Based on Experience, Susan Rice Is Easily—by Far—the Best Choice for VP for Biden (Sorry Harris Fans, that Includes Kamala): A Tale of Two Careers

Between two very impressive, accomplished women, one is far more impressive and accomplished

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981August 8, 2020 (See Brian’s follow-up articles: August 20, 2020, I Was Wrong about Harris. Why I Changed My Mind and How She Won Me Over and August 11, 2020: Substance vs. Style as Biden Picks Harris over Rice)

Saul Loeb (Getty Images), Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON—There is no question the punditry’s Conventional Wisdom has California Senator Kamala Harris as “the favorite”, or front-runner, for Joe Biden’s vice-presidential sweepstakes

Besides Elizabeth Warren, it is hard to find any current sitting senator with more star power or who inspires more passion from supporters than she, the only other exception being Elizabeth Warren or, at the very least, out of any Democratic senator; Cory Booker sort of comes to mind, yet Harris polled so much higher than him in the primaries that that surely dampens that argument, as has the number of times she has been highlighted by the mainstream news media compared to him.  While few can compare to the likes of freshman House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Congressional publicity in the House (though Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ted Lieu, and Adam Schiff would get honorable mentions), the Senate just has a lot of older folks who simply come off as more boring.  On the right, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton are stars and good at getting lots of coverage and publicity, and while younger and engaging Cory Booker is helped a bit by his celebrity girlfriend Rosario Dawson, there just aren’t many senators that generate much excitement, quotable videos, or positive press coverage regularly aside from Warren.

However, there is a special climate in this time of a serious racial awakening in America in light of the mass groundswell behind the black lives matter movement in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd as well as other African-Americans and the massive protests and some rioting  that came in the wake of Floyd’s killing, events which unfolded of in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and worst economic crisis in America since the Great Depression.  And in this climate, we can pretty much count Warren out (and could even before indications are that Biden has narrowed his list down to two women of color, Sen. Harris and Susan Rice, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations and former National Security Advisor, both in the Obama Administration), as the spirit and mood of both the media elites and Party activists—along with at least the most vocal part of the Democratic electorate—seem to strongly prefer a non-white running mate.  Also, I won’t even get into these in detail here, but there are other clear reasons for Biden not to pick Warren that range from her narrow ideological appeal (the absurdity that somehow she would bring in lots of Bernie voters, who generally seem to hate her, does not hold much water) to her frequent inability to work well with the leaders of her own Party, including Obama himself when she had a real chance to be chosen lead her brainchild, the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau, but blew it.  Most important is that her style and politics are quite different from Biden, even as they agree on the larger issues more or less, and, when it comes to being picked as a vice president, the ability to work with with—and, especially, defer to—your running mate is paramount.

Counting Warren as essentially out, it is useful to briefly compare the lives of Harris and Rice, who were born in the same year within a month of each other, making the comparisons especially apt.  Most available biographies of them are short, the exceptions being their own memoirs, though Wikipedia provides quite a few details and citations.

As I write this, I will note that I have been watching and really enjoying ESPN’s The Last Dance (an amazing documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’s championship teams, especially their final championship run) recently, and there are two main facets to how a player gets selected for a team and how they perform: the numbers and the intangibles, the latter being traits that do not show up on paper but are still vital, including personality.  We will leave that second category for a sequel piece, as the first category, the resume, what a player’s trading card would look like for Harris and Rice, is going to be our subject for today.

A Tale of Two Women

Harris was the child of a black Jamaican father and an Indian mother, both immigrants who achieved elite status as a distinguished professor and a cancer scientist, respectively, who divorced when Harris was seven.  The eventual senator was born and raised in California, but attended an elite public high school in a suburb of Montreal, Canada, participating in the pep club and a dance group, and her grades, according to one classmate, were among the best in her class.

Susan Rice’s parents were also elites and both black Americans, her mother a prominent education policy scholar and her father a prominent economic policy scholar, each heavily involved in the U.S. government in fairly high-tier, prestigious capacities.  Rice was born and raised in Washington, DC, and her parents divorced when she was ten.  Her mother would remarry, a prominent lawyer in a major government position.  Rice’s family was friends with Madeleine Albright, then already experienced in government and a prominent scholar, and, when Rice was becoming a young woman, a top foreign policy advisor to major Democratic Party figures.  She acted as mentor to the young Rice, who was already exposed to lots of government policy discussions at her dinner table.  In high school, Rice lettered in three varsity sports, was student government president, and graduated as the top student in her class, the valedictorian of a top-tier elite private school in Washington.

Harris certainly had an impressive record as a student before college, but it is still one that pales in comparison to Rice, who dominated as a valedictorian, a leader on and off the field, and, in terms of government, was exposed to top policymakers and experts and their policy debates in her family and its circle of friends at a young age in ways Harris was decidedly not.

