Yesterday, I wrote about how modern TV debates are “superficial acts of theater, good for nothing but shallow entertainment,” so it won’t surprise you that this post about Kamala Harris starts with a few disclaimers. First, the second Democratic primary debate was equally as dumb as the first, and as Rachel Maddow herself said about the 10-person-each-night format in the immediate aftermath, nobody should ever do this again. Second, I have my doubts about how much any of it will matter. Third, when we talk about “winners,” we’re talking partly about who was the best at seizing the initiative within a bizarre format, and partly about who is the best actor. What we’re not talking about is who would make the best president, or even whether the things they said on stage reflect the truth of who they have been, and who they will be, as political entities.
Now…knowing all that? Congratulations to Kamala Harris, the undisputed champion of the two-night clusterf****. If you thought Tulsi Gabbard handed Tim Ryan his lunch on Wednesday night, what Kamala served up to Joe Biden was more like the first-degree murder she used to prosecute:
Take note, Democratic hordes: That’s how you go after the top dog. Everything about it was great—the initial salvo, and the way she refused to back down and even managed to hit him harder when he came back with his BS about only being against the federal government getting involved in busing. (Joe—when the racist states refuse to do what’s right, who else is going to fix the problem?) I even think Harris might have rope-a-doped him earlier in the debate, when she ended their first interaction on immigration by seeming almost deferential, almost apologetic despite her critique, as though she didn’t want to mess up a potential VP role. Clearly, that was not the case.
But it wasn’t just the lopsided duel with Biden—Harris also managed to shut down the loathsome Chuck Todd (and I do mean utterly), and when Rachel Maddow condescended to her with the “I’ll permit you 30 seconds” nonsense, Harris communicated her silent disdain with an almost mirthful staredown that should have been illegal. Too often in these debates, the moderators act like scolding school marms and the candidates like chastened pupils, and Harris completely reversed that dynamic. She will not be patronized.
Which gets to a bigger point about—she is absolutely tremendous at conveying power to a TV camera. This is not something you can fake, and while most don’t even try, others—like Kirsten Gillibrand—try and fail. With Harris, it starts with her fluency and ease standing before an audience, which is to some extent a natural quality you can’t teach, and extends to her ability at letting her inner toughness shine through. Most politicians are bad actors, and so they look like phonies on stage, and some like Bernie Sanders are completely ideas-based and somewhat neglect the performative aspect of their job. Harris, though, put on a master class in how you should conduct yourself amid the shit-show that is a ten-person debate. She’s actually a good actor, and she comes off so tough that she’s almost flinty, but—crucially—not without an underlying sense of humor. As a viewer, you get the sense that if you’re on her side, you’ll feel powerful without succumbing to the gross shudder of inhumanity that comes from joining the #MAGA crowd. And if you’re not on her side, she’ll grind you to dust.
That’s not unimportant—we tend to think of the American right as most interested in chasing the collective power dragon when it comes to political candidates, but liberals aren’t so different, especially in the age of Trump. An enormous part of what appeals to the president’s supporters is the fact that he makes them feel powerful, and he makes the opposition scared. The fear that has been eating at liberals’ psyches for the past three years is difficult to manage, and while leftists tend to deal with it by looking to policy, many others want a comic book hero to rescue them from the White House supervillain. Kamala Harris is really good at playing that hero.
It will sound like I’m attacking her sincerity—I’m not, necessarily, or at least not any more than most other candidates—but it’s impossible to overemphasize her acting ability. It was evident right from the beginning, when she delivered a line during one of the many shouting matches that looks, on paper, extremely corny: “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
If I were an advisor for any candidate on that stage, and that candidate came to me beforehand with that line, I would beg him or her not to deploy it. When politicians try to be funny with canned and clearly rehearsed lines, it’s almost always a disaster, and Harris’ line was no better than the norm. In fact, there were nine people on that stage who absolutely could not have pulled it off.
But Harris did! And it comes back to her effortless authority. This is somebody who naturally makes you want to follow her, and if you don’t want to follow her, she fills you with unease. I understand the appeal, and I feel it too. She is going to be a holy terror in all the debates to come, and it’s easy to watch her work and think, “yes, this is a person who can reduce Donald Trump to mush.” (I wish I could have bet money on Ezra Klein coming out with this exact take.)
Now, what does it actually mean, divorced from the context of her very good performance? We’ve had our issues with Harris, whose prosecutorial record was decidedly mixed—Walker Bragman wrote that she “turned a blind eye to police brutality” in one instance—and it was a little bit rich watching her tout her record on police body cameras Thursday night when:
In 2015, she opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings involving officers. And she refused to support statewide standards regulating the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.
Paste’s Roger Sollenberger defended her on that front, and probably the most even-handed treatment came from Jacob Weindling, who summed up my current feelings well when he wrote that we both “should and should not trust her.”
Point is, Harris is a bit of an enigma—is she regressive because of her choices as prosecutor, a position most thoroughly and convincingly documented in a New York Times op-ed, or is she genuine in her progressive shift since reaching the Senate, which includes support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal?
Hard to know, hard to trust. But we’re talking about debates, and debates are a performance. On that front, there was nobody better over two godawful nights than Kamala Harris, and insofar as many voters—the least issues-oriented, typically—seek out secondhand power and stimulating made-for-TV sound bytes that deliver a precious dopamine rush in the midst of our depressive political time, her profile will rise.