Kamala Harris Mattered, and Still Does

The commercial wasn’t meant to serve as an epitaph. Kamala Harris’ November 20 ad remains arguably the boldest argument both from any of the Democratic candidates to be president and for Donald Trump to be a one-termer. She captured the essential, tangible dilemma at hand, skipping talk of battling for something as nebulous and imaginary as “America’s soul.” At a time when people want real solutions, it presented an offer of real leadership.

Over 53 seconds, the narrator in “The Antidote to Trump” states correctly and matter-of-factly that the current White House occupant is a con artist and a “sex predator” and that Harris, the former California prosecutor, is experienced in handling such people. “And in every possible way, this is the anti-Trump.” That is how the narrator describes Harris. “So if that’s what you’re looking for in your next president, there’s really only one: Kamala.” 

The ad’s copy echoed an assessment I made in the final paragraph of my profile of Harris for Rolling Stone’s August issue: that, indeed, no one in the Democratic primary could be more “anti-Trump” than an African American woman of both Jamaican and Tamil Indian heritage who believes in law and order rather than wields it as a political cudgel to reinforce white supremacy. 

However, inherent in that very description lay the seeds of her political damnation. Little did Harris know that the ad would serve not as the dramatic and forceful pivot that she may have been hoping for, but as the defiant and dying blow, struck as her campaign was unknowingly breathing its last.

We can note the mistakes of the Kamala Harris campaign while recognizing that the road became tougher for her, throughout the campaign, simply because she inhabits the body and skin that she does. No other candidate saw herself targeted, at as high a perch, by as many racist and sexist attacks as Harris. That isn’t surprising, being that she was the most high-profile female candidate of color and our strange and terrible politics and societal standards are still oriented to make presidential runs especially challenging for anyone who isn’t a white guy. But one of those great “only in America” ironies of this abbreviated Harris campaign is that her race and gender may be both what may have limited her ambitions and what may yet make her run so historic in years to come. 

Harris may have been the most publicly imperfect of the top-tier Democratic candidates, and that is why she is no longer a candidate at all. She didn’t even make it to Iowa, in part, because she has a political future to protect. Her endorsement will be valuable, and it is doubtful that this the last we’ve heard from her in the 2020 conversation. However, her campaign’s clumsy policy launches often deflated the strength of her branding and her powerful embrace of her heritage. Her reversals on medical plans weren’t articulated well, and news cycles and public confusion often buried her best ideas, such as a recent education proposal to modernize the school day to aid working families.

Even the “anti-Trump” message failed to truly cut through the maelstrom of obsession with, well, Trump. Even if it wasn’t Harris herself, voters seeking to fire this charlatan of a president should have been seeking a polar opposite to him.  Instead, it appears that the Democratic electorate is battling it out between two visions that seem like riskier bets. It actually seems wiser, to me, to follow the candidates who see Trump as a wobbly incumbent, leaving an opening to pursue brazenly progressive visions for the nation. We have been down the road before with careful moderates who are out campaigning like the typical Democrats of the past, more concerned with turning off voters who chose a white nationalist last time around (and appear ready to do so again) than about turning out their own loyal base. 

Meanwhile, Harris appeared to at least recognize that the president’s white patriarchy has calcified a very significant chunk of the electorate that wasn’t worth pursuing. But she never seemed to form the coherent message she needed to maintain momentum — until it was too late.

Suspending her campaign suddenly on Tuesday afternoon with a four-minute goodbye video, Harris said that “I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign,” a quote that had particular resonance with the emerging omnipresence of oligarch candidates Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer on the airwaves. “And as the campaign has gone on, it’s become harder and harder to raise the money we need to compete.” (It has been rumored that Steyer, a fellow Californian whose effort benefited from stolen data from the Harris campaign, may challenge Harris for her Senate seat in 2022, a race that may have become even more competitive had she not met the December 26 deadline to remove her name from the ballot and faced an embarrassing loss in next February’s state primary.) As per a recent New York Times report and other exposés, her campaign appeared to be a mess, rife with mismanagement that stemmed from the top.

When I interviewed Harris in July, I noted that the ballyhooed busing moment with Joe Biden was the first time that a person who had been subject to that policy was able to confront a person who had authored it. That had meaning and still does, even as she concedes. It is a shame that Harris is out of the race, if for no other reason than she will no longer physically be in it. Her prosecutorial background caused many black voters and others in the social-justice space to dismiss her categorically, many without investigating the nuances of her history or bothering to interrogate her about it. “Kamala is a cop” metastasized, and she was written off. But I would wager that the image of her, the third black woman to run for president as a member of a major party, will not be forgotten anytime soon. She didn’t shatter that proverbial ceiling, but it is more fragile today.

