Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate exacerbates a tension in President Trump’s reelection strategy: whether to lean into criminal justice reform or to emphasize law and order at a time of rising crime in many cities.
That’s because the California senator is seen as having two main vulnerabilities: With Republicans and centrists, it’s her blue-state liberalism; and for the Left, it’s her prosecutorial record as a district attorney and state attorney general. Just as Biden’s role in enacting the 1994 crime bill became a liability to the former vice president and senator this year, Harris’s background was used against her in the Democratic primaries.
“Sen. Harris said she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president, but I’m deeply concerned about this record,” said rival Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, at a Democratic debate. “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.” It was viewed as a devastating moment for Harris.
At the same time, some Trump supporters believe the president should talk less about his commutations and the First Step Act and instead emphasize his commitment to cracking down on violent crime in places such as Chicago and Portland. They question whether GOP attacks on Biden and the 1994 crime bill have been effective in this campaign, worrying that the message could become even less clear now that Harris has joined the Democratic ticket.
“I received three different messages from the RNC on Tuesday night,” said Patrick Hynes, a communications consultant who advised the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney. “The first said Kamala Harris is a ‘far-left radical’ who gives the Democrats ‘the most extreme ticket in history.’ The second one called her a ‘fake’ and a ‘phony.’ The third exclaimed, ‘Liberals revolt against Biden-Harris ticket.’”
“Each of these might be true,” Hynes continued. “Taken together, however, they present a muddled message.”
This approach worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016. They were simultaneously able to motivate conservatives who had long feared her as a 1960s radical while at the same time demoralizing progressives, including black voters and Bernie Sanders supporters, in key states. But Trump has had a harder time implementing this strategy as an incumbent, even though Biden has a similar record — supporting the crime bill, the Iraq war, and various trade deals — and his campaign has struggled to define the presumptive Democratic nominee.
The Trump campaign maintains there is no mixed messaging in their critique of Harris. “Kamala Harris was the most liberal U.S. senator in 2019, according to GovTrack, and she was a California liberal when she was a prosecutor,” said campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “She wanted to jail parents for truant kids but wouldn’t seek the death penalty for cop-killers and MS-13 gang bangers. She granted huge numbers of plea deals while homicides and aggravated assaults increased. As a prosecutor and attorney general, she supported sanctuary cities’ policies that prioritized criminal illegal aliens over the safety of law-abiding citizens. Now, she says she supports efforts in Los Angeles to cut police funding. Kamala Harris is a California leftist who has completed the radical, extremist takeover of Joe Biden.”
But Trump supporters have long been divided over how much the campaign should focus on criminal justice reform rather than fighting crime. “In 2016, Trump ran as a ‘law and order’ candidate because he meant it, and his views remain fundamentally unchanged today,” said influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson in a monologue earlier this year. “But the president’s famously sharp instincts, the ones that won him the presidency almost four years ago, have been since subverted at every level by Jared Kushner.” The president’s son-in-law is frequently cited by critics as a reason the campaign talks about Trump’s criminal justice reform record as much as it does in an effort to win a larger number of minority voters and soften his image in the suburbs.
Harris’s addition to the ticket is sure to keep those internal debates going. “It’s as though they felt compelled to throw the whole oppo book at her,” Hynes said. “They need to settle on a single narrative and burn it in.”
The vice presidential nominee is going to be particularly important in this campaign because of Biden’s age. He will be 78 by Inauguration Day, and Harris is only 55. While the Trump campaign attacks her as a political opportunist, Democrats are hopeful she is a Goldilocks candidate who is neither too centrist nor too progressive.
“Her image as a tough law-and-order prosecutor blunts attacks from Trump that she and Joe Biden are the most left-wing ticket in American history,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.