Alison Rowat: Is the world ready for a President Kamala Harris?

The speaker was Ron DeSantis, the occasion an interview with NBC, the subject Donald Trump and the 2020 election. In acknowledging that his one-time mentor was not robbed of the election, as Trump claims, the Florida Governor was putting clear red water between himself and his rival for the Republican nomination. And you know what blood in the water attracts.

With his campaign bogged down, DeSantis needs to do something to dent Trump’s 50-point poll lead. A year and a half out from the presidential election, these are lean, concerning times for those further down the bill. Not that you would think so from Kamala Harris’s recent appearances.

Yes, contrary to what you might think, she has had some. The world outside DC has not heard much from Harris since she made history in 2020 as America’s first female, first African American, first Asian American vice president, but that is about to change. Here begins a story that could end with Harris becoming America’s first woman president.

Or at least that is what some Republicans would have voters believe. Given Biden’s age, the reasoning is grisly but undeniable. The oldest president ever elected, if Biden wins again he would leave office at the age of 86. As Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor put it with his trademark indelicacy: “By the tables, it’s more likely than not that Joe Biden won’t make it.”

DeSantis, too, has raised the possibility of “Kamala as president” if Republicans lose in 2024.

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Once it might have been seen as ghoulish or in supremely bad taste to question Biden’s age. Now it is an everyday occurrence and a mainstream political issue. The more the public sees of their President’s verbal and physical stumbles, the more concerned they are becoming about who would replace him. That old line about the veep only being a heartbeat away from the presidency has never seemed more relevant.

Hence the renewed interest in Harris. She can hardly be blamed for making the most of it. The former attorney general of California’s glittering ascent to the vice presidency was followed by a brutal fall from favour. Biden handed her the thorny task of cutting the number of illegal migrants coming in via the US-Mexico border. The numbers continued the downward trend established under Trump, but have since risen.

Biden also gave her the job of fighting the Republicans on voting reform – a tough, low-profile brief where it is hard to show immediate results. Some said he was preparing Harris for the top job one day; others that he had waited a lifetime for his chance so why should she get an easy ride? Either way, between a Leaning Tower of Pisa in-tray, a few gaffes, and staff departing amid rumours that she was difficult to work for, Harris’s star began to wane.

In recent days she has been back in the public eye for positive reasons, including going to a Beyonce concert. She posted a picture of herself and husband Doug Emhoff, with the Veep’s choice of a gold sequinned shirt (custom LaQuan Smith, said Vogue) declared a hit on social media.

The last time a Harris outfit came close to breaking the internet was just after the election, when she wore a white trouser suit to deliver her acceptance speech. This was not just fashion – it was politics plain and simple. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, wore white in a nod to the suffragettes, as did Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to be nominated for vice president. Harris’s addition of a “pussy bow” blouse was considered a direct swipe at Trump’s infamous boast about how to treat women.

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Clothes matter, or at least they do when it comes to women in politics. They’ve started to matter for men, too. In what can be seen as a leveling of the playing field, the FT no less took aim at what it saw as DeSantis’s sloppy tailoring.

But it is on policy and on the campaign trail that Harris has really been making her mark. She took the fight to DeSantis after he changed state guidelines on the teaching of African American history. Pupils are now taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit”.

Harris was horrified and flew to Florida to say so. “How is it that anyone could suggest that in the midst of these atrocities that there was any benefit to being subjected to this level of dehumanisation?” she asked. DeSantis, annoyed at her intervention, offered to debate the matter. Harris told him to get lost.

She has been out campaigning in states that have restricted or banned abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, and raised her profile on other issues. Republicans have been only too willing to take her on. To them, she is the epitome of the “wokeness” they despise. She, in turn, labels them “extremists”. For now, it all adds to the gaiety of early campaigning. That will inevitably change as the election draws closer.

For all her recent activity, Harris has a longstanding problem. She is not popular with the wider public. In a poll of polls on the FiveThirtyEight website, 51% of those surveyed disapproved of Harris, with 40% approving. Biden’s disapproval rating was 54%. Is Harris an asset to Biden or a liability? That depends how she plays it from here. If she draws the focus away from Biden and the worries over his age she would be doing the party a favour. But the public, and the media, are in no mood to take it easy on Biden (or his son Hunter) this time. It is not 2020; there is no more sitting the campaign out at home.

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Republicans have not settled on a strategy for Harris. Is she their Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle combined, a gaffe-prone walking disaster area? Or do they present her as a serious risk, a president in waiting, ready to assume the role as set out in the constitution?

And then there is the Trump question. There is always the Trump question. Can Harris defeat Trump? It is a contest that cannot match a Beyonce concert for thrills and spectacle, but it might be the closest American politics gets.

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