Politics

How Kamala Harris Could Turn Things Around

The vice president should embrace aspects of herself that she’s been tamping down, like her charisma, her competence, and, yes, even her background as a prosecutor.

Harris pointing her left index finger up as she speaks at a podium with an American flag behind her
Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington on Wednesday. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

On this week’s episode of the Waves, Slate editor-at-large Noreen Malone and executive producer of Slate podcasts Alicia Montgomery discuss Vice President Kamala Harris, her abysmal approval ratings, and what she might do with the position of being vice president. The following is an excerpt from that conversation that has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Noreen Malone: There was this thing, “let Joe be Joe,” during the 2020 presidential campaign. And no one saying, “hey, let’s let Kamala be Kamala,” which I actually think is a little bit of a mistake. She’s actually got a charming personality, but she’s in this place where whoever’s working on her speeches, whoever’s consulting with her, is sort of asking her to tamp back that part of her personality. And then the other thing that I see happening, as you brought up: This is exactly what happened to Hillary Clinton. And it’s also a lot of what happened to Elizabeth Warren. It’s awful the way women in politics are treated, and I’ve spent years writing and thinking about it. I’ve sort of come around to the side of, OK, if we actually want Kamala Harris to be ambitious, the move is not to go to the press and have your surrogates say: You’re treating me just like Hillary. You’re treating me just like Elizabeth Warren. This is so sexist, sexist, sexist. We can all say that among ourselves.

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But if she actually wants to do the thing, to be in charge, I think she can’t play that card. I think that even if it’s not fair what’s happening to her, no one wants to listen to someone say, “Hey, it’s not fair what’s happening to me.” It’s tough to watch something incredibly unfair happen to you, but maybe what she needs to do is figure out, OK, how do I do this a little bit differently than Hillary did it, or than Elizabeth Warren did it? How can I reshape myself a little bit? How can I reset a little bit?

Alicia Montgomery: Is this whole idea that taking this “I’m not going to dignify that attack with a response” stance works? I mean, ask John Kerry, ask Michael Dukakis how well that works out. It just doesn’t. And so she either defends herself against these kinds of attacks and gets labeled strident and whiny, or she lets them stand and those people who are slamming her, and slandering her in a lot of cases, get to establish the narrative. It’s a no-win situation for her.

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Malone: I just think Kamala Harris has a lot more swagger than either John Kerry or Michael Dukakis. I actually think a better analogy would be the way Barack Obama handled some of that stuff. He didn’t let it slide when, for instance, Donald Trump was claiming that Obama had been born elsewhere, right?

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Whether or not Kamala Harris is the person who breaks a cycle or not, whatever woman gets elected president has to figure out a way to move beyond the way that Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were trying to do it.

Kamala Harris has her own drawbacks, but she has charms that Hillary Clinton didn’t have. Her identity actually is an arrow in her quiver in some ways that Hillary Clinton didn’t have. If she can figure out a way to get Black voters to really be on her side in a way that they weren’t necessarily in the 2020 primary, that’s a huge part of the Democratic base, and a hugely important part of the Democratic base.

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These voters are smart. They know who is going to be able to get swing voters. They didn’t see it in Kamala the first time.

So what can she do, even if it’s unappealing to someone like you or me—what can she do to make herself more broadly appealing to these swing voters and these more moderate voters in the Democratic Party? We can scream about it all we want, but the way the electoral map is, and is going to continue to be, to win the presidency, you have to get to those people. And I actually have a few things that I think she could do.

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Montgomery: I’m curious what this list is.

Malone: I think the way Hillary Clinton used jargon was kind of a problem in her campaign. And Kamala Harris could sort of steal from the Joe Biden book and just say: We’re not doing that. We’re going to talk in plain ways to the American people. I think she could do that.

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And she has a huge advantage over, say, Pete Buttigieg—it’s her primary to lose, basically. She’s got this big job. So how can she best use the tools of the vice presidency? Well, she could hitch her wagon to some kind of issue that’s really bugging all of the American people. One thing I came up with was try to be the face of fixing the supply chain. She can walk around, wear a bunch of hard hats at the ports, and try to be the Santa Claus getting everyone their Christmas gifts. I feel like American capitalism is behind fixing the supply chain issues enough that eventually it will resolve itself, and she could be the person who gets congratulated for it.

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She could also take a page—this is the one I think you’re going to hate—but she could take a page from the Eric Adams playbook. Eric Adams, by the way, endorsed Kamala Harris. And she could be the person, the Black person, talking about how the rise in crime is not great and how it’s bad for cities. And like Eric Adams, she has the ability to do that and talk about it without it being a racist dog whistle—she can sort of have a frank conversation and say, no, I’m not saying that cities are cursed, horrible places, I’m just saying the people in cities want them to be safe. And it might build on her background as a prosecutor, better than what she’s doing right now, which is sort of hiding it. She hasn’t been able to use that, because being a prosecutor is out of fashion in many corners of the Democratic Party right now.

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And then I think the last thing that she can do is she can take advantage of the opportunity she has to be on the world stage more. She was great in France, I thought. I mean, there were weird right-wing attacks on her, like pretending she’d faked a French accent, saying she shouldn’t have bought fancy cookware, totally crazy stuff. But she’s charming. And she could put herself forward on the international stage.

I think those are ways for her to tack a little bit to the center without doing anything that will make her feel too bad about herself. What do you think?

Montgomery: No.

Malone: That’s a hard no?

Montgomery: It’s a hard no. Because Democrats are always in this conversation about what to do for swing voters, how to get these folks into the Democratic Party. But the last Democrat to win the white vote for the White House was Lyndon Johnson.

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Malone: But they don’t need to win the white vote. They just need to win swing voters.

Montgomery: If you think about what Barack Obama had in common with the Democrats—he came across as authentic. He didn’t come across as something other than a really affable, fun, nerdy professor, politician guy. He wasn’t out chopping wood or hunting or whatever. He came across as himself. Trump came across as himself. Bill Clinton came across as himself. George W. Bush came across as himself. If Kamala Harris puts on a hard hat, she’s not going to convince people that she’s somehow transformed into Working-Class Kamala. She’s just going to turn off the people who like who she is right now.

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Malone: I’m not advocating for her to turn herself into Working-Class Kamala. What I think what I’m actually trying to advocate for is for her to figure out what is actually appealing about her. So fixing the supply chain—she’s someone who likes to be in charge. So be in charge of something, just own something. Do it. It doesn’t have to be supply chain, she doesn’t have to wear the hard hats, but just take on an issue that is going to make people happier in their everyday lives. And then talking about crime—well, she was a prosecutor and she was very good at it. She could figure out a way to not hide that part of her résumé. I just think that all of these things are just actually leaning into her own authentic self. I feel like she’s actually been tamped down a little.

Listen to the full episode:

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