Opinion | Is Kamala Harris Underrated? (2024)

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ezra klein

From New York Times Opinion, this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

If Joe Biden steps aside, which is still a very big if, the favorite to replace him is Vice President Kamala Harris. She is quite literally next in line.

There are reasons that are obvious for this and reasons that are a little bit more subtle. Like, here’s one. She would make the transfer of money a lot easier. A Harris-led ticket could use all the money that the Biden-Harris campaign has raised, whereas because of how campaign finance law works, if anyone else is a Democratic nominee, that money has to be transferred to the D.N.C. or to a PAC, which would make coordination a whole lot harder.

But there’s been this longstanding belief in Democratic circles that Harris is a lot weaker than Joe Biden, that he can win the election and she can’t. The big evidence for this used to be that she polled beneath him. That’s no longer true. I was looking at the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, and she has a very slightly higher approval rating and a significantly lower disapproval rating. There’s a new CNN poll that found Biden losing to Trump by six points, Harris losing by only two points. Other internal Democratic polling has been leaked, including by a group called Open Labs. Looks there, too, like Harris is now outperforming Biden against Donald Trump. In polls before now, she’s performed similarly, sometimes a point or two worse.

So far, the conventional wisdom has held that Biden may be weak, but Harris is also too weak. But why?

There are ways in which Harris seems perfectly suited for this moment. She’s a former prosecutor who would be running against a convicted criminal. She’s the administration’s best messenger on abortion by far, running in the aftermath of Dobbs. She’s a Black woman with a tough on crime background, running at a moment when crime and disorder have been big issues in American politics.

And unlike Joe Biden, who I think has very little room to improve from here, the American people don’t really know Harris. The opportunity for her to make a different impression if she was speaking for herself, rather than for the administration, is real. Now, that doesn’t mean she’d be able to pull that off. That’s a hard political job. But she’s a lot sharper in interviews and debates than I think people are now prepared for.

She has a résumé and some skills quite well-suited to this moment. It definitely doesn’t seem impossible that she could rise to the task. There is a reason she was considered so strong in 2019 and in 2020. Wouldn’t you want to see her debate Donald Trump?

But that still leaves a question of how she ended up with this reputation in the first place, how she went from this meteoric rise, winning a Senate seat in 2016, being taken seriously as a top tier presidential candidate just four years later, getting tapped, then, for vice president, to being really quickly, after that, considered a political underachiever, the reason Joe Biden needs to run again rather than the successor he was building that bridge to.

Elaina Plott Calabro is a staff writer at The Atlantic who previously covered politics at The New York Times. And in October, she published a really big, really interesting profile of Harris — about what had happened during her vice presidency, how that differed from the reputation she had before. And for that, she spent quite a lot of time with Harris and the people who worked with her. So that’s to come on the show, to unravel the puzzle, maybe even the paradox, of Kamala Harris with me. As always, my email, ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

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Elaina Plott Calabro, welcome to the show.

elaina plott calabro

Thank you so much for having me.

ezra klein

So I want to begin with a clip of Vice President Harris defending Joe Biden right after the first presidential debate in this interview with Anderson Cooper.

archived recording (kamala harris)

Listen, people can debate on style points, but ultimately, this election and who is the president of the United States has to be about substance. And the contrast is clear. Look at what happened during the course of the debate. Donald Trump lied over and over and over again, as he is wont to do. He would not disavow what happened on January 6. He would not give a clear answer on whether he would stand by the election results this November.

He went back and forth about where he stands on one of the most critical issues of freedom in America, which is the right of a woman to make decisions about their own body. He has been completely ambiguous and all over the place about where he stands on that issue, despite the fact that he hand-selected three members of the United States Supreme Court with the intention that they would undo the protections of Roe v. Wade.

And that’s exactly what they did. And just three years ago, we commemorated the two-year anniversary of Dobbs, wherein women across our country have been denied emergency health care, have suffered miscarriages to the point that —

archived recording (anderson cooper)

All that may be true, but the president of the United States —

archived recording (kamala harris)

But these facts are very important.

archived recording (anderson cooper)

— was not able to make that case to Donald Trump on the stage tonight.

ezra klein

So there’s something grim there about Cooper basically saying, great, that was a great debate answer. Why wasn’t the president able to say what you just said?

elaina plott calabro

I think, honestly, a lot of people who have followed the vice president closely the past three years were, in some ways, surprised by that answer.

One of the huge reasons for her struggles and her, in my opinion, lack of popularity among many Americans is that she’s a very poor communicator when the parameters are quite wide. And what do I mean by that? I mean, when she’s on a stage and she’s asked about the American experiment, democracy, the state of it, things like that, she really gets lost in the woods when she talks.

But a moment like this, when the parameters are quite narrow, when she needs to — and it’s such a cliché with her at this point to say it like this, but making the case against someone or something is where I think her confidence truly shows and when she is actually communicating in a way that doesn’t feel instantly clippable for a Republican ad.

ezra klein

I want to get at this idea of her as a poor communicator, because, in some ways, what has happened to the reputation of Kamala Harris between, let’s call it 2019 and 2020, when she’s a huge rising star, and she’s running for president and considered in maybe the top tier of the presidential candidates, nobody’s saying, well, this is going to be a disaster. Kamala Harris is a terrible communicator.

And then something happens. And the whole conventional wisdom in Washington on Kamala Harris undergoes this devolution to, she’s not a way above replacement politician, but a way below replacement politician. One of the reasons Joe Biden has to run again, no matter how old he is, is she can’t carry the load. Why does that happen?

elaina plott calabro

Having spent more time than I’d like to admit combing through every aspect of her career as a public servant, you have to think about, OK, what was she before she ran for president in the primary? She was a senator from California. She had not been in office long at all before she launched her primary bid.

