The New Zealand Herald on Saturday carried a feature from the New York Times about Kamala Harris, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s pick for running mate and potential vice-president of the Unites States. Like our own Prime Minister, Ms Harris is attractive and knows how to smile, although not quite as spontaneously as Jacinda Ardern.
Both women are facing elections in which Covid-19 looms large: Ardern (on October 17) will be counting on her record of keeping Kiwis safe from the virus, Harris (November 3) on her ability to attack Donald Trump on his handling of it. She appears to hold him and Mike Pence personally responsible for the pandemic in America – among other ills afflicting the republic.
The Times has been selling Ms Harris for all it’s worth as a moderate, able to rally progressives and liberals alike (assuming there is a difference) for a campaign that will sweep Trump and all his works and all his pomps out of the White House forever. Being a “woman of colour” she ticks two essential boxes for the left, for whom identity politics has become practically everything, although the ticket’s campaign slogan is “Uniting America”.
As a woman who has risen to the top layers of the legal profession to serve as attorney-general of California and then as Senator, Harris has scored a lot of points for gender equality, understood as entering domains of traditionally male power. Obviously, she has worked hard, and as a prosecutor she is said to have set a cracking pace.
So, Harris at 55 is a hugely successful professional, but how representative of women, and Black women is she? She married in 2014 and has two step-children who are young adults. In her acceptance speech last week, she made special mention of them and cooking Sunday dinner for them, but she has never raised a young family. Of course, she can still champion family policies, but her interests seem to lie elsewhere.
Nor is Harris a typical African-American; she actually played down the role of race in her presidential bid last year. Asked by a Washington Post reporter how she would describe her identity Harris replied: “I describe myself as a proud American.” That changed last week as she embraced “the first Black woman vice-president” label.
Her father is Jamaican – with both African and English ancestors, apparently – and her mother was from India. Both parents emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s to pursue studies. For Donald Jasper Harris the subject was economics; for Shyalama Gopalan, a breast cancer scientist, it was endocrinology. They met when he was at Berkeley and both were involved in the civil rights movement.
Having professional parents helped give Kamala and her younger sister Maya a good start in life, no doubt. They seem to have lived in African-American neighbourhoods while growing up, but, thanks to desegregation efforts, were bused to a public primary school in an area of Berkeley which was predominantly white.
(In a selection debate last year Kamala Harris referred to her busing experience when she accused Biden of working with segregationist Democrats during his nearly four decades in the Senate and of opposing forced busing – something that she herself now opposes.)
Having slavery somewhere in your family background, as Donald Harris would have, is certainly a sobering fact, but he has written cheerfully about his own upbringing and family history, claiming amongst other things descent from an English slave-owner. Harris’s mother, who died in 2009, was a Hindu of the Brahmin caste who had a good education.
Harris herself seems to have little to resent in terms of opportunity. She went to Howard University in Washington DC, which is historically African-American, and then attended law school at the university of California through its Legal Education Opportunity Program for students from adverse backgrounds – and she has certainly taken advantage of it.
One disadvantage Harris shares with Americans of all ethnic and political shades is the break-up of her parents’ marriage when she was seven and her sister four. I have no idea whether she regards it as such, but it is generally something that makes kids unhappy. She has said that when they visited their father in Palo Alto (a posh city which includes part of Stanford University, where he became a professor of economics, and today is part of Silicon Valley) the neighbours’ kids were not allowed to play with them because they were black.
When she was 12, her mother, who died in 2009, took up research and teaching work in Montreal and took the two girls to Canada. But at least they had married parents to start with, which is something many African-Americans miss out on.
As for being politically moderate – The New York Times has described Harris as “somewhat ideologically undefined” – her record suggests the opposite — that she is very ideological. Conservative pundits place her to the left of Hillary Clinton on issues such as illegal immigrants, green energy and abortion.
She has zero tolerance for pro-life views or activism, or even conscience protection – as in the case of employers who resisted Obamacare provisions for contraception on the ground that it can be abortifacient. As she said in her manifesto for her Senate run in 2016, “Kamala fought to require companies like Hobby Lobby to provide employees with health insurance that covers contraceptives” and access to abortion clinics.
While still California’s Attorney General in 2016 Harris played a key role in defending Planned Parenthood over evidence that it was selling aborted baby parts, an illegal practice revealed by undercover filming of conversations with abortion industry personnel by the Centre for Medical Progress. Indeed, she went on the attack against CMP head David Daleiden, raiding his home and launching a legal vendetta against him and his associate which resulted in a US$2.2m verdict against them. Daleiden and CMP are currently suing Planned Parenthood and Kamala Harris for violating their civil rights.
Harris and other Democrats grilled Trump judicial nominees – notably Brett Kavanaugh during Senate hearings around his appointment to the Supreme Court not only because he represented a threat to “abortion rights” but because of her commitment to the LBGTQ movement. She tried to get him to agree that the 2012 decision allowing gay marriage was “one of the great moments in the history of the Supreme Court”.
She quizzed another Trump nominee, Brian Buescher, about his membership of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organisation, suggesting that its values were incompatible with his hearing court cases fairly – a line of questioning that threatens religious liberty.
She has a plan for stopping and reversing pro-life protections introduced into state abortion laws in recent years. “What is different about this is that she’s really going on the offense,” an abortion activist told Vox.
Clearly, Kamala Harris is not someone who will live and let live when it comes to controversial issues. She will be, in the words of The Times itself, Joe Biden’s “attack dog”, ready to pursue her agenda as the president of the United States when the 77-year-old Biden, as is widely tipped, resigns after one term at the job.
If they win, that is.
Her personal campaign slogan is “For the people”, but is she a reliable judge of what is good for the people? Her professional accomplishments, measured style (too measured for Frank Bruni, who worries that she can’t move hearts) and attractive smile do her credit, but her policies are decidedly unattractive.
Here in New Zealand we have been experimenting with a young, empathetic, attractive Prime Minister with similar progressive values. At a time when the Kiwi family is crumbling and the birthrate sinking, trends complicated now by the fact that the long-term effects of Covid-19 are unknown, Jacinda Ardern has presided over the complete decriminalisation of abortion (now healthcare pure and simple), and legislation that will allow euthanasia and recreational marijuana if confirmed in referenda at the election.
Being a woman – even a Black woman – in leadership doesn’t count for much if you are undermining the very foundations of civilised life.