Personally, I will also miss Harris being in the race for the sole fact that she was making one of the boldest and most fascinating cases of any candidate: that a black woman, who was already a prosecutor, could convince an increasingly black electorate that she could go inside a system that has burned our people time and time again and change that system as president. It is one that worked when Harris ran for San Francisco district attorney and California A.G., but she wasn’t running against the possibility of a second Trump term back then. 

That being said, I should address her lack of popularity inside black communities. Black voters, in particular, have become accustomed to a pragmatism that the rest of the Democratic electorate is now being introduced. White voters, and white candidates, traditionally have self-determination in politics that people of color do not. Barack Obama aside, perhaps, we generally vote out of need rather than want. We are rarely afforded the opportunity to manifest our dreams in the political realm; too often we are merely looking to dodge nightmares. 

Yes, Harris left partly due to the big money that we must cleanse from our politics — even though she herself was soliciting that cash to stay afloat and out of debt. However, it is also due, in large part, to the fact that black voters weren’t choosing her. She trailed significantly in South Carolina, the first African American stronghold of the primary calendar and the place where she had to make a stand if she had stayed in. She didn’t even make it as far as her role model, Shirley Chisholm, did in the 1972 presidential contest; running to defeat Richard Nixon, Chisholm managed to earn votes and delegates. Harris surely did the best she could, with her philosophies and experience as a woman of color inside this racist and sexist America. And this is how far that gets you in 2019. Not even into 2020.

It indeed may be a testimony to these Trumpian times that Harris couldn’t even meet her hero’s bar. The president and his party continue to successfully turn the cultural debate about race on its head, emboldening white victimhood even as their policies exacerbate actual racism. Unless there is a Charlottesville or a Flint, news networks fail to understand that racial discrimination and violence are white problems to solve. As such, in presidential primary coverage, we see candidates of color — such as Harris, Cory Booker, and Julián Castro — become subject to more scrutiny on race and racism from the press and their competitors than their white competitors. (Andrew Yang, of Taiwanese descent, does not have a similar record to examine.) 

This is not to say that those candidates shouldn’t be held accountable for their records in California, Newark, and San Antonio, respectively. But Biden, the 1994 crime bill author who had clearly shown that he does not meet the antiracist standard that Democrats should be seeking in any presidential nominee going up against Trump, still enjoys a comfortable and seemingly uncritical advantage amongst black voters. Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor from Indiana, seemingly can’t attract black support — but is consistently treated like a frontrunner by mainstream outlets because he polls highly in heavily white states like Iowa. Amy Klobuchar has faced exactly one question on a debate stage about her own prosecutorial record, which is rife with its own racial controversies.

Now that Harris has dropped out of the race and a December debate for which she had qualified, we will see a stage in a few weeks that will reflect what even the so-called left in this country thinks “electability” looks like. With the addition of Bloomberg (though he won’t be debating), it much wealthier than just a few weeks ago. It is nearly all male. It’s pretty old. And, yes, Liz Cheney, it is all white. 

It is true that Harris and her people didn’t do enough before she launched her presidential campaign to introduce her to black electorates nationwide, eschewing the kinds of appearances on black radio and other media platforms that one has to make in order to get oneself familiarized and, more importantly, trusted. However, what she was able to represent, in her person, on the campaign trail, and on the debate stages, was indelible. 

I cannot fully explain the collapse of a campaign that, as recently as four months ago, was shooting to the top of the polls after a uniquely vulnerable moment involving her personal history with race occurred on a national platform. I am unsure that is what matters most right now. Trump has created such a problem that it is difficult for anyone, candidate or voter, to focus on anything else. The president is a human emergency, and in such situations, our society’s imagination remains limited by a lack of attention. If that has a direct impact on the possibilities for a president who looks like Kamala Harris, that is regrettable.

Harris wasn’t able to sell voters on what she was trying to argue, that is clear. But we don’t need to have wanted her to be president to understand the value of her run. If we ever want to make it possible to elect a black woman president of the United States, we need to be electing fewer Joe Bidens and more Liz Warrens and Bernie Sanderses. Progress doesn’t happen unless you push people. The left has to stop being worried about what Republicans will do and how they will vote and mobilize their own people behind policy goals, not potential saviors. Along the way, they’ll make history almost by accident; consider how many future Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Ayanna Presleys and Ro Khannas and Chokwe Lumumbas are out there to be inspired to run for office because they see, first, someone who looks like them doing it. Representation isn’t the whole thing, but it can be the first thing. We have to expand, anew, the Democratic imagination of what is possible. Just because Harris wasn’t able to make the case doesn’t mean that someone else shouldn’t try.

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