Kamala Harris was always going to be a most prominent Vice President. When Joe Biden’s campaign called a midmorning ‘lid’ — ending his working day before it really began — Harris would stay out on the trail, addressing car rallies in Pontiac, Michigan; going viral on social media by dancing in the Florida rain. She is significantly younger and more energetic — traits the Biden campaign capitalized on in the campaign. Her fanbase considers her to be a political celebrity: when she’s getting bad press, they rally the #KHive on social media — an online community ready and willing to defend the VP — a spin-off of the #BeyHive hashtag used by Beyoncé’s loyal fans worldwide.
The media is overwhelmed by Kamalamania. To them, she is a sensation: so much so the Los Angeles Times has created a new section, ‘Covering Kamala Harris’ — not a report on her moves in the White House, but a retrospective beat ‘dedicated to her historic rise.’ Three days before the inauguration, CBS News used their interview with Harris and Second Husband Doug Emhoff to ask tough questions about her ‘several closets full’ of ‘Chucks’, her Converse basketball shoes.
Meanwhile, the New York Times dedicates its resources to a hard-hitting interview with her stepchildren. We learn that Harris and Emhoff are ‘vomit-inducingly cute and coupley’. Harris has also snagged a coveted Vogue cover, though the photograph became the subject of controversy: some people thought the lighting of the image amounted to ‘whitewashing’. Harris’s team was reportedly distressed by the editor’s pick of a casual photo, so Vogue will be releasing another, more formal one.
It’s important that the press is doing its job. Not only is Harris the first woman (and woman of color) to fill the VP’s office: she also wields immense power. After the Democrats’ double win in Georgia’s January runoff elections, Republican and Democratic representation in the Senate is split right down the middle. If the Senate votes along partisan lines, Harris’s vote will make or break legislation for at least the next two years.
Harris is more than a spare spokesperson for the administration. She’s active in policy formation and delivery. The party’s keyholders only whisper it, but no one is banking on a second Joe Biden term — not even Biden himself. It’s hardly a secret that Harris has presidential ambitions. The question is, what is her vision for the country — and will Americans endorse it?
Ask where Harris stands on an issue and the footwork begins. You’ll have an array of answers to choose from. She opposes and supports fracking. She promotes single-payer healthcare but also advocates for private insurance. She goes tough and light on crime. She implied her new boss’s track record was soft on racism, though since selecting her as Vice President, these accusations have not resurfaced. Harris’s inconsistency cost her in the Democratic primaries: her short-lived candidacy polled in the single digits, despite her being the establishment’s preferred candidate.
Her campaign was as disappointing as it was bitter. As party operators sought to understand why their rising star had burned out so quickly, feuds between Harris’s sister and her campaign manager were aired in New York Times longreads. In truth, the Bernie Sanders lite option didn’t prove so popular with the Democratic base, especially when they had Bernie himself to vote for. But dropping out of the race before she was rejected was smart: Harris’s early departure turned the spotlight on Elizabeth Warren — who then got publicly rejected in the voting booths while Harris waited in the wings.
Harris’s strategically muddled persona may have been disastrous for her candidacy, but it worked wonders when it came to Biden’s VP nomination. His pick appeared to please both the moderate and progressive wings of the party. Her plural policy stances became useful explainers as to why Biden-Harris were the ticket to represent blue-collar workers, university graduates and committed socialists.
Democratic centrists emphasize her career as a prosecutor, first as San Francisco DA and then as California’s attorney general. Harris isn’t afraid to lock people up, yet she’s also a progressive who cares deeply when she throws away the key. Meanwhile the rising radical wing cites her early backing of the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Here, they suspect, is where her politics really lie: backing away from both positions was surely just a necessary trade-off to win over the moderates and position herself to make real change.
Everyone unites around Harris’s history of smashing glass ceilings, though her tendency to embellish is the cause of some embarrassment. She has repeatedly told a story about her childhood in which she looked up from her stroller at a civil rights rally and told her mother she just wanted ‘fweedom’. Dr Martin Luther King told an uncomfortably similar version of this story in an interview with Playboy in 1965.
Harris’s life journey is a subject which shouldn’t need embellishment. The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris experienced the lingering atrocities of Jim Crow firsthand as a child. Aged six, she was bused to a school that had only integrated the year before. She attended Howard University, a historically black college with a legacy of civil rights activism, which propelled her into law school and eventually, despite her family’s worries, a career as a prosecutor.
There are two ways of telling the story of Harris’s success in California. The first, the one she likes to tell, is a personal tale of political triumph. A ‘progressive prosecutor’ tackles injustice and, through multiple electoral upsets, becomes the first black and South Asian woman to be California’s attorney general. Yet the flip side of Harris’s success as a high-flying cop is the other story: what it meant for those she prosecuted.
