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.
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.
The traditional “attack” role for a VP candidate 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.
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.
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.