Just six months ago Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) delivered an impressive debate performance, unnerving former vice president Joe Biden and rocketing in the polls. On Tuesday, she announced she was suspending her campaign, citing lack of money.
How did Harris go from rising star to a pre-Iowa exit? Here was a candidate who (when she was “on”) was passionate, funny, empathetic and commanding. Her one-on-one conversations with voters along the trail were tutorials in empathetic listening. She, among all the candidates, best fit the description of happy warrior. It was not enough.
If raw political talent were the test or demonstrable empathy were the determining factors in a presidential race, she would be lapping the field. But ultimately, the test of presidential candidates is whether they can build a behemoth organization around a focused message, one that in 2019 could break through the messages from numerous other candidates.
News accounts documented tensions and confusing lines of authority in the campaign, which, when things are going poorly, often become the default explanations. (Those accounts, in turn, make fundraising difficult if not impossible.) However, these “dissension in the ranks” stories tend to be more a symptom than the cause of a campaign’s unwinding. In this case, it was a campaign for a candidate boxed in between far-left progressives and moderates, with no single policy objective to provide an organizing principle. She did suffer at times from a lack of focus, a fuzziness that some incorrectly attributed to excessive caution.
Looking for a single reason one candidate fails in a field of two dozen, the majority of the early dropouts being white men, is a favorite exercise of pundits, but an unsatisfying exercise. She failed to define her position on health care soon enough. She went back to the well attacking Biden one too many times in the second debate. She counted on Biden losing African American support early. There is a measure of truth to each rationale, but let me identify two overarching challenges that brought her down.
First, in large part due to media narratives, electability in this race centered around the mythical white working class male who voted for Tweety McTreason and feared immigrants but nevertheless might vote Democrat in 2020. The electable candidates were thus defined as white males, or at least white. The safe pick became synonymous with Biden, and the risky picks became progressives and/or people of color. An entirely different view of electability based on the success of women and minority candidates winning in 2018 could easily have been the story, but it was not. Harris thereafter became a higher-risk candidate, maybe the highest risk of all. In this, many in the pundit class bear a great deal of the blame for erecting a barrier for nonwhite and female candidates. Ultimately, it is up to a campaign to make its electability argument successful, but in Harris’s case she simply had a much higher hill to climb.
Harris’s second obstacle was that she has never run for office outside California. There, she is a mainstream Democrat, a strong crusader for gay rights and defender of immigrants, legal and otherwise. She is comfortable in her milieu and excels at the intra-Democratic politics in a state that essentially has only one major party.
California, of course, is not the totality of America. Especially in the early primary states, successful Democratic candidates must show they are as comfortable in and with the heartland, as accessible to small-town Iowans as to San Franciscans. The media does not get why Biden holds onto his voters or why a “no malarkey” tour may work in Iowa; they too often bring the coastal elite mind-set to a race that in the early going is decided by people who do not naturally embrace urban progressives. Harris never quite made the leap from San Francisco to Des Moines.
Harris, like most every first-time candidate, failed in her first presidential run. She is in good company. But her ability to relate to and excite nonwhites and women, her ability to reach voters former President Barack Obama carried but didn’t come out for Hillary Clinton, and her ability to deliver withering barbs at Tweety McTreason should put her on every candidate’s shortlist for vice president (whether she wants the spot on the ticket or not). A Biden-Harris ticket, with a one-term Biden presidency? A Buttigieg-Harris ticket? These seem hardly far-fetched.