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It’s as if we’re seeing Kamala Harris for the first time

If not now, if it’s too soon for a woman president, if the stakes are too high, then when will the vice-president get her chance?

US vice president Kamala Harris speaks at the Global Black Economic Forum in New Orleans last weekend. Photograph: Michael DeMocker/Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s brain has been dissected and found wanting. Million-dollar fundraisers are trying to talk big Democrat donors off the ledge. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman’s latest column is headlined “Please, Mr President, Do the Right Thing”. James Carville, veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns, says the jig is up. Biden has taken to portraying himself as an outsider fighting off the elites.

Donald Trump has gone uncharacteristically silent. Next week the convicted felon will be proclaimed GOP presidential nominee at the Republican national convention co-chaired by his daughter-in-law. Meanwhile, the old TV showman builds the suspense, keeping his vice president running mate a secret since his last actual vice president Mike Pence had to be bundled out of the Capitol while Trump’s baying mob set out to hang him from the handy gallows.

The more likely reason is because he is waiting to see if his new opponent is a woman. That would change everything. The smart move, say some Democrats, is for the party to hold steady until he has revealed his hand.

Either way it would take an uncommonly courageous woman to take the Democrat nominee’s baton. One of the most prominent names floated was the strikingly successful Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. A doll resembling her hanging from a noose was carried by a man among the swastikas and Confederate flags wielded by armed rioters at the Michigan capitol in 2020. She was also the subject of a plot to kidnap and execute her. The plot leader, Adam Fox, was recorded by the FBI as saying, “I want to have the governor hog-tied, laid out on a table, while we all pose around like we just made the world’s biggest goddamn drug bust, bro.” When the plot was thwarted, Whitmer blamed Trump as president, saying he had given “comfort to those who spread fear and hatred and division.” Trump called the kidnapping plan a “fake deal”.


Sadly, Whitmer has just ruled herself out of the contest and sounds as if she means it.

Meanwhile vice president Kamala Harris edges into contention where she had a right to be all along. Trump has referred to her as “this monster”. He has questioned her eligibility for the vice-presidency on the grounds that her parents were immigrants. A BBC Radio 4 item about her on Monday was introduced with references to her vanishingly low profile as VP and one “disastrous” interview. That was the one in which she bafflingly claimed that she had travelled to the southern border when she hadn’t.

Her first year as VP was a fiasco of rhetorical blunders, high-profile staff exits and an ill-defined portfolio in a job which demands near invisibility as part of the deal. They will be the Trumpist talking points ratcheting up against her – untested, unqualified, laughs too much, talks in word salad riddles – and all based on those early days. But watch now as non-cultists look again, astounded, as she conducts her fierce and fiercely articulate defence of Biden. It’s as if they are seeing her for the first time.

Many women won’t find that surprising. Harris has been a successful, tough and diligent public servant for more than 30 years. In California – the world’s fifth-largest economy – she ran America’s second-largest justice system, standing up against the big banks, locking up sex predators, taking on gangsters. Yet her readiness for America’s highest office is something the White House has always been reluctant to talk about.

In a comprehensive Atlantic magazine piece about her last year, Biden’s former chief of staff admitted that the White House could have worked harder to elevate her profile. That sounded like a profound understatement. Many who remember the constant supply of matey clips of Obama and his VP Joe Biden may have wondered about the dearth of pally Biden and Harris images. Former congressman Tim Ryan asserted “she was very much under wraps for a long time”, arguing that her portfolio had been stacked at the outset with unwinnable assignments, including immigration.

Perhaps it’s because she is a serious woman raised with a deep resistance to bragging about herself, one accustomed to judging jobs by outcome and metrics before landing in one that requires a kind of cipher. Like Hillary Clinton, she is not a performance politician but speaks like a woman who knows that facts are ammunition. Her energetic and trusted diplomacy across dozens of countries barely registers back home, but her extensive travels across the United States in the run-up to the midterm elections as Biden’s spokesperson on abortion meant she was one of the few Washington officials who accurately sensed the significance of the issue or how it would shape voters’ choices. If the midterms surprised a lot of pundits, that’s because their gaze seemed to slide over Harris.

The truth is she has been out there all the time. Ironically, it took Joe Biden’s disastrous debate to highlight her existence. If it’s not the right time, if the stakes are too high this time, if it’s too soon for a woman – never mind a highly accomplished black prosecutor set against lying felon – when will it be her time? But James Carville has a point. If Biden agrees to step back, the nomination shouldn’t even have the appearance of a fix, a gift for Trump to bleat about a rigged selection by the swamp elite.

Carville’s proposal of four historic town halls featuring eight contenders chosen and facilitated by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton might sound more like a reality show than anything Trump has perpetrated. Think the Super Bowl, he says, with Taylor Swift in the stands. Kamala Harris could be a revelation.

You want the prosecutor, or you want the criminal?