OPINION

Kamala Harris, Aaron Burr, and the Art of Political Shapeshifting.

Why an eventual Harris presidency may not be as bad as it seems...

Eyebrows have been raised as Vice-President Kamala Harris appears to be taking a more active role than is customary in the public administration of foreign policy. In addition to conducting solo calls with the presidents and prime ministers of other countries, she also seems to be spearheading the conversation on the return of kids to school—arguably the most critical domestic issue the country now faces.

Harris’s near-immediate communication with top foreign leaders is concerning.

Her involvement in such matters alone is not outlandish. The vice-presidency has taken many forms over the years. The earliest renditions weren’t even considered to be part of the president’s cabinet. In the late 1700’s, then Vice President John Adams almost never attended cabinet meetings, and had negligible influence with George Washington as compared to the Secretary of the Treasury or even the Postmaster General. Modern-day VP’s have at times wielded considerable power, albeit usually more behind the scenes, such as Dick Cheney with foreign policy or pertaining to a special project like Mike Pence with the Coronavirus Task Force.

Although the role of the vice president clearly is not set in stone, Harris’s near-immediate communication with top foreign leaders is concerning. It is not a concern over her qualifications, but the unconventional nature of her presidential-level involvement, and the speed in which it has occured. Only a couple months into President Biden’s term, we are reminded of him referring to himself on the campaign trail as merely a “transition candidate,” as he did during an April 2020 fundraising event. Before the election, his own advisors viewed a single term as his likely course of action. An August 2020 national poll indicated that the majority of likely voters did not think Biden would finish his term.

As tensions mounted this last week over raising the federal minimum wage, progressive rights activists, along with prominent voices such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have publicly asked Harris to act as the superseding voice. The rhetoric even went Biblical, as Harris was encouraged to be this country’s version of the Bible’s Queen Esther—the same Queen Esther who, by standing up to the decrees of her own king, saved the lives of the Hebrew people from mass murder. They insist Harris has the authority to override the stated position of President Biden and force the minimum wage hike via the reconciliation process in Congress.

Vice President Harris’s prominent and near-immediate forays into territory typically considered presidential, raises the question: Is the American public being ‘transitioned’ into a very near-future, Kamala Harris presidency?

Vice President Kamala Harris.

Vice President Kamala Harris.

History, in allowing us the opportunity to find similarities in people that span different eras, offers some insight here. Finding the historical prototype of a prominent person can help us better navigate upcoming danger. (Think of it as an early-warning system for the future.) For instance, viewing Steve Jobs within the context of Napoleon Bonaparte is an example of a notable individual making far more sense with the lens of their historical ‘twin.’ Both men may have been the most important innovators of their time. Both were exceptionally rough on subordinates, yet managed to maintain a near cult-like following within their inner circle. Both waged relentless war, albeit in different forms. The word of both leaders was good for little as they would make deals and treaties—really only as a breather of sorts until the eventual continuation of their aggressions.

[A]lthough certainly not the first political shapeshifter, there is something seemingly unique by her brazen, almost celebrated political contortionism

Kamala Harris is something of an enigma, however, when looking for her historical parallel. She is a somewhat unusual political figure for two reasons. First, the level of media excitement she garners is disproportionately higher than would be expected. Remember that during the very same election cycle, Harris had to drop out of her own party’s primary—due to a complete lack of voter excitement.

Second, although certainly not the first political shapeshifter, there is something seemingly unique by her brazen, almost celebrated political contortionism. It isn’t every day that someone can launch extremely personal and vicious attacks such as, “…it is personal and it was hurtful, to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country…” and then turn around and claim the deepest support and admiration for that same person. Even more unusual for that person to then name you as their vice president.

It is one thing to be opportunistic. It is something entirely different when the individual appears to be nearly unassociated people on various days. It is unnerving when the political shapeshifting is done with no secrecy, no explanation, and with a straight face. (Then again, as any lover of science-fiction knows, this actually isn’t strange. By definition, shapeshifters change how they appear and how they act. It isn’t hypocrisy—it’s who they are.)

When I realized that, in essence, Harris was this ever-morphing entity, it became much easier to figure out her twin. Her political/historical doppelganger was none other than former Vice President Aaron Burr. It was at this point that I also developed a strange sense of optimism about the seeming eventuality of a Harris presidency. Aaron Burr may be one of America’s greatest villains, but Kamala Harris’s similarities with him may just be what keeps progressives from destroying the country.

Aaron Burr.

Aaron Burr.

HARRIS THROUGH THE LENS OF BURR

Best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr was America’s first and best political chameleon. Burr was remarkably talented. Extremely well-educated, his peers accurately described him as a marvelous orator, a brilliant legal mind, quick-witted, sophisticated, charming, and brave. Sounds like Kamala Harris.

The remarkable part is that he [Burr] wasn’t terribly secretive about it and rarely offered any explanation. Sounds like Kamala Harris.

Burr could also put the proverbial knife in a person’s back among the best of them. However, his true talent came from being able to insert the knife, and then later turn that same person into a functional ally. From career advancement assisted by slightly less than pristine morals (during the Revolutionary War, Burr socially elevated himself via an affair with the wife of a British soldier), to 180-degree turns on political issues—Burr was the poster child of duplicity. The remarkable part is that he wasn’t terribly secretive about it and rarely offered any explanation. Sounds like Kamala Harris.

