Clumsy Kamala

Column: Why Kamala Harris may be her own worst enemy

Hannah Yoest / Flickr / Shutterstock
Illustration by Hannah Yoest / Photos: Flickr / Shutterstock
February 22, 2019

No Democrat running for president has had a better 2019 than Kamala Harris. The numbers tell the tale. The California senator was in the low single digits in polls conducted before her official launch on January 28. She is now in the low double digits, running third behind Joe Biden, who enjoys cosmic name recognition, and Bernie Sanders, whose devoted supporters brought him a second-place finish last time. But polls do not tell the whole story.

Harris raised $1.5 million in the day after declaring her candidacy. That number, impressive for a senator not even a third of the way through her first term, has been bested only by Sanders, a socialist who has a venture capitalist's talent for raising money. He brought in $5.9 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign. Harris, however, has something Sanders does not.

She is a fresh face of middle age (54 years) and of diverse background (her father is Jamaican, her mother Indian) whose chief rivals at the moment are two geriatric white men. As Democrats search for someone new to lead them against President Trump, Harris has distinguished herself from the field. Her CNN town hall drew record ratings, while Amy Klobuchar's flopped. And Harris leads the 2020 Democrats in social media interactions, according to an Axios/Newswhip study. She's had a good launch. But there's a caveat.

David Axelrod has described presidential campaigns as MRIs for the soul. He means that a candidate is subjected to pressures strong enough to reveal his or her true character. What voters get at the end of the process is a fuller picture of the men and women they choose to inhabit the White House. In these early weeks of what is certain to be a seemingly endless and certainly vitriolic campaign, Harris has demonstrated both strengths and weaknesses. Her strength is that she seems a perfect fit for the current shape of the Democratic Party. Her weakness is a blithe and insouciant manner that is sure to cause her trouble. In fact it already has. Consider three recent slipups.

The first took place during that CNN special. An audience member asked Senator Harris for her "solution to ensure that people have access to quality health care at an affordable price," and "does that solution involve cutting insurance companies as we know them out of the equation?" You bet it does, was Harris's answer. "We need to have Medicare For All. That's just the bottom line." Following up, Jake Tapper mentioned that Harris has co-sponsored a bill that would end employer-based insurance, which covers some 180 million Americans. "So," Tapper asked, "for people out there who like their insurance, they don't get to keep it?"

Harris seemed not to understand the magnitude of the change she supports. She mentioned the "process of going through an insurance company," how "going through all of that paperwork" has caused delays and headaches for many. "Let's eliminate all of that," she said. "Let's move on."

Actually, let's stay still for now, and ask the following questions. Harris promises to end the health coverage of millions without providing a satisfactory rationale for, or explanation of, her position. Does she really believe there won't be paperwork in government-run health care? Paperwork is government's specialty. And if the Obamacare mandate was unpopular, how will voters greet President Harris's mandate to "eliminate" the status quo that covers the vast majority? The substance of her answer was obvious catnip for Republicans always eager to "pounce," and the style was no less harmful. Harris did not give the impression that she took either the question or the implications of her answer all too seriously. This is something that happens often.

Moment two: On January 29, after Jussie Smollett claimed he had been attacked in a hate crime by two white Trump fans in the middle of a wintry Chicago night, Harris tweeted her support for the actor. "This was an attempted modern day lynching," she said. "No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate." What Harris did not mention were the curious details of the story—details that the Chicago Police Department investigated and finally debunked. It turns out Smollett was attacked not by white supremacists but by two Nigerian immigrants who he had put up to the job. The "modern day lynching" was a bogus, disgusting, and exploitative affront to the real victims of hatred. A prepared candidate would have expressed regret at her Tweet and familiarity with the case. Harris was not prepared.

During a visit to New Hampshire last weekend, a reporter asked Harris if she would like to revisit her words about Smollett. Harris clearly had no idea what the reporter was talking about. "Which Tweet? What Tweet?" she said. The reporter read the Tweet back to Harris. Who stood there, agog, looking to her aides for help. And who finally answered, "I think that the facts are still unfolding, and, um, I'm very, um concerned about obviously, the initial, um, allegation that he made about what might have happened." Except it didn't happen. Nor is it clear if Harris actually wrote the Tweet in support of Smollett. She might hold positions, including on health care, the details of which she is unaware. Which is a problem.

Anecdote three is a family matter. On February 11, Harris appeared on The Breakfast Club podcast. One of the hosts wanted to know if she was against legalizing marijuana. "That's not true," she said. "Look, I joke about it, I have joked about it. Half my family is from Jamaica, are you kidding me?" She's smoked weed herself. "I have. And I inhaled. I did inhale. It was a long time ago, but yes. I just broke news." She went on to explain that she smoked a joint, not a blunt. And that marijuana "gives people joy." Her father felt no joy, however, at Harris's answer.

In a statement released to the website Jamaica Global Online, Donald Harris, an economist, wrote: "My dear departed grandmothers (whose extraordinary legacy I described in a recent essay on this website), as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to their family's name, reputation, and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics. Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this controversy." Father's Day should be interesting.

What trips up Kamala Harris is an evident desire to please her audience. She wants no enemies to her left, no identity politics left untouched. She can't run as a prosecutor—crime fighting is so 1990s—but she can run as brash, bold, and woke. Her verbal miscues are possible evidence that this latest political fashion doesn't quite fit. She has made a habit of making unforced errors, and the game is only in its first month. Harris's Democratic opponents may be too blinkered or bashful to exploit this weakness. That will not be a problem for her Republican opponent.