When the junior senator from California hit the skids and descended into free fall during her much-anticipated presidential run, the source of her failure was clear: her identity, or lack thereof.
Who exactly is this woman? One day she would present as the tough-on-crime attorney general of California, locking up drug offenders and appealing to moderate voters. The next day she would channel Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as a social justice warrior supporting Medicare for All (remember that?) and the Green New Deal (still alive in the hearts of radicals everywhere). When pinned down on a difficult issue, she would say that we “need to have a conversation” about it.
She brings to mind — for those of an age — the famous TV commercial for Certs breath mints: “It’s two, two, two mints in one.” Or perhaps the old “less filling, tastes great” debate about a light beer. But will this dualism – a mirror-like reflection of Biden himself as an old-time liberal trying desperately to appear woke – resonate with general election voters when it fell flat as a pancake among Democrat primary voters?
All things to all people — or nothing to anyone? The crash and burn of her own campaign would suggest the latter. And this is the same problem Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) will face as the predictable, identity politics-based choice for the number two slot on the Democrats’ presidential ticket. Can she do with Joe Biden what she failed to do on her own: forge a coherent message?
How will she be packaged for the campaign — as someone who can tamp down the rebellion in the streets through her understanding of the justice system, or as someone who is herself down with the cause of the insurrectionists? Does she believe she can straddle the fence as she did in her own campaign and make it work this time?
Rarely are VP candidates allowed to amplify their own message. They serve as cheerleaders and attack dogs for the man or woman at the top. But a look back at presidential elections during the age of television going back to 1960 will quickly alert you to the fundamental difference between the selection of Harris and all the others: Unlike past VP candidates who were largely window dressing or thought to help a bit in one or two states, and a few who were controversial but thought unlikely ever to become president, voters will likely expect Harris to become president at some point in time. Talk of an eight-year Biden presidency is non-existent, and four years seems a stretch. A critical mass of voters believes Biden is in the early stages of dementia, so it is logical to conclude that they will weigh in on the VP candidate almost as much as the man at the top of the ticket.
Harris came out swinging during the first of countless primary debates, somehow scoring points for attacking the man who just selected her as his running mate, calling him a de facto racist while defending one of the most unpopular experiments in recent American history: forced busing. But it was all downhill from there, as she disappointed a gang of partisans and analysts, who thought her a serious candidate, with her aimless campaign devoid of a coherent message.
Running mates have generally made little or no difference in the electoral calculus. But there have been a few notable exceptions. In 1960, John F. Kennedy selected then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson in order to win Texas, which proved crucial in his narrow victory. Bill Clinton’s selection of the then-moderate fellow Southerner Al Gore in 1992 proved effective in presenting a dual image of young, energetic, and forward-looking leadership. In 2000, George W. Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney as VP reassured stalwart conservatives, a mirror image of Ronald Reagan choosing George H.W. Bush in 1980 to calm the fears of the Eastern establishment. In 1984, Walter Mondale made history by tapping the first female VP nominee, Geraldine Ferraro, but his was a lost cause. In 2016, Mike Pence was a steady and reassuring figure who almost perfectly balanced the untamed Donald Trump.
But history has also demonstrated that VP candidates can occasionally generate unwanted controversy and damage the ticket. In 1972, the hapless Democrat nominee George McGovern selected Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, only to later discover he had undergone electroshock therapy and had to be removed from the ticket. In 2008, Sarah Palin became arguably the most controversial Republican running mate in modern history, though it remains unclear whether she helped or hurt the candidacy of John McCain. Many people voted for McCain only because she was on the ticket, and many others voted against him because of Palin.
But rest assured that Harris will likely generate more publicity, undergo more scrutiny, and be as vocal and outspoken as any presidential running mate in our lifetime. After all, she is nothing if not an experienced politician accustomed to running for high office. And while she has been added to a ticket led by a confused presidential nominee, her distinct presence alone will serve as a stark contrast to the declining man at the top who could once make that same claim but has now placed the fate of his candidacy in her hands, as few if any candidates have done before.
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