Wednesday, October 11, 2023


I read Elaina Plott Calabro's profile of Kamala Harris in The Atlantic and Astead Herndon's profile of Harris in The New York Times Magazine, and I'm wondering why Harris and her team agreed to cooperate with them. I imagine they hoped she'd get reasonably sympathetic treatment from mainstream journalists, and while the authors of these pieces try to be understanding, the message of both profiles is Boy, that Kamala Harris seemed so talented, yet she really gives the impression that she's struggling with the job of vice president, and while she's probably ready to be president, you can't blame voters for thinking that she isn't.

The two profiles convey a sense that Harris thinks she's doing fine and doesn't need to make changes. On the subject of her speaking style, for which she's often criticized, the impression is that Harris thinks: I don't need to communicate this way because I'm a person who communicates that way. Plott Calabro writes:
Go to enough of Harris’s events and you’ll notice a pattern. Many of them—conversations with community leaders at, say, a college campus or a civic center—begin shakily. The moderator opens by asking Harris a sweeping question about the state of the country, or the administration’s approach to some major issue—the sort of question that a seasoned politician should be able to spin her way through on autopilot. And yet Harris often sounds like she’s hearing the question for the first time.
The example given is just the sort of thing that ends up in Republican National committee attack tweets:
During a discussion at Georgia Tech focused on climate change, I listened as Harris was asked to speak about the administration’s progress over the past two years in addressing the crisis. Her baroque response began: “The way I think about this moment is that I do believe it to be a transformational moment. But in order for us to truly achieve that capacity, it’s going to require all to be involved … and I will say, on behalf of the administration, a whole-of-government approach to understanding the excitement that we should all feel about the opportunity of this moment, and then also thinking of it in a way that we understand the intersection between so many movements that have been about a fight for justice and how we should see that intersection, then, in the context of this moment … And so I’m very excited about this moment.”

This is not Churchill. It’s not even Al Gore.
We're told that Harris was much better after that:
Only when Harris assumed the role of interrogator herself did she seem to find her rhythm, pressing the moderators on the stage—two scientists—to discuss their personal journey toward an interest in climate issues. She then leveraged one moderator’s story to explain the administration’s plan to replace lead pipes across the country—using $15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure deal, one of the Biden administration’s marquee victories. The communities that have been suffering from contamination “have been fighting for years and years and years,” Harris noted. “It didn’t take a science degree for them to know what was happening to their children.” The audience responded as if at a church service, with murmurs of affirmation.
But is it a problem that she's bad at making the broad statements politicians are expected to make? Harris seems to think it isn't, as does a famous ally:
Hillary Clinton told me that she has met with Harris at the White House and the vice president’s residence, and has talked with her numerous times by phone. “I’ve tried to be as helpful and available to her as possible,” Clinton said, adding, “It’s a tough role.” She noted that Harris isn’t a “performance” politician, a comment she intended not as a criticism but as an acknowledgment that Harris’s skills mainly lie elsewhere. (Clinton isn’t a performance politician either.) Harris doesn’t dispute the point: “My career was not measured by giving lovely speeches,” she told me.
The Biden-Harris ticket is struggling to win reelection. You can argue that it should be enough for Harris to be good at what she's good at, but in the real world, she's being attacked for what she isn't good at, so she might need to get a lot better at what she isn't good at in order for her ticket to win again -- especially when the president (who also desperately needs to up his public-speaking game) is perceived as old and frail and no longer mentally sharp, primarily because he's not articulate except when he bears down, which he does rarely.

Herndon writes:
When Harris speaks in an interview or to an audience, it can sound as if she’s editing in real time, searching for the right calibration of talking points rather than displaying confidence in her message. It has contributed to a reputation as a politician who delivers “word salads,” but [Jamal] Simmons — her former communications director — argued that it’s a consequence of her career as a prosecutor and attorney general, law-enforcement roles that did not ask Harris to communicate with the press and the public in the same way. Even in Harris’s presidential race, staff members had to push her to share details about her life, family and career motivations. It was not always successful.

“Often in the White House, national leaders have to base their arguments on emotion and gut — and as a prosecutor that’s not the job,” Simmons told me.
But if you're a vice president, speaking from the gut is the job, or is at least part of it. It might never come naturally to you, but if you're in a tough reelection fight, you have to make yourself better at meeting voters' expectations. Richard Nixon made himself seem as warm and human as he was capable of seeming in 1968, and he won. In 1988, George H.W. Bush pushed himself to be as eloquent as he could be (with help from speechwriter Peggy Noonan), and also as nasty and combative as he could be (with help from Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater, and others), and he won.

Harris and Biden both seem to believe that everything they're doing is just fine and the public will come around eventually. They need to acknowledge that that might not happen, even if their opponent is a convicted felon by Election Day.

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