Before that, she was attorney general of California. Before that, she was the D.A. in San Francisco. Let’s think, then, about the D.A., because I think this elucidates the point pretty well. When you are running for D.A., you are not necessarily trying to capture the imagination of voters. It’s very just sort of metrics-driven, dry even.

And she ran the campaign that way. She said, my opponent, the incumbent, has a very low conviction rate for felonies. I’m going to raise that conviction rate. And because she was so often the first, or always, rather, the first, in the jobs that she held, whether that was because of her gender, being South Asian, having Black heritage, a lot of times, in the era she was running, you’d want to minimize those facts.

And I think in San Francisco in particular, in that D.A.‘s race, what she wanted to show voters was that she kind of wanted to blend in like background music, in a way. Like, I’m the guy that you currently have, but I’m just a lot more competent. And it’s sort of that very kind of systematic, practical appeal that works in an office that’s really close to the ground in that way.

Nobody is looking to their D.A. to give soaring and inspiring speeches about democracy, and nor are they looking to be sold on a story of someone’s life. I mean, I’m sure most Americans in this country couldn’t tell you the origin myth of their local district prosecutor or what have you. And she sort of ran her campaign for attorney general that same way.

I remember talking to one of her advisers on that campaign, and she said they did, in fact, urge her, you know, share more about your biography. Make your personal story more of an aspect of this campaign. And she was resistant to that idea.

ezra klein

But she definitely does it more now. She talks about the friend who was molested when she was growing up, and she brings that friend into her home. And that’s part of why she becomes a prosecutor. So when she does tell her story, what is the story she tells?

elaina plott calabro

It’s interesting that you brought up that story in particular, because I remember an aide coming to me in the midst of reporting my profile on her, saying, I just found out a key reason why she became a prosecutor, and I’m going to set up an interview so she can tell you about it. So I thought it was quite telling that this person who had been on her team for a while is only now learning this pretty important facet of her path to her career.

So, she is inherently resistant to trying to sell herself in such a way. But again, with attorney general, that is not the worst thing ever. Governor — it would have been a different story, of course. She gets into the Senate, runs for president, and what you see happen is that her background and her skill set, in being a prosecutor, prosecuting the case against Donald Trump, collides with a moment when the national sentiment toward police and law enforcement, in general, is quite grim.

And you have those around her, like her sister, Maya Harris, who say, you kind of drop the prosecutor thing. This is not something that voters want to be reminded of. She wrote a book when she was in California called “Smart on Crime,” which really — you read it, it sounds more like a tough on crime book. But that was no longer relevant, as her advisers told her, to her interest in the presidential campaign.

And so what happened was her communication became so clearly reflective of someone that she herself didn’t recognize, if that makes sense. When she is able to kind of step into that mode she feels comfortable, where she feels more like a district attorney again, like you saw in hearings with Brett Kavanaugh or Jeff Sessions, when her star really started to explode —

archived recording (kamala harris)

When you and I met, I brought up the incident in Charlottesville, where, as you know, there was a rally by white supremacists that left a young woman dead. You will recall that the president who nominated you described the incident by saying, quote, “I think there is blame on both sides.” So I think this will be a simple question for you. Do you, sir, believe there was blame on both sides?

archived recording 1

Senator, we did talk, and I enjoyed our meeting and to talk about the history of this country. And we talked about that at some length and talked about discrimination. I appreciated your opening statement yesterday, where you talked about your experience. One of the principles I’ve articulated throughout this hearing is the independence of the judiciary.

archived recording (kamala harris)

And, sir, I’d appreciate if you’d answer the question.

archived recording 1

I am, Senator. So one of the principles I’ve talked about throughout this hearing is the independence of the judiciary. And one of the things judges do, following the lead of the Chief Justice and what all the judges do, is not — stay out of current events. Stay out of commenting on current events, because it risks confusion about what our role is. We are judges who decide cases and controversy. We’re not pundits, so we don’t comment on current events. We stay out of political controversy.

archived recording (kamala harris)

With all due respect, I only have limited time. But are you saying that it’s too difficult a question, or it’s a question you can’t answer, which is whether you agree with the statement that there was blame on both sides? We can move on, but are you saying you cannot answer that simple — pretty simple question?

elaina plott calabro

I think that’s the flavor we’re starting to see again. But the interim has — I mean, it’s just been a struggle because that’s never been how she thinks of politics.

ezra klein

You open your profile with a kind of very telling story that I’ve also heard from others about getting a tour of the art in the vice president’s residence. Do you want to talk through that?

elaina plott calabro

Yeah, so I went to meet with the vice president at her residence for about an hour and a half. And when I got in there, she gave me a tour of the residence. So, like past vice presidents, she’s completely redesigned it, hired someone to come in and help her effect her vision. And she wanted to show me all of the artwork that she’d included.

And what I found pretty interesting right off the bat was that as she was describing these pieces, she said nothing about what it made her feel, what attracted her to it. The artistry itself is probably a better way to say it.

She would just point to it and say, this is by a Japanese American artist. This is by a gay artist, and sort of took me through an identitarian walk-through of the art on display in her home and never said anything else about it. And she ends it with, so you get the idea. So you get what I’m going for here, was the meaning of that. And, yeah, it was telling. I think there was a reason I started my piece with that anecdote.

