Kamala Harris, the new Democratic vice-presidential nominee, certainly looks the part. Barack Obama once called her ‘the best-looking attorney general in the country’, though he later decided that was a sexist remark and apologised. She’s half-black, half-Indian and she has a charismatic Californian smile. If a director were casting for someone to play America’s first minority woman vice-president, he’d probably plump for an actress who looked like Harris. She dresses like the Hollywood idea of a political woman — power-suits and pearls. She’s got what wonks call the ‘optics’ down pat.
It’s easy to forget but only last year Harris was considered a favourite to win her party’s presidential nomination. The media liked her and her campaign launch drew a crowd of 20,000. ‘She has pizzazz, the it-factor,’ said one attendee. ‘She’s got major ovaries,’ said another. In the first Democratic presidential television debate in June, she won all sorts of plaudits for attacking Joe Biden — now her running mate — for his record on race relations.
Then she promptly fizzled out. Voters just didn’t seem to warm to her. Her record as a criminal prosecutor — or, as her critics like to say, ‘a cop’ — made her deeply unpopular among the radical left. She looked cantankerous and unpleasant when, in a later debate, she clashed with Tulsi Gabbard, another serious power-suit wearer. Gabbard pointed out Harris’s deepest flaws as far as progressives are concerned: Harris as prosecutor had put more than 1,500 marijuana users in jail. When asked if she had ever tried pot herself, however, Harris the politician laughed and said: ‘I have… and I inhaled.’ As attorney general, Harris had also tried to block inconvenient evidence that exonerated an innocent man on death row.
Harris’s poll numbers fell to single digits. She wisely dropped out on 3 December before the primaries began in earnest.
Yet just because Harris was a bad presidential candidate in 2019 does not make her a bad running mate for Joe Biden in 2020. On the contrary, Joe and Kamala could be quite an appealing duo in the public’s eye: the amiable but vague 77-year-old white guy and the 55-year-old biracial ball-breaker.
Commentators have spent a lot of time wondering why Biden picked the woman who effectively called him a racist on TV. Harris also suggested that she believed the woman who accused him of sexual assault. But that’s just politics. Biden’s decision to nominate her regardless shows magnanimity, and early campaign adversaries have often become great political allies. Candidate George H.W. Bush famously denounced Ronald Reagan’s ‘voodoo economics’, then went on to be his vice-president.
Biden is old and visibly infirm. Everybody knows that Harris is therefore likely to be America’s 47th president if she and Joe win in November. She may well outdo Hillary Clinton and break the ultimate feminist ‘glass ceiling’ without ever having won a presidential nomination herself. In the Democratic party, where identity politics matters far more than, say, democracy, that is still regarded as a major point in her favour.
As Biden suggested in his big announcement, he chose Harris in part because of her work with Beau, his eldest son, who died of brain cancer aged 46. Beau and Kamala were attorney generals at the same time. ‘I watched as they took on big banks,’ said Joe, ‘lifted up working people, and protected women and kids from abuse, and I’m proud now to have her in my campaign. And so what if she called me a racist rapist, folks?’ He didn’t really say the last part.
That familial connection had made Harris frontrunner for Biden’s ‘VP slot’ for months, although his team apparently harboured doubts about her trustworthiness and electability. The campaign repeatedly pushed back Tuesday’s announcement and there was much chatter last week that Susan Rice, the former Obama national security adviser, would pip Harris to the post.
But Harris, the junior senator from California, had more campaign experience. She’s won elections, unlike Rice. In the end, Joe decided she was his safest bet.
Her ascent has been a long time coming. As far back as 2010, Democrats were calling Harris the ‘anti-Palin’ — a reference to the Republican Sarah Palin, John McCain’s high-risk vice-presidential nominee in 2008. For years profile writers have been puffing her as a female Obama. Kamala and Obama are both mixed-race children of immigrants, were both raised by single mothers, and both went into law before politics. Yet Harris has so far proved to be nothing like as popular as Obama, especially not among black voters. Her personality grates, which is why the Trump campaign has already dubbed her ‘Phony Kamala’ — a line that evokes Trump’s infamous ‘Crooked Hillary’ slur.
Harris’s past as a brutal prosecutor may put off African-American voters for whom criminal justice reform is still an important issue. She’s tried hard to turn that political weakness into a strength and even wrote a book called Smart on Crime, but her old reputation sticks. Given that Biden, as a senator, crafted laws that led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of black men in the 1990s, it could be argued that the man and woman on the Democratic 2020 presidential ticket have done more to imprison black citizens than any other pair in public life.
To many black men and women, Harris seems almost white — the daughter of academics, born into a fairly affluent family, she grew up in Berkeley, California and Montreal. Her ancestors in Jamaica even owned slaves. She’s also got links to the evil capitalists of big tech; her brother-in-law works for Uber as chief legal officer, and she has always seemed a bit cosy with Silicon Valley figures such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. To the woke, this is all anathema, even if she does trot out the right platitudes about LGBTQ rights and the environment.
Yet that’s precisely why she might prove a shrewd vice-presidential choice. Her presence on the Biden ticket presents Republicans with a dilemma. Donald Trump wants to show Biden to be an old fool who will let the radical left take over, which in turn will mean much more rioting and violent crime. But it’ll be hard for them to paint Harris as soft on criminality.
At the same time, a crucial part of Trump’s re-election strategy is to increase his share of the African-American vote. The temptation to attack Harris and Biden for incarcerating vulnerable black men and throwing away the key may prove irresistible. But that would mean sending out seemingly contradictory messages to the electorate: are Biden and Harris nasty old authoritarians or agents of a new criminal anarchy? They can’t be both, can they?