As the lights at the Kamala Harris presidential campaign flickered and powered down last December, weeks before the voting started, the press corps delighted in cataloging her deficiencies as a candidate and a campaigner. Although she started in the “top tier” of candidates, and in theory could have galvanized votes from an unprecedented range of different voter bases—women, Californians, Black voters and Asian Americans all at once—the press recorded her failure to enthuse any of those power bases. She had languished in the national polls, scoring only in the single digits on her home court, California, said CNN. “Biden has attracted more support than Harris from black voters,” the Washington Post reported.
During the campaign, Harris waffled so hard on health care it’s a wonder she wasn’t added to the IHOP menu. First, she advocated “Medicare for All” and to eliminate private medical insurance. Then she backpedaled, “leaving many voters unclear on where she stood,” the Los Angeles Times wrote. And when she uncorked her complete health-care agenda, she failed to explain it coherently, the paper continued.
Her misfiring campaign organization drew poor notices from every press hand—and from former allies, too. “You can’t run the country if you can’t run your campaign,” Gil Duran, her former aide, told the New York Times. She “proved an uneven campaigner,” volunteered the Washington Post. Harris also “wrestled with how to sell her background as a former prosecutor,” the Wall Street Journal reported. She avoided the topic of her prosecutorial experience in the campaign’s early stretches, but then capitalized on it during the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Was she a criminal-justice reformer or a law-and-order cop? The signals crossed.
But now that Joe Biden has selected Harris as his running mate, there’s a—surprise!—fresh, much more positive assessment of the California senator. In many senses, the press is serving the same Harris meal—reporters still view her as a health-care waffler and a poor campaign general. They still criticize her for being unable to decide whether she’s a reformer or a cop. But there’s nothing like a political promotion, especially one that could lead to a presidency, to make the press corps adjust the seasoning and serving presentation on a candidate. Yesterday, Harris was just another overbaked politician. Today, she’s fresh as can be, and the press corps can’t stop salivating.
Remember Harris’ inability to connect with Black voters? Never mind. Now the New York Times reports “that she could reinforce Mr. Biden’s appeal to Black voters and women without stirring particularly vehement opposition on the right or left.” Harris has “excited Democrats with a personal story” of being the female offspring of two immigrants, the New York Times notes, one from India and one from Jamaica. It’s true, she’s unquestionably a unique figure in American politics, a pioneer in several ways. It just omits to mention that this all somehow failed to register with Democrats the first time around.
“In many ways, Harris, 55, is a safe pick—broadly popular in the Democratic Party and well acquainted with the rigors of a national campaign,” the Los Angeles Times now says. But based on what? Her so-called broad popularity in the Democratic Party did not extend to donors, who gave her candidacy a bye, one of the main reasons she gave for closing her presidential campaign. As for the rigors of campaigning, she usually performed well in the early minutes of an event but lacked staying power. As the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman wrote when Harris left the race, she never conveyed a convincing reason for running for the presidency outside of simply wanting the job.
According to the New York Times’ revisionist view, Harris possesses “a gift for capturing moments of raw political electricity on the debate stage and elsewhere,” but neglects to mention in that passage that her so-called gift contributed to her political electrocution when she went at Biden so hard on busing and race.
The press turn-around signifies a couple of things. First, political journalism resembles sports writing more than anybody cares to admit. If somebody gets beaten—or, like Harris, bails out before the voting even begins—the political journalists and sportswriters feel compelled to sift the results to explain how that end was so inevitable as to be predictable. Losers must be portrayed as losers, complete with all the failure analysis you can pack into a story. But when they stage a comeback, suddenly there’s a whole new backstory, drawing on the same evidence to explain the revival. Winners, even winners of a place on the bottom half of the ticket, must be presented as winners—at least until they lose, at which point all the original evidence can be reshuffled to explain the inevitability of their defeat.
The tenor of the coverage is also informed by the press corps’ deep sense of boredom. Thanks to Biden’s early victory, Covid-19 and the mostly virtual conventions, the campaign has been sunk in mud for so long and so deep it can’t even spin its wheels. The sound reporters are making is one of gratitude—for something new and different to write about other than two old guys throwing spitballs at each other.
Harris also benefits from a dynamic we see every political cycle, driven by the old Washington currency of access. Every veep pick receives a certain amount of flattering coverage upon her selection in part because the same reporters will likely be covering her in the administration if her ticket wins; the reporters who wrote most fulsomely stand a better chance of gaining access. In this case, there’s a bit more incentive because she might well become president should an actuarial event—completely possible considering Biden’s advanced age—thrust her into the higher office. Not since Franklin Roosevelt added Harry Truman to the ticket has a vice presidential pick had a better chance of becoming president than does Harris, something every political reporter will factor into his copy.
From now until November, keep this fact in mind as you scan the campaign dispatches and commentary for pulled punches.
Don’t send your absentee ballots via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have already started sucking up to Harris. My Twitter feed, thinking Pence is a bot, has a crush on him. My RSS feed still thinks the vice presidency is a “warm bucket of piss.”