But I also think, to me, it’s the sort of thing that reflected, I think, her desire, at times, to say what she thinks the base of the party wants to hear, which is where a lot of her communication fumbles, I think, come from. I think a lot of times that she is very scared of saying something wrong and going counter to the base, as opposed to just saying rather forthrightly how she feels about something.

ezra klein

You’re not the only person who’s gotten that exact tour and had that exact reaction to it. And it’s why focus on this. It’s obviously a very small thing, but there is this way — maybe it’s because it’s not actually her politics, right? I think it’s a really interesting argument you’re making here and that I think might be true, right, that she’s actually speaking this era of the Democratic Party with an accent, to use that metaphor.

elaina plott calabro

That’s a nice way to put it. Yeah.

ezra klein

That, in fact, the reason the symbolism is a little bit blunt force is it’s not her natural politics. She’s not just running to be the first. She doesn’t come out of that era in Democratic Party politics. She comes out of this era when it made sense in SF to be a kind of smart on crime, tough on crime prosecutor, to brag about your conviction record, to say that the people you’re running against don’t have enough convictions, right? To say that you have compassion, but you also have steel to you.

And that as she tried to refashion herself for an era that did not allow her to make that set of arguments in an era in which there was extraordinary excitement about a Black, Indian American woman after Obama, I mean, people wanted her to pan out. They wanted Kamala Harris to be the next chapter in the history that seemed to be happening when the party elected Obama in 2008 and 2012.

And I think she tried to shape herself into that. And I guess what you’re saying here, which is interesting and maybe speaks to why that’s sort of an awkward tour she gives people, is that it’s an awkward fit, not just for the person on the tour, but maybe also for her.

elaina plott calabro

To me, that’s absolutely the case. And I’ll return, again, to her presidential primary bid, which is where I think this theme sort of crystallized. I remember talking to aides on that campaign or former aides — this would have been after the fact — who said that when she started getting advice from people closest to her saying, this is a different moment in the Democratic Party, your background should not be your selling point, that her response was essentially, but I am a prose — that’s what I’ve done.

That is who I am. So what story do I tell instead? It’s not like I had a detour at some point where I went from smart on crime to, actually, just kidding, I changed my mind — here’s the new book. There wasn’t really an authentic pivot for her to make.

So when she’s sort of advised and takes that advice to heart that who she is, is not what that iteration of the party wants, she tries to reshape herself. And that’s why — I mean, let’s talk about the question of authenticity. That’s something that I think is really fraught, often, with racist and, quite often, sexist stereotypes, things like that.

But voters really did pick up on something about Kamala Harris that just felt inauthentic when she spoke. I think it was David Axelrod in my story, who just said, voters can pick up on that when it doesn’t feel — honesty is not even the right word, I think, telling a lie about your record or something, but just misrepresenting who you are or what it is that you really want to be saying.

ezra klein

She has reminded me of something that was true about Hillary Clinton, which is both of them struggled with this question of authenticity, struggled to seem like they were themselves, giving a big speech. And then when you would meet them privately, I don’t know that I’ve ever met a politician where I felt there was a bigger gap between the sort of charisma on the stump and the charisma around a table than Kamala Harris.

Clinton had that dimension to her, too. But Harris is like — she’s extremely warm and magnetic and profane, much more so than a lot of politicians who I know. You actually would want to have a beer with her. You’d want to go to the barbecue or the party she hosted. But you don’t see that version of her out in public all that often. And I don’t blame her for why, right?

I think there’s a long history of seeing this, whereas Joe Biden or Donald Trump can just go, like, let it all hang out, and then they seem authentic. But this feels to me like a place where there is a real — I mean, there is something lurking behind the public persona that if she were able to unleash it, at least from what I’ve seen, I think would be actually quite compelling.

elaina plott calabro

And what I will say is that having traveled to so many events with her and actually seeing her interact with voters one-on-one, you do see that person. And this goes back to something I feel pretty strongly about, which is that when she is on a stage in front of a big audience and is expected to talk about gauzy questions of democracy and things like that, she just doesn’t do well, even broad questions like, what does this administration see as the future of climate change?

It’s something that I think once she gets in a smaller group and she’s able to really level with the person that she’s speaking to and has eyes on them, she, I think, becomes a completely different person. She’s far more comfortable.

And that’s what I experienced in the residence. I mean, this was someone who I found to be almost maternal. At one point she says to me — it’s not even a question — you’re newly married. I said, yes, Madam Vice President. And she just said, pay attention to your marriage, your relationships, because life has a way of sweeping you up.

And it was just something I had never seen from her on the stage, I think is the important distinction, that aura around her. Where I had seen it was one-on-one with voters.

And when I spoke with Hillary Clinton for this story, she said specifically, Kamala Harris is not a performance politician. I didn’t take that to be a criticism. She’s not a performance politician either. But her point was that— she said, when I was running for Senate, I did a lot of these really small round tables with voters all across New York. The media had no interest in that.

And this is a complaint you will hear a lot from Kamala Harris’s aides. She is, in fact, out there. Yes, she does travel a lot — I’ve gone with her for a lot of these stops — and is talking to people, interacting with voters. But they’re like, nobody’s coming with us on Air Force Two. We can’t get any of these major outlets to come do it.

And so, Kamala Harris, she said to me, my career was not about giving lovely speeches. It was about working with my constituents in whatever capacity I was in. And that’s great. But on a national stage, there’s simply no way that the media can package that fact and sell it for you. Lovely speeches is a large part of the ballgame when you are in the White House.

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ezra klein

You mentioned that book “Smart on Crime.” You mentioned it reads from maybe our current perspective as tough on crime. What does she say in that book? How would you describe it?

elaina plott calabro

Well, think about her record in California. She was not shy about prosecuting people for marijuana usage. And it’s one of the reasons you saw quite the backlash — I don’t know if you’ll recall, Ezra — the moment when she’s asked — I think it was on a podcast — have you ever smoked marijuana? And she starts laughing and says something to the effect of, what kind of question is that? You know, I’m Jamaican.

