Can Kamala Come Back?

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The chants by her imported crowd at the Democratic National Committee summer meeting smacked of desperation. “She’s smart, she’s strong, with Kamala we can’t go wrong!”

Yep, Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign has seen better days. 

Harris’ tumble in the Democratic primary race has worried donors and supporters after her launch attracted huge crowds amid high expectations. A rising charismatic and accomplished star, they did think she couldn’t go wrong. They also figured she could ride her early summer ascent to a face-off with the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. After all, her decision to jolt her campaign by attacking Biden at the first candidate debate had initially proven successful -- Harris had left him wobbly-kneed and doubted. New endorsements came in from the Congressional Black Caucus, along with a surge in donations, and media accounts of voters and insiders talking about her unique ability to “prosecute the case” against  Donald Trump, as the former California attorney general likes to say.

But last week a CNN national poll that had her at 17% support -- in second place -- in June now showed her in fourth place with only 5%. In the new USA Today/Suffolk University Poll out Wednesday, Harris is at 6% but now in fifth place, behind Pete Buttigieg. 

A few things have contributed to Harris’ decline, but nothing more so than the fact that she gambled on health care -- the most important issue of the midterms and likely of next year’s election -- and got it wrong. An original co-sponsor of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan, Harris began campaigning on it a year ago, long before she announced her candidacy, by way of ads on Facebook and other platforms where petitions invited clickers to share their email addresses -- which she would, of course, later use for fundraising. 

California’s junior senator stuck to that position for nearly another year and through the first debate in June, raising her hand when asked if she would eliminate private insurance. But Harris equivocated the next morning, saying she misunderstood the question and wouldn’t take away anyone’s insurance, she was simply willing to give up her own. 

Last month she introduced her own plan, which retains some private health insurance but creates a 10-year path to Medicare for All. Two weeks ago she told donors at a fundraiser in the Hamptons she realized Sanders’ proposal “wasn’t the best plan” and that “over the course of many months I’ve not been comfortable with Bernie’s plan,” and “I don’t want to be in the business of just taking a choice from them without figuring out a way to create options.”

The Sanders campaign had already dismissed her proposal as something “cobbled together to address various poll numbers,” and then the proud Democratic socialist followed up on her comments to donors with this tweet: “I don’t go to the Hamptons to raise money from billionaires. If I ever visited there I would tell them the same thing I have said for the last 30 years: We must pass a Medicare for All system.”

Harris has other vulnerabilities, including her record as a tough-on-crime attorney general, which black party leaders fear turns off too many black voters. “She’s a fraud on criminal justice reform,” as one congressional source described it. And her bungling of health care is exacerbated by other positions she has changed, such as legalizing marijuana and whether the next president should prosecute Trump once he leaves office. She changed her mind again recently when she first declined to attend the CNN climate town hall, citing schedule constraints, but then decided to attend once she attracted criticism.  

The day after she unleashed on Biden over school busing, Harris went so far as to suggest a return to the practice in 2019 because schools are even more segregated today. She hasn’t said that again. But as triumphant as she and her team felt that morning, some Democrats have described their reaction to her treatment of Biden as viscerally negative, and they saw it as a calculated broadside. There was (perhaps premeditated) gloating, with T-shirts bearing the words “That little girl was me” and the image of a young, pigtailed Harris, ready for sale on her website the following morning. 

At the second debate, Harris didn’t respond well to being attacked herself, and didn’t seem to have much of a second act. Right now, she is looking like Beto O’Rourke: overestimated and reconsidered. Her flip-flop-reflop on health care made her look unserious, her take-down of Biden now looks like a mistake, and the momentum of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with Bernie’s durability in polling, have kept her well out of the top three. 

To get back in the conversation Harris has released a new program to help people with disabilities, and launched a new, plucky campaign applause line about Trump -- “Dude’s gotta go” -- that her husband and other supporters are circulating in GIF form. It’s clever, and some people want it on a T-shirt, but it highlights her central weakness: that she has no message. Yes, she’s super-accomplished and smart and attractive -- and a black woman -- but unlike Biden’s pitch that he’s the only Democrat who can win, or Warren or Bernie’s calls to reorder the economy, Beto’s more implicit appeal of potentially winning 38 electoral votes in Texas, or even Cory Booker’s call for love, Harris doesn’t have much of a sales pitch, and she doesn’t have a base.

Warren’s surge has produced predictable comparisons, and Harris is learning that the Massachusetts senator not only got started on her white papers earlier and more effectively than anyone else, but that she has been shrewdly lobbying the party establishment. In between her public appearances calling for revolution on the campaign trail, Warren, according to the New York Times, has been meeting with superdelegates and officials to assure them she is a team player who can position herself to win over the general electorate should she secure the nomination. She is also reminding them of her extensive help for candidates -- as well as the party -- during the 2018 midterms. 

At this point, Harris can’t shake the perception that she’s not only running for number two, but that she is a number two. This reportedly makes her and her staff angry, though their belief that she could run solely on her resume and her fabulousness now appear naive. 

“Harris is clearly among the most talented of the Democrats, and has room to grow if things come together,” said a longtime Democratic strategist. “But her inexperience in national politics has also come through, and it has cost her.” 

Harris could still be president one day. Because more than anyone in the field she is best positioned to be vice president-elect at the end of next year.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 



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