After she confronted Joe Biden in the Democratic Party’s first presidential debate in June, California Senator Kamala Harris moved up in polls and seemed to become a top-tier candidate. Instead, the former state attorney-general and San Francisco district attorney has became the latest White House hopeful to peak too soon. Her announcement on Tuesday that she was dropping out of the race had long seemed inevitable amid reports of campaign disarray.
Given Harris’ considerable skills as a candidate – both on the stump and in direct interactions with voters and journalists – the argument will be made that she simply picked the wrong election cycle to run in. With many Democratic voters deeming electability a deciding factor, resistance to voting for someone with a relatively low national profile from such a progressive state was likely a factor, too.
But Harris’ basic failing as a candidate was her inability to boil down her core message and consistently sell it in a way that broke through and stood out. After her June surge, Harris tried to finesse questions about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call for “Medicare for All” with cliches that sought to reassure both voters who back a single-payer system and those who fear Warren’s plan to eliminate private health insurance. This put Harris on the defensive at the second Democratic debate and led to criticism of what Biden aides called the “have-it-every-which-way approach.” She handled it poorly.
Harris’ problems transcended strategy, though. Most notable was the gap between her depiction of her record as a politician and her actual record. In an era of progressive politics and in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Harris can claim her “Back on Track” pretrial diversion programme in San Francisco – allowing young drug offenders with clean records to avoid prison – as a model by the National District Attorneys Association. But amid the 20,000 people who attended a raucous Oakland rally in January to kick off her campaign were protesters who turned out to warn that the real Harris was anything but a criminal justice reformer.
That same month, this case was laid out in lacerating fashion in The New York Times by law professor Lara Bazelon. Bazelon wrote that not only had Harris been tepid on or opposed to criminal justice reforms that reduced jail sentences for many minor offences and made parole easier to get, she also fought to uphold wrongful convictions that had been gained through “official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.” Bazelon’s citations were thorough and powerful.
This is hardly the end for Harris. She has three years left on her Senate term. The African American and Indian American senator could still end up on the Democratic national ticket next summer or in a White House Cabinet in 2021. But her history on law and order will always be held against her by a significant number of Democrats – and her perceived sins on law and order are far more recent than the 30-year-old ones for which Biden has apologised.
Harris’ exit should make others among the dozen or so candidates in the Democratic field look hard at their polling, fundraising and future – and reconsider what’s next. Harris made the right call. She has the potential to be an inspiring national leader at a time when America needs one, now and later. – Tribune News Service
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