And that might have been funny. But what a lot of people, I think, correctly pointed out is that, well, the thing that you’re laughing about is the thing that you were quite eager to move against in your positions of power in California, that today is not something that she’s going to want to talk about again.

But I remember talking to David Axelrod for my profile. This was last fall, and he said there’s such a tidal shift, in a way, where there’s a vacuum for somebody to step in and say, I am a progressive, but the Democratic Party can have the answer for crime. And he was sort of astonished that she hadn’t stepped in to kind of claim that role.

ezra klein

This, to me, is the paradox of her — it might ultimately be the tragedy of her — because Harris runs in 2020 at this exact moment when her precise political profile is disastrous for the Democratic Party, right?

elaina plott calabro

Exactly.

ezra klein

It’s post-Ferguson. It’s post-Black Lives Matter. George Floyd is yet to come, but we’re already in this moment where what you want to be is not a smart on crime Democrat. It’s a criminal justice reformer. But when I go back right now — because preparing for the show, I was reading a bunch of older political profiles of Harris, and I was reading this one from The New Yorker in 2019. And they described her then as, quote, “a Black female law and order Democrat.”

And when you imagine the candidate Democrats would want to run this year amidst concern about crime, concern about disorder at the border, running against a convicted criminal in Donald Trump, at the moment that the Supreme Court is saying that the president can functionally do almost anything they want, like a Black female law and order Democrat is the profile that you would grow in a lab.

And it’s not clear to me. Like, can she reinhabit it? Can she find that again? Does she still believe in any of that? But it seems very — rather than Harris, in some ways, seeming ill-suited for the moment, most of her political history seems perfectly suited for the moment.

elaina plott calabro

I agree with that so strongly. And another thing I feel so strongly about is that her perhaps not inhabiting that role, that should seem so natural and so intuitive in this moment in particular, I think is a failure of President Biden.

I’ve thought a lot about how, when they came into office, they really didn’t have a vision for her vice presidency. And part of that was by virtue of how she was chosen. She was not selected as a governing partner. People like Jim Clyburn, who has known Biden for quite a long time, is quite close with him, urges him expressly to pick a Black woman as vice president. And that’s great, but coming into the presidency, the White House, you have to take time to set out, OK, what role do you actually want the vice president to fill as a governing partner?

There are some reasons that are understandable for that not happening immediately. One was Covid. They came into office. It was all hands on deck. But another thing that I found pretty fascinating is that the role that vice presidents have typically been asked to fill — when I say typically, I mean, the past 20 years or so, 25 years — is a liaison to Capitol Hill, a kind of anchor to Washington for the outsider-ish president.

So you think about Dick Cheney for George W. Bush. You think about Joe Biden for Barack Obama, I think, most notably. Barack Obama was quite candid that he did not like the task of going on Capitol Hill and trying to negotiate to push his legislative agenda forward. Joe Biden loves that.

And so you had sort of this paradox that Kamala Harris comes in as this person who was, like, 10 years old when Joe Biden ran his first campaign for the Senate. There’s no world in which it makes sense to try to frame her as the Capitol Hill whisperer of the Biden administration.

But in fact, that’s what they tried to do at first. And I think it was just because they saw the historical pattern. They didn’t know what else to really do with her because they hadn’t really put enough thought into it. And she failed quite miserably in that role.

Again, as I mentioned, she was in the Senate a rather short time before she launched her primary bid. She had not built up the relational capital with lawmakers to be someone who could come in and really make things happen. And so you saw, which I think was quite embarrassing for her, that early on, Joe Biden said, OK, I’m going to go with you to these meetings, almost like a chaperone, to the point that it became just Joe Biden going to meet with someone like Senator Sinema or Senator Manchin to try to get them on board on his voting rights package.

So that fizzled out quite quickly. And I think you were then left with a vice president drifting in the wind. And, to me, it was so interesting about how probably Joe Biden’s worst answer, one of the worst kind of moments of the debate that we saw, was his inability to speak coherently about abortion. And it is that exact fact that indicates why we even have some sense of what Kamala Harris’s profile of her vice presidency has been.

In anticipation of the overturning of Roe, Biden, who does not feel comfortable talking about abortion, certainly not hitting the campaign trail in talking about it, suddenly, that was the vacuum for her to fill. And it was by happenstance, in many ways, right?

So the lack of planning, I think, has sort of brought Kamala Harris to where she is today. The West Wing has never really cared to think strategically about how to present her to the American public. And what I found in my reporting is, unfortunately, one reason was that when you ask Joe Biden’s aides, is she ready to step in and be president, they don’t want to engage the question because they feel that in doing so, they would legitimize the implication that she might, in fact, need to step in for Joe Biden, which just goes back to what everybody is talking about today, that those around him have sort of gaslit and bullied reporters who dared bring up the fact of his age. And I think that has translated directly to how people have tried to cover the vice president or understand the vice president.

ezra klein

But Biden has wanted to serve a second term. I have heard many people say that it was almost a stroke of genius for them to choose a weak vice president, because if they had chosen a stronger vice president, the pressure on him to step aside would have been much greater.

But if they had had a serious strategy to bulk up Harris’s profile, to make her seem presidential to people, to give her victories, to say, maybe you don’t want Joe Biden out there doing a lot of adversarial interviews and YouTube shows and podcasts, but you could send Harris out there. She’s a good interviewer. She makes mistakes like everybody, but she’s actually quite strong, in my view. I’ve listened to a bunch of her interviews. But they didn’t want to do that.

