Politics / July 8, 2024

Is Kamala the One?

Could the vice president be our best hope of saving the country from Trump? In this exclusive excerpt from our profile, Joan Walsh meets Kamala Harris.

Exclusive: Is Kamala the One?

Could the vice president be our best hope of saving the country from Trump? In this excerpt from our profile, Joan Walsh meets Kamala Harris.

Joan Walsh
Kamala Harris waves as she arrives on stage to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024 in College Park, Maryland.

Kamala Harris waves as she arrives on stage to deliver remarks on reproductive rights at Ritchie Coliseum on the campus of the University of Maryland on June 24, 2024, in College Park, Maryland.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

For months, national affairs correspondent Joan Walsh has been working on a profile of Vice President Kamala Harris. The full profile, which contains an exclusive interview with Harris, will be the cover story of our upcoming August issue. But given the current frenzy surrounding the possibility that Harris might replace President Biden at the top of the Democratic ticket, we are running this excerpt of the profile today. Anyone who wants the earliest possible access to the full interview can subscribe to The Nation here.

New York–I sit down with Kamala Harris on a scorching June afternoon, one of six out of seven in a row to top 90 degrees. Staffers escort me to a well-cooled hotel room that’s been made over into an interview chamber. I’m sitting where a bed would normally be, but at a spare table, behind one of those forlorn table skirts, set with two water glasses, the window’s thick drapes closed to the midday sun. It’s a little bleak.

Harris walks in, preceded by the rapid staccato click of her heels, greets me warmly, and immediately yanks open the blinds. She is not afraid of the heat. She wants sunshine in here.

She might be about to get much more sunshine, and heat, than she asked for. A few days after our conversation, President Joe Biden had the worst debate performance of his career and sent the Democratic Party into a crisis over his ability to win the 2024 election against Donald Trump. As the clamor from pundits (and an increasing number of Democratic leaders) grew for Biden to step aside, some inevitably argued that Harris should take his place—talk that she does not welcome or want.

What she also did not want, in the days before that debacle, I was repeatedly warned by staffers and friends: for reporters to suggest she’s “found her voice” in the two years since the Dobbs decision, when the Supreme Court robbed American women of rights we’ve enjoyed for a half-century—although she kicked off her Dobbs anniversary tour on the very day we spoke. Or that she’s “having a moment” on the 2024 campaign trail.

So I struggle with how to phrase a question about whether this work post-Dobbs has given her a new mission. I think I maybe use the dreaded word “moment.”

“I appreciate that perhaps for some who weren’t paying attention, this seems like a ‘moment,’” Harris allows. “But there have been many moments in my career which have been about my commitment to these kinds of fights, whether they’re on the front pages of newspapers or not.”

Current Issue

Cover of July 2024 Issue

The problem, though, is that Harris needs this redemption story. Her 2020 presidential primary bid went poorly. (Full disclosure: My daughter, Nora, was her Iowa political director in that race.) The first year or so of her vice presidency didn’t shine. But her last two years have been different. Since Dobbs, she has been Biden’s top ambassador on issues of reproductive justice. Unlike Biden, she’ll actually say the word “abortion,” but she also frames the issue around broader themes of maternal health and family support.

After Biden’s catastrophic debate performance, he and the Democratic Party need Harris more than ever. That puts her in both a very powerful and a very complicated spot. All vice presidents know that they might suddenly have to replace their boss one day. But Harris, since she serves the oldest president in history, has had to contend with that possibility in a uniquely challenging way.

Post-debate, the stakes are even higher—and the challenge is even trickier. One could almost argue that Harris has to run for president without actually being seen to be doing so: to bolster the ticket without overshadowing Biden, to signal that she is a source of steadiness and competence without seeming disloyal to the president, and, possibly, to be prepared to step in to the lead spot at the last minute.

It is a task that no vice president or vice presidential nominee has ever been asked to fulfill—and it’s also, in some ways, been a tension at the center of her whole vice presidency. Now, the way in which she navigates this hellishly complex situation could mean the difference between the continuation of American democracy and the oblivion of a second Trump term.

But Harris resists my setting up her last two years as representing any sort of evolution into a stronger leadership role.

