• Ryan O'Connell

Kamala Harris Lights Up the Hamptons

August 21, 2019

Senator Kamala Harris stumbled in the second debate, and her poll ratings have dropped, but she is electrifying on the campaign trail. Don’t count this candidate out.

At a fundraiser at a private home in the Hamptons last weekend, Harris was a compelling public speaker. Harris exuded warmth and enthusiasm, and she was often very funny, making impromptu jokes as she answered questions. This is a candidate who enjoys retail politics and thrives on meeting people.

Harris provided a sharp contrast with Hillary Clinton, who spoke at the same venue four years ago. The differences between the two candidates may shed light on two key questions: can a woman be elected President? And would the Democrats be rolling the dice if they nominated a black woman for President?

Many Democrats, haunted by Clinton’s defeat, think that the party should take a “safe” route and nominate a man…. preferably a white, straight man, even if he is 76 years old and prone to making gaffes. They may be right, but they may also be fighting the last war.

When Clinton spoke in 2015 on the same patio, she had had eight years to hone her public speaking skills since her first campaign for President (with a superb live-in tutor). However, she was still lackluster on the stump. Her speech was too long and, frankly, boring at times. She did not radiate energy. Close up, Clinton was warm and friendly, but she did not have much presence.

A Stronger Candidate than Hillary Clinton

By contrast, Harris is charismatic and a good story-teller. The senator focuses on a few key issues, and she uses facts judiciously to support her arguments. Unlike Clinton, she does not recite a long list of initiatives she wants to pursue.

Harris has a wide range as a public speaker. She describes social problems in concrete terms and then often shifts to soaring rhetoric that reminds one of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. And she cues her audience, pausing for dramatic effect and saying “I will tell you this....” as she highlights a policy proposal.

At the fundraiser, Harris notes that schoolteachers are generally paid $13,000 less than comparable professions. She proposes her solution, a Federal income supplement for teachers, and points out that $13,000 would pay for a year’s worth of groceries.

To cap it off, Harris stresses that we need to “invest” in better teaching so that American workers can compete with Chinese companies.

Then, in contrast to Clinton, Harris shifts gears as she answers a question, cracking a joke and breaking into an infectious laugh. It’s a bravura performance.

Harris has some physical advantages over Clinton, too, which translate into a much stronger presence in person. At age 54, she is thirteen years younger than Clinton was during her second campaign. Harris is slimmer and taller, and she radiates energy and vitality. Clinton often seemed tired during the 2016 campaign.

Kamala Harris on the Stump

Harris versus Warren

Elizabeth Warren has dominated the policy debates in the Democratic Party, which has made her very popular with the party’s left wing and given her campaign a lot of momentum. Harris has tried to carve out a position as a more pragmatic politician. That has led to some confusion with voters, particularly on health care issues. Still, if Joe Biden were to lose support, Harris might pick up some of his voters, because her views are more moderate than Warren’s (and Sanders').

Furthermore, Harris’s style could appeal to more voters in a general election. Harris comes across as forceful but not strident. Unlike Warren, Harris does not lecture the crowd. Harris is more relaxed and more adept at using humor to connect with her audience. She easily passes the “likeability test”. Whether you like it or not, that is a reality that women politicians have to deal with.

Harris is 16 years younger than Warren (age 70). However, Warren is in great shape, and she is also very dynamic before an audience.

Following her more pragmatic approach, Harris is quite willing to meet with large donors, unlike Warren. That seems sensible, given the vast amounts that candidates must raise.

Will Harris’ Race Be An Obstacle?

Harris is half-black and half-Indian. We’ve learned, during the Trump presidency, that racism is flourishing among many Americans, so that could be a major obstacle for Harris in a general election.

However, Harris manages the racial issue with finesse, as Barack Obama did. Harris quickly acknowledges that she is black, by stating proudly that her parents marched in civil rights campaigns. Unlike Cory Booker, though, Harris does not dwell on her race or inner-city issues. She is trying to appeal to a broader swath of the voters than Booker, and her poll ratings are higher than his.

Here’s some grounds for hope: Michelle Obama remains one of the most popular women in the U.S. So Americans are used to seeing a black woman in the White House.

Possible Pitfall: Health Care Issues

Harris still faces plenty of challenges, to be sure. The first questions from the audience concern the senator’s particular proposal for Medicare for All. Why can’t Americans keep their private insurance? Why should we eliminate private health insurers in 10 years?

Harris starts well, saying, “Thanks for the question. I realize that I should have been clearer about that.” It’s encouraging to hear a politician concede that she has made a mistake.

Her answer is, in fact, more precise than the one she gave during the second debate, but it is still not totally satisfying. The senator says bluntly, “I don’t agree with all of Bernie’s plan”. Harris then says explicitly that she wants to decouple health insurance from employment. She points out that most Americans now change jobs every few years, so linking insurance and employment makes less sense.

The senator adds that she adopted a 10-year window (rather than the 4-year one in Sanders and Warren’s plans) after talking with labor unions and realizing that it would be very disruptive to their workers to change the coverage very quickly. The underlying point Harris is making: she’s listening to voters and willing to shift her views.

Still, Harris doesn’t seem to worry much about the potential for a massive disruption of our health care system; 180 million Americans have private insurance policies. She also does not acknowledge that private insurers play a vital role in the Medicare system, serving about 40 million customers…or that they employ about 500,000 people.

Time to Brush Up on International Affairs

Harris has extensive government experience at the state level, having served as a prosecutor for many years and then Attorney General of California for two terms. However, Harris became a Senator only two years ago, and she does not have much background in foreign relations.

At the fundraiser, a prominent economist asks Harris how she would deal with the Chinese on trade issues “without demonizing them”. Harris quickly agrees that Trump’s trade war is a mistake, and she emphasizes that Americans have to compete with Chinese companies, not simply bash them.

So far, so good. But then Harris returns to her theme that we need to “invest” in education etc. to equip American workers to face foreign competition. That’s an important long-term approach, and a refreshing contrast to Bernie Sanders’ blatantly protectionist stance. Still, Harris misses an opportunity to propose other concrete ways to tackle the issues with China, and one wonders how well-versed she is on