I’m not saying this was all a strategy, but in terms of their incentives and Joe Biden’s incentives, he didn’t want people coming to the conclusion that he’d done a great job in the first term, but he had this excellent vice president. And given that most Americans thought he was too old for a second term, he should step aside. He wanted people to feel that he was the only one who could beat Donald Trump.

elaina plott calabro

I think that’s right. But what people, I think, latched on to pretty quickly, and correctly so, I think, is Joe Biden positioned himself publicly as wanting to be a bridge to the next generation of Democratic leadership from the outset of his presidency. So however he felt privately, he was on the record saying that this is not about me. This is about the country. This is about saving democracy, all of the things we would expect a politician to say.

But the fact that, particularly when it came to that bridge comment, that that was followed up by really not much of a cursory effort to promote a fuller and more successful portrait of Kamala Harris to the American people, I think that dissonance is partially responsible for what we see now.

ezra klein

I want to zoom in on the moment he picks Harris. So as I remember the veep stakes, you had a couple of people who were really in contention towards the end — Tammy Duckworth, who they really liked, who’s a senator, a wounded war hero. Elizabeth Warren was in contention. Karen Bass, who’s now the mayor of Los Angeles. Amy Klobuchar was in the mix at different points.

I mean, there were a lot of people they were talking to, could have spoken to. He ends up settling on Harris. He ends up settling on Harris, even though, of everybody in the primary, she dealt him the most vicious blow in the debate and a blow that, I think, his campaign felt and then was able to argue, effectively, was unfair, this sort of attack on busing.

archived recording (kamala harris)

There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

ezra klein

Which, then, their campaign got people to ask her, well, what is your position on busing? And frankly, it wasn’t actually that different than Joe Biden’s. But so she’s able to surmount that. Why does he choose her?

elaina plott calabro

What it came down to — and I want to point to the busing comment again. This was pretty hard for Jill Biden to get past. She, I think, far more than Joe Biden himself, had trouble sort of digesting the idea that his running mate would be somebody that she saw as having attacked him so relentlessly and unfairly in the primary season. My understanding is that when it came down to Karen Bass versus Kamala Harris, they simply thought that Kamala Harris would do a better job.

ezra klein

And then when she comes in, they do give her certain portfolios. And there’s been a lot of debate in Washington among political people, I know, about why they give her certain portfolios. So they give her immigration, which is a very, very, very difficult portfolio.

They give her voting rights, which my understanding is she wanted, but also, they did not have the votes to pass the voting rights bills they wanted to pass. They did not have the votes to get rid of the filibuster. And they did not have the votes to surmount a filibuster.

At one point, they gave her the AI portfolio, which was very strange. There’s been a sense that even outside this question of putting her out there and putting her out in front, that she wasn’t being given projects that were actually winnable, right, in the way that Al Gore got reinventing government, which he could be out there on the talk shows, talking about, and scoring wins on.

Joe Biden was a key negotiator on very important bills in Congress. There were a lot of deals that Joe Biden could fairly say that he was the person who, in the end, got to the finish line with Mitch McConnell. But they were giving her things that everybody knew at the beginning, there was not going to be a signing ceremony. Why was that?

elaina plott calabro

Immigration, I think, is a pretty fascinating illustration of this whole theme in general. It’s telling, right, that you immediately say immigration and don’t specify the so-called root causes issue. What does that mean? That means your portfolio is ostensibly trying to grapple with things like impoverished conditions and crime from Central American countries that are actually causing these migrants to flee north to begin with.

The way that that assignment came about — and this speaks to, I think, just the lack of a broader strategy that the West Wing had when it came to her — as Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, told me, they were in a meeting, talking about this very issue. And Kamala Harris, as Klain told me, spoke rather forcefully and rather well about her ideas for alleviating some of these root cause elements.

And Joe Biden was impressed with her ideas. And he essentially said, why don’t you take that issue? Why don’t you take it on? And she’s kind of silent for a moment. And after the meeting, she approaches Klain and says, I’m really happy to be engaged on this, but I was sort of throwing those things out there in the hopes that someone else could take them on and not me, because it is just a completely no-win issue. I mean, to the extent that you can, as a governing leader, help alleviate those root causes, I mean, that’s a 10, 15-year at minimum metric.

ezra klein

Kamala Harris, as vice president, is going to fix El Salvador?

elaina plott calabro

Yes. Word is out on whether that has happened yet. [LAUGHS] But anyway, Ron Klain says, look, I get it. But — and here’s the important part — when Joe Biden was vice president, this was the issue he took on for Barack Obama. So he didn’t even see it as, oh, I’m saddling her with the thing that I don’t want to do, or sort of the scraps. He saw it as a great sign of respect that he would take the issue that he had worked on for Barack Obama and feel enough confidence in her that he would want to give it to her as well.

So completely divorced from questions like, can she make any meaningful, just optically, a sense of a win on an issue like this? And what does that mean for her profile as a vice president? Things like that were just not coming into the equation at all.

And so you have that, and then you have voting rights, which, you’re correct, she did want that. But even from the outset, she knew that a voting rights package was not passing the Senate. It just wasn’t. And because she didn’t have the relationships on Capitol Hill that would be needed to actually realize the chance of getting it to the president’s desk, that was just another thing that even though she felt comfortable speaking about it and the need for it, again, there was no signing ceremony that was ever going to accompany that.

ezra klein

On immigration, this is a place where she also did herself no favors. I mentioned in general, that I think she’s a stronger communicator than is currently her reputation. But here, she gave one of her first major interviews to Lester Holt, and it was genuinely a bit of a debacle.

archived recording (lester holt)

Do you have any plans to visit the border?

archived recording (kamala harris)

I’m here in Guatemala today. At some point, you know, we are going to the border. We’ve been to the border. So this whole thing about the border, we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.

archived recording (lester holt)

You haven’t been to the border.

archived recording (kamala harris)

And I haven’t been to Europe. And I mean, I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not —

ezra klein

So this, for me, was one of the places we began to feel the sense of her turn in Washington, right? The sense that maybe, actually, she wasn’t quite ready for prime time. What was your sense of what happened there?

elaina plott calabro

OK, I’d like to focus first on the reaction from the White House to that interview. What many aides I spoke to couldn’t understand was why, when the questions were so easily anticipated, she had failed to the degree that she had.

