On the menu today: all about Kamala Harris — why her political instincts never quite lived up to the potential her fans expected, how she turns the “law and order” arguments upside down, and whether her campaign offers some warning signs about her ability to thrive in the executive branch.
What Separates the Potential and the Reality of Kamala Harris
In September 2012, I was covering the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and was among the limited number of NR correspondents with a pass to get into the arena for the second night — traditionally the least-interesting night. Monday gets the keynote address, Wednesday the speech from the vice-presidential nominee, and Thursday the address from the presidential nominee. Bill Clinton was the headliner, but shortly before him was the then-rising star California attorney general . . . Kamala Harris.
Harris got mixed reviews — “her delivery was low-key and the crowd seemed unsure of when to clap even during her most obvious applause lines” — but at the time I watched her and thought she was a likely successor to Barack Obama. She used a lot of the Barack Obama playbook: making massive government expansion and economic intervention sound like mundane “fairness,” the casual demonization of the free market as cruel, the touting of disputable compromises as grand victories, the rote demonization of Wall Street. (Her husband is a top lawyer in Hollywood with many corporate clients, but I guess that’s different somehow.)
But it wasn’t Harris’s speech that stood out, it was just who she was: daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, progressive enough with her roots in Berkeley and San Francisco, a little time spent living abroad in Montreal, degree from Howard University, but perceived to be tough with her work as a criminal prosecutor. Part of the sales pitch for Obama leading up to 2008 was how varied and unusual his pre-political life story was. Like Obama, Harris’s early life had a little bit of this, a little bit of that, with lots of aspects that various Democratic demographics would hear about and think, “Hey, I experienced something like that. She probably understands the perspective of someone like me.”
There’s a reason people laughed so hard at Maya Rudolph’s portrayal of Harris as a woman who thinks she’s in a TNT legal drama. Harris often speaks like she’s the protagonist of a John Grisham novel — grandiose tributes to the law and justice that just happen to align with whatever she politically needs at any particular moment.
Harris did rise further, winning election to the U.S. Senate. Winning a statewide Democratic primary in California is usually a matter of money, name recognition, and which competitor has the strongest preexisting base of support; Harris had already won statewide races, and Representative Loretta Sanchez had not. But Harris’s arrival in Washington coincided with the arrival of Donald Trump, an event that filled the Democrat Party with an endless rage that they could lose to a man like him. Democrats wanted anger during the Trump era, so Harris repositioned herself as the administration’s toughest foe in the Senate.
You probably noticed that Harris flip-flopped on Medicare for All, independent reviews of police shootings, decriminalizing border crossings, and abolishing ICE. She hit Joe Biden for opposing a federal mandate for busing but later said she herself wouldn’t support a federal mandate. For all her toughness and tributes to principle, she repeatedly demonstrated that she would say whatever was needed to impress the audience in front of her.
There are politicians who seek policy proposals that will make them popular. And there are politicians who seek popularity because they want the political capital to enact policy proposals. A figure like Bernie Sanders is clearly the latter — he thinks abolishing private health insurance entirely would be a popular idea (it’s not), but pretty clearly pursues it because he thinks it’s the best policy, regardless of whether it’s popular. His popularity is oddly tied to his willingness to say and do things that are not that popular.
Harris stepped onto the presidential campaign trail with considerable advantages, but . . . her most memorable moment was coming out of the gate and painting Joe Biden as racially insensitive. Chris Dodd and other Biden allies have every right in the world to hold a grudge over this. When you’re the young upstart and you want to overtake the old loyalist, you can do it without a smear, particularly on the issue of race. You emphasize the need for “new blood” to “address new challenges,” but you always treat him like Joe DiMaggio on Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium in the mid 1990s. Everybody loves him, everybody remembers what he did to help the team win, but nobody wants to start him in center field anymore. You treat Biden’s presidential campaign like a toast at his retirement party, with not-so-subtle reminders of just how long Biden’s been playing at the top level of a political system that most voters see as broken and unresponsive. “None of us will ever forget how, as a senator, you helped Jimmy Carter when he needed help the most, Joe.”