If we move on to college, both women graduated in 1986 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in the short-term, in Harris’s case, from Howard University, where she double-majored in political science and economics.  While attending school, she interned as a mailroom clerk for one of her California senators, led both a campus economics society and the debate team, and joined a sorority (the nation’s oldest African-American one).  In 1989, she had earned her law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and passed her bar exam shortly after, being admitted to the California Bar in 1990. 

Rice attended Stanford as an undergraduate, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest and most exclusive academic honor society, also generally thought to be the most prestigious, and also won a Truman Scholarship, the nation’s most prestigious graduate fellowship for public service leadership.  Her B.A. in History was awarded with honors.  She also earned a Rhodes Scholarship, studying at the UK’s world-renown Oxford University, where earned a Masters and a Doctorate in Philosophy in 1988 (while also serving as a foreign policy advisor to Michael Dukakis’s campaign) and 1990, respectively, each in International Relations.  Her doctoral dissertation was named the best in the UK in her field by the Royal Institute of International Affairs (also known as Chatham House) and it also won a Royal Commonwealth Society award for outstanding research in the field of Commonwealth history.

Again, while Harris’s achievements and activities in school were impressive by any standard, Rice’s were absolute standouts among standouts and far exceeded even Harris’s high bar, especially in graduate school, where Rice gained entry into far more elite and exclusive programs and then literally bested all her peers in the UK, winning two Royal awards.

The 1990s would be years of solid achievement for both women.

Harris was hired in 1990 as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County, California, an incredibly impressive achievement for someone who passed the bar the same year; in this role, her performance was noted positively.  By 1994, she was dating the Speaker of the California Assembly, Willie Brown, (the lower house of the California State Legislature), who placed her in 1994 in a board spot on California’s Unemployment Insurance Appeals body and, subsequently, a spot on the California Medical Assistance Commission, for which she temporarily left her prosecutor position.  By 1998, she was picked by the San Francisco District Attorney (DA) as Assistant District Attorney (ADA), where she ran the Career Criminal Division, taking on many of the most serious violent cases and where she quickly stood out for her leadership and passion, challenging her more established male superiors and connecting in significant ways with the public and the media to raise her profile and fight for her agenda.  This caused controversy, friction, a true battle of egos, and, eventually, resulted in Harris quitting her post in 2000 (more on that another time).

Rice would work for two years for famed consulting firm McKinsey, but with the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency, she joined the Clinton Administration in 1993 as a National Security Council (NSC) staffer, until 1995 as director for international organizations and peacekeeping and then, rising quickly, as special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs until 1997.  With lobbying from Madeleine Albright, then Secretary of State, Bill Clinton appointed Rice Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1997.  Rice’s relative youth and meteoric rise made some of the “old guard” uncomfortable, but Rice’s direct yet persuasive approach won over some of her doubters.  Her time in the Clinton Administration was during an era of major upheaval throughout Africa and major peacekeeping and international aid and development initiatives, and she managed to have significant impact on a number of pressing crises.

After Harris quit her ADA role, moving to a role in San Francisco City Hall under the City Attorney and running the Family and Children’s Services Division, fighting against neglect and abuse, it was soon fairly clear Harris was planning a comeback to challenge and overthrow her former colleagues at the DA’s office, beginning to seriously organize in 2002, even persuading top Democrats to not endorse her incumbent former boss who was in the middle of a significant scandal.  She also out-fundraised her opponent significantly, running to his right and beating him in 2003 by a significant margin to become the state’s first black DA in 2004.  As San Francisco DA, she was aggressive on pursuing violent crime and made significant improvements in multiple areas, including conviction rates, recidivism, and truancy.  As DA for San Francisco, she was named a “Woman of Power” by the National Urban League Conference, won the National Black Prosecutors Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award, and was voted onto the National District Attorneys Association’s Board of Directors as vice president and appointed as co-chair of its Corrections and Re-Entry Committee.  At the end of the decade, she began preparing a campaign to become the California Attorney General. 

After the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, Rice was a managing director and principal at political risk consulting group Intellibridge from 2001-2002 (it was eventually bought by Ian Bremmer’s Eurasia Group), then moved onto the influential Brookings Institute, where, as a senior fellow, she worked on a number of major international issues from 2002-2009, including global poverty, transnational security threats, weak and failing states, and U.S. foreign policy.  While at Brookings, she also served as a top foreign policy advisor to John Kerry’s presidential campaign and played a similar role for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, taking on that role relatively early, also playing a top tole on his incoming Administration’s transition team, during which Obama announced he would appoint Rice as America’s Ambassador to the United Nations, elevating it back to a cabinet-level position; thus, it was clear Rice would play a major role in in the incoming Obama-Biden Administration.

While Harris the 2000s would have a clear edge in governmental experiences to Rice’s more academic decade, both would position themselves for meteoric rises in the 2010s.

