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13 Ways of Looking at Kamala Harris
Is it time to reset how you think about the vice president?
KAMALA HARRIS WAS AMONG FRIENDS at the annual fundraiser gala for EMILY’s List this week. Her smile dazzled as she talked of the “many joys” of being vice president, and her tone was by turns disbelieving and resolute as she described “book bans in this year of our Lord 2023” and “extremists” planning to go national with attacks on legal abortion, voting rights, gay rights, black history lessons, and more. Addressing a hall packed with cheering, applauding women, Harris said she and Joe Biden have been fighting to uphold and protect “hard-won rights and freedoms” for two years, “and now we need to finish the job.”
Is this focused, confident Kamala Harris the one we’ll see for the rest of the 2024 campaign? There are so many possible answers1 to that question.
1. She seems like she’d be a fun friend. You can tell from watching her explain how to brine a turkey in a video recorded two days before Thanksgiving 2019 that went viral a year later, when she was vice president-elect. The clip shows Harris seizing the moment—a 90-second commercial break before going live on MSNBC—to answer questions from Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart’s husband, Nick. Dry versus wet, which spices and where to put them, the “cheap white wine” for basting, the importance of butter, enthusiastic hand gestures, and a sudden “oh hi!” as the voice in her earpiece signals the show—the real one—is about to start. “I recorded her response ’cause I don’t cook and she was speaking a foreign language,” Capehart tweeted, adding a laugh-till-you-cry emoji and the hashtag #kamalacooks.
2. A week after that seemingly carefree turkey tangent, Harris ended her presidential bid. It was a mercy killing for a mismanaged and unconvincing campaign. She had a divided, publicly unhappy staff, shifting positions on key issues, and no compelling rationale for why Democrats should nominate her. There was also her shocking, highly personal ambush of Biden at a Democratic presidential debate. Harris’s attack on his 1970s opposition to federal busing mandates and remarks about working with segregationist senators made headlines, but it made me uncomfortable. A more sure-footed communicator would have agreed that it’s important to get things done, but insisted that it’s insensitive to brag about working with segregationists.
3. Nevertheless, in June 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, I wrote that Biden’s choice came down to then-Rep. Val Demings, the former police chief of Orlando, Florida, or then-Sen. Harris, a former California attorney general and San Francisco district attorney. The idea was that either of them—gun-owning women of color who, like Biden himself, had taken incoming from all sides of the public safety debate—could credibly lead a national project to address racial inequities in policing, criminal justice, and more. I had moved on from the debate unpleasantness. Turns out Biden had, too.
4. Did Biden pick Harris because she had been Beau Biden’s friend? Did he give undue weight to his late son’s opinion? I admit, I wondered. “He had enormous respect for her and her work,” Biden said of Beau in an August 2020 letter to supporters. That was, in fact, true. The pair bonded professionally and personally after the 2010 foreclosure crisis when they were among several state attorneys general skeptical of a settlement offer that Harris called “crumbs on the table”—especially for hard-hit California. She pulled her state out of negotiations and sometimes spoke multiple times a day with Beau, who was doing his own investigation of the banks. “We had each other’s backs,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold. The resisters won their bet; the final five-bank, 49-state settlement was far more than crumbs.
5. But rather than exhibiting sound judgment and innovative leadership, Harris’s vice presidential office initially mirrored her dysfunctional White House bid. By late 2021, several travel, press, and communications aides had departed and Harris’s staff turnover was raising eyebrows. Multiple reports suggested internal problems in the vice presidential operation as well as friction with the Biden team. There were also the occasional, familiar flashes of political tone deafness, notably an exchange with NBC’s Lester Holt over why she had gone to Mexico and Guatemala before visiting the U.S.-Mexican border. Harris: “We’ve been to the border.” Holt: “You haven’t been to the border.” Harris: “And I haven’t been to Europe!”
6. She’s a factor in Biden’s low poll numbers and lukewarm support. I blurted out to a friend back in February that “It’s not Joe, it’s Kamala”—people are worried she’ll end up president. “Write that,” my friend said. She had just heard NPR host Terry Gross ask artist Nan Goldin why her photography is so personal, and she quoted Goldin’s answer: “I think the wrong things are kept secret.” I was still weighing all this privately when it busted out into full view. “At least some of the concerns about Joe Biden’s age are in reality barely veiled worries about Kamala Harris,” Tom Nichols wrote in the Atlantic on April 24. Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was more blunt: “If you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely.”
