The Democrats' Kamala Harris problem
In a provocative Substack post, Matthew Yglesias suggests that vice president Kamala Harris poses a serious problem for the Democratic Party. On the one hand, she's quite likely to be her party's next presidential nominee, in either 2024 or 2028 (depending on whether 78-year-old Joe Biden runs for re-election and/or lives long enough to complete one or both terms). On the other hand, her popularity lags behind Biden's, and the general sense in Washington is that she's politically inept.
How could this be, when she's won statewide office in California on more than one occasion? Because California is an overwhelmingly Democratic state — and Democratic Party politics in California incline in a direction that holds limited appeal, and is even downright unpopular, in other parts of the country. What direction is this? One, for example, that instinctively blames "sexism" alone for Harris' struggles in the polls, even though there's plenty of evidence that female politicians are quite capable of surmounting that obstacle to achieve political popularity in the United States.
Yglesias' advice to Harris is to stop acting like her job is to win the support of the young, highly educated urban activists and progressive donors who play an outsized role in California and national Democratic politics. They already love her. Instead, she should aim to win moderate swing voters by tailoring her public statements to appeal to an imagined 50-something white person without a college degree who lives in the suburbs of a mid-sized and decidedly unhip Midwestern city (like Grand Rapids, Michigan). In concrete terms, this would mean responding to a question about whether the United States is a racist country by expressing the kind of hokey patriotism that comes second nature to Biden. Just say, "America is the greatest country in the world," and leave it at that.
Could Harris do this? Of course she could. But will she? I have my doubts, if only because so many Democrats from her faction of the party would view such efforts as a moral betrayal. Such Democrats see themselves as a moral vanguard — and they don't want to practice a politics of compromise with atavistic racists, xenophobes, and the kinds of simpletons who swoon at lies about the exceptionalism of America. This doesn't mean they hate the country. But it does mean that they place its greatness in a not-yet-realized future and don't want to pretend there's much worth embracing about its past.
Does Kamala Harris view the country this way? Is she willing to break from it in order to win? Is she even able to see that she needs to? Those are the questions we can't yet answer but that are likely to determine her electoral viability going forward.
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