Kamala Harris’s Strengths and Weaknesses

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The debate over President Biden’s fitness for another term has thrust Vice President Kamala Harris into the spotlight, and I want to use today’s newsletter to consider what kind of nominee she might be.

Harris’s supporters frequently argue that criticisms of her political skills stem from racism and sexism. And it’s certainly true that racism and sexism infect American life and affect American politics. But this argument can nonetheless do a Harris a disservice.

Politicians often get better at their jobs, and become stronger candidates, by listening to criticism and addressing their weaknesses. Barack Obama became less professorial and long-winded, for example. Biden and Ronald Reagan each became somewhat more careful about telling exaggerated stories. George H.W. Bush and Al Gore tried to loosen up.

If Harris and her aides buy the notion that most criticism of her merely reflects her race and sex — which are immutable qualities — they will lose an opportunity to help her become more effective in the event that she becomes the Democratic nominee.

For now, it’s unclear whether Biden’s critics will succeed in pushing him out of the race. Yesterday, he pushed back aggressively. Yet the possibility remains strong enough that Harris — who would immediately become the favorite to replace him — is worthy of attention.

Both Harris’s biggest strengths and her biggest weaknesses have their roots in her background as a California prosecutor. Let’s start with her strengths.

In all, Harris spent more than a quarter-century as a local and state prosecutor, and she compiled an accomplished record — on crime reduction, consumer protection and more. Prosecutors succeed by making more persuasive arguments than their opponents in a combative setting. So it makes sense that Harris’s signature moments as a national figure have occurred in similar settings.

In the Senate, she developed a reputation as a sharp questioner of witnesses, including Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she won her debate against Vice President Mike Pence, polls showed. Four years earlier, by contrast, Pence beat Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s running mate.

In a future debate against Trump, Harris seems like a much stronger option than Biden — and probably stronger than some other potential Democratic nominees. It’s easy to imagine her hammering Trump for his role in the overturning of Roe v. Wade and his lawless approach to the presidency.

These criticisms could then become central to a presidential campaign that she ran largely against Trump. Biden had hoped to run such a campaign, as my colleague Reid Epstein points out, but Biden’s jarringly weak debate performance has made that much harder.

Harris’s background also helps explain her biggest shortcomings as a national politician. She has repeatedly struggled to lay out her vision for the country and explain to voters how she would improve their lives. Politicians who’ve risen to prominence as governors or members of Congress spend years honing such messages. Prosecutors don’t.

“She’s a very poor communicator when the parameters are quite wide,” Elaina Plott Calabro, a writer at The Atlantic who spent months profiling Harris, recently said on The Ezra Klein Show.

The evidence is abundant. Harris’s 2019 book, “The Truths We Hold,” was even more laden with platitudes than most books by politicians. Once the campaign began, she sometimes seemed unable to describe own policies, especially on Medicare, and her poll numbers were so weak that she dropped out before the Iowa caucus. As vice president, she has made meandering statements mocked by both conservative media and “The Daily Show.”

Part of the problem may be that Harris has rarely had to win over the swing voters who decide presidential elections. She comes from California, where Democrats dominate. In her only Senate campaign, no Republican even qualified for the general election; Harris beat another Democrat in the final round.

She can seem more comfortable speaking the language of elite liberalism than making the arguments that help Democrats win tough races — like emphasizing pocketbook issues, questioning global trade and praising border security. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican senator, made a telling comment on CBS News this weekend. Graham predicted that Harris would have the advantage of being a “very vigorous” nominee but the disadvantage of being to Biden’s left and having favored Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

There is one intriguing exception, however: Harris won prosecutor elections in California partly by promising to be tough on crime. She called it “smart on crime.” It was the kind of moderate message that has long helped Democrats (including Biden, Obama and Bill Clinton) win elections. If she can persuade voters that she is less of a San Francisco liberal than her critics claim, she would become a more formidable presidential candidate.

In a traditional primary, I would consider Harris to be an underdog against Democrats with more impressive electoral records, like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia. But there will be no traditional primary this summer, even if Biden drops out. Harris would start any informal nomination process with large advantages. And the combination of Biden’s glaring weaknesses with Harris’s strengths suggests that she would probably be a stronger candidate this year than he is.

If she gets the chance, she will face a task that few previous presidential nominees have: trying to develop a sharp new political message in the final months before Election Day.

Related: Harris is expected to speak in Nevada today, a battleground state. The attention will be intense.

  • Biden is defiant. He wrote to congressional Democrats reiterating that he would stay in the race and dared critics to “challenge me at the convention” in remarks on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

  • Biden told nervous fund-raisers and donors to focus on beating Trump. “We’re done talking about the debate,” he said.

  • Still, some congressional Democrats expressed skepticism about his candidacy. Representative Adam Smith of Washington said Biden should step aside.

  • Others in Congress are supporting the president, including senators Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman. The Washington Post has a list. Black Democrats are also rallying around him.

  • A Parkinson’s expert visited the White House eight times in eight months, including at least one meeting with Biden’s physician.

  • The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, dodged questions about Biden’s health and refused to talk about the Parkinson’s expert’s visits. The briefing room devolved into shouting.

  • Dozens of world leaders are gathering in Washington today for a NATO meeting, celebrating the alliance’s 75th anniversary.

  • The summit was planned to project confidence in NATO. But uncertainty about the U.S. election looms over the gathering.

  • Trump’s potential return is a challenge for the alliance’s incoming secretary general, Mark Rutte. Read more about him.

  • Thousands of miles, eight countries: See photos that capture the journey of one family trying to get to the U.S.

  • A $1 billion gift from Michael Bloomberg to Johns Hopkins University will allow most of the school’s medical students to attend for free.

  • Columbia University punished three deans for exchanging text messages that school officials said “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes.”

  • Autistic children appear to carry distinct markers in their gut bacteria, a study found, offering a possible means for more objective diagnoses.

The only way to take Biden out of the race without giving Trump an advantage is to give voters a chance to choose a new candidate, James Carville writes.

Europe and the U.S. see Ukraine through the prism of two world wars. They need to look beyond those analogies, Jaroslaw Kuisz and Karolina Wigura write.

Here are columns by Paul Krugman on Biden’s candidacy and Jamelle Bouie on Trump.

“Grief literate”: How a death doula with a Baroque mansion in Portugal throws a dinner party.

Handcycling: An author lost the use of his legs 12 years ago. This spring, he rode 50 miles through the high desert.

Health: Do fiber supplements offer the same benefits as fiber from food?

Ask Vanessa: “Are you ever too old for a bikini?”

Lives Lived: Jane McAlevey was a fierce labor organizer and scholar who trained thousands of workers across the globe to take charge of their unions and fight economic inequality. She died at 59.

Short shorts have become a popular summertime staple for men. The trend started, in part, thanks to widely circulated photos of the Irish actor Paul Mescal sporting micro inseams. Another reason for their popularity: Women are swooning over them on social media. Read more about the rise in inseams.

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