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Kamala Harris: From historic to invisible

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Kamala Harris has gone from a historic vice presidential selection to an invisible running mate. However, fairly judging Kamala Harris’s performance means first understanding her limited role. Historically, a running mate’s role is limited by the nominee’s needs; currently, Biden’s novel campaign strategy constrains Harris even more. 

John Adams, America’s first vice president, said “the vice presidency is the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” If possible, the role of running mate has proven even less consequential.  

Most running mates see their star descending immediately after selection. Really, only two things are expected of them: “balance the ticket” and not embarrass the nominee. In modern campaigns, they have been employed as “attack dogs” against the opposing party, doing the dirty work that a campaign wants to shield their nominee from. 

Ironically, even with these low expectations, Kamala Harris has had a lack of visibility. In a Sept. 4 press conference, notable for lacking pointed questions to Biden, one of the few reporters not asking his reaction to President Trump questioned Harris’s low profile: “It’s been a couple of weeks now since you announced Senator Harris as your running mate and we haven’t seen her out very much, including yesterday in Kenosha, why is that?” 

Harris’s lack of exposure is clear, but less so is the reason why. A cynical response would be that she already has done all she had to do, by fulfilling Biden’s commitment to select a woman and satisfying his base’s expectation of having a minority on the ticket. Further, Harris had hardly set the primaries aflame; she didn’t win a single delegate, dropping out last December before voting even began.

However, to measure Harris even by history’s subdued standard is to ignore the unique campaign Biden is running. 

The traditional attack role is closed to Harris. The reason? The entire Biden campaign is a full assault on President Trump. As Biden asserted in his nomination acceptance speech, America is facing “four historic crises;” according to Biden, President Trump is responsible for all four. 

With a campaign so targeting Trump, that means its primary goal is to attack and that job must go to Biden himself. Biden has taken that role at every opportunity since the convention; it is also one with which he has experience, having done it in two previous campaigns as Barack Obama’s running mate.   

The Democratic campaign’s intended focus is far more on Trump than on Biden. This is obvious from its strategy of effectively taking Biden off the trail for roughly half the year. Certainly, this was partly defensive — minimizing Biden’s gaffes — but it was also offensive: Forcing the spotlight onto a president that Democrats believe will beat himself.  

If Democratic strategists want Biden so effectively out of the picture, there is even less room in it for Harris. If Harris were to be campaigning aggressively, not only could it draw the spotlight from Trump, but it would inadvertently put it on Biden.  

Instead of questions about Harris’s lack of appearances, the questions would be about Biden’s — that would be a worst-case scenario. It would also undercut the rationale for why Biden has not been campaigning: Concern over coronavirus. If suddenly Harris hit the trail hard, it would raise questions about why Biden had not been. If it is safe to campaign now, why not before? If it is safe for her to campaign, why not him? One of the Biden campaign’s “four historic crises” is coronavirus, having Harris campaigning extensively would undermine that concern.  

Harris’s less obvious personal attributes also do not help the Biden campaign’s message. Biden is running a race on race. Central to that is the assertion that minorities are victims of a systemically racist justice system under the Trump administration’s direction. Harris was an integral part of the functioning of the justice system in California as a prosecutor.  

Sensing her vulnerability for having been a prosecutor, Biden’s campaign had obviously prepared for a Harris attack on Biden’s race record. Harris didn’t hold back, as seen in one of the Democratic debates’ most famous exchanges

Biden’s retort was largely overlooked at the time but is extremely telling now, “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender.”

Trump’s decision to accentuate law and order further compromises Harris’s efficacy for the Biden campaign. With Trump on the side of enforcement and Biden on the side of the prosecuted, Harris’s prosecutorial history puts her on the wrong side of this contrast. The last thing the Biden campaign needs is to have this contradiction highlighted.  

Finally, Harris’s strong left leaning stance does not help in a fight for centrist swing votes. The same also applies to her California roots in a fight over the election’s Midwest battleground.  

The role of running mate is inherently limited. The Biden campaign’s unique strategy of keeping the nominee off the trail limits Kamala Harris even more. Both Biden’s personal liabilities, his history as a poor campaigner, and Harris’s too, a former prosecutor, also diminish her opportunities. Together, these factors are making a historical VP choice the most invisible running mate in modern American politics.   

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987 through 2000.

Tags 2020 campaign 2020 elections Barack Obama Biden campaign Donald Trump far left Joe Biden presidential election vice president vice presidential pick

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