7. The Senate Democrats’ “most acute questioner,” as New York Magazine once called Harris, earned the title by grilling attorneys general, Supreme Court nominees, and a Homeland Security secretary. Imagine her as an aggressive attorney general in a Biden administration or a hard-charging Senate Judiciary Committee chair in a Democratic Senate. Instead, as Biden’s understudy, she drew thankless, unachievable tasks such as getting a voting rights bill through a stalemated Senate and delving into the root causes of surging immigration. She was sent to countless foreign countries where she sank out of sight. She might make a better president for having done all that travel and met all those leaders. But it was painful, and will be a moot point if she and Biden lose.
8. Biden’s 2024 announcement video last month showed Harris more than a dozen times. MSNBC host Stephanie Ruhle asked Biden in a May 5 interview, “What are you trying to tell us?” He responded with explicit praise: “Vice President Harris hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves. She was attorney general of the state of California. She has been a United States senator. She is really very, very good. And with everything going on, she hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves.” That was the same day Biden and Harris posted a widely roasted, somewhat goofy photo of themselves going out to lunch together.
9. I have no idea if Harris could win a presidential primary. Part of that is because Democrats have a strong bench. Governors like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, California’s Gavin Newsom, Colorado’s Jared Polis, Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, and Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker are all on deck for 2028. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will finally be in his mid-40s, and a battalion of senators will doubtless think that they, too, are presidential material. That said, I’m confident the country—and Harris—would be fine if something happened to Biden and she had to step in.
10. Was she ever as bad as she seemed? “I’m becoming slightly skeptical of the major narrative about Kamala Harris being so awful,” Mona Charen reflected recently. “Maybe it is time for a reset. Honestly, she has in the past given competent speeches. We’ve all seen her perform far better than she has in the vice presidency.”
11. There was a reset of sorts a year ago when two top Democrats took charge: Lorraine Voles as Harris’s chief of and Anita Dunn as a senior adviser to Biden. Accounts of turmoil and gaffes have ebbed, and Axios now reports that Dunn wants Harris to do events on popular Democratic issues like infrastructure spending and abortion rights. You mean, instead of struggling to explain why she still hasn’t solved the root problems of the immigration mess? What’s the rush? Oh, right, it’s campaign season and if democracy is to survive, the Biden-Harris ticket must win.
12. Charen’s words came back to me after Harris met on May 4 with four tech company CEOs to discuss artificial intelligence. “Throughout my career I have focused on protecting consumers from the risks associated with technology,” she said in a statement about the session. She ticked off substantive examples of her work, such as setting up a Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit in the California Department of Justice, and stressed the private sector’s “ethical, moral, and legal” responsibilities going forward. Message: I care, I’ve got you, and I know what I’m talking about.
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13. That same day Harris went on a field trip to high-tech Babylon Micro-Farms in Richmond, Virginia. It was National Small Business Week and the company had received a $150,000 grant from the State Small Business Credit Initiative in the 2021 American Rescue Plan. “Has anybody been able to tour this facility? It’s fascinating,” Harris said as she arrived at the lectern. “Really, congratulations,” she told the two founders and their team. “I could speak at length about what I think is the significance of this work, for our country, for our workforce, what it means in terms of a step, a very smart step, towards preserving precious resources like water. What it means in terms of developing the skills of the workforce, and the global impact of this kind of approach.”
Call me credulous, but she sounded like she meant it. It’s no stretch, after all, to believe a political leader from California would understand the import of a business that’s helping to meet what she called the defining twenty-first-century challenge of “growing more food with less water.” Beyond that, Harris seemed just like she did in the 2019 turkey-brining tutorial: gesturing enthusiastically, completely in the moment, comfortable with the subject, and making personal connections with people she had just met.
Here’s a fourteenth way to look at Kamala Harris: After a rocky start, maybe she’s found her footing.
Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: JillLawrence.com. Twitter: @JillDLawrence.