Can Kamala Harris Leave California Behind?
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Can Kamala Harris Leave California Behind?
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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Back when California was a swing state, it was commonplace to have a Golden Stater on the national ticket. Not that it made all that much difference. Dwight Eisenhower would have won twice regardless of his running mate, but it’s a matter of record that he ran with Richard Nixon, the pride of Yorba Linda. 

Later, Nixon would win two terms, carrying his home state twice, as did transplanted Californian Ronald Reagan.

Prior to Nixon’s first veep foray, then-California Gov. Earl Warren landed the number-two spot on the Republican ticket with Thomas Dewey. Despite the famous Chicago Daily Tribune headline stating otherwise, Dewey did not defeat Truman. And Warren failed to carry his home state (the Democratic ticket prevailed by fewer than 18,000 votes, just one-half of 1% of the statewide tally).

The point is: Warren’s and Nixon’s presences on their respective tickets weren’t difference makers. Americans liked Ike and found Dewey dull. The same may prove true for California Sen. Kamala Harris, now that she’s been introduced as Joe Biden’s running mate

But maybe not. There still is something about California.

The knee-jerk temptation is to label the choice of Harris as a sop to a reliably Democratic black vote that underperformed in 2016 once confronted with the uninspiring and monochromatic Clinton-Kane ticket, plus the Biden campaign giving into late pressure to make the pick not just a woman, but a woman of color.

If so, then we have a matter that’s black and white – with shades of gray.

While Harris is described as “black” (her father is of Jamaican descent) and did attend historically black Howard University, she couldn’t connect with African American voters in early-primary South Carolina despite frequent visits to the Palmetto State, which is why she was the third of the 2020 Democrats to announce for president and the third to drop out.

Nor was Harris the “veepstakes” front-runner as far as tear-inducing People magazine profiles go. That was the province of Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq and gave birth as a U.S. senator.

The word I can’t get past, going back to the earlier problem with Hillary Clinton’s failed run: inspirational. Or, more precisely: cool.

As in, the cool that comes that comes from not only looking good but living the good life in the Golden State (Harris lives in a $4.8 million home in the fashionable enclave of Brentwood, also the home to countless celebrities who can soon expect fundraising invitations).

It might be seen as an obvious gambit for a political party funded by billionaires while tailoring its policies to the identity politics of poor minorities. Harris hits both themes. Viewed another way, it’s an odd and politically tone-deaf calculation.

By putting Harris on the ticket, the Democrats now have to defend the same Golden State that Harris has represented in Washington for less than one term (the same amount of time in federal office as Barack Obama).

From the left’s perspective, the land of abundant sunshine and endless summers (that is, when the governor hasn’t ordered the beaches closed) is the answer to what ails America: one-party rule that won’t hesitate to raise taxes or launch grandiose government schemes in the name of social and racial justice.

That same California doesn’t always make sense. Massive outdoor protests against the police are permissible and aren’t deemed a risk to the public’s health safety; yet, freedom to worship on a smaller scale and under one roof is a ticket to contagion – thus churches get closed.

It’s also a state that Democrats are running into the ground. In Los Angeles, disease-ridden homeless encampments are the embodiment of chronic urban blight (that city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, served on Biden’s search committee). In Sacramento, the state government can’t print unemployment checks or accurately count COVID cases (the state’s health director lost her job over that fiasco).

But if one is confined to Wilmington, Del., then California is Democratic elegance incarnate. If you doubt that, then check out the second season of “The Politician” on Netflix, which features a fashionable Santa Barbara matriarch, played by the Goop-chiseled Gwyneth Paltrow, running for governor of California.

Only, Paltrow’s character doesn’t so much seek office as she dispenses dialogue that’s either condescending or insulting -- be it talking down to troglodyte Republicans or ducking nitwit reporters – and pushes an agenda that would be dead on arrival in most any swing state (a ban on all plastic goods; big blue states seceding to form their own nation).

The point: Paltrow’s character glides through politics with a confident, almost oblivious stride. Perhaps that’s how the Biden campaign views Harris. She’s articulate, fashionable and, like Paltrow’s fictional Georgina Hobart, doesn’t seem to have paid a price for often impugning the worst in other people. Only in America could a presidential candidate tell a rival that, in effect, he knows little about being an oppressed minority because he wasn’t part of a desegregation experiment, then wind up as that rival’s running mate.

Life doesn’t necessarily imitate art. Whereas Georgina Hobart flies over most of the America land mass en route to her son in New York, Kamala Harris won’t enjoy coast-hopping from one blue bubble to another from now until Election Day.

The junior partner in the Biden-Harris ticket likely will be dispatched to western Pennsylvania, not the Westside of L.A. or Manhattan. Brentwood bistros will give way to working-class diners; Soul Cycle and Equinox will give way to Gold’s Gym and 24 Hour Fitness. When it’s time to hit the road, California’s junior senator will need to hide the Tesla fob and embrace SUVs and pickup trucks.

Along the way, we’ll discover: When Kamala Harris leaves California, can she leave California behind?

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow, follows California and national politics and hosts Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at


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