Kamala Harris Is Madame Litigator

Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post
Vice President Kamala Harris comes into clearer focus.

In the hours after her running mate’s terrible showing in the first presidential debate of 2024, Vice President Harris leaned into her expertise as a former prosecutor to make a case for why voters shouldn’t view President Biden’s halting and, at times, incomprehensible performance as incontrovertible evidence that he is not up to the grueling task of a second term. Harris made her case on cable networks late into the night, and then she headed to Nevada, where she stood in front of a backdrop that read “Latinos con Biden Harris” and continued to argue the facts as she interpreted them. Dressed in a blue-gray suit and flanked by American flags, Harris started off with a beaming smile, a laugh and the usual round of thank-yous to the local political leaders and the earnest volunteers. Then her demeanor abruptly shifted as she ticked off the things that were “true yesterday before the debate that are still true today.”

“The stakes of this race could not be higher,” she said. “The contrast in this election could not be more stark.” And finally, “We believe in our president, Joe Biden, and we believe in what he stands for.” She made these statements in a voice that was firm and without the outsize conviviality that so often accompanies her public remarks. She made them with a hint of outrage.

Harris settled into her narrative, noting that Biden’s challenger, former president Donald Trump, “is unburdened by the truth.” And then, in what seems to be the Democratic establishment’s agreed-upon salve for Biden’s dumbfounding debate performance, Harris added that, “in a real leader, character matters more than style.”

The verdict has not yet come in on whether Harris’s arguments will be convincing, but she nonetheless has offered the public a reminder of her greatest strength, which is her ability to argue on behalf of a victim – in this case a president stymied by age and, perhaps, his own vanities. She excels at explaining why Biden should be president for another term even though, as a onetime candidate for the Oval Office herself, she was never able to clearly advocate on her own behalf. And one wonders, if she were given the opportunity to do so again, whether she would be any more successful.

Some people are simply better at telling other people’s stories than their own. That’s not a failing, and it may well be a virtue.

As Harris has crisscrossed the country from battleground states to fundraisers in friendly territory, her remarks have been clear and firm. Even before the debate, she had been able to muster clarifying anger in her statements and interviews – with friendly interlocutors – on subjects including reproductive health care and gun violence prevention. In June, she was in Pennsylvania sitting across from actor Sheryl Lee Ralph with a sign reading “Reproductive Freedom” looming behind them. Ralph shared the story of the high-risk birth of her son. Harris shared that she had become a prosecutor after a high school friend told Harris she had been molested by her stepfather. That revelation inspired Harris to try to use the criminal justice system to address violence and other harms against women.

Speaking with Ralph, Harris articulated respect for religious beliefs while also standing firm in her certainty that women should have bodily autonomy. “I think we all agree one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body.”

In Georgia, Harris underscored her respect for the Second Amendment while also calling for red-flag laws, universal background checks and a ban on “assault weapons.” And in a campaign advertisement plopped into the middle of the BET Awards, Harris described her travel schedule in familiar terms during a mock video call with host Taraji P. Henson, “Yeah, girl, I’m out here in these streets,” Harris said. “… The majority of us believe in freedom and equality, but these extremists, as they say, ‘They not like us.’”

Harris has been out talking up the administration’s agenda, raising money and schmoozing supporters long before the damning debate. But all eyes have now turned to her as she is charged with conveying the energy and clarity of vision that Biden failed to. In her travels, Harris, 59, is strengthening her own political hand, but she is doing so in service to the 81-year-old man at the top of the ticket who needs to prove to voters not only that he has the will to carry on, but also that there’s a way for him to do so.

Harris isn’t so much as campaigning as litigating. She’s standing up for her client. And she’s very good at that.

She walks out suited up in her uniform of a long blazer and cropped trousers that reveal keen-toed shoes with a sharp heel. It’s worth pointing out that this is the no-nonsense, formal style she has settled into for her public appearances. It’s both authoritative and unremarkable, and it’s a far distance from the portrait of her that appeared on the cover of Vogue in the days before the inauguration that had her dressed in a blazer, casual pants and Converse sneakers. It was a photograph meant to capture the momentousness of the moment, but it depicted her awkwardly smiling with her hands folded genteelly at her waist. She had the posture of someone who was just a second or two from being fully prepared to have her photograph taken.

Back then Harris didn’t look as though she was fully comfortable with her power; she looked off-balance, which is, perhaps, how much of the electorate felt in the haze of the coronavirus pandemic. Harris came across as complicit in a portrait that seemed to confuse informality with empathy, likability with capability, history-making with enduring change.

Now Harris is in sharp – or at least sharper – focus. She also stands in stark relief. And what that crisper vision reveals is not that she would ultimately make an excellent president but that she is skilled at arguing for someone who she believes would.