Yesterday was one of the better ones for the Trump campaign this year. An increasing number of independent middle-class suburban voters might be really exasperated with Trump and not all that hostile to Joe Biden . . . but Harris is a reminder of everything they don’t like about the Democratic Party. Higher taxes, a much bigger role for government in health insurance that they’re currently content with, intermittent desire to end immigration law enforcement entirely, the Green New Deal, taxpayer-funded late-term abortion-on-demand, opposition to Catholic judges that steps over the line into bigotry, the use of the law to harass political enemies . . . the prospect of President Kamala Harris taking over sometime after January 20, 2021, is going to bring a bunch of frustrated Republicans back into the Trump camp.
Kamala Is Not a Cop — She Was a Prosecutor Who Made Some Bad Decisions
But there’s one other wrinkle. Late last week, the New York Times wrote a detailed story about how the left-wing takeover of the streets in Seattle was not merely a “block party atmosphere” but was a terrifying devolution into anarchy, threats, looting, and violence. It was a giant — and far too late — correction to the dominant media narrative, and an institution like the Times doesn’t just abandon a key narrative of the Left for no reason. It’s reasonable to wonder if some voices at the Times, no friends to the Trump administration or Republicans, recognized that the “all of this is almost entirely peaceful” narrative was a bridge too far and likely to backfire on the Democratic Party, and/or the cause of criminal-justice reform. Good progressive Democrats are starting to grow uncomfortable with the images coming out of Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and New York, and Jenny Durkan, Ted Wheeler, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill de Blasio appear to be haplessly running their cities into the ground — at the precise moment a pandemic has many residents of big cities wondering if they should move out to the suburbs. This phenomenon by itself might not guarantee a second term for Trump — but it certainly gives Trump a frightening contrast to exploit.
One of the most common attacks on Harris during the primary was “Kamala is a cop.” This is factually untrue; Harris was a prosecutor, and one who can fairly be accused of trying to have it both ways on the issue of criminal-justice reform. If Trump is going to accuse the Democrats of wanting to let criminals take over the streets of America’s cities, who better to refute that accusation than Kamala Harris, the subject of memes of a militarized police overreach? Tying Biden to the “abolish the police” narrative was never going to be easy, and now it looks ridiculous. Trump is instinctively going to try to position himself as the candidate of “LAW AND ORDER!” and Harris can justifiably scoff that Trump is so soft on crime, he won’t even jail the parents of truant children.
Who’s Ready to Manage the Executive Branch?
One other thing to keep in mind if, as it seems, Kamala Harris is now on a glide path to being the 47th president of the United States: Apparently one of the reasons Harris’s campaign never took off was that it was an absolute mess behind the scenes. The New York Times did a huge profile piece shortly before Harris quit the race, speaking to “more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies.” The article painting Harris as indecisive, bad at managing staff and holding others accountable, erratically attacking rivals then retreating, and being far too deferential to her sister’s judgment as campaign chair. The campaign had split into warring factions, no one seemed to know who answered to whom, and it appeared that Harris — despite her commanding public image — didn’t really seem to be in charge of her own campaign. A separate Politico article told a similar story, with the unnerving summary from one Harris staffer: “No discipline. No plan. No strategy.”
Presidential campaigns rarely if ever rise or fall based upon the management skills of the vice-presidential nominee. But if Harris becomes a heartbeat away from the presidency — and that heartbeat is in the body of Joe Biden — her ability to manage a large, diverse staff and complicated bureaucracy could have national consequences someday. Every presidential candidate thinks they can handle this part of the job easily until they get in there.
Democrats will respond to all this with, “But Trump!” But Trump’s troubles only illuminate the difficulty of managing the executive branch.
ADDENDUM: As noted yesterday, whatever else you think of Kamala Harris, it’s pretty amazing and awesome that immigrants can come to the U.S., meet, marry, have a child, and their daughter can grow up to be DA, state attorney general, U.S. senator, and on a presidential ticket. There are a few other countries in the world where you can arrive on our shores and your children can rise to the very top, but not many.