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Kamala Harris’ debut as the Democrats’ presumptive vice-presidential nominee on Wednesday ran headlong into the same challenge that anyone who feeds off being in front of a live audience — musicians, game-show hosts, professional wrestlers — confronts right now. As the coronavirus pandemic has nearly eliminated gatherings of any significant size, people on stage are stuck with a one-directional performance, going through the motions as though everything is normal, when it so obviously is not. The campaign for President and Saturday Night Live could find themselves in the same group-therapy session.
Harris and the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden walked into a high school gymnasium on Wednesday afternoon, wearing masks and color-coordinated suits that seemed stitched to perfectly match the American flags behind them. Everything about the camera-ready shot was A-grade, White House-caliber professional advance work. It was like a G-7 summit had gathered in Wilmington, Delaware.
Problems unfolded that were beyond planners’ power, however. A 1970s soundtrack couldn’t replace what in normal times would have been cheers from an enthusiastic crowd. Taking their place were journalists scattered in folding chairs across the pine floors and confined to taped-down circles at an energy-sapping distance. Though the public wasn’t invited, crowds gathered in the rain outside to catch a glimpse of the duo now committed to making Donald Trump a one-term President. As much as Biden and Harris must have wanted to thank them for their support, they slipped in via a different entrance to avoid needless exposure. (Biden still popped his head around the building for a wave.)
Staffers in the hall were of little help boosting the atmosphere, having learned their lessons early in the pandemic. When the first days of coronavirus forced Biden to cancel a March victory party, his team relocated the event to the National Constitution Center not far from the campaign’s headquarters in Philadelphia. In lieu of public attendees, paid staffers applauded for their boss, making for sad television and even sadder sounds. So that practice soon ended.
It was a jarring test-drive of what’s to come during this pandemic election, as my TIME colleague Molly Ball writes in the current cover story. Before either contender entered the gym, the podium and microphones got one last wipe-down. The pair entered in masks, only to remove them when they were safely beyond the socially distanced perimeter of each other. Biden offered a version of his campaign’s rationale for existence that is familiar to anyone who has been listening since he launched 15 months ago. Harris, perched to Biden’s right upon a high-top chair most often found in airport bars, nodded along, knowing that she was half of a split-screen that would face scrutiny befitting the best Kremlinologists.
When her turn came, Harris used the premiere to deftly show how she plans to, in her words, prosecute Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. She unleashed plenty of clever zingers and gave us a new way to consider the protests demanding racial justice in this country as a “new coalition of conscience.” She hit hard on her experience prosecuting international crimes as California’s Attorney General and fighting for families during the 2008 economic crisis. At the same time, she made sure we understood she was a child raised by immigrants to this country. She described herself as a “Momala” who loves to cook Sunday dinners, an ambitious woman intent on decommissioning that descriptor as a subtle slur.
The speech was 100% Harris. It may have been partly penned by Biden’s team, but none of the other women he considered as his VP pick could have given it. That suggests Biden’s high command simultaneously chose Harris for what she brings to the trail, such as it is these days, and won’t try to take away her self-styling. Biden aides refrained from dropping any of his slogans into her cadences, which lent Harris’ own words more credibility.
Still, it must have been a jarring welcome-back-to-the-trail moment for Harris. Even in the final days of her own unsuccessful bid for the nomination, she was still drawing crowds that would respond to her applause lines and laugh at her jokes. On Wednesday, those honed zingers felt flat without the corresponding audience reaction. It felt like watching a Senate debate to an empty gallery more than watching Barack Obama in 2004 at Boston Garden. It’s a format that rewards Cicero, not Kennedy.
There will be more awkwardness to come. The parties’ conventions start on Monday, setting a template for what the remaining three months of this campaign may look and feel like. It’s not going to be elegant or good television, but it could be an opening for a more substantive form of oration that Americans haven’t seen for awhile. “For campaign speechwriters, I suspect it’s liberating — you can build a full narrative arc without the interruption of staccato applause lines,” says Alex Halpern Levy, a former speechwriter to Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “Instead of trafficking in sentences, you’re allowed the luxury of paragraphs.”
One luxury not in the offing: an audience that’s willing to tell you that you’re winning.
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