During her first three years as San Francisco’s district attorney, felony conviction rates rose from just over 50 percent to 71 percent. In her first book, Smart on Crime (2009), Harris boasts of packed prisons as the marker of success: ‘We are sending three times as many offenders to state prison than we were in 2001, three years before I took office.’ Non-violent drug offenders helped make up her numbers: she ‘increased conviction rates for drug sellers’ and insisted no free pass be given to low-level drug users.
Harris wasn’t just tough on crime. She was determined to find it even where it didn’t exist. She oversaw prosecutions riddled with scandals, including one outrageous attempt to keep an innocent man in prison. Her lawyers tampered with the confession of a defendant — a crime which Harris tried (and failed) to dismiss — and challenged rules about overcrowding in prisons, arguing that releasing inmates would shrink prisons’ supply of cheap labor. Harris later claimed she knew nothing about all that. Yet there is no denying her gift for finding criminals in the most unlikely of places: she even threatened to jail parents whose children were truant from school. Truancy was defined as being 30 minutes late on two occasions with no excuse.
Harris’s love for draconian rules has not translated well to the national stage. Widening her political ambitions has put her in a catch-22. To replicate her California success nationally, she had to brush much of her record under the rug. Harris once asserted that it was ‘as true in economically poor areas as in wealthy ones’ that ‘virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat’. Yet now she says ‘we have confused the idea that to achieve safety, you put more cops on the street instead of understanding to achieve safe and healthy communities’. Having once prided herself on locking up nonviolent drug offenders, as a senator she cosponsored legislation with Rand Paul, a libertarian Republican, to set them free.
Harris now goes the extra mile to distinguish herself from the law-and-order politician of the past. As an attorney general, she fought to keep prostitution criminalized and defended the state’s decision to deny gender-affirming surgery to a transgender prisoner. Now she identifies as ‘she/her’ in her Twitter bio and jokes about having smoked cannabis in college. One wonders if the citizens she turned into inmates for similar behavior find it so funny.
People change, and it’s a rarity for politicians to admit they were wrong and change tack. Yet the Vice President has always tended to overlook her past decisions rather than directly confront them. Similarly, her fans in the media would like to see parts of her record quietly fade from memory. Sometimes they enable this amnesia: in January, the Washington Post tried to delete part of a profile from 2019, in which Harris acted out a prisoner begging for food and water, comparing it to her experience on the campaign trail.
Given her vulnerabilities and her failure to inspire the Democratic base in the primaries, Harris is likely to face challengers in 2024. But it’s hard to imagine more propitious circumstances for the aspiring President Harris. She gets a test run in the White House before putting herself forward as the nominee for the top job. Americans will see her playing the role of chief diplomat, at home and abroad. It’s a spectacular opportunity, though not without its pitfalls. The more voters learn about her politics, the more cautious they might become.
GovTrack’s ideology chart placed Harris as the most left-wing senator in 2019, the least likely to co-sponsor a bipartisan bill. The website’s founder Josh Tauberer notes her record in Congress is ‘at odds’ with her record in California. Perhaps it’s that her time in DC was focused less on the immediate, more on the long-term. As the junior senator from California, Harris missed 30 percent of roll-call votes (the average lifetime record for serving senators is under 2 percent). This was because of all the time she spent campaigning for higher office.
Will Harris work to avoid being the decisive vote in the Senate, so as to not offend swing voters who will be paying acute attention to the policies she endorses? Or will she publicize her votes far and wide, to signal just how much government intervention she is willing to endorse? Her before-dawn tiebreaker on February 5, on a procedural vote to move the administration’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package along, confirmed she’s on board for the big stuff. If she — and the White House — hope to duck the decision-maker spotlight most of the time, they’ll need to be deft and proactive behind the scenes, lining up enough votes to let her off the hook.
Harris has already ruffled the feathers of Democratic moderates by taking a different approach to President Biden, who characterizes the administration’s first 100 days as an effort to restore unity and bipartisan cooperation. Joe Manchin, the West Virginian who, as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, will be pivotal to getting legislation through, was unimpressed when Harris made a surprise media round in his state to advocate for the stimulus package. ‘We’re going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward,’ Manchin said, ‘but we need to work together. That’s not a way of working together.’
We shall soon discover if Harris plans to move toward America or if she expects to pull America along with her, in whichever of the many directions she might go. Given the recent elections — first miserable, still harrowing — the faintest thought of 2024 will fill most voters with dread. That gives Vice President Harris room to maneuver.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.