Political News

Kamala Harris tried to be everything to everyone -- and failed miserably

Posted December 3, 2019 3:44 p.m. EST

— Quick -- tell me in 10 words or less why Kamala Harris was running for president.

Was it:

a) To be a populist fighter "for the people," as her campaign slogan promised?

b) To be a more electable version of the liberal policies espoused by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?

c) To be a more liberal version of pragmatic pols like Joe Biden?

d) To be a much-needed voice for women in Donald Trump's America?

e) To be a history maker -- as the first woman of color to be a major-party presidential nominee?

At different points throughout her campaign, which ended Tuesday afternoon in an email sent to supporters, Harris tried to be all of those things (and more). And that attempt to be everything everyone wanted in a presidential candidate ultimately contained the seeds of her slow but steady fall from relevance in the presidential race over the past year. And her ultimate decision to end her candidacy before a single voter had cast a ballot.

Before we jump to the end of her campaign, it's important to remember where Harris started.

When Harris formally entered the presidential race in January, she was seen -- by dint of her charisma, her profile (first African American woman and first Indian American woman elected to the Senate in California), her resume (former prosecutor and California attorney general) and her fundraising base in a giant (and giantly Democratic) state -- as one of the front-runners.

And her performance in the early days of the race did little to dissuade that sense. Her announcement in her native Oakland drew a massive crowd and received laudatory coverage. Her performance in the first Democratic presidential debate in late June amounted to a star-is-born moment -- and polling in the wake of that debate showed Harris soaring into a dead heat at the top of the field with former Vice President Joe Biden.

But even in those earliest days of the race you can see -- in retrospect -- the message confusion that eventually crippled the campaign.

In announcing her campaign January 21 on "Good Morning America," Harris sought to present herself as a history-making candidate along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr. ("I'm honored to be able to make my announcement on the day that we commemorate" King, she said) and as a sort of political warrior for the average Joe ("I have the unique experience of having been a leader in local government, state government and federal government. The American public wants a fighter ... and I'm prepared to do that.")

In her standout performance in the first debate, Harris won applause both for her call for the candidates to stop fighting with one another (Harris as uniter) and for hitting Biden as insensitive in his past opposition to school busing (Harris as historical figure).

Once Harris came out of that first debate as the star in the field, her tendency to try to be everything to everyone only got worse -- typified best by her struggles to articulate exactly what she thought about "Medicare for All" -- the proposal, favored by liberals within the party, that would get rid of all private health insurance in favor of a government-run system.

In the first debate, all 20(!) candidates were asked to signal by a show of hands whether they supported eliminating private health insurance. Only Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and Harris raised their hands. Within minutes of the debate's conclusion, Harris' campaign was working in overdrive to walk that back. "So, the question was would you be willing to give up your private insurance," Harris said the following morning in an interview with CBS. When one of the CBS anchors noted that that wasn't how the question was asked, Harris replied, "That is certainly what I heard," adding: "I am supportive of a 'Medicare for All' policy, and under a 'Medicare for All' policy, private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage."

(Harris had done a similar flip-flop in January when pressed by CNN's Jake Tapper about whether she supported eliminating all private heath insurance.)

By the time Harris released her own health care plan in late July, she had officially walked away from her past support for eliminating private health insurance. And her plan wound up being a metaphor for her broader problems in the race. It wasn't liberal enough for liberals ("I like Kamala," Sanders said on CNN at the time. "She's a friend of mine, but her plan is not 'Medicare for All.' ") and it was too liberal for the more moderate wing of the party ("the new, have-it-every-which-way approach pushes the extremely challenging implementation of the 'Medicare for All' part of this plan 10 years into the future," said Biden's deputy campaign manager.)

Take this all out of the context of politics. Put it, for example, into the context of tennis. In tennis, there are two "good" places to be on the court if you want to improve your chances of winning the point: at the baseline or at the net. The one place you really do not want to be in tennis is in that dead man's zone between the service lines and the baselines. You're neither at the net nor at the baselines -- caught between the two, you wind up trying to hit balls back that keep landing at your feet. It's a stone-cold loser.

That's how presidential races -- and, really, all political races -- work. While a candidate is always more than one thing (Harris, of course, can be both a candidate who could make history while also being a populist fighter), the candidate and the campaign have to decide early on what particular message they want to be front and center. Voters tend to pay scant attention to politics even in the best of times. And that's doubly true when you are talking about a field that topped at above 20 announced candidates. People need to know the thing you care most about, the thing that defines you, the bumper sticker message of your campaign.

Harris and her campaign could never decide what that was. As a result, she was forever in that dead man's zone -- too liberal enough for moderates, too moderate for liberals, too much focus on race and gender for some, too little focus on race and gender for others, not enough demonstrated electability for some, too much focus on electability for others.

In trying to be everything, Harris wound up, to many Democratic voters, to stand for, well, not much. And that is a political loser every time.

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