Kamala Harris’s policy vagueness could yet be a drawback

Peculiarly blank canvas of Joe Biden’s running mate may be opportunity for Trump

Kamala Harris: “Looking back, it is odd that such a fancied candidate did not do better in her own presidential campaign.”  Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Kamala Harris: “Looking back, it is odd that such a fancied candidate did not do better in her own presidential campaign.” Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Joe Biden is not 77 in the way that Mick Jagger is 77. The Democratic candidate for the White House wears the years with a heaviness that is not lost even on his enthusiasts. While he never rules out a second term, this self-avowed “bridge” to the next generation implies just the one. With its lack of travel and live events, this Covid-19 election campaign, The Campaign That Isn’t, has spared him. The grandest public office in the world will not.

Kamala Harris is, then, in line to be as much co-president as vice-president of the US. In the senator for California, Biden has hired not just a running mate but an executive burden-sharer and – forgive the macabre note – a viable stand-in. Given Biden’s taste for foreign affairs, she might have space to impose herself on the domestic realm in particular. Her potential influence is vast.

It is also ambiguous. Biden has chosen Harris, yes, but which one? Disaffected Republicans will hope for the tenacious prosecutor with the Third Way patter. “It’s not progressive to be soft on crime,” she said, running for district attorney of San Francisco in 2003. As California’s attorney-general, she confronted the parents of truant children more zealously than she did the state’s draconian justice system.

Progressives, for their part, will expect the other Harris. This is the one who opposed the death penalty earlier than many in her party and votes well to the left in the Senate. She was the untiring scourge of Republican nominees and witnesses in that chamber.

There is no disgrace in inconsistency: give me an opportunist over an ideologue. Whether he actually said it or not, John Maynard Keynes’s airy line, “When the facts change, I change my mind”, is too stifling. People’s views can evolve even where the facts do not.

It is just that Harris is such a pronounced case. A 55-year-old political lifer – she has never worked in the private sector – should have some definition by now. “Enigma” is the euphemism for someone whose core beliefs are so up in the air. Were she bidding to be a ceremonial vice-president, a less maladroit Dan Quayle, we need not worry. If elected, however, she is going to matter. And therefore so do her views.

Presidential campaign

Looking back, it is odd that such a fancied candidate did not do better in her own presidential campaign. She was a major politician from a state with a larger economy than that of most G20 countries (and all the donors that implies). She was of mixed race in a party that draws much of its support from minorities. Her Senate performances suggested not just ruthlessness but guile.

In the end, what she did not have was perceived authenticity. In fact, every candidate in the Democratic primaries who had made a late-career turn to the left, namely senators Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, flopped. Voters preferred the real thing (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren) or an unabashed moderate like the South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. Policies mattered less than the conviction with which they were espoused.

Biden ran some way to the left of his former self, but then he already commanded trust. Personal tragedy and almost 50 years in public life will do that. He had “earned” the right to stick a licked finger in the air and sense the wind’s direction.

Of course, the national electorate is not the Democratic base. And had Biden named Warren or an untested mayor this week, President Donald Trump might be high-fiving campaign aides. The Biden-Harris pairing is far more daunting.

Just not, in part thanks to that vagueness of hers, unbeatable. In a reptilian passage of Tony Blair’s chatty memoirs, the former UK prime minister explains how to go about negative campaigning. The classic error, he says, with the sureness of the thrice-elected, is the lurid, over-the-top attack. Swing voters learn to tune these out. What moves them is the lesser charge, expressed more in sorrow than in anger.

Uncertainty

Trump will never persuade Americans that Biden is a menace to the republic and “against God”. The criticism that might land is that he is too old and weak to run his presidency. Other forces will end up dominating. If one of them is a protean vice-president, a crime-hawk until she wasn’t, with changeable healthcare plans, the uncertainty is doubled. Caveat emptor.

“Look, I like Joe,” a canny president might say. “But do you really know what you’re getting?” It would insinuate that Harris is an agent of the far left, but then blank canvases are there to be painted on. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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