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Kamala Harris Was the Real Winner of Last Night's Debate

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Kamala Harris awkwardly giving a speech | Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/Newscom

Look, nobody wants to see Vice President Kamala Harris as president. She’s a cop in a past life, a flop as vice president, and as phony as they come, with enough political baggage to fill a few Acela trains. Her presidential campaign four years ago was an unmitigated dud, parlayed into the vice presidency only by the unique demands of 2020. But after last night’s debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Harris’ chances of soon holding top office—or at least getting the opportunity to battle Trump for it—skyrocketed.

To say that the debate was disastrous for Biden is accurate, but somehow too weak. It’s hard to describe, for those who weren’t watching, just how bad Biden looked, sounded, and came across, or just how resoundingly Trump won the night.

During the 2020 presidential debates, Biden’s strength was conveying compassion to Trump’s callousness, and being the adult in the room to Trump’s chaos agent. Last night, we saw none of that. Trump showed an uncharacteristic amount of message discipline, sticking to less radical (for him, at least) positions and largely avoiding the kind of off-the-cuff bravado, extremism, or crudeness that can turn ordinary voters off.

Oh, sure, just about every other sentence out of Trump’s mouth was misinformation at best. But he said it with gusto and a convincing show of truthiness—a performance that conveyed knowledge mixed with empathy and outrage on behalf of the people, so long as you don’t follow politics or policy closely (which most Americans don’t).

Biden, in comparison, appeared dazed and frequently incoherent, mixed with episodes where he came off peevish like someone’s grandpa when they see kids wearing baggy pants. Even when Biden knew what he was talking about, he came across weirdly haltering, an unconvincing portrayal of accuracy or honesty.

Some Democratic pundits (and Harris) will tell you that doesn’t matter—that we should pay attention to the content of the two candidates’ messages, not the way in which they were delivered. I don’t think that’s quite right (there is substance in style) but it would be nice if substance carried more weight. Humans thrive on vibes, though, and all the shoulds in the world can’t change that, nor will scolding people about what they should pay attention to win them over.

Besides, the substance of Biden’s message was often inscrutable (and on issues like immigration and tariffs, he failed to offer a position radically different than that taken by Trump).

Do the American people want a confident liar or an earnest inchoate? Those were the choices on display.

The irony here is that Democrats and Biden folks wanted this early debate. The idea was that it would both boost Biden’s poll numbers when swing voters once again saw him face-to-face with Trump and further cement the idea of Biden as the party’s no-backing-out choice. Now the former appears a fever dream, and even the latter is not so sure.

Before last night, the idea that Biden backing down seemed nonexistent. Now, it seems like the only chance they have (even if still rather unlikely). The Biden we saw last night isn’t going to win over anyone for whom there’s any sort of decision to be made.

Post-debate, in public and in private, even many Democrats couldn’t deny how poorly it had gone for Biden, and how absolutely screwed the party is if he’s their 2024 presidential candidate. (“If it gets Biden not to run, then it was very good,” a former Obama campaign aide reportedly told Semafor.)

But if not Biden, who? Some people have fantasies about running California Gov. Gavin Newsom, but the logical and likely baton-passing would be to the woman currently serving as vice president.

Harris has name recognition and all the surface-level attributes Democrats want. And her slippery-but-vibrant style might actually hold up well against Trump in debates. It’s hard to pin down what Harris believes beyond what will be politically advantageous in the moment. But at least Harris can deliver the politically advantageous lines with a modicum of confidence, some coherence, and believability.

She has her own style problems—word salads, inappropriately timed laughter, a certain cringe factor when she tries to appear relatable—but they pale in comparison to the style apocalypse we saw from Biden last night.

On substance, it’s hard to know what we would get from a Harris campaign or presidency. Again and again, she’s proven herself willing to blow with the political winds. “Harris has no political core, having swung without rhyme or reason between the persona of a tough centrist prosecutor and that of a leftist agitator raring to take on the white supremacist power structure,” as Yascha Mounk at Persuasion writes.

As San Francisco district attorney, she campaigned on criminal justice reform promises that were often walked back once she was in office, where she weakened the city’s diversion program for drug offenders, amped up enforcement of laws against things like prostitution, panhandling, and misdemeanor gun offenses, and famously cracked down on the parents of kids who were absent from school. Back in 2017, she co-sponsored a Medicare for All plan and endorsed Medicare for All at the start of her 2020 presidential campaign, only to backtrack on this support later in her campaign.

One thing she has proved consistent on is panic about sex work. In San Francisco, she opposed decriminalization efforts, cracked down on prostitution at massage businesses, and endorsed tougher penalties for people convicted of soliciting prostitution. As California Attorney General, she twice went after Backpage, the classified ad site popular with sex workers. In more recent years, she’s nominally come out for prostitution decriminalization but clarified that she actually supports the Nordic model, which wants tougher penalties for paying for sex.

With a Harris presidency, we could be looking at a full extension of Biden administration policies. I don’t think we could hope for anything better, but there are a few ways in which it could get worse. For starters, Harris is somewhat more likely than Biden to embrace the party’s less moderate factions, whether that’s the extremely online and identity-politics-obsessed wing or the we-should-do-light-socialism side.

Both Biden and Harris have tough-on-crime pasts that can crop up again when popular sentiment calls for it. But Harris’ prosecutor past is less past, and closer to the current surface. And she might feel compelled to embrace it more in an attempt to counter stereotypes about women and/or Californians.

Biden, for all his flaws, doesn’t seem to have a lot left to prove. He has, on occasion, been willing to do things that are right but politically unpopular, such as withdrawing from Afghanistan. We don’t know much about Harris’ foreign policy inclinations, but we do know how she changes stances to fit whatever mood is prevailing. So, I find it hard to believe she would take a similarly unpopular stance even if she felt in her heart it was the right thing to do.

Whether Harris could beat Trump is also rather iffy. She’s proven pretty unpopular among independents and moderates, and Republicans seem to have had some success portraying her as more radical than she actually is. Plus, she’s a woman of color, when both parts of that equation can, alas, still alienate some sectors of the electorate or set up different standards of judgment. So Harris’ appeal among swing voters may be limited by factors both within and beyond her control.

It may not come to that. Biden has 99 percent Democratic delegate votes in the bag. Basically, the only chance the party has of running Harris or anyone else is if Biden voluntarily steps down, and Biden seems, for whatever reason, determined to see this through.

The next presidential debate happens in September, after both parties will have formally named their candidates. If Biden bombs again then, it’s too late for Democrats to change course. It probably is already too late. But for this brief sliver of time, all eyes are on Harris, for better or for worse.

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