So I flip to what her old friend California Senator Laphonza Butler told me. Butler didn’t see some post-Dobbs awakening in Harris either, but shared one thing she thought might be new.

“I see a Black woman who got sick and tired of trying to please everybody and just said, ‘Fuck it. I’m not gonna make everybody happy. I just have to be me.’”

Harris laughs, that trademark laugh that’s launched a thousand hateful Fox News segments, and tells me, “I love Laphonza Butler.”

Without anyone totally noticing it, Harris has been put in charge of outreach to all of the groups of voters—women, Black voters and voters of color, young voters, and voters who care about gun reform—who are less than fully on board for Biden this election cycle.

The Nation Weekly

Fridays. A weekly digest of the best of our coverage.
By signing up, you confirm that you are over the age of 16 and agree to receive occasional promotional offers for programs that support The Nation’s journalism. You may unsubscribe or adjust your preferences at any time. You can read our Privacy Policy here.

Her ability to reach these constituencies has been an asset throughout her career. “All of her strengths were always clear to me,” says Patrick Gaspard, the leader of the Center For American Progress, ambassador to South Africa under President Barack Obama, and Obama’s political director in 2008, when Harris was a crucial surrogate. (“I could send her anywhere,” he tells me.)

But she struggled to deploy those strengths at the start of her vice presidency. Early media coverage was harsh: For instance, a June, 2021 Politico headline blared: “Kamala Harris’ office rife with dissent,” and claimed that the dysfunction came “from the top.”

Harris’s admirers—not staff—have given me names that I can’t share of who some of the leakers were. It’s not pretty. A few came from the White House, not the vice president’s office, my sources say. But every person I talked to said her detractors did not include Biden, who, they say, has grown ever closer to her. His appreciation for her became more evident this spring. At a reception in the Rose Garden in May, he said, “My name is Joe Biden. I work for Kamala Harris. I asked her to be my vice president because I needed someone smarter than me.”

Harris has solidified a role as an emissary to crucial voting blocs. She’s an ambassador to women of every race and age—including some Republican women—because of the reproductive health crisis, but also to Black voters, who polls show are less enthused about Biden than he can afford, as well as younger voters, angered by the Gaza conflict, but also disappointed by what they see as inaction on the climate crisis, gun violence, and insufficient student loan relief.

Harris gained a crucial new role, and a renewed sense of direction, when the draft of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s anti-Roe decision leaked. I was at an Emily’s List gala the night after the leak, where she gave the keynote, and as I wrote at the time, “She channeled the rage in the room.”

“How dare they?” Harris asked the crowd with genuine anger. “How dare they tell a woman what she can and cannot do with her own body?”

Georgetown University reproductive law scholar Michele Goodwin was among a group of scholars Harris consulted after the Dobbs decision. “She listened, even though she clearly knows the issue and has her own ideas,” she recalls. Harris “anticipated all of what was at risk—interfering with interstate travel, criminal punishment for women and doctors. She wanted to dig deeper.”

Even if Harris resists the “having a moment” narrative, public perceptions of her have been shifting. “She does better with young people, she does better with African Americans, even better than the president, and she does better with younger women,” Biden pollster Celinda Lake told me.

Days after Biden’s sad debate, there was even better polling for Harris, from CNN. Biden trailed Trump by six points. Harris trailed by only two, a statistical dead heat. She had opened up her margins, over Biden with all the groups Lake mentioned, but also with independents, where she had lagged Biden recently. Now, 43 percent of independents say they support Harris over Trump, versus only 34 percent for Biden. So do a plurality of moderates.

Harris’s outreach to African Americans is arguably as important as her role in connecting to women. Part of her strategy is touring American cities with large Black populations and Black leaders—including Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia—promoting the administration’s “Economic Opportunity Agenda.” When I traveled with her to Milwaukee in May, a Times/Siena poll had just come out showing Trump getting 20 percent of the Black vote nationally, more than any Republican since the 1960s, and winning the battleground state of Wisconsin.

The vice president brought along Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and Acting Housing and Urban Development Secretary Adrianne Todman to Milwaukee, to help her spread the word about what the administration had done to advance Black economic opportunity to this crowd of roughly 350 small business people, healthcare workers, realtors, and overall community leaders and activists.

