Elections

The Four Fatal Flaws That Doomed Kamala Harris’s Campaign

Senator Kamala Harris speaks at the 2019 National Forum on Wages and Working People in Las Vegas, Nev., April 27, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
The California senator faded badly after a promising start to the race. Here’s what went wrong for her along the way.

Eight months ago, pundits from across the political spectrum were putting their money on Kamala Harris.

“If she was a stock right now, I’d buy her,” Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, told MSNBC’s Morning Joe on April 11. “A combination . . . of Harris for president and Beto O’Rourke for VP is a way to mobilize [Democrats’] base and give” them their “best shot” at beating Donald Trump in 2020, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon said on CNBC on March 29. In case you’ve already forgotten who he is, Beto O’Rourke was also a Democratic presidential candidate. He dropped out of the race in November. And on December 3, exactly two months before the 2020 Iowa caucuses, Harris followed suit.

So what went wrong? The California senator suffered from at least four fatal flaws.

1. Mismanaging Her Campaign’s Funds

Harris raised an ample amount of cash early in the campaign but didn’t husband her resources well and failed to adjust in time when her fundraising slowed. The New York Times reported that at the time she dropped out, Harris would have had to go into debt to continue her campaign. It’s not unheard of for a candidate to fall precipitously in the polls, lay off a large number of staffers, and come back to win the nomination (e.g. McCain ’08). But Harris’s chances of pulling off such a comeback seemed exceedingly remote by the time she dropped out.

2. Choosing the Wrong Ground on which to Fight

Harris’s breakout performance came in the June Democratic debate, when she attacked Joe Biden for opposing mandatory-busing policies in the 1970s. The move worked in the short term: Harris surged in the polls, and Biden dropped. But the senator had painted herself into a corner: Logically, to build on the attack, she would’ve had to make mandatory busing, which remains deeply unpopular, central to her message. So she dropped the issue after initially calling for new federal busing policies. It was an entirely foreseeable own goal, and the high-water mark of her campaign.

3. Trying to Have It Both Ways on Medicare for All

Health-care policy has taken center stage in the Democratic primary, and Harris proved to be unserious on the issue.

To recap: Shortly after she launched her campaign, Harris endorsed the elimination of private insurance called for in the Medicare-for-All bill she cosponsored with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. When that stance generated blowback, she pretended the bill didn’t eliminate private insurance: “No, no, no, no, it does not get rid of insurance. It does not get rid of insurance,” she said on CNN in May.

Here, Harris was hiding behind the fig leaf that Medicare for All does not abolish private insurance for services not covered by Medicare for All — things such as cosmetic surgery, for which insurance doesn’t even exist. And she couldn’t hide behind it for long after she had her breakout moment in the June debate. Shortly before the July debate, Harris released a plan that tried to have it both ways: She supported Medicare for All, but the plan wouldn’t take effect for ten years. By attempting to reassure moderates and progressives, she predictably disappointed both.

4. Waging a Front-Runner’s Campaign When She Needed to Wage an Insurgent’s

Biden, the de-facto front-runner from the beginning, has proven to be much more durable in national polls than many expected, and his support among African-American voters in South Carolina kept Harris from ever really taking off in the first-in-the-South primary. Yet Harris kept on campaigning as if she were leading the race, focusing on national media, limiting her early events in Iowa, sticking to stage-managed appearances, and, worst of all, appearing thoroughly scripted.

At the July Democratic debate, Biden and Tulsi Gabbard went after Harris’s record as California attorney general. “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. Harris didn’t have a good response to either attack and later tried to dismiss Gabbard, saying the Hawaii congresswoman wasn’t a “top-tier” candidate. The New York Times’s description of the scrap in its pre-mortem look at the failing Harris campaign summed up its import:

Ms. Harris also knew her response [to Gabbard] had been insufficient, a view quickly reinforced by her advisers. In interviews, many of them point to that debate moment as accelerating Ms. Harris’s decline and are so exasperated that they bluntly acknowledge in private that Ms. Harris struggles to carry a message beyond the initial script.

As a former prosecutor, Harris knew how to go on the offensive. But she didn’t know how to play defense, and it helped doom her campaign.

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