Kamala Harris isn't afraid to show anger. That's progress — but is it good politics?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

It’s a little strange, in light of the dizzying array of right-now challenges that would confront a new president, that the first real clash among the Democratic candidates had to do with an almost 50-year-old debate over integrating schools that most of the electorate is too young to remember.

It’s even stranger because it turns out there’s really not a nickel’s worth of difference between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden when it comes to their actual positions on the subject of busing now — both of them see it, if you can parse Harris’s words, as something that can work but shouldn’t be federally mandated.

There’s no policy dispute here; Harris was just trying to grab center stage while also reminding everyone that Biden is really old and really white. Check and check.

What’s most remarkable about the back-and-forth over busing, though, is that a serious African-American candidate was willing to engage in that argument at all, let alone deliberately ignite it.

This may come as a shock to my millennial friends, but 20 years ago in this country it was assumed that no African-American man — and certainly not a black woman — could be elected president. Even when Barack Obama started running in 2007, liberals whispered, in some cases loudly, that his nomination would be a disaster.

(Here’s a piece I wrote at that time arguing the opposite. You know what they say about stopped clocks.)

Obama hurdled that obstacle, in large part, by running not as a black candidate in the mold of a Jesse Jackson, but as a Kennedyesque figure who just happened to be black. The only time he spoke at any length about racial justice was in an unemotional, expertly crafted speech designed to echo John Kennedy’s speech on Catholicism almost a half century earlier.

Contrast that with Harris, who took the very first opportunity she could find, at a moment during the first debate, to put her identity front and center.

“I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said testily, steamrolling the moderators who were trying to get control of the stage. She had come to Miami, in fact, to do just that.

This is a kind of progress, and it shouldn’t be overlooked. Obama’s victories, which made him only the second Democrat in 100 years to win a majority of the popular vote twice, made it safe for the next generation of African-American candidates to lean more into identity and race relations without being immediately written off.

Hillary Clinton deserves some credit here, too. That Harris and the other women onstage — most notably Elizabeth Warren — don’t hesitate to flash some raw emotion is a testament to the way that Clinton proved the idea of a female nominee plausible.

Clinton maintained a measured, cautious tone (often to her own detriment) for fear of awakening stereotypes about angry feminists; those who follow her seem to have less concern about letting it fly.

But progress in politics isn’t always a predictor of success. And for a party trying to take out a race-baiting president, there may be considerable risk in giving him exactly the kind of campaign he wants.

It’s always seemed to me that the key to Obama’s historic success, or at least the thing that made it possible, was an absence of resentment. In a country riven by racial tension, Obama never once telegraphed bitterness or grievance, a sense that he was running to even the score.

Had he been caught on tape, say, disparaging rural Americans as racist, in the same way Jesse Jackson was caught mocking Jews in 1984, his bid for the White House would have been over.

Of course, as anyone who knew Obama could have told you, that never would have happened, because that wasn’t his temperament or his experience. His optimism about social progress in America wasn’t an act.

Harris, like most of her Democratic rivals, doesn’t radiate much optimism. Her attack on Biden reflected, in both substance and tone, the mood of her party, which is fueled by a sense of identity-based injustice and contempt for President Trump’s America.

And it’s just not clear to me that the country is any more likely now than it ever was to elect a Democratic candidate who seems to think that most white men of a certain age — up to and including a guy who’s served a half century at the forefront of liberal politics — are racist and out of touch.

(Harris prefaced her remarks at that debate by saying she didn’t consider Biden a racist, but every word that came after said something else.)

Now, you may say to me: Dude, don’t be clueless. No Democrat is going to win next year by kowtowing to white guys. This election will be all about ginning up the base, and right now Democrats want nothing so much as a candidate who will call out white privilege and all of that.

To which I say: OK, but 2020 really isn’t a base election.

Sure, Trump has his 30-plus percent of voters who love the way he attacks the educated elite, or who are still stuck in the Civil War. But that wasn’t why he won in 2016.

His margin of victory very clearly came from 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, moderate Republicans and independents, who found him at least mildly distasteful but who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton.

Those voters despaired of Trump almost immediately after he took office, and they’re still looking for someplace else to go. That’s why they voted en masse for moderate Democrats in last year’s midterm elections.

The central question for Democrats in 2020 is whether they can give those Trump voters an acceptable alternative. My guess is it’s not a very high bar to clear.

About the only way to ensure Trump’s reelection, in fact, is to enable him to make this about white, male America versus everyone else. That’s what he’s been trying to do from day one.

So there’s a choice to be made here, before we get too far down the road with these debates and primaries.

Do you believe America has changed so much since Obama first ran that it would embrace an African-American candidate — or any candidate, for that matter — who wants to relitigate the race wars of the 1970s? Or do you believe it’s a country that will elect anyone — white or black, male or female — who seems capable of making America whole again?

Democratic voters might ask themselves that question. So, too, should their candidates.


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