(Bloomberg) -- Kamala Harris is planting her presidential campaign in the middle of a power struggle between the Democratic establishment and the party’s revolutionaries.
The crowded Democratic race is defined on one end by Joe Biden’s incrementalism and calls for bipartisanship and on the other by Senator Bernie Sanders’ vow to upend the economic and political order. Harris, a California senator, is trying to steer between the two front-runners, betting that in the end voters will want a blend of their approaches.
“The policies that Harris endorses and the markers that she lays down in the campaign are a good bellwether for where the mainstream of the party is,” said Brian Fallon, who served as national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and now runs the advocacy group Demand Justice.
Yet Harris has been stuck so far competing with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for third place in most recent national polls, well behind Biden and Sanders. That raises the question of whether hers is a winning strategy. And the straddling that some like Fallon see as signs of open-mindedness also leaves her at risk of coming off as indecisive or unwilling to take a controversial stand.
Harris takes her firmest positions on issues where the intra-party debate is settled, like gun control, bolstering voting rights, enacting immigrant-friendly laws, preserving legal abortion, and battling discrimination. And she has recently ramped up her attacks on Trump, telling a recent NAACP dinner that “this guy in the White House said neo-Nazis were fine people” and that he’d “rather give a teacher a gun than give a teacher a raise.”
But on health care, one of the most contentious issues within the Democratic Party, Harris is appealing to both the radical and incrementalist factions. She’s a co-sponsor of Sanders’ bill to collapse nearly all health insurance into the Medicare program, as well as the more moderate “Medicare X” bill offered by 2020 rival Michael Bennet, a Colorado senator, to allow Americans buy into a government plan if they wish. Another 2020 competitor, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, also is co-sponsoring both bills.
She has endorsed the Green New Deal, a highly ambitious blueprint to zero out fossil fuels by 2030 that is drawing criticism from President Donald Trump and other Republicans, though she tempered her support by saying last week in New Hampshire that “as a resolution, it outlines the right priorities.”
“She straddles different wings of the party. It’s too soon to say that she’s decided to ‘go left’ or ‘run to the middle,’ ” Fallon said.
She’s used variations on the phrase “let’s have that conversation” to deflect questions about controversial positions embraced by the Democratic left, such as letting felons vote from prison or forgiving student debt.
It’s already drawn scorn from Trump’s re-election campaign.
“This is what you say when you’re still trying to figure out exactly what your audience wants to hear,” said Erin Perrine, the campaign’s deputy communications director.
Asked to respond, Harris 2020 spokesman Ian Sams pointed to examples of Trump calling for universal health insurance and vowing to sign any immigration legislation Congress passed, before reversing course on both.
Sams said Harris’s campaign agenda includes a pay raise for teachers, punishing corporations for gender pay discrimination and a tax cut for families making less than $100,000. “She’s offering these proposals in pursuit of economic justice, and they would dramatically improve the lives of working Americans,” he added.
But even some of her supporters chafed when, during a CNN town hall last month, Harris passed on controversial issues by saying they were worthy of discussion or study.
“She was too cautious,” said Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator in South Carolina who has endorsed Harris. “In the time of Donald Trump, you want somebody who’s going to be deliberate, but ‘let’s have a conversation about this’ four times is too many.”
Harris gave a similar reply last Monday in New Hampshire when she told a town hall questioner she’s “open to this conversation” about expanding the size of the Supreme Court to counter the GOP’s ability to solidify a 5-4 conservative majority. In February, Harris told an Iowa voter she’s “conflicted” about whether to scrap the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for legislation and sees “arguments on both sides.”
Sue Carty, a registered nurse in New Hampshire who attended the Harris town hall in Nashua, said she’s torn between Biden and Harris in the primary. She said Biden has the right experience but Harris has “a lot of oomph,” citing her grilling of Attorney General William Barr when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1. But ideologically, she said, the Californian is somewhat undefined.
“I’m still struggling with that,” Carty said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Open to Ideas
Activists spanning the Democratic spectrum, from socialist organizer Sean McElwee to centrist Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett, say they view Harris as open to their ideas.
“My read is that the left should absolutely try to move her and that she can be moved,” said McElwee, whose group Data For Progress conducts messaging surveys which argue that Democrats can win on progressive ideas like a single payer health insurance program and a Green New Deal. He said Harris is neither a moderate like Biden nor a “true believer” like Sanders or Warren.
Bennett said Third Way considers Harris “very pragmatic and open to listening” to their more moderate philosophy. He said she’d “be an outstanding nominee” for the party.
“She has not defined herself yet. I don’t say that as a criticism at all. She is very open-minded and intellectually curious,” Bennett said. “So I think she’s going about it in the right way. It’s wise for her to be talking to and listening to folks in all parts of the Democratic spectrum.”
Bennett said Third Way, which strongly opposes a single payer system, was disappointed in Harris’s January remark that suggested she favors eliminating private insurance, but was happy to see that she “modified that” position and is open to more incremental solutions like offering a government-run plan.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month in Detroit, Harris declined to weigh in on an intra-party spat about whether Trump represents an aberration from an otherwise consensus-oriented Republican Party, as Biden has argued, or a natural outgrowth of longstanding elements within the GOP that must be confronted.
Instead, she opted to assail Trump, an approach all Democrats can agree with.
“There is no question that this is a president who is not capable of leading in a way that is reflective of our values or reflective of the challenges we face,” Harris said.
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