But to me, that’s almost less important because, yes, the interview itself was quite the debacle. But I think what really allowed it to snowball into something that we are still talking about today, all these years later, is that for many Americans, it was their first introduction to Kamala Harris, just in general.

I keep saying, again, I know, she was not in the Senate a very long time before she launched her primary bid. But I think it’s so important in that she did not have, really, a built-in profile with Americans to lean back on and be able to interpret an interview like that and say, eh, everybody messes up sometimes. But I know Kamala Harris because of these other reasons, and I have faith in her.

The second thing we saw — and again, another reason that it became the debacle it did — is that she pretty much retreated from public view afterward. I think Elizabeth Warren is a great example of a candidate who, while on the campaign trail, her team really understood that if she had a bad interview, just blanket the airwaves afterward. Just do more and more and more until people can’t even remember what the issue was in the interview from eight days ago or whatever it was.

Kamala Harris didn’t do that. Now, that’s not to say that people like Ron Klain didn’t encourage her otherwise, but she became really terrified of making another mistake of that magnitude, that rather than sort of getting out there and talking and talking and talking until it just seemed like, eh, another interview — who even remembers — it became one of the few interviews she even did that entire year, and certainly, that entire summer. And so it just took on an outsized importance that was probably never in proportion to the mistakes in the interview itself, if that makes sense.

ezra klein

I don’t remember if it’s in your profile, but something Klain says about her is that she bears the weight of embarrassing or slipping up for the administration very heavily, that one of the things that made her more cautious in this period is, it’s one thing to be running your own campaign and screw up. It’s another thing to be out there as a supporting player and screw up and making the person sort of at the top of the ticket or at the top of the White House look bad.

And that that created a real — I mean, she’s always been known as a bit of a cautious politician, but that created a real fear of failure in her. And also, she has some strictures on her as a vice president, right? If she begins going out and doing constant interviews, the White House, which, I think, has, as I was saying before, let’s call it a mixed relationship to what level of prominence she should have, might not have been thrilled about her becoming an omnipresent media figure.

elaina plott calabro

So, yes, that was my profile where Klain made that point. Harris’s aides, though, their frustration was that because she felt that so strongly, and it’s a completely valid reaction to have — I’m a supporting player here. I do not want to distract from this administration’s agenda by flubbing in interviews and having that become the headline or the thing that’s showing up on Saturday Night Live or something like that.

What her aides were frustrated by was that knowing that she was feeling that way, that she was becoming interminably more cautious, it seemed, as a result of that, that was the moment they felt when the West Wing really could have stepped in and tried to help promote her. So she was never, by the way, she was never going to go on a media blitz just on her own accord, in an effort to fix it herself. That was something that the West Wing, if it was going to happen, that they would have to be the engine behind. And the appetite for that collectively was just never really there.

ezra klein

I want to talk about some other things that begin to shape, I think, her public profile in this period. And one relates to that relationship with the West Wing. You began getting these stories pretty regularly about staff turmoil in the vice president’s office, about chaos in the vice president’s office, about her churning through her people. You were hearing it in background quotes from administration officials. You were hearing it in these stories in “Politico” and the “Washington Post.”

And there was a sense that something was wrong, even in the small part of the White House or the administration, rather, that Vice President Harris was in charge of running. How do you understand those stories? What was wrong? I mean, were they picking up on something real? And how big of a deal was it, really?

elaina plott calabro

I think what the West Wing, just based on my reporting, saw as wrong was just sort of amorphous, this idea that when she went out in public, you were sort of always at the edge of your seat, not for a good reason, but because you didn’t quite know where a sentence might go. And that —

ezra klein

That’s how I feel about Joe Biden.

[CHUCKLING]

elaina plott calabro

And that came to be real. Again, it’s sort of a more amorphous thing, but there was not one specific thing where they thought, she’s incapable of doing this. It was just a general, “this is a headache every time she goes out there.”

But I will say that when reporters would talk to the West Wing about that, rather than take an opportunity just on paper to constantly reinforce their support of her, they just didn’t do that. And when you would insert the age angle in particular, do you have confidence in this person to step in should something happen, they took issue with the implication of the question and spent more time, I think, berating the mere ask, rather than using it as an opportunity to elevate their confidence in her.

ezra klein

But there was something more being said in these stories, which was that there was turmoil in her office, that she was losing staff, that there was some kind of chaos in her management. There was a kind of suggestion that that had been true, maybe in her Senate office, too. Was it being managed very badly? Was there a problem between her and her staff?

elaina plott calabro

At the outset, there absolutely was. And the internal narrative in her office as to why that was, was that she was really working with a group of people that she didn’t really have longstanding relationships with. And I think that so many people had competing ideas of what her vice presidency should be, that a lot of the chaos you saw at the beginning was just clashing ideas and her inability to say, we’re going this way, or we’re going that way.

