For months, I've adhered to the conventional wisdom that Joe Biden was most likely to pick Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. She's highly qualified, young but not inexperienced, a woman of color, a talented public speaker, not afraid of a fight, perceived as relatively moderate, and has been through the rigors of a national campaign. Her appeal to Biden was impossible to miss.
And yet somehow, the defenders of President Donald Trump seemed totally caught off guard when the choice came down on Tuesday. They have no unified strategy of how to attack the California senator.
They weren't exactly unprepared, of course. As soon as she was announced as the running mate, Trump tweeted out a campaign video depicting her as controlled by the far left, a line he's used frequently against Biden. He called her "phony," for some reason that wasn't entirely clear.
But then when he was asked about her during his press briefing the same day, he had a new line. She was "nasty" — an epithet he seems to reserve for women. He condemned her in personal terms, complaining about the way she treated Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. She even said she was too mean to Biden.
Campaigns can succeed best when they have a simple message to convey about their opponents, but Trump had no defined attack on Harris ready to go. Some Trump-friendly reporters even offered him suggested lines of attack — her supposed hypocrisy on marijuana, for instance — but he largely batted them away.
Yet the real trouble is arising for Trump defenders when attacking Harris on her past as a prosecutor. Harris has rightly come under scrutiny from the left, as many argue that she participated in far too many of the worst aspects of the criminal justice system during her time as a prosecutor and attorney general in California. She defended the death penalty in court, for example, even while saying she personally opposed it. And she fought to keep a man in prison even as evidence was emerging of his innocence. (At other times, though, she did try to push law enforcement in a more progressive direction.)
Katrina Pierson, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign, tried to capitalize on the criticisms of her record in a statement.
"Clearly, Phony Kamala will abandon her own morals, as well as try to bury her record as a prosecutor, in order to appease the anti-police extremists controlling the Democrat Party," she said. "In her failed attempt at running for president, Kamala Harris gleefully embraced the left's radical manifesto, calling for trillions of dollars in new taxes and backing Bernie Sanders' government takeover of health care."
Even in this single statement, though, there were two ideas at play. Does Harris have a dark past as a prosecutor to hide? Or is she a tool of the anti-police left? These ideas are clearly in tension, and it's not clear if we're supposed to be afraid that she'll lock everybody up or fire all the cops.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump's White House counselor — and, therefore, someone who legally should not be engaging in campaigning for the president — tried to square these conflicting messages in remarks to reporters Wednesday morning.
"She called herself a criminal reformer, and she also called herself a top cop," Conway said, claiming that Harris "left nobody happy when it came to law and order."
They're trying to have it both ways, attacking Harris both from the left and the right on law and order. While this may work for people already inclined to support the president, it's hard to see how it wins anyone over who's not already disposed to distrust Harris. These mixed attacks could end up portraying Harris as someone who's been a moderate on criminal justice with a mixed record, which may not be scary to people at all and may, in fact, sound reasonable.
More broadly, Trump allies are finding it hard to strike a consistent note. Per The Guardian, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) told reporters:
This has completed the leftist takeover of the party and of their radical agenda. Kamala Harris will be the most liberal leftist nominee for VP that our country has ever seen. If you want to find proof of where she has moved left, you can start with looking at her support for Bernie Sanders' health care takeover.
But Republican Sen. Josh Hawley (MO), on the other hand, warned that this radical leftist socialist is also… beloved of two major capitalist centers of power, Wall Street and big tech:
Of course Wall Street is delighted with Biden/Harris. Right back to the #China appeasement, unfettered globalism, a… https://t.co/OA8WiHHBrY— Josh Hawley (@Josh Hawley)1597196953.0
Meanwhile, as some struggle to define Harris as either top left or too right on criminal justice and economics, others — including Trump himself — seem to be blowing a gasket over facing a VP nominee of color.
Mark Levin of Fox News went off on a spectacularly uninformed tangent claiming that Harris can't be African-American because her father was Jamaican:
Fox News host Tucker Carlson's reaction to the Harris announcement was likewise revealing. In a widely noted segment, he became flustered and agitated when he was corrected on his mispronunciation of "Kamala."
"So it begins!" Carlson declared, in a clear demonstration of white grievance. His belabored performance made it seem it was an incredible burden on him to insist he pronounce a person of color's name correctly — even though getting such facts right is a basic part of journalism.
But it wasn't just that extreme instance that revealed his racist resentment. He criticized Harris for having called Joe Biden a racist during the Democratic primary — even though, as the clip he subsequently showed proved — she explicitly told Biden: "I do not believe you are a racist."
Tucker Carlson: Kamala Harris called Joe Biden a racist [clip starts] Kamala Harris to Joe Biden: You're not a ra… https://t.co/DG537i0vjV— Andrew Lawrence (@Andrew Lawrence)1597190939.0
Any criticism of a white person on the issue of race is so anathema for Carlson that a person of color can't even soften the blow by directly saying she's not lobbing an accusation of racism.
And on Wednesday night, Carlson fanned the flames of white racism again, absurdly twisting Harris's concerns about the racial health disparities into the idea that she wants to make sure "only people of a certain skin color get the [COVID-19] vaccine," even though she said no such thing.
Tucker says Kamala doesn't want white people to get the coronavirus vaccine (also, this video he showed of her look… https://t.co/4aAKtBfIqW— Andrew Lawrence (@Andrew Lawrence)1597277502.0
Trump was no less subtle. In one of his most egregiously racist tweets in recent memories, the president lashed out against the Biden-Harris campaign the day after the VP announcement. For good measure, he implied that Sen. Cory Booker, the only other Black Democratic senator, would literally be in charge of invading suburban neighborhoods.
Donaled, your racism is showing. -Cory https://t.co/jrHIoqJ8A2— Cory Booker (@Cory Booker)1597250305.0
But there's rally no surprise here. With all the other messaging about Harris in shambles, reverting back to blatantly racist rhetoric may be the easiest way for Team Trump to stick to the party line.
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