In Harris California Attorney General campaign, she won early the backing of major California Democrats.  While easily winning the Democratic Primary, she barely won the 2010 general election by 0.5% but still did so, becoming both the state’s first black person and first woman elected to that office, assuming it in early 2011.  She won reelection by a wide margin in 2014, and her time as attorney general was often characterized by boldness and impressive results, including in corporate accountability, truancy, recidivism, the environment, and aspects of police reform.  Though not without controversy, hers was a historic tenure in the office, and as attorney general she was co-awarded the Bipartisan Justice Award (shared with Republican Senator Tim Scott) by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center.  She left her second term early after winning the 2016 election for a California U.S. Senate seat.  While none of her sponsored legislation has been enacted into law in a Republican-controlled Senate, she did receive as senator the ECOS Environmental Award for her efforts towards environmental protection throughout her career and she has been adept at making hers a voice that is heard and covered by the media (and shared on social media) on a variety of issues.

During the time Rice was with the Obama-Biden Administration, she served all of its first term as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a cabinet-level position restored to that status by Obama in a sign of his confidence in her and value to him as an advisor.  She conducted high-level diplomacy through many crises, including involving Israelis and Palestinians as well as the Arab Spring.  She championed anti-poverty efforts, human rights (including women’s rights), non-proliferation, and was effective in implementing tough sanctions on North Korea and Iran, the latter of which helped set the stage for the eventual Iran nuclear deal.  She was a major force in ending the full-scale Libyan Civil War, and though she became controversially embroiled in the Benghazi attacks’ fallout, ten investigations failed to find any wrongdoing on her part, including six led by Republicans, though this controversy would lead her to withdraw herself from the path to becoming the next U.S. Secretary of State.  Instead, she would be named by Obama early in his second term in 2013 as U.S. National Security Advisor, where she continued to work on many of the same issues as she had as UN Ambassador.  One issues she had a measurable impact on was her helping to mitigate the aggressiveness of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.  She even presciently saw the national security threat that a pandemic could post.  Throughout Obama’s presidency, she was present and participated in key meetings on key issues making key policy, working closely with both Obama and Biden.  Shortly after the Obama-Biden Administration was out of power, France awarded Rice with its prestigious Commander, Legion of Honor rank, one of the highest awards France can bestow on anyone, instituted by Napoleon himself.

Based on Experience, Rice is the Clear Choice for Biden

To return to our NBA trading card comparison, both Rice and Harris would be All Stars, but Rice’s stats would make her one of the top players (the top in this year’s draft), and while Harris would be a very talented player any team would be lucky to have, still among the best of the picks available, any team would draft Rice over Harris based on their stats unless, somehow, a team was overstacked on foreign policy and desperately needed criminal justice system experience. 

And that is no to say Rice has no relevant domestic experience or insight: she still had to lobby congress in her various roles, still worked three presidential campaigns where her foreign police expertise would have been engaged through the prism of domestic politics, and grew up in a family where her parents, step-father, and other close family friends were deeply involved in domestic policy, having that be part of young Susan’s regular dinner conversations with prominent from active practitioners.  And the same can be said for foreign policy.

On top of that, Rice’s academic credentials are quite exceptional and add further dimensions to her policy expertise in ways that I would say career practitioners who do not take some academic time generally fail to match.  While in office, public officials are pulled in so many directions that a Rhodes Scholarship and years at the Brookings Institute can offset by allowing more focused, in-depth research.  But the last academic experience Harris had was law school, which admittedly is broad and pulls students into many directions.  Harris of course deserves praise for earning two degrees, but Rice exceeded this achievement with three.  Rice also went to better institutions and distinguished herself more, winning prestigious top-tier honors and awards Harris did not and standing out to a far higher degree.

In addition, Rice has some experience in the private sector, and therefore a deeper understanding of it and economic issues, whereas Harris has only been in government since passing her bar exam.

To briefly review:

In the 1990s, Harris was putting in time in with various district attorneys offices, and, to be sure, she impressively got selected for these positions at a young age.  But Rice at the same time rose to leadership roles in the National Security Council and State Department, and working in state DA offices pales in comparison.

In the 2000s, Harris had a leg up in earning relevant experience, staying in government while Harris took a more academic turn, though she still managed to work for two presidential campaigns.

Yet in the 2000s and through 2016, Harris’s work would remain narrowly focused on one aspect of domestic policy—law enforcement—while Rice during the Obama-Biden Administration was one of the senior officials in the entire U.S. government on both national security and the entirety of U.S. foreign policy.  She worked closely with President Obama and Vice President Biden throughout the Obama-Biden Administration, including in a cabinet-level position, and would thus have a far deeper understanding of how the White House works and works with the rest of government and Congress than Harris would.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-national security adviser Susan Rice talk in the Oval Office in 2015. (Mike Theiler/Getty)

To be clear, this is not an anti-Harris argument, but between two exceptional, amazing, inspiring women of color who overcame much adversity in their careers, one stands out far more in terms of her government experience and accomplishments than the other, and that person is easily Susan Rice.

See Brian’s follow-up article: Substance vs. Style as Biden Picks Harris over Rice and related article: Benghazi Hearing: GOP’s Embarrassing Shame, Clinton’s Triumphant Vindication

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