Kamala Harris, Running Scared

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Announcing a run for the presidency should have been enough for Kamala Harris. She was considered a front-runner for good reasons. She’s savvy and has a certain charisma. She has a prosecutor’s commanding presence. In a bid for a party that sees itself as the vanguard of a more racially diverse and progressive future, she comes from the vanguard state leading America there – California.

And then there’s what pundits have called the “history-making” aspect of her campaign. It may seem silly in retrospect, but in 2007 and 2008, liberals and conservatives both questioned whether Barack Obama’s white mother and his upbringing in Hawaii so removed him from the experience of most African-American voters that they would not accept him. Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign in the South was premised on the idea that many black voters would trust the Clinton name over a relative newcomer.

In 2018 there is an overwhelming consensus among political observers that not only can a woman of color become president of the United States, but that Kamala Harris is well-positioned to do so. Harris should have used her announcement to encourage reporters, and the larger chattering class, to dwell on this astonishing testament to progress.

Instead the opening week for this formidable Democrat has been dogged by the question of whether a tough-minded, law-and-order prosecutor like Harris can win the Democratic nomination. Progressive Democrats who are already committed to the social-democratic visions of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been unloading on social media, spreading videos of Harris talking like a Nixonite about crime, hoping to show that she is not only at odds with the activist base of the Democratic party, but with the whole country, which just saw the bipartisan passage of a criminal-justice-reform bill that sought to bring more leniency to the system.

Everyone knew that progressive outcry was coming. Harris seems to have let it bait her into an ill-thought-out dash leftward on economic issues, namely her co-sponsorship with Bernie Sanders of a “Medicare-for-all” bill. This imperative of mollifying the Democratic Left during her rollout week prompted her cavalier remark that she would be happy to see all private health insurance abolished in the United States under her presidency. “Let’s eliminate all of that,” she told Jake Tapper.

The explosiveness of this statement should be obvious to everyone. President Obama’s most infamous piece of oratory was his constantly repeated false promise, “If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” It was the lie necessary to pass Obamacare. But Harris told the ugly truth that could cause the crucial and growing sector of upwardly mobile Democrats to defect. She said: If you like your health-insurance plan, you’re going to lose it.

And then, within a day, her campaign was backpedalling. Surrogates reminded reporters that she had also sponsored bills that were not as draconian as the one she co-sponsored with Sanders. They explained that she just wanted to get the ball rolling.

It was a very telling misstep for Harris, one that reflects a Democratic attitude. Social media gives left-leaning activists a powerful tool for organizing and getting their voice heard by Democratic leaders and opinion-shapers. But at the same time, the Democrats are experiencing a surge of college-educated, upwardly mobile suburban voters who militantly defend the status quo when it benefits them. Even a popular Democratic figure like Obama found it impossible to eliminate the preferment given to 529 college savings accounts, which are used overwhelmingly by the most privileged Americans.

The social-media revolution and the current fluidity of America’s electoral coalitions mean that this is an unusually opportune time for citizens and activists to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. Kamala Harris is running scared of left-wing and moderate Democrats already. She won’t be the only one.

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