Elections

Why Kamala Harris Is Fading in the Democratic Primary

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, August 9, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
There’s her backtracking on busing and her waffling on Medicare for All, not to mention her prosecutorial scandals.

Anew national CNN poll of the 2020 Democratic primary has some pretty brutal numbers for Kamala Harris. When CNN last polled the presidential race shortly after the first Democratic debate in June, Harris was on Joe Biden’s heels, trailing just 17 percent to 22 percent. But according to the latest survey by CNN, conducted August 15 to 18, Biden has rebounded to 29 percent, while Harris has dropped all the way down to 5 percent, tied for fourth place with South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg.

What went wrong for Harris?

The second Democratic debate was a clear defeat for the California senator, but it’s now also obvious that her June debate performance was a Pyrrhic victory.

At the first debate, Harris staked everything on attacking Joe Biden’s record on busing. It worked for her that night: Biden’s immediate response was hapless, Harris was widely declared the winner, and she got a significant bump in the polls.

But Harris’s line of attack raised an obvious and problematic question for her: Would she support reinstating the policies that Biden opposed?

Logically, the answer would appear to need to be “yes.”

“I support busing. Listen, the schools of America are as segregated, if not more segregated, today than when I was in elementary school,” Harris said on June 30. “Where states fail to do their duty to ensure equality of all people and in particular where states create or pass legislation that created inequality, there’s no question that the federal government has a role and a responsibility to step up.”

But there was a problem for Harris: Busing policies were abandoned because they were wildly unpopular, and there’s no reason to think they’ve magically become popular. So Harris equivocated and then backtracked.

That attacking Biden on busing would paint the attacker into a corner was predictable. It was in fact predicted. See, for example, the end of this article from March in National Review. (Democratic strategists: Subscribe today!)

Going on the offensive and then retreating on busing made Harris seem inauthentic. And the candidate had been dogged by questions of inauthenticity since the start of her campaign because of her waffling on the issue of Medicare for All, the policy at the center of the 2020 Democratic primary.

First Harris indicated at a CNN town hall that she supported abolishing private insurance, as Medicare for All proposes. Then Harris said she didn’t support abolishing private insurance: She tried to hide behind the fig leaf that Medicare for All allows “supplemental insurance,” while obscuring the fact that “supplemental coverage” would be legal for only a very small number of treatments not covered by Medicare for All, such as cosmetic surgery. And cosmetic-surgery insurance doesn’t even exist.

Harris thought she’d finally figured a way out of the Medicare for All mess in July: She introduced her own plan shortly before the Democratic debates. It tried to split the difference: She promised to transition to a single-payer plan in 10 years (as opposed to Sanders’s four-year deadline). This was meant to reassure progressives that they’ll get there eventually while also reassuring moderates that there will be at least two more presidential elections before the country goes through with anything crazy.

Harris’s provision of Medicare Advantage–type plans was also supposed to reassure moderates, but the second debate demonstrated that she still wasn’t ready to respond to the fact that her plan would eventually abolish existing private health plans for everyone, and she has no serious plan for how to pay for single-payer.

Then there were Joe Biden’s and Representative Tulsi Gabbard’s devastating attacks on Harris’s record as a prosecutor at the second Democratic debate. “Biden alluded to a crime lab scandal that involved her office and resulted in more than 1,000 drug cases being dismissed. Gabbard claimed Harris ‘blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until she was forced to do so.’ Both of these statements are accurate,” the Sacramento Bee reported after the debate.

As Harris’s backtracking on busing made clear, no one is seriously considering resurrecting the deeply unpopular policies of the 1970s. But criminal justice is very much a live issue in Democratic politics, and that’s why the attack on Harris’s record as a prosecutor has had such a greater impact than the attack on Biden’s record on busing. Biden continues to do very well among African-American voters, while Harris continues to struggle.

So Harris’s problems go deeper than the fact that she had one good debate followed by one bad debate on matters of style. Both debates revealed she has serious weaknesses on matters of substance. And the hits keep coming on Medicare for All: On Monday, she was savaged by Bernie Sanders after it was reported that Harris told wealthy donors in the Hamptons that she was not “comfortable” with Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All bill, which she co-sponsored and supported until a few weeks ago. There are still five months left until the Iowa caucuses, but the past two months have demonstrated that Harris has deep problems that she can’t paper over with some well-rehearsed, well-delivered lines in subsequent debates.

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