Kamala Harris is Hillary 2.0
The smart money seems to be on Kamala Harris winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president¹. And yet the inevitability of her candidacy and the overwhelming odds of her victory are giving me deja vu. In Harris we have a woman made for the times. Smart, photogenic and firmly supported by powerful elites, it seems foolish to bet against her. After all isn’t a progressive biracial woman the perfect antidote to Donald Trump in 2020?
But doesn’t her campaign feel like that of another failed Democratic candidate whose time had come? In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the nomination from her party but failed to deliver the presidency. Here are a few reasons to think the same may happen to Harris in 2020.
Reason 1 — She has a Mixed Record
My favorite take on Harris’ run for office comes from satirical news site the Onion². In one image they shoot down the idea that her nomination will be a walk in the park.
Sure this news is fake, but California’s use of prison labor is very real. As Attorney General of the state, one of Harris’ top lawyers argued that parole was bad for California as it drained the pool of cheap workers³ (ie. the kind used to fight deadly wildfires for $1 an hour).
Harris’ record as San Francisco district attorney isn’t much better. In this position, she supported controversial legislation that would prosecute the parents of children who skipped school⁴. I still can’t imagine how any Democratic leader could defend such a racist and classist policy. Time and again, as both AG and district attorney Harris was on what one writer called “the wrong side of history”⁵.
With this kind of track record, is it any wonder that some on the left can only see Kamala Harris as an agent of state oppression? On Twitter, the hashtag #KamalaHarrisIsACop is the second to pop up when you search her name. Users who share this view have thousands of followers.
Like Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq war, Harris’ defense of regressive policies may come back to haunt her.
Reason 2 — She was Too Friendly to Bankers
in 2016, nothing was quite so damaging to Hillary Clinton’s nomination as her Goldman Sachs speeches. Her decision to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from banks looked either incompetent or corrupt.
Kamala Harris has similarly been accused of being too bank-friendly. While thousands of Californians were losing their homes to foreclosure during the financial crisis, attorney general Harris was signing a major deal with big banks. It limited bank liability in exchange for only token mortgage relief⁶. Although the deal she received was better than many others, it still let corporate giants get away with widespread fraud. As AG, Harris had considerable power to fight for homeowners and she failed to use it effectively.
Reason 3 — She’s Easy to Attack from the Left
Despite her mixed record, Kamala Harris has done a good job of presenting herself as a true progressive. As part of her campaign platform, she is promising trillions in new taxes, protection for low-income renters, Medicare-for-all, and bail reductions⁷. She’s has praised socialist upstart Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez. She’s even taken a page from Obama’s playbook and written a memoir to help contextualize her past decisions.
Of course, I’m not sure any of this is going to work. In the age of the internet, it’s not so easy to control the narrative. Hillary Clinton had a million-dollar PR team and took on what she thought were the most popular positions of the day. But despite all that and a million dollar war chest, Bernie Sanders fought her all the way to the convention.
Speaking of which, Bernie is back. Even if the rumors of his 2020 run don’t pan out, there will surely be progressive candidates with better bonafides than Harris. If her rivals are smart, they can easily attack Harris’ track record and her past coziness with large corporate interests. Personally, I feel the party momentum is with AOC and other young members who don’t play nice with the establishment the way that Harris does.
Reason 4 — She Was Anointed by the Media
The word most used to describe Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016 was “inevitable”. While Kamala Harris does not yet have unanimous support from the media, it is starting to feel that way. In the paper of record, she is listed first, before Elizabeth Warren and other would-be nominees⁸. On CNN, gushing articles praise everything from her charisma to her sorority years.
It’s understandable that in a year where some consider white men to be the biggest threat to the country, a biracial woman seems like a good option. And yet, similarly biracial candidate Tulsi Gabbard is routinely lambasted. CNN’s only coverage of Gabbard has been to smear her as anti-gay, or as a supporter of Bashar al-Assad. Both charges are deeply unfair and betray a clear favoritism within the media establishment.
If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the American people don’t like being herded into support for someone they don’t like. If the Harris-Media lovefest continues, it may produce the same kind of backlash.
Reason 5 — Her Messaging is Bad
While Kamala Harris has a much better stage presence than Hillary Clinton, her messaging ins’t any better. When announcing her candidacy, she unveiled her campaign slogan: “For the People”. While it is definitely more inclusive and less self-centered than Hillary’s “I’m With Her”, it’s still pretty anodyne.
I’m not saying that Harris needs loud red hats to energize her supporters, but “For the People” is a very vague statement. What ‘for the people’ is Harris promising exactly? Justice? Strength? Equality? If Kamala Harris really stood for anything, her motto would be a good place to put it.
This may also be an unfair gripe, but Harris’ memoir, “The Truths We Hold” sounds similarly muddled. There’s time for her team to hire better copywriters, but until then, this wishy-washy passive tone is exactly what sunk Hillary and Al Gore before her.
Reason 6 — She Might Seem Too Fake
Ok look, Kamala Harris is not nearly as wooden or weird as Hillary Clinton. Or Al Gore, or Mitt Romney for that matter. At the same time, it’s not clear that she has what Obama and Bill Clinton had, the ability to appear relatable. She definitely talks a good game and can dance about as well as any politician I’ve seen (AOC excepted). Still, it doesn’t quite feel organic. It’s this incongruence as much as her conflicting policy track record that allow Jacobin to call her two-faced⁸.
I’ll admit this last point is subjective. And, it’s possible that after 4 years of Trump, America will yearn for someone with more of a professional demeanor. Nevertheless, Donald Trump proved very capable of resonating with voters. Whoever wants to beat him will have to be even better at it.
1 — Betfair has her winning the nomination with 4/1 odds as of this writing https://www.betfair.com/exchange/plus/politics/market/1.128161111
2 — The onion has been prophetic before -https://politics.theonion.com/kamala-harris-assembles-campaign-staff-of-unpaid-califo-1831958905
6 — https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2019/01/kamala-harris-opportunist-core-launches-prez-bid-mlk-day-since-remind-people-shes-black-criminalizing-truancy-keeping-ca-prison-rolls-provide-cheap-labor-sends-t.html
8 — Technically, the article refers to her policies as being both conservative and progressiv, thus having “two faces” https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/08/kamala-harris-trump-obama-california-attorney-general