During the election of 1800, Aaron Burr put his backstabbing proclivities on full display. Burr specifically ran to be VP. But when a constitutional loophole emerged, he did everything in his power to become the president himself (at the expense of none other than Thomas Jefferson). He ultimately failed to wrestle the election away from the person whom only days before he had aligned with, yet, incredulously, still took his spot as Vice President as if nothing had occurred.

While still serving as the country’s vice president, Burr challenged Hamilton to their famous duel, which took place in July of 1804. The reason largely stemmed from Hamilton not having voiced support for Burr to be president. Hamilton instead had advocated for Jefferson. This was a blow to Burr’s ego as it was difficult to imagine someone that Hamilton loathed more than Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, Burr’s fury was kindled against Hamilton for having assisted Jefferson—the person Burr had originally sought to be joined with. The very same person Burr was currently serving as VP under.

A few years later, in February of 1807, Burr, no longer the VP, was embroiled in a treason case as the defendant. He sought to use his former political ally, turned enemy, later turned ally, later turned enemy yet again, (Thomas Jefferson)—as a hostile witness for his own defense.

As author Richard Brookhiser puts it: “Aaron Burr was like a new refrigerator. He was bright, cold, and empty.”

Seen in the light of Aaron Burr, Kamala Harris makes sense. Her ever-morphing behavior demonstrates she has no positions herself—apart from whatever helps her gain the next wrung of power. Or, as said in a line directed towards Burr in the musical Hamilton, “If you stand for nothing Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Roughly a year later, in August 2020, her explanation on Steven Colbert’s Late Show was, “it was a debate.”

In a 2019 press conference, Harris was publicly okay continuing the implication that Joe Biden shouldn’t be let off the hook for sexual assault allegations when she said in reference to if Biden should drop out, that “he will need to make that decision for himself.” Based on previously stated support of sexual assault accusers, “I believe them,” Biden is a person she must logically consider guilty. Less than two years ago, she went after Biden for perpetuating racism—directly to his face. In their June 27th, 2019 debate, although specifically saying Biden was not a racist, Harris implied that racist policy choices and his associations (with the previously mentioned segregationist Senators) made him unfit to be the nominee.

After Harris had made the short-list of those being considered as Biden’s VP, her savaging of Biden in their earlier debate was questioned. Roughly a year later, in August 2020, her explanation on Steven Colbert’s Late Show was, “it was a debate.” It was a truly uncanny public admission of lying. People usually try to spin their words, insist they weren’t lying, or give an insincere apology for any ‘confusion’ their words caused. Her blatant admission only came with what seemed to be incredulity there was any question on the matter.

It’s telling that today, it wouldn’t be that tremendous a leap to wryly imagine a Burr-like moment of Harris petitioning Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh (another she brutally bombarded), for a legal interpretation of the 25th Amendment. The ability to contemplate this kind of semi-plausible, hypothetical contemplation of her seemingly flexible character is what scares many. Especially so with the higher than usual probability of her ascending to the presidency within the next four years and the more active role she is already taking.

Aaron Burr.

Aaron Burr.

LIFE UNDER A HARRIS PRESIDENCY

An Aaron Burr presidency in and of itself would not have been the worst outcome for early-America. Burr was capable and extremely knowledgeable. Socially and diplomatically, he would have been superb. Yet, it is difficult to believe that Burr, for the first time in his life, would have exercised restraint to not perpetuate his own power. It is unlikely that this bright, cold, and empty person would have for the first time made his own ambition subservient to the greater good.

When it involves Burr and Harris, however, the word ‘most’ or ‘usually’ may not be the best indicator.

As much as we might wish otherwise, people don’t usually change for the better when they obtain more power. However, most sitting vice presidents don’t kill political rivals in duels. (Similar to how most vice presidents haven’t previously publicly joked about killing the then-sitting president, VP, or Attorney General in an elevator, as Harris had on TV in 2018: “does one of us have to come out alive?”)

When it involves Burr and Harris, however, the word ‘most’ or ‘usually’ may not be the best indicator. And it is in this light, believe it or not, that a future Kamala Harris presidency doesn’t have to completely frighten us. Yes, she was one of the most left-wing-extremist senators in the country (assuming voting record is a good indicator of such). True, conservatives have been near panicky since she joined Biden’s ticket. Comments like “If Kamala Harris is a moderate, Joe Biden is a teenager,” and “godless, ultra-liberal,” and “you can’t get more liberal than Kamala Harris” demonstrate the fear. However, her career has demonstrated she is less ideologically motivated and instead more motivated by her ambition.

Harris has been both tough and soft on crime. She has both lampooned and protected church institutions—often seemingly dependent on where financial interests lined up. This campaign cycle saw her make oddly contradictory statements on topics like fracking, healthcare, and immigration.

Without hesitation, Harris will say or do whatever is required to satisfy her personal goals. She is fiercely loyal—until she is not. She is steadfastly accusatory until it benefits her for the accusations to disappear.

If she were to become president during the existing term, she will govern in such a way to get re-elected. This could involve an attempt to crush any that disagree. However, I think the channeling of her inner-Burr is the more likely outcome. If shifting to the right will benefit her, she will. If turning on the left boosts her polling, that will be her course of action.

I’m hardly saying she won’t be dangerous. But as she seizes more and more presidential duties, keep in mind that her ambition does make her more predictable—maybe even surprisingly preferable to the existing. In an ironic twist, even though strength of character may not be her top quality, it might be just the thing that keeps her from destroying the country.

Written By:

Anthony Schwartz is a technology entrepreneur from California. He has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and an MBA from Santa Clara. An expert in early U.S. history, his focus is in finding the relationships between the complex formative years of the country and the political situations of today.