends to co-sponsor bills with other Democrats, and with the kind of Democrats who are unlikely to reach across the aisle. It’s worth pointing out that Harris’s “most liberal” status coincided with her bid for the Democratic nomination, a bid in which she veered leftward in an effort to outflank Biden.

Notwithstanding the quirks of the GovTrack methodology, and the misleading headline finding, it does reveal something interesting about what, if anything, the word moderate means in contemporary American politics.

If moderate is taken to apply to someone who might appeal to independents and anti-Trump Republicans, then conservatives can be forgiven for bristling at the suggestion that Harris ticks that box. In some respects, Harris has a track record at odds with contemporary Democratic orthodoxy. Her tough reputation as a San Francisco prosecutor and California attorney general became a significant handicap during the primary, for example. But on a range of social and cultural issues, including abortion, religious freedom and gun rights, she leaves little to no room for compromise with those who might take a different view. 

In Democratic circles, supporting the decriminalisation of unauthorised border crossings into the United States, as Harris does, is considered moderate. Among the American electorate as a whole, it is highly divisive. 

What Harris reveals, therefore, is how little capacity there is for genuine moderation in contemporary American politics. It’s not just that meaningful legislative compromise is all but impossible, it’s that the two parties tell themselves entirely different stories about the country: who is in charge, who the underdogs are and so on. The two sides agree only on the fact that every electoral clash is existential in nature.

But if Harris doesn’t stand for moderation in a broad, non-partisan sense, she does represent a kind of Democratic moderation and is closely positioned to the core of Democratic Party orthodoxy. Hers is exactly the kind of progressivism that you would expect from a senator from a large liberal state who has very little electoral incentive to reach across the aisle but plenty of reasons to keep Wall Street and Silicon Valley on side.

It’s a progressivism that manages to be agreeable to the Democratic Party’s left-wing while making sure that the Democratic donor class and the college-educated managerial class are happy.

“As Harris Joins Biden Ticket, Wall Street Exhales in Relief,” read the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, the same day that The Atlantic ran a story explaining “the big reason Lefties aren’t upset about Kamala Harris”. Like Biden, Harris has shown an appetite for compromise with the party’s left-wing on some occasions while standing firm on others.

Biden has described November’s election as a battle for the soul of the nation. If he and Harris triumph in November, there will be a furious behind-the-scenes fight between the centre-left and the far-left over the soul of the Biden administration. If they lose, there will be open warfare over the soul of the Democratic Party. Exactly what role Kamala would play in either scenario is less clear than the “moderate” label would suggest.

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