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Kamala Harris’s Very Open Secret

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/26/2020 Edward-Isaac Dovere
a woman looking at the camera © Sasha Arutyunova

A few weeks ago, an adviser to Kamala Harris called me to talk through some polling data. “We understand that Joe Biden’s the nominee, but the party is so much different than a septuagenarian white male,” the adviser said. “Kamala Harris is more symbolic of that changing America—America coming together—than some of the other potential candidates” for vice president.

The adviser spoke on the condition of anonymity because, officially, Harris is pretending that she’s not campaigning to be Biden’s running mate.

In public, Harris has repeatedly insisted that she’s not talking about or thinking about her prospects of being picked. But judging from my conversations with people around Harris, she and her team use her prospects to book events and television hits that aim to show she’s neither overeager nor overambitious. She and her team are avoiding situations that could create stumbles. They’re hoping that her résumé, her background, and the force of her personality propel her. They’re picking specific moments for her to grab attention on the Senate floor or send a calibrated tweet. They’re tuning out political reporters who are stuck on their couches, looking to drum up content during the pandemic. They’re trying to ease concerns in Biden’s orbit that if she’s picked and they win, she’ll start running for president the morning after the inauguration. They want her on the ticket, and positioned to be the Democratic nominee in 2024.

“She’s literally the antidote,” says Stockton, California, Mayor Michael Tubbs, who endorsed Michael Bloomberg in the presidential race a few weeks after Harris dropped out. “She’s the opposite of Trump. She’s someone who believes in the rule of law; she’s not afraid to confront bullies. She’s not afraid to speak to where we need to be.”

The careful campaign appears to be working. Biden advisers have said privately that they’re impressed. Members of Congress who only a few weeks ago were grumbling that she’s been showing up less for legislating and more for TV hits are now worried about getting caught doubting her.

“Not sure anyone who is in Congress would criticize Kamala, given such high odds she could be on the ticket,” said one Democratic member of Congress who’s hoping that Biden picks someone else. Naturally, this member of Congress requested anonymity to discuss how other members of Congress want to stay anonymous.

Harris declined several requests for an in-depth discussion about the state of the country and what specific ideas she has for change going forward, whether or not she’s on the ticket. She likes to approach interviews as a prosecutor who’s thoroughly reviewed a case file, mastering the topic in front of her and fully focused on it, aides who have seen her in action say. And she favors single-topic interviews on TV, where she feels more comfortable deflecting and knows that commercial breaks can help her run out the clock.

But Harris is leaving questions unanswered about what she’d actually aim to do as vice president or why she wants the job. This is typical. With those who know her, she can be thoughtful, funny, engaging, and pragmatic, with little patience for grand theories of governance. She’s focused on what will make a real difference in people’s lives. But the version of Harris the public knows often comes off scripted and indirect, appearing mostly in sound bites and viral videos. Her instinct to parry rather than expound helps her avoid awkward questions, such as during a segment on The View earlier this month, when Meghan McCain asked her if she was in favor of defunding the police. Instead of answering directly, Harris asked what McCain meant, and McCain eventually admitted that she didn’t know herself. Harris successfully avoided taking a potentially controversial position. But she also reinforced her preexisting reputation for evasiveness: I heard from several high-level Democratic operatives that the exchange reminded them of Harris’s habit of dodging critical questions during her presidential campaign.

[Read: She wanted to be a republican president. She’s voting for Biden.]

Among those who’d like to know more about where she stands is Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil-rights group Color of Change. He’s had a number of public and private conversations with Harris over the years—on podcasts, in Facebook chats, alone in her office. He’s been impressed that she’s talked with him without staff in the room to support her, and with the level of consideration she’s brought to conversations about inequities in criminal justice. But when I asked him if he feels like Harris is more substantive than she sometimes appears, he said, “I don’t know. It’s hard, because I feel like I don’t have enough.”

People close to Harris believe that she’s the victim of East Coast bias, unfairly high expectations that always hold her to a front-runner standard, and more subtle bias against her as a black woman. They think she’s never gotten the credit she deserves—like when Twitter announced that it would be fact-checking and curating Donald Trump’s tweets. In October, desperate for a Hail Mary pass to save her campaign, she proposed banning Trump from Twitter. She even got into a back-and-forth with Elizabeth Warren about it at the October debate. Liberal tastemakers sneered that her suggestion made no sense. But by last month, banning Trump had worked its way into the consciousness enough to be the subject of a Maureen Dowd column (which didn’t mention Harris), and Harris defenders felt vindicated.

Harris has now been able to lean on her past as a prosecutor as a strength. During the primary, supporters of other candidates turned it into a liability in the name of progressivism. But these days she’s stepping up as the national debate has turned to police reform, leading the Senate Democrats’ fight against Republican legislation and helping write their own bill, delivering a searing speech on the Senate floor responding to Rand Paul’s resistance to anti-lynching legislation. She’s been firmer on and more expansive about her record than she ever was as a presidential candidate, to the point that the law professor Lara Bazelon told NPR this week, “Her record has been consistent, and it’s been good.” Bazelon wrote a New York Times op-ed in January 2019 with the headline “Kamala Harris Was Not a ‘Progressive Prosecutor.’” But Harris “did champion progressive causes,” Bazelon said on NPR.

Harris was chastened by the failure of her presidential run, which launched like a rocket and ended like a deflated blimp. For the running-mate process, according to several people who’ve spoken with her and her small circle of advisers, she’s determined to seem steadier. She’s also still atoning politically for what became her defining moment of the campaign: taking Biden’s legs out from under him at the first debate. Biden took it personally—especially because Harris was friends with his late son, Beau—and a number of people close to him thought it showed that she wouldn't hold back. That moment has stuck with a lot of Biden supporters.

