The news that Elizabeth Warren has finally hit double digits in a recent poll has apparently been interpreted by many Democratic pollsters as a sign that her “message” is finally starting to resonate with voters. Never mind that if you combine her numbers with those of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden is still in the lead for the nomination. Never mind that in most of the swing states Democrats need in order to win back the White House, Warren is among the weakest of the potential contenders in a head to head matchup with Trump. But, hey, let’s not let a little thing like facts get in the way of a good storyline.
But the real mystery of the 2020 campaign has nothing to do with Warren or Sanders; in fact, it’s a mystery that most pundits haven’t spent nearly enough time on. And it has to with Kamala Harris. To put it succinctly, her campaign hasn’t gotten off the ground. But for one or two polls showing her in the mid teens, she remains marred in the single digits.
It’s unfathomable to me that a women of color who is an accomplished prosecutor from a state whose economy and population would rival most industrialized countries isn’t doing better in the polls. Why is this? Granted Harris isn’t the most charismatic speaker on the campaign trail; next to her Barack Obama comes off looking like a cross between Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. But four years ago one of the least charismatic Democratic candidates the party ever produced – Hillary Clinton – ran away with the nomination. So the charisma thing, if you ask me, is a bit overrated.
I have seen Harris at her best, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Did you see the way in which she interrogated Attorney General William Barr? It was something to behold. I can assure you if I were ever a defendant in a case Harris was prosecuting, I’d instruct my attorney to change my plea from innocent to guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the court. I figure I’d get a better outcome from the judge than from the jury once Harris was done. That’s how good she is.
Some have suggested that part of Harris’s problem is that she hasn’t carefully articulated her vision for the country. There’s just one problem with that assessment: it isn’t true. Harris was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and she recently came out in favor of pay parity. If that isn’t a clear vision I don’t know what is. But here’s the thing: even if Harris had failed to come to the table with actual policies, being deliberately vague apparently hasn’t kept Biden from jumping out to a huge double digit lead. So I don’t think that’s the reason.
Nor do I think it has anything to do with brand-name recognition. Even in her home state of California, where she is very popular, she’s still in third place, behind Biden and Sanders. Though to be fair, that poll was taken in early April. A lot can change in two months. But even in South Carolina, a state with a large African American population, Harris, in a poll taken just two weeks ago, is in 4th place, trailing Biden, Sanders and even Warren. Wow! If Harris, a high-profile African American woman, can’t beat out two white candidates, who as of yet have failed to make inroads in the black community, that’s a real problem.
I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out why Harris isn’t doing better in the polls, and then I happened upon a piece written by Clare Malone of fivethirtyeight.com, titled oddly enough, “Kamala Harris Is More Interested In Telling You What She Believes Than Who She Is.”
Harris is hardly the first political candidate who has struggled letting the voters into the inner sanctum. At the 2016 Democratic Convention, it was left to Bill Clinton to explain to the entire nation just what kind of person Hillary was. That’s right, a woman who’d been in politics for over three decades didn’t feel it necessary to share her bio, so her husband had to do it for her.
But there’s an additional element to Harris’s story that complicates things a bit. Malone cites an interview she did with former Obama advisor David Axelrod in which Axelrod, not wanting to discount her accomplishments as a prosecutor, said, “I want to get to that and your career in the law, but I just want to hear a little more about your folks and about the sort of cross-cultural upbringing and how that helped shape you.”
For most politicians that invitation would’ve been like manna from Heaven. Imagine an interviewer saying to an interviewee, can we put off talking about your accomplishments and instead talk about you? My God, Joe Biden would never have shut up. Pete Buttigieg, to his credit, has made it a central part of his campaign. And all of us remember Obama’s story and how integral it was to his success in ’08. But for Harris, it might as well have been like asking an English major to talk about string theory. Her reply to Axelrod was quite telling.
Well, you know, it’s funny, David. … But in my career, when I was district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and even now as a United States senator, in each position, I was ‘the first.’ And in particular when I was DA and AG, reporters would come up to me and ask me this really original question, put a microphone in front of my face: ‘So what’s it like to be the first woman — fill in the blank, DA, AG. And I’d look at them not knowing how to answer that question, and I would tell them, ‘I really don’t know how to answer that question because, you see, I’ve always been a woman, but I’m sure a man could do the job just as well.’
Did you get that last part? The one about how a man could do the job just as well? I’m sure part of that is from her training as a lawyer. Lawyers, especially prosecutors, are trained to always consider both sides of a legal argument. That’s because they are often asked to write briefs in support of a motion they are making, and those briefs must include opposing rulings that the judge might consider. Failing to do so could hinder their chances at winning the case. In fact, as an officer of the court, Harris had a singular responsibility to the law that transcended any agenda she might’ve had as a prosecutor.
But politics isn’t the law. In fact, it’s the polar opposite. In politics, as in sales, the primary objective is to sell yourself, who you are as a person, and why that should matter to the customer / voter. Obama understood that; indeed, most successful politicians understand it. The ability to create a personal narrative within the electorate is as important, if not more so, than having an impressive resume, which Harris certainly has. That might explain why the most qualified candidate for the presidency in the nation’s history lost to a snake-oil salesman with the attention span of a gnat in 2016.
I submit that what may be holding Harris back isn’t her talent or her credentials, or lack thereof, but her unwillingness to let her hair down and have that moment with the people. Perhaps she’s concerned that if she talks about her personal experiences, she’ll be perceived as someone who’s looking to make her gender and race a campaign issue. Funny, being the first “fill in the blank” never stopped a first term, black senator from Illinois from ascending the ladder all the way to the White House. While Obama never made his race an issue, he never ran away from it, either. He had a compelling and unique story to tell and he did just that.
Kamala Harris might do well to read his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and borrow a page or two or three from it before it’s too late.