Kamala Harris and the Art of Failing Up

REVIEW: ‘Amateur Hour: Kamala Harris in the White House’ by Charlie Spiering

Kamala Harris (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
March 31, 2024

Reading an account of Kamala Harris’s political career is like examining the stalled career of a can’t-miss baseball prospect struggling to hit major league pitching. In Charlie Spiering’s new biography of the vice president, Amateur Hour: Kamala Harris in the White House, the book portrays Harris as a hyped candidate who consistently makes egregious missteps to the point that being a heartbeat away from the presidency is giving Democratic operatives heartburn.

There are two things clear about Harris after reading Spiering’s account: She’s a cautious politician who reflects conventional progressive thinking. She’s also shown consistently poor judgment about the direction of American politics, particularly in her role as a national figure, tacking far to the left as a senator and during her unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign and later, serving as an emissary to the left in the White House, even when her political fortunes demanded a broader appeal.

Harris’s electoral statistics speak for themselves. In her first statewide campaign, in deep-blue California, she barely won with just 46 percent of the vote, eking out a victory for attorney general. Despite generating outsized publicity for her presidential candidacy, she dropped out of the race before the Iowa caucuses, after failing to get traction in any of the early-state contests—and being upstaged by a more moderate candidate in Pete Buttigieg.

And as vice president, after botching televised interviews and struggling to find an effective role within the administration, Harris watched her favorability ratings sink below President Joe Biden’s—the presumptive Democratic nominee currently holds historically low approval numbers for presidents seeking a second term.

Spiering’s narrative of Harris is familiar to those who regularly follow politics, relying mainly on contemporaneous news reports and little on insider information adding new material to the Harris story. But his account is a thorough one, reliving the greatest hits (and misses) of Harris’s political career, starting from her insurgent campaign to unseat San Francisco’s district attorney to her political positioning in the runup to the 2024 presidential campaign.

One area where Harris is particularly vulnerable: her record on law-and-order issues as a national figure, as she sought to distance herself from her prosecutorial background as district attorney in the Bay Area. In one section recapping her comments during the riot-filled summer of 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, Harris made several statements praising the Black Lives Matter organization (namely the "intensity" and "brilliance" of it), excusing the violence, and promoting a bail fund that sought to release criminals accused of serious crimes.

The most revealing sign of her left-wing political instincts: Spiering reminds readers that she entertained support for the "defund the police" movement that summer. "We do have to reimagine what public safety looks like," she told the New York Times. Another quote the author unearthed from the Times interview that’s likely to come back to haunt her: She argued against putting more cops on the street, calling it "status quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong."

It’s easy to forget, with the benefit of historic hindsight, but those comments were made after the Democratic primary was over and Harris was vying to become Biden’s running mate. The Democratic party’s lurch left, which later fueled a sizable backlash, was so fierce in that moment that even Biden felt he couldn’t consider female vice presidential nominees with tougher-on-crime records, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Spiering’s Harris narrative, throughout her political career, also offers a lesson in how the Democratic party has become a coalition of different identity groups—and where minority status confers a certain sense of political privilege in the party’s modern iteration.

Starting with the 2020 presidential primary campaign, Harris has leaned heavily on her biography. One of her few consequential moments in the campaign was in an early debate when she attacked Biden as a racist for defending his early relationships with segregationists in the Senate, and opposition to busing in the 1970s. That moment excited the progressive base and fueled a short-lived rise in her polling. But she failed to follow up on the attack, and her polling soon reverted back.

Harris’s vice presidential moment came about as a result of outside groups’ pressure for Biden to pick a woman as his running mate—which he pledged at the final primary debate—and later, during the racial unrest in the summer of 2020, when he faced significant pressure to select an African-American woman. Without a deep bench, Harris became the de facto frontrunner, despite rivals like Susan Rice (no electoral experience), Val Demings (a junior congresswoman), and Karen Bass (a veteran representative with a far-left voting record) floated as alternatives.

One telling sign of her identitarian approach to politics: After being chosen as Biden’s running mate, she released a polarizing video on her Twitter account promoting the concept of "equity"—as opposed to "equality"—using government intervention to boost nonwhite Americans. That type of rhetoric, which has grown increasingly unpopular, is now mostly confined to the left-wing precincts of the Democratic party.

As the 2024 general election gets underway, Harris is drawing more attention toward her political future—but often for the wrong reasons. Biden’s advanced age and poor political standing get cited by many pundits on why he should be replaced from the ticket, but many of those commentators struggle to explain how Harris would be a more electable alternative—or how, at a late stage, the party would replace her without generating massive political backlash.

There hasn’t been as much punditry on how Harris would govern if she found herself in the heady role of commander in chief. With Biden now 81 years old, and 86 at the end of a potential second term, the possibility that she might ascend to the presidency is not all that far-fetched. In fact, it was a running theme for former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, who regularly used Harris as a political foil on the campaign trail.

Spiering’s book doesn’t tell us how she might govern in such a situation but offers some clues from her record in political life. Based on the evidence in these pages, the story might better have focused on her deference to a progressivism that remains trendy in activist circles but is rapidly growing out of favor with the broader electorate.

Amateur Hour: Kamala Harris in the White House
by Charlie Spiering
Threshold Editions, 272 pp., $28.99

Josh Kraushaar is the editor in chief of Jewish Insider and a Fox News Radio political analyst.