“She got in the weeds, and we needed her in the weeds,” Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, who was in the audience, tells me. Crowley, at 36 the county’s youngest and its first Black executive, gave me a list of local initiatives made possible by programs passed under Biden and Harris. “We’re making the largest push to build affordable housing in years. We’re creating opportunities for Black and brown families to become first-time homebuyers. The dollars are coming to Milwaukee, for development, housing, health equity. Black unemployment is down. We’ve broken ground on more Black businesses. More programs for seniors. We’ve also been able to save programs that were jeopardized.”

These are not just talking points: Black unemployment and black poverty are at all-time lows.

I ask Harris what she is hearing from Black men, adding that while I don’t believe polling that says Trump could get 25 percent of their votes, I’m wondering what she thinks is going on.

She asks me frostily, “What’s going on with what?”

I stumble a bit, noting that every demographic group has a gender gap, in which women are more likely to support Biden than men, but there’s been a lot of reporting lately about ways Trump’s message is seemingly resonating with Black men.

“Well, you’re asking a lot of questions,” she comes back. “But let me start with this. There is a trope in this election which I take issue with, because the underlying premise suggests that Black men should be in the back pocket of Democrats. And that is absolutely unacceptable. Here’s why: Why would any one demographic of people be different from any other demographic? They all expect you to earn their vote! You’ve gotta make your case.”

I know Harris sees the polling I do. She sees the uptick in Trump’s Black male support; that’s why I was invited to travel along to the Milwaukee event. But she can be defensive with reporters she feels are somehow disrespecting her—and I’m a little surprised to be on the receiving end since she knows I respect her. On the other hand, I get her irritation, when the most bewildering question about this race is: How can this swindler/grifter/racist/felon arguably be leading Biden nationally, and in swing states too?

Even more offensive, she continues, is “the assumption from Trump that Black men liked his mug shot and his being found guilty of 34 felonies…. It’s insulting, and he’s wrong.”

Undeniably the toughest issue Harris faces on the campaign trail is the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which is taking a huge political toll on Biden’s standing with younger voters. She has gotten credit for being a step ahead of the president in her public statements, criticizing Israel’s relentless bombardment and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza with an eloquent anguish Biden has not matched.

But Harris’s words sit uneasily alongside the administration’s actions. Biden has been unyielding in his military support for Israel, even as the death toll in Gaza climbs ever higher and the global condemnation of the war deepens. Harris doesn’t set the administration’s foreign policy agenda, and it’s unclear how hard she’s pushed internally for Biden to shift course on Gaza. In public, though, her team is eager to play down any notion of a split between her and the president. “The difference is not in substance but probably in tone,” one of her advisors on the conflict told me.

I asked Harris about that question of tone.

“Listen, I strongly believe that our ability to evaluate a situation is connected to understanding the details of that situation. Not speaking of myself versus the president, not at all. From the beginning, I asked questions. OK, the trucks are taking flour into Gaza. But here’s the thing, Joan: I like to cook. So I said to my team: You can’t make shit with flour if you don’t have clean water. So what’s going on with that? I ask questions like, What are people actually eating right now? I’m hearing stories about their eating animal feed, grass… so that’s how I think about it.

“Similarly, I was asking early on, what are women in Gaza doing about sanitary hygiene. Do they have pads? And these are the issues that made people feel uncomfortable, especially sanitary pads.”

The young people who have mobilized against the destruction of Gaza are unlikely to be mollified by these answers. What does she say to them?

“They are showing exactly what the human emotion should be, as a response to Gaza. There are things some of the protesters are saying that I absolutely reject, so I don’t mean to wholesale endorse their points. But we have to navigate it. I understand the emotion behind it.”

Harris is less afraid young voters will go for Trump than they’ll stay home in November. “You’ve got on the one side an administration in Joe Biden and me fighting for a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, your right to love who you love openly with pride; on the other side, someone who took away a fundamental right, his allies who promote “don’t say gay,” want to take away contraception, IVF.” Harris tells young voters: “Don’t let one situation or circumstance silence your voice.”

As the relentless speculation about Biden heading for the exit picked up after his first debate performance, so did the chatter about an alternative.

