Well, here we are, just milliseconds after the 2022 mid-term elections, and the inevitable speculation has already begun about who will run for president two years hence. Donald Trump has strongly hinted he will announce another run next week.
For Democrats, the conjecturing almost necessarily includes whether Kamala Harris will run if Pres. Joe Biden chooses to stand down. It might be a moot point, because Biden has sworn he is planning to run again in 2024 at the ripe old age of 81 — and has let drop that First Lady Jill Biden has given her assent.
But if Biden should change his mind, or — God forbid — be incapacitated in some way, the focus will instantly and understandably shift to Harris. After all, a sitting vice president is an obvious potential candidate to replace their boss, and recent history has seen plenty of them try — Al Gore in 2000, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Richard Nixon in 1960. And two former Number Twos, Joe Biden in 2020 and Walter Mondale in 1984, ran four years later to succeed the presidents with whom they served.
Pretty much everything has the smell of a carefully rehearsed performance – even the occasional outrage seems faux.
Democrats can honor Harris for her historical status as the first female vice president, and the first of color, while still being wary of signing on too soon to any Harris attempt to succeed Biden, whether in 2024 or 2028. Despite her obvious intelligence, Harris just isn’t very good, I’m sorry to say, either as a candidate or communicator. All politicians, like every other human, have their verbal gaffes and screw-ups, and Harris is no exception. There are multiple examples on the internet of her sometimes-tortured syntax being parodied.
But that isn’t even her primary problem, ironically. Despite the glitches, it just seems like about every word out of her mouth is calculated and contrived, the product of excessive caution. I can’t question her sincerity, but she just doesn’t come off as particularly genuine or authentic in most of her public appearances. Pretty much everything has the smell of a carefully rehearsed performance – even the occasional outrage seems faux.
I once had a reporter describe to me their perception of a candidate I was handling in this manner: “I get the impression the only thing they’re really passionate about is not making a mistake.” In that case, the observation was apt, and it strikes me that it is no less so with Harris. As someone who has run campaigns for more than 40 years, I’ve learned that sometimes the biggest mistake a candidate or politician can make is trying too hard not to make a mistake.
Even Harris’s 2019 book, “The Truths We Hold,” one of those almost obligatory campaign tomes pumped out by prospective presidential candidates, reads less like a statement of principles or deeply held beliefs, than a self-indulgent autobiographical travelogue through her childhood and family life, with a few lessons learned along the way. One searches in vain for any sense of what Harris believes in so strongly that she would sacrifice her political career for it. It seems more like a campaign pamphlet, checking all the boxes, than a manifesto.
Harris ended up skittering out of the race early, before a single vote had been cast, to avoid a humiliating showing…
Democrats also must be acutely aware of the fact that her first campaign for president in 2019 was a hot mess. She put her sister in charge, who had never run a campaign before at any level, let alone for president. From almost the very start, the effort was shambolic and lame, never seizing on any compelling theme or messaging point that resonated with voters. Her own candidate self-description, a “progressive prosecutor,” was muddled, striking many as almost an oxymoron, like saying “compassionate bill collector.” Internally, the effort was a seething cauldron of backbiting, finger-pointing, elbow-throwing and vicious leaks.
Despite a promising start with an impressive announcement rally in her birthplace of Oakland, and her 15 minutes of fame by attacking Joe Biden as a crypto-racist in an early debate, Harris ended up skittering out of the race early, before a single vote had been cast, to avoid a humiliating showing in her own home state. A Los Angeles Times poll in December of 2019 revealed her support for the nomination among California Democrats was a shocking 7 percent. Perhaps even more embarrassing, fully 61 percent of her fellow partisans in the state wanted her to drop out of the race.
This whole continuing saga was summed up in a Washington Post headline late last year: “A Kamala Harris staff exodus reignites questions about her leadership style.”
As a sidebar, throughout Harris’ political career in elective office, she has tended to go through staff like somebody with the sniffles goes through Kleenex. One chief spokesperson in the attorney general’s office lasted all of five months. As vice president, the revolving-door staff churn has continued unabated. Her chief speechwriter recently departed after just four months on the job, and other major staff have bailed less than two years into the job. This whole continuing saga was summed up in a Washington Post headline late last year: “A Kamala Harris staff exodus reignites questions about her leadership style.”
How is all this related? I have not only run many campaigns at all levels, but worked for a president and two big-state governors. My takeaway is that when there is incessant staff turmoil and turnover in either a campaign or public office, or confusing messaging emanating from either, it’s a reflection on the candidate or officeholder him or herself, not a sign that the staff was primarily at fault. A campaign takes on the character of the candidate, as does an elected politician’s official office.
One reviewer summed up Harris’s 2019 book this way: “Harris’s prose rarely sparkles and there is not much by way of self-revelation.” Another called it a “meandering work that lacks verve.” Harris herself in the foreword warns that the book is “not meant to be a policy platform.” Sadly, all of that is a pretty good summary of the Kamala Harris voters nationally have been exposed to since she became vice president – and why her approval ratings are in the tank, even lagging those of Biden.
When it comes to Harris and 2024 – or beyond — Democrats would be wise to bear in mind the old time-honored caution, caveat emptor.
Editor’s Note: Garry South is a veteran California-based Democratic strategist who has played major roles in three presidential campaigns, four races for governor of California and two for lieutenant governor of the state.