Most people have never heard of her. But the people who have worked with her and know her best — Republicans and Democrats — have enormous respect for her. And those who haven't heard of her will be hearing quite a lot of her. There is an excellent chance that, come January, she will be the first Black woman to win a national election.
But first: Is the Karen Bass v. Kamala Harris setup that is being played out in the press, especially here in their home state of California, for real, or is it the invention of the media? Before I leap into the unconscious bias that puts these two very different politicians in the ring, it's entirely possible, and it makes enormous sense, that the contest for the vice presidency should boil down to such a choice. Having had my own ringside seat for three vice presidential selections, I came to realize how few choices you do have.
The first imperative in choosing a vice president is to do no harm. Of course, that's not what anyone says. They say they are picking the person most qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. In fact, the most important thing is not picking someone with skeletons in their closet. People rarely vote for vice president. But the decision matters because it is the presidential candidate's first and most important presidential decision.
The second is to pick someone you can work with. Joe Biden was a real vice president, unlike, say, Dan Quayle. More than anyone in recent years, he knows what he wants a vice president to do. Vice President Biden served as an important bridge to Congress, and especially the Senate, where he was very much respected. Freed of the pressures of Donald Trump and his band, Republicans might actually recover their dignity and do what a legislature should do in a pandemic, which does not involve playing electoral politics for an irrational president. If you're wondering why that matters so much, you're probably not one of the millions of Americans losing unemployment benefits because the Republicans won't agree to an aid package that protects them, and Democrats won't agree to one that doesn't. There will be no time for on-the-job training.
The third imperative — in theory and not always in practice — is that the vice presidential candidate could actually help the ticket, either in their home state or with particular demographics, by bringing voters to the ticket (which is hard) or encouraging turnout among the base.
Because of his early commitment to choosing a woman, and because of his own response to the protests, it makes perfect sense for Biden to focus on Black women.
There were a number of Black women on the initial list, including the mayor of Atlanta, the woman who barely lost the governor's race in Georgia and the former police chief of Orlando: outstanding women with strong executive skills. I expect to see all of them in significant roles in the Biden administration.
The problem is that none of these women have substantial Washington experience, by which I mean national experience. The mayor of Atlanta has done well by all reports, and done great by many in dealing with COVID-19. But she has made hard choices. Whenever you choose an executive, all the baggage from their time in charge comes with them. Every big-city mayor has issues with the police department; and most urban police departments have issues with the communities they protect.
Which leaves the three Black women who have been most prominently mentioned. There's no question that everyone involved in the process is talking. And there is a reason for it. The Biden team puts enough out about the favorites to get the press digging and the insiders speaking up. And the candidates' teams, more publicly than ever, want to build public support for their choice or raise public questions about the alternatives. Sure, they're vetting more than ever before, but there is also more information to be found than ever before.
Susan Rice and Joe Biden clearly like each other. Having worked together, he is comfortable with her, and her deep store of knowledge about foreign policy would be an asset for any administration. But like everyone who has risen to the level she has, she has baggage. I'm not sure people can even remember what happened in Benghazi, but they will if she is picked, because she was the one who tried to defend the State Department. She should get past that, because foreign policy (other than China) has pretty much disappeared as an issue, which also means that her experience counts for less. And, perhaps most important to a man who has spent his life running for office, she has never run before. It is hard, especially when every mistake gets amplified because the press views you as a newcomer.
Which leaves Harris and Bass, not because they are Black women from California but because in this contest, they appear to be the last women standing. What started as a long list quickly became a short one. I should add that I have been proud to support both these women, and just the idea that one of them will be on the ticket is very exciting to me.
Kamala Harris is a very talented, charismatic politician whose announcement speech before a huge rally even earned Trump's praise. She is "big" enough to be presidential. She is the highest-ranking Black female elected official in the country. She has already been vetted by the national press corps, which has probably dug for dirt as prodigiously as the Biden team. Senators get picked all the time. If she hadn't run for president, she would be a solid first on any list.
The problem for Harris is that she had two memorable attack points against Biden: that he had opposed court-ordered school busing, and that he had worked across the aisle with "segregationists" to enact legislation that had nothing to do with race. The first attack was dramatic: "That little girl was me," she said, the little girl who participated in a voluntary busing program in Berkeley, California. But it is the second that must have stung Biden and his longtime friend, former Sen. Chris Dodd. It is not because Biden is ashamed of winning the votes of those he most often disagreed with. It is because, by her tone, she suggested she would never do such a thing. Which in turn suggests that, as vice president, she would not reach out to senators she most often disagrees with, sometimes vehemently. That would certainly make sense if she were looking for a job in the Senate. But it makes no sense at all if you are trying to build a consensus and get things done.
As for Bass, her experience is precisely the opposite. A physician assistant who went on to earn her master's in social work, Bass has been organizing and building coalitions for 40 years. She was elected to the state legislature in 2004 and then named the majority whip, then the majority leader, then the speaker. She succeeded, among other bills, in pushing through major reform legislation to protect children in foster care and to ensure access to health care for poor children. She received an award for her handling of the budget crisis that threatened the state between 2008-2010. Elected to the House in 2010 and reelected without opposition since then, she chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and has won the support of key members of Congress for her role as a consensus builder.
But it is something much more personal that makes me think she and Joe Biden speak the same language. Joe Biden's life has been shaped by tragedy: His wife and daughter were killed in a car accident; his son died of a brain tumor, which Biden has handled with a kind of grace that says everything about his character. Karen Bass faced similar, unaccountable tragedy when her daughter, her newly married only child (she also has stepchildren with her ex-husband, whom she divorced in 1986) and son-in-law, both 23, were also killed in a car accident.
Susan Estrich can be reached at email@example.com.