Kamala Harris Is A Rising Star…but
February 3, 2019
Senator Kamala Harris is the most appealing Democratic candidate for president so far. Harris has star power and an intriguing life story. But she needs a better speechwriter, and she runs the risk of tacking too far to the left
Harris is vastly superior to Hillary Clinton as a public speaker, and her campaign launch was impressive; she spoke before a crowd of 20,000 in Oakland, her hometown. The Senator has a commanding presence; she’s tall and very good-looking, with an incandescent smile. Harris comes across as warm, authentic and down-to-earth, in a sharp contrast to Clinton’s public persona. Harris has an infectious laugh, but she also conveys resolve and toughness on key points, looking straight at the camera.
However, Harris’ speech announcing her campaign for president did not soar to the rhetorical heights that Barack Obama so often achieved. The speech was lengthy, at 34 minutes, and Harris spent too much time attacking Trump, rather than setting forth her views on policy issues. She didn’t even mention that she was running for president until she had spoken for 24 minutes. That’s a long wind-up.
A Historic But High-Risk Candidate For Democrats
Until last week, Harris had positioned herself as a liberal Democrat—she’s from California, after all, and half-black—but less “progressive” than Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillenbrand. That was smart, politically. There’s been a lot of talk in the press about the “leftward drift” of the Democratic Party, but it may be overblown.
Several high-profile Senators are certainly competing for the title of “most progressive”. Still, it is not obvious that most Democrat voters, as opposed to activists, have shifted sharply to the left. And while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is a gift to the media, she is only a first-term Representative, one among 435. She is not a power broker in D.C. Nancy Pelosi and other 70-somethings still run the show in the House.
Harris checks a lot of boxes for the Democrats. The Senator is female, half-black, half-Indian, the daughter of immigrants and liberal. Harris’s life story is also an unusual mix of elements, which could allow her to appeal to a broad range of voters. Her parents were academics; her father taught at Stanford University and her mother was a medical researcher. Harris spent part of her childhood in Canada. She worked as a prosecutor for most of her career, and she married a white man.
But she is a high-risk candidate for the same reasons. Harris probably won’t win over many voters in Trump Country and it’s hard to gauge her prospects in key Midwestern states at this point. The Democrats may be rolling the dice if they nominate a candidate who is both black and female; that may be too much cultural change for blue-collar voters (and others) and trigger a backlash. So Harris should craft a moderate campaign message that will appeal to independents and moderate Republicans fed up with Trump, as well as to Democratic voters.
Until last week, that seemed to be Harris’ strategy. Unlike Warren, AOC and Sen. Bernie Sanders, she has not proposed massive tax hikes on rich Americans. Instead, the Senator has promoted a tax cut for working-class and middle-class Americans. Although Harris criticizes big banks, her tone is not as harsh as Warren’s.
Harris does not rail about a “rigged” or “corrupt” system or imply that bank executives should have gone to jail. As a former prosecutor, Harris usually tends to be more restrained in her language than Warren. She has generally acquitted herself well in Senate hearings, questioning witnesses skillfully and (usually) respectfully. That’s in contrast to Warren, who sometimes lectures witnesses.
Unlike Warren and Gillibrand, Harris has considerable experience as a manager, since she served as the District Attorney for San Francisco and later the State of California. Like those two Senators, she is also adept at raising money.
So far, so good, right?
A Fumble on Medicare
Then last Monday, two days after launching her campaign, Harris committed a major gaffe. She is co-sponsoring a “Medicare-for-all” plan with Sen. Bernie Sanders. At a town hall that she was holding in Iowa, Harris was asked if her plan would end the role of private health insurers. The Senator rather airily responded, “Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on. “
That would be a radical approach to reshaping health care for Americans, since 60% of them obtain their coverage from a private insurer. Furthermore, the good Senator did not seem to have done her homework on how Medicare actually operates. Although the Federal Government is the primary insurer for Medicare beneficiaries, it is not the only one. For many Americans, Medicare is not really a “single payer” system.
In 2017, 33% of people on Medicare had purchased a private plan to supplement their primary coverage. That’s 19 million people. United Healthcare, Aetna and other private health insurers provide services to one-third of Medicare beneficiaries and ease the administrative burden on the government. In fact, Medicare provides strong economic incentives for affluent retirees to buy a drug prescription plan from a private insurer.
Those 19 million beneficiaries, a.k.a. voters, would probably not like to lose their private plan coverage and the services they provide. Some retirees might consider that Apocalypse Now.
The Republicans have had a field day with Harris’ gaffe, of course.
So Harris has quickly violated several rules of politics:
· Avoid casually threatening to wipe out an entire industry
· Avoid giving the impression you don’t know what you are talking about (see: Donald Trump)
· Don’t scare potential voters unnecessarily
· Don’t hand your enemies a club for pounding you
Hopefully this will be a learning experience for Harris, and she will soon recover her momentum. But the episode is a reminder that Harris only arrived in D.C. two years ago. She is a relative newcomer on the national political scene. Harris is undoubtedly a quick study. That’s good; she faces a learning curve on running a presidential campaign.
The Wall Street Democrat