“I’m one of these Irish guys that forgives but does not forget. And I’m one of these Irish guys that holds a grudge,” says John Morgan, a major Florida donor who hosted one of the first big fundraising events for Biden. “What she did to him in that debate was treacherous, and she didn’t have to do it. He trusted her. He had helped her before. And she had a relationship with his son. It was, Et tu Kamala?

“With that said,” Morgan joked to me, “she’ll probably be the vice president and I’ll never be invited to the White House.”

Even among those who are more sympathetic, the turnaround feels dizzying. In an interview with Harris last Wednesday, Stephen Colbert said he believed that she is sincerely behind Biden. She might be a good running mate, he said, but how would she get there after all the “haymakers” she landed onstage?

“It was a debate,” Harris said.

“Not everyone landed punches like you did, though,” Colbert said.

“It was a debate,” Harris said, deploying the laugh she often uses to deflect during television interviews.

“So you don’t mean it?”

“It was a debate,” she said again.

Harris’s hesitation in endorsing Biden earlier this year only reinforced some of his supporters’ suspicions about her. Biden advisers called Harris multiple times, urging her to back him, insisting that she could help him consolidate support ahead of the California primary and others on Super Tuesday, people who were clued in to the conversations told me. She thought about how and when to endorse. Some on her side urged her to make a splash and regain Biden’s goodwill. But she decided to wait, in part out of deference to the women who remained in the race, in part because she was hesitant about taking a chance that Biden would win. She finally endorsed Biden six days after California voted, when the primary race was all but over.

Biden has made clear in private conversations that have been relayed to me that he’s focused on beating Trump, not payback, and that he’ll pick whichever woman he believes will most help him win.

Look at what’s happening in this country, Harris supporters say. To them, there’s no way that Biden cannot pick a black woman as his running mate. Some of the Democratic intelligentsia have started swooning over the possibility of Warren as his vice president. But it’s absurd to imagine that Biden would respond to this moment by putting forward two white people in their 70s, Harris backers argue. And if Biden is going to pick a black woman, these supporters say, he’s got to pick Harris. Out of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Representative Val Demings of Florida, former Georgia Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice—all of whom have been floated as potential vice-president nominees—none has had the experience to understand the scrutiny and pressure of being part of a national campaign.

[Read: The VP choice everyone is missing]

Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, isn’t concerned that the Biden team is considering black women who aren’t Harris. “It’s part of the vetting process,” he said. “Everyone should be vetted. But once the vetting plays out, you will see Kamala Harris emerge as the obvious choice.”

Harris fans often compare her with Warren, generally seen as the other leading contender, and the Black Lives Matter protests in front of the White House gave them a direct juxtaposition. Harris arrived the day before Trump took his walk through tear gas to his Bible photo op, clapping and chanting along with the crowd (captured in a video quickly tweeted by her husband). Warren showed up three days later, bringing along her dog and speaking with reporters. The catch: Warren and Harris polled roughly the same among black voters when they were both still running for president. And in a CBS poll released at the beginning of May—before the police killing of George Floyd—72 percent of black voters said Biden should consider Warren for vice president. Just 60 percent said he should consider Harris.

“It would be incredible to have a woman of color,” Mandela Barnes, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Wisconsin, told me. “That would speak volumes for the direction of this country and where our nominee intends to take us.” But he said he’s still drawn to Warren.

Barnes is black himself. In 2018, he helped Tony Evers, his older white running mate, beat an incumbent Republican, aided by high turnout in Milwaukee and among black voters. He’s not convinced that Harris would do the same for Biden. “I don’t know that Kamala’s had the time to develop that familiarity,” he said. “I don’t know that [her being black] automatically translates. In fact, I’m not willing to say that at all. It’s going to be important to corral the energy in the activist community in November—people who’ve made it clear that they don’t have to vote for you.”

If Harris is the pick, in retrospect this will probably seem like the longest, most drawn-out lead-up to an obvious conclusion in the history of modern presidential politics. But first, she’ll have to convince Biden’s top advisers that she would be able to deliver younger voters, women, and black voters in numbers that she never did during her own presidential campaign. To some who are talking with Biden, the arguments from people close to Harris that these failures were because Biden had a lock on those voters in the primary are effectively an argument that he doesn’t need her to get them.

“Joe Biden is not going to pick a mythical-beam-of-light woman of color. He’s going to pick an actual politician,” says Sean McElwee, a progressive pollster who has put out surveys showing that liberals want Warren.

[Read: It really could be Warren]

Robinson, of Color of Change, said he’s been encouraged by what he’s seen from Harris so far. And he understands that she has spent her life pushing against attacks that come when you’re the first woman, or woman of color, to do something. Harris was the first woman and the first person of color to be district attorney of San Francisco; the first woman and the first person of color to be attorney general of California; the first woman of color to be a senator from California (and only the second ever in the country); and the first woman of color to be a major presidential contender.

“Attacks can be gendered, and can be racialized. And there’s ways we cannot give people the full advantage of their expertise,” Robinson said. He added that he thought it was important to consider how much circumstances and politics have changed since the beginning of her career. “There was a time when Kamala Harris was a DA when she was probably considered a progressive DA,” he said. “But she was a DA, and she chose to be a prosecutor.”

Robinson added, “The moment and the time we’re in is continuing to push her.”

Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, another important voice in Biden’s ear, who’s been very public about wanting Biden’s choice to be a woman of color, told me that he thinks Harris would be an “outstanding pick.” As for Harris and Biden’s history, Clyburn compared Harris being put on the ticket to Ronald Reagan picking George H. W. Bush after their bitter primary fight, or Bill Clinton picking Al Gore in 1992. Discounting her as an unexciting, obvious choice doesn’t make sense, Clyburn said: “I don’t think anything is inevitable.”

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