Harris admirers are outraged by the media’s continual promotion of alternatives to Harris, in 2024 and 2028. (They might also be disappointed that Biden failed to mention her in his ABC interview.) Governors like Newsom, Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, Illinois’s J.B. Pritzker, and Maryland newbie Wes Moore have become media darlings, but polls show them with single- or low-double-digit digit support among Democratic voters as 2028 nominees, while Harris has continued to extend her lead, with 42 percent in recent polls.

And as pot-stirring pundits have suggested Biden step aside, before and after his debate malfunction, people continue to point to those governors, saying Harris’s polling is weak. “If [42 percent] is weak, give me weak,” Lake complains. Also, as longtime Democratic leader Donna Brazile asked CNN, “How the f**k are you going to put all these white people ahead of Kamala?”

Oh, and the notion the Democrats should have an “open convention” to replace Biden? First, the president would have to release his delegates, which would trigger chaos. “Have you met us? We’re Democrats!” retorts Leah Daughtry, a Democratic Party leader and CEO of past Democratic National Conventions. “We would have the food fight of the century!”

I didn’t bother asking Harris about the ongoing speculation about whether Biden should remain at the top of the ticket; I didn’t want to face her prosecutor’s glare. But I took a different risk, asking her about perceptions that she’s become more comfortable in her job, maybe even having some fun, which I acknowledged was a tough concept in a time of war, facing the threat of Trump. Harris did not entirely shut me down.

“Remember: We came in during Covid. It was about a full year and a half of trying to get our country back on track.

“And also we just couldn’t travel! Now I’m on the road, and I love getting out of DC, I’m telling you, get me out of DC every day of the week! I wanna be with people, I wanna be listening to them, I’m doing a lot more of that—I do enjoy that! But the work that we did in the beginning was necessary work.”

That increasing comfort in the role was evident throughout the time I spent reporting on her.

Patrick Gaspard sees a lot of the same things. “Authenticity is so important to voters. People have to know they’re seeing who you really are.” He adds, “Sometimes history comes running at you and you have to be ready. She has demonstrated that she’s ready. She’s a wind shifter.”

The next few months will test that readiness as never before. If Biden stays in the race, can Harris hold onto her authenticity—and Biden’s voters—as she sells his record and defends his candidacy in the rocky months ahead? And if he doesn’t, can she maneuver past her rivals, assume the mantle of leadership at a time of crisis, defeat Donald Trump, and make history? We’re about to find out.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

More from The Nation

Donald Trump, 2024 / Theodore Roosevelt, 1912.

Americans Know Political Violence All Too Well Americans Know Political Violence All Too Well

The attempted assassination of Donald Trump recalls the shooting of Theodore Roosevelt in Milwaukee.

John Nichols

Secret Service agents surround Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump onstage after he was injured at a rally on July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pennsylvania.

A Brief History of Trump and Violence A Brief History of Trump and Violence

The assassin’s bullet that grazed Donald Trump’s ear thankfully missed its mark. But that can’t be allowed to erase the long, ugly history of Trump’s dalliance with violence. ...

Sasha Abramsky

Donald Trump is rushed offstage during a rally on July 13, 2024, in Butler, Pennsylvania.

In the Wake of the Trump Shooting, We Need Clarity—and Caution In the Wake of the Trump Shooting, We Need Clarity—and Caution

The best way to fend off conspiracy theories and instability is by emphasizing the need for solid facts.

Jeet Heer

Miller Time

Miller Time Miller Time

Get out the volts.

This Week / Steve Brodner

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a campaign event at Resorts World Las Vegas on July 9, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Can Kamala Harris Beat Trump? Polls Say “Yes.” Can Kamala Harris Beat Trump? Polls Say “Yes.”

The vice president’s numbers keep rising. One new survey puts her ahead of the Republican—and in a better position to beat him than Joe Biden.

John Nichols

Joe Biden speaks at an event launching the Ukraine Compact at the 2024 NATO Summit on July 11, 2024, in Washington, DC.

Why Aren’t We Talking About the Great News on the Economy and Crime? Why Aren’t We Talking About the Great News on the Economy and Crime?

The Democrats have a winning election message—but do they have the right messenger?

Jeet Heer