One of the aides that left during that turmoil of the first year, I remember her telling me that the boss that she had worked for on Capitol Hill before she went to work for Kamala Harris as vice president, she said, I worked for a representative who, if everybody was screaming with a million different ideas, this person would just say, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, and you’re all getting on board, and we’re sticking to it. She was not good at doing that, is what I’m told. She just didn’t have the confidence yet to say, this is what the plan is.

ezra klein

Let me ask you about another dimension of this. So you talked earlier about Joe Biden saying he was going to be a bridge to the next generation of Democratic Party leaders. There’s always this question, though, of a bridge to which faction of the party. Now the party is more united, I think, than it was in 2020, when you had the sort of democratic socialist “squad” dimension of it. You had the sort of rising Black Lives Matter, post-George Floyd. There was overlap here, but you could call it more woke. You could call it more built around identity and ethnicity. You had the moderates, which Joe Biden was a part of, and I think were seen as maybe still an important force, but a thing that was draining of its power. Obama was held in a little less esteem at that moment, I think, inside, at least the commentariat, than he is right now.

So there was this question of to what Biden was going to build a bridge. He picks Harris after George Floyd’s murder. And I think that pick also reflects a sense of what the next iteration of the party was going to be, right? It was not going to be a party that was going to be nominating old white guys to be the nominee.

It was going to be a party that was more fully embracing a sort of antiracism, more fully embracing the politics that felt very dominant in that moment. It always seemed to me that’s the reason that Amy Klobuchar didn’t do better in the veep stakes and a reason that Harris seemed like a sensible pick for them. On the one hand, she wasn’t too far away from their politics, but on the other hand, it seemed like she directionally could represent this.

And then, pretty quickly, that politics loses its energy. A backlash builds. There’s increasingly a sense that what Joe Biden is, is more like the future than the past. Like, if you could find somebody like Joe Biden, but younger, that would be a strong candidate. And so one thing that seemed to me to happen in the ripples of Washington, D.C., was that the thing that Biden was building a bridge to seemed, at one point, to be the politics Harris represented or could lead. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t the politics that Harris represented or could lead.

And so it almost seemed to many people like they had picked their vice president on a political theory that had just proven wrong, that if they had picked Tammy Duckworth or an Amy Klobuchar, that would have been more in keeping with where people now thought the politics of the future were sitting. Do you think that’s true?

elaina plott calabro

Going back to something we discussed earlier about why did he pick her, you mentioned her as somebody different from Amy Klobuchar. And certainly, that was the persona. She was projecting a quite different persona from Amy Klobuchar. But I think one of the reasons that Joe Biden picked her and that they would click in conversations is they’re not altogether that far apart on policy.

To me, the true Kamala Harris is someone — a Democrat who is much more pragmatic than the idea of her has become. And I understand why that idea exists, but it makes it all the more so that the party has changed. And as we’ve been saying, the change is almost designed just to lift her up in what I think is the core of who she is as a politician and the core of her ideological approach to governing.

ezra klein

There’s a way in which I think the picture you’re helping me clarify is that she became a cipher twice, once when she runs in 2020 and realizes that her entire record, her entire positioning, her beliefs, her experience are ill-suited for the political moment. And again, she becomes vice president.

And that is always a collapse into being a cipher, because you have to be whatever the administration needs you to be. You have to be on board with whatever the president is doing, right? You almost, by definition, in that job, cannot be yourself. You cannot go out and shift the way you’re seeing. You can’t decide on new policies, make big pivots, right? You’ve really very little control over your public persona.

And so you have this person who had a very clear political identity, lost it in 2020, wins the vice presidency, but at the cost of losing that identity even more. And now everybody’s like, who is Kamala Harris? And the answer is a little bit unclear because it’s been a little bit since she was able to carve out a public version of herself that is authentic to whoever she is now.

elaina plott calabro

That’s again, why a reason that I think the Lester Holt interview became the catastrophe, really, that it was. It was never about just the one interview. It was about it inevitably being the entree, of sorts, of her to the American people that she had never really quite achieved before. There was no backdrop, really, against which for Americans to judge her in that moment.

So I will say that, sometimes, I’ve wondered about her — why is she doing this? I mean, she clearly just found such joy from her days as a prosecutor. And I mean, her whole tenor changes when you’re talking with her about that and what she loved about that job, that, sometimes, it’s like, why are you going for this, as you’re just getting further and further away from the more intimate grass roots settings that really seemed to bring you joy and professional fulfillment?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

There’s been this feeling among Democrats for some time. You might think Joe Biden is too old for this, but Harris is definitely a weaker candidate. It doesn’t look obvious to me at this point after that debate that she is a weaker candidate than Joe Biden. At the very least, she seems to me to have a lot more room to go up. Maybe she has more room to fall, too. I guess that’s possible, though in a CNN poll that came out this morning, Biden was six points behind Trump, and Harris was two points behind Trump. But I’ve seen that go in different directions. But I’m curious if you have a view on this, because there was a hardened conventional wisdom that she’s a weaker candidate than Biden. But now that seems like a very open question.

elaina plott calabro

Well, and the reason it’s no longer such an open question is not just because of Biden’s failure, but because where we are in the campaign — she’ll do a vice-presidential debate — she performs best when she is in conversation with someone about something very specific. I don’t mean to harp on that over and over.

But the trend I would see of her when I was on the road with her is, she’d get on stage at, say, Georgia Tech, where she’s talking to these college students about climate change. And on stage are two professors, two scientists. And when they’re asking her questions, those are those edge of the seat moments and not in a good way.

But about halfway through when she is in those conversations, she essentially takes the mic and starts directing the conversation herself. She’ll start asking, what about your background? What got you interested in this? And it’s when she feels that control and that she’s more in conversation with somebody instead of just being asked question, her answering, asked another question, I think that’s when she performs better, and she also starts to actually speak in much more precise terms about whatever agenda item it is that she’s on stage there trying to sell. And I think that’s why, on a debate stage, even before what happened the other day, it has just always been quite well suited to her.

ezra klein

One of the difficulties, I think, if Biden decides not to run, Harris is by far the favorite, right? I don’t know if he would actively endorse her or just kind of signal that he thinks she’s great, but she’s, either way, the favorite to win in convention. He could actively endorse her and functionally hand her the nomination. Hell, he could resign and hand her the presidency.

But she’d have to do something very tricky, which is, usually, when the vice president runs, they have a whole campaign to redefine themselves. Joe Biden had the entire 2020 campaign to show that he was obviously a huge fan of Barack Obama, very proud of his service, but not exactly Barack Obama. You could think of George H.W Bush. You could think of Al Gore. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.

But usually, they have quite a long time, the whole sort of interminable American presidential cycle, to show people who they are. What Harris would have to do, if Biden dropped out, is reconstruct or construct this entire political persona beyond just being Joe Biden’s vice president extremely fast, which I don’t think is completely impossible.

People would be very interested to see what she has to say. They would really tune in for that convention speech. They would really tune in for her interviews, but it would rely on her and the people around her knowing what it is she wanted to say, knowing what it is she thought American politics was about right now, knowing what it is she thought the questions were about. Do you have any sense of what you think that would look like or if she’s up to it?

elaina plott calabro

I think it’s a big ask, in large part because she and her team have been so relentlessly on message, even off the record, that this administration is not about her and what she wants, to the point, again, even off the record, when you say, well, look, let’s just take a gander. What does she want? What would she do as president? The question just feels irrelevant to them because it’s not they say it’s not the point. And again, this is even off the record.

So I think she’d be coming in with Americans who, one, don’t really have a great idea of who she is just as a person, what her origin story is, her biography, anything like that, nor, just inherently, by virtue of the fact that she’s been vice president, would they have a great idea of what she wanted to accomplish as president.

My sense, just having gotten to know her, is that she would have a bit of a tough time at first, probably breaking out of a “we,” saying “our administration.” I mean, those things just become habitual for a vice president, quite obviously. And I think for her to have to suddenly make the transition to, “Here is what I would do,” that is an adjustment that I think can’t be overlooked in terms of — I mean, there are growing pains involved with that.

ezra klein

How about simply the capacity she has to prosecute a case against Donald Trump? I mean, one of the things that has been on my mind about her sort of unusual potential fit for right now is so much of what swirls around Donald Trump is legal as opposed to policy, right?

So much of, certainly, the way Democrats are thinking about Donald Trump in terms of the criminal cases, in terms of the recent series of Supreme Court rulings, is about boundaries of legality, about what it means to have a convicted criminal in the White House. Is that a case she is well suited to make?

elaina plott calabro

I think it is. And I think my addendum to whether she, in this short time, could sell Americans on herself and her agenda, that’s important. But I almost don’t know that she would need to at this point, where we are in this political moment.

I think a lot of people in this country, casting a vote for them would be about casting it against Donald Trump, maybe not necessarily for someone. Her strength, I think, would be in prosecuting a case against him such that that becomes her profile, if that makes sense. Getting on a debate stage with Donald Trump, as people saw with her questioning Brett Kavanaugh and just the overwhelming excitement that attended those events, would translate well here. I think the difference would be, is she somebody who, by virtue of making that case, can she excite people to actually vote for the Democrats versus just staying home? I don’t know that it’s about her performance could seed voters to Donald Trump.

ezra klein

I think that’s a good place to end. So, then, always our final question — what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?

elaina plott calabro

So the first book I recommend is called “Southerners” by Marshall Frady. It’s an anthology, actually, of a lot of the profiles and general essays that Marshall Frady, who was a reporter for Newsweek and Harper’s, New York Review of Books, several places in the midcentury during the Civil Rights era. He is the kind of writer who you read him, and you almost become angry, because you just know you will never be that good at a sentence level. His sentences are — they almost dance off the page. And so, just, the prose is really compelling.

But what I love about his approach to political reporting is, I think, sometimes, in the — and maybe this is the Politico-ification of political coverage today. There’s a tendency to almost want to treat our elected leaders as sort of omniscient and omnipotent and work from that premise, as opposed to this idea that these are people who, a lot of, just really don’t know what they’re doing. They’re monkeys fighting for the same crown.

And I think Marshall Frady, in taking that latter approach, gets at the truth of the characters he’s writing about much more effectively and sort of showing them as the sort of slapdash figures they so often are. So whether you want to read about Lester Maddox, the Huey Long family, I highly recommend.

OK, my second is “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles, which I would describe as a novel about existential despair, if that entices any listeners. But it’s about three Americans, three New Yorkers, who go to North Africa and are thinking of it as sort of just a tourist jaunt. The couple in there is hoping that it will rekindle their romance and sort of come in — and Paul Bowles writes about these themes, often — the romantic notions of travelers to, quote unquote, “exotic places.” And the book, then, very darkly, chronicles sort of their descent into despair as their ignorance of cultures come to be realized to them.

The third I would recommend is “The Company She Keeps” by Mary McCarthy. This was McCarthy’s debut novel. It’s not quite exactly an anthology, even though some of the chapters in there were first published in places like “Harper’s Bazaar.”

But this book is about Meg Sargent, who, just very obviously, an autobiographical character of a Catholic girl who, post-college, goes to New York to try to work for a new republic nation equivalent and try to make something of herself in the city’s boho intellectual culture, dips into Trotskyism, which gets her fired from her job, and like all books of this era, ends with a scene of her in psychoanalysis.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Elaina Plott Calabro, thank you very much.

elaina plott calabro

Thank you, Ezra.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Elias Isquith. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris with Kate Sinclair and Mary Marge Locker. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld, with additional mixing by Isaac Jones and Aman Sahota. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Annie Galvin, Rollin Hu, and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of “New York Times” Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser, and special thanks to Sonia Herrero.

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