It was not my fault, but I was still wrong.
SILVER SPRING—This piece is going to be less about research and facts and more just personal reflection, but quite analytical still. So let us dive in.
Harris the Senator and Candidate: Not Her Best Self
As I noted before in one recent piece, I thought Kamala Harris had an impressive resume but that Susan Rice’s resume was far more impressive vice presidentially and that it was not even close.
I stand by that analysis.
After I wrote that piece, I began writing another looking at personality and other intangible aspects to rate both Rice and Harris as candidates. I had gotten through half of what I had originally planned, finishing the part on first impressions, when it was announced that Harris was the pick. I was slightly surprised, and then began thinking more and more about(now-) Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden picking her, and what that meant. I had laid out earlier serious concerns about who Harris was as a person and how she chose to present and conduct herself in key moments in her career public career as a senator. Biden’s picking her did not mean that my concerns were invalid, but it did mean that he has thought of them, spoken with and vetted her, and left confident that her positives outweighed, by far, those concerns.
So, as I wrote my conclusion to that last piece, I decided to look at her in a new light. And I had realized, in that white-and-male dominated rat-race of politics, Kamala understandably felt a tremendous amount of pressure as a woman of color. New to a gridlocked Senate and not able to pass any of her legislation, she focused, instead, on trying to create viral moments much like Warren’s “Nevertheless, she persisted” moment, as I detailed in my last piece and for which SNL satirized her.
Since I mentioned the NBA basketball documentary The Last Dance in my previous pieces, I will compare some of these moves to Reggie Miller initiating contact, expertly, and getting an offensive foul called on a defender: a cheap but very effective ploy. I admit, without such moments, it would have been hard for her to get attention and distinguish herself in a gridlocked senate. But as someone who was an athlete in high school and a huge Kicks fan, I hate Reggie Miller and cheap, fake play like that. I just do not like those kinds of cheap, media-driven moves, but hey, my purist style is probably not opportunistic enough for a freshman junior senator trying to run for president; I understand the politics behind such plays and can appreciate it as an effective tactic (just look at Reggie), but I do not have to like it, as I mentioned in my last piece.
Well, Harris and her campaign doubled down on this kind of conduct in 2019 in the presidential campaign and debates, most notably in cheap shots against Biden and Warren (the latter really backfiring but both probably souring her with Democrats who do not like seeing their beloved figures suffer from friendly fire that is unfair; it did not work for Sec. Julían Castro, either, for the record) and even Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who ripped her apart on her criminal justice record. Now, I cannot stand fringe-y, wacky Tulsi Gabbard (though I respect her military service), but the way in which Harris did not really defend her record but, instead, punched down at Gabbard in response—as if Gabbard was simply beneath her—was also not impressive to me and rubbed me very much the wrong way.
But I am a policy wonk who likes fair, accurate, collegial (when within the Party, at least) campaigning and avoiding the cheap shots, taking the high road. And, in the end, my guy with that style won and got the nomination. Still, at the time, Biden saw what I did not: a tough, aggressive rival whose fire could be turned effectively against the GOP in a general election, who could competently deflect away from things she did not want to answer, and would be a good complement for a guy who is too open and says too much about his vulnerabilities, is too candid. In other words, she could be different and was in ways that would enhance the ticket as a number two far beyond just being younger, a woman, and a person of color.
I also knew she had a friendship with Beau Biden, the heroic, accomplished son of Joe’s who succumbed to cancer in 2015. What I did not know was how close Kamala was with Beau, and that this closeness helped create an authentic relationship between Joe and Kamala. But that relationship between Joe and Kamala just did not come out on the campaign trail in 2019, not on TV and certainly not at the debates. Harris was going to put her friendship with Biden aside and play aggressively to win by going after Joe and letting Joe defend himself rather than take chances to defend him, too, even with the Hunter Biden, Ukraine, and Burisma smears. This was at a time when it was very possible (especially if Harris had run a very different campaign) for Harris to put herself in a position to overtake Biden in ways that were never realistic other candidates. Again, I do not have to like it, but, at the same time, Harris had a real shot, she felt that would work, and negative cheap-shot campaigning is far from the most insane tactic from a rationalist perspective; sometimes, politics really is House of Cards. I can respect that as a candidate choice even if I do not like it. It just did not work, thanks to Democratic primary voters and in spite of biased mainstream media coverage and because. And, thankfully for me as a Biden supporter, this was in part because Harris ran an overall terrible campaign. The opportunity to build enough support passed for Harris, she saw the writing on the wall, and, like Joe Biden in his 1988 election cycle presidential campaign dropping out in late 1987, dropped out even before 2020 began.
Biden Picks Harris for the Real Kamala
But Biden was clearly impressed with Harris’s grit, and, from the personal relationship few knew they had, he knew things most Americans did not know about her: her warm, thoughtful, unrehearsed, tender, compassionate, funny, fun, likable (dare I say humble?) side. While a large portion of Harris’s major public displays since becoming a senator were calculated, shallow, and not highlighting in deep, substantive ways her impressive, substantive record, Joe knew the real Kamala when she was not trying too hard, not so desperate to distinguish herself in an ineffective Senate and a crowded debate stage.
So it was that I began to think that he must know her in ways I did not, and gave Biden the benefit of the doubt in picking her and, thus, gave her the benefit of the doubt. If Biden could be big in putting aside Harris’s cheap attacks, trusting that what he saw in her was greater than my less-familiar impressions, even if they were consistent, I could put those attacks aside too (“All’s fair in love and war and politics too??” [meh]). I began to get excited about the speech she would give the next day as I was writing my conclusion to my second Harris piece, and the moment that was put out on social media, when she was delighted, surprised, and humbled when Biden offered her the VP slot, was a different side of her, what I felt must be the real Kamala, what it seems she had in some ways been hiding from me and many others who did not know her better. The person she thought would work politically may not have, but I could not wait to see her the next day give her first speech as Joe’s VP selection.
But even before then, I began to realize where I had been wrong in other ways. Rice easily had the best resume, and I care little for flash, for theatrical performance, for how “cool” or smooth someone was when weighed against policy chops, expertise, and experience. But guess what: there are very few voters like me, and most voters will pick the “cool” telegenic candidate over Albert Einstein himself. And I realized, that, politically, sacrificing some substance and experience for a person who has exceptional poise, stage presence, and charisma (even when Harris is falling flat, you see glimpses of that, and I had seen a few far better moments here and there) but who still has a relatively impressive resume is the best fit politically, especially for such a crisis moment that amounts either the survival or death of our democracy, as former President President Barack Obama himself made terrifyingly clear last night.
Basically, I put too much stock on experience and expertise (Rice) and not enough on optics and performance. If we had three grades for each candidate—substance, style, and baggage—Harris would be score higher than rice; even if her substance score was not nearly as high as Rice’s, her style score—when Harris is at her best—was incredibly high and she has far less baggage that can hurt. And it is not that Rice is not also a great personality, it is simply that Harris is one of those rare top-tier-with-very-few peers-level-of-charisma people. I think Rice could have won Americans over, but she also has the whole Benghazi and unmasking “baggage,” which, though totally nonsense and made-up smears obviously concocted by Republicans, still would have admittedly stuck and dogged a Biden-Rice campaign throughout the election (just ask Hillary Clinton how damaging false smears can be!). So Rice, though more substantive, had more risks whereas Harris was relatively lower-risk, higher political reward, still strong substantively, and did not have any of that Benghazi-Clinton-Obama Administration baggage; Rice was an old Washington Hand (which I loved) but Harris was fresh, new, and exiting (which pretty much everyone else loved). I did not consider politics enough (though a VP is mainly needed as a governing partner) and, especially for campaigning in the coronavirus era, did not consider enough the ability to produce energetic, viral clips nearly enough. As a policy wonk, I needed to remember that wonks are a political constituency that amounts to the negligible and recognize the importance of mass appeal to a public that generally will not care as much about someone being an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs or a peacekeeping specialist on the National Security Council as they will about sheer star power.
In short, I was wrong to favor Rice over Harris if you take politics, not just resumes, into account.
Kamala’s Real Self Is Her Best self
And yet, that was Harris’s fault, because of the way she campaigned and presented herself since becoming a senator in key moments when she had the most exposure.
So when Harris was formally introduced to speak as Joe’s VP pick by Joe himself, when I saw the real Kamala Harris, a.k.a. Mamala, when I saw the emotion and tenderness with which she spoke about her relationship with Beau and how Beau was the one who really made her understand what made Joe Biden so special, when I saw how deeply she respected Joe and appreciated Joe, when I saw her warmth and grace in a setting where she did not have to fight to be remembered on a stage with about ten other people, when I saw the grace, dignity, and humility with which she accepted this honor, and when I saw the measured but more natural version of the fierce prosecutor, indicting Trump not in a soundbite but in but methodical, righteous detail, with measured yet genuine anger and scorn that felt organic and not staged, I was fully on board with Team Kamala.
Biden’s pick of her brough me over to her in my head, but Kamala herself won over my heart when I got to see the real her in this first real speech by her as Joe’s running mate. Joe had picked the most magnetic and charismatic person available from the entire pool of presidential candidates and other VP hopefuls, and, apart from Rice, the person with the best resume among all of the mentioned VP contenders: in other words, the best VP candidate possible for this moment, especially at a time of great reckoning and awakening and tragedy, when someone not a woman of color would have affected enthusiasm among some key voting blocks, especially younger voters of all colors, whose level of cynicism and disaffection may be what determines the outcome of this election (if it is voting that will determine it and not voter suppression or Russian interference).
Harris and Biden: A New Hope Bringing Out the Best in Each Other
To be clear, I am (cautiously) optimistic Biden can and will win by a lot (though I am also filled with dread, but more on that another time), and I think no matter his VP selection, this would be the case as long as it was not someone too far-left for most Americans, like Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren (sorry Bernie and Liz fans, that’s political reality, but thanks to both senators for such solid support for Biden!), so I do not buy what some of the punditry—especially, understandably, those so strongly identifying with and seeing themselves in Harris—are saying along the lines of Biden “needing” Harris,” or that the man perhaps most steeped in policy of any major-party nominee in American history “needed” her on any particular issue or with any particular demographic.
But I strongly believe Harris is a major win-win even allowing for stupid racists and misogynists, that Harris adds a lot to Biden’s team, that her different perspective as the last second-opinion in the room will be good and valuable to Biden much like one way Obama found Biden so valuable, and am thrilled—even ecstatic—that she will be by his side during the campaign and, we should all hope, in the White House.
To be clear, I though her speech when Biden introduced her was perfect. Literally perfect. As was her speech accepting the Vice-Presidential nomination, and with that first speech, I was an enthusiastically on board with Team Kamala. Harris, freed of the inane pressure of having just a few minutes to shine, showed her real self, the one Joe loves and Beau Biden loved, the one I had only seen glimpses of, in its full glory. This side of Harris reminded me, too, why I love Biden, for he chose so wisely and so well: Harris is no black-Indian Palin, so, she is a singularity in this election cycle when freed to be herself by herself and the format. She will demolish Vice President Mike Pence one-on-one and electrify the campaign trail like Palin did for (the now late) Sen. John McCain, though not with crass appeal to racists and xenophobes, but with grace and substance, hope and accountability.
I had serious issues with Harris. I was offended by how she conducted herself, and though I respected her talent and accomplishments, I just was not feeling her. I also had issues with her record. But Joe’s faith in Harris as demonstrated by his picking her and Kamala’s own since her selection—her conduct in rising decidedly to the occasion—made me realize who the real Kamala Harris was I was sold. Even on policy, as Peter Beinart persuasively argues in The Atlantic, as a trailblazing black-Indian-American woman trying to win statewide office California, she more or less did what she had to do.
So now? Call me a Kamala Convert.
Kamala—Senator Harris—thank you for showing me and so many others your real-self. Joe is so smart to have picked you and so lucky to have you by his side. The Democratic Party may very well have found its next Obama, and America may have found the perfect teammate for Biden to both beat Trump and Pence like a drum out of the White house and save America, democracy, and the world from Donald Trump’s insanity, tribalism, and a rising fascism, as a Democratic Party Batman and Robin: Joe as Batman and Kamala as a much cooler-than-normal, way-more-stylish Robin. They are the superhero duo we need now, and let me be an example of how one of Harris’s superpowers is winning over serious doubters to become fervent supporters.
See related previous articles: Substance vs. Style as Biden Picks Harris over Rice and Based on Experience, Susan Rice Is Easily—by Far—the Best Choice for VP for Biden (Sorry Harris Fans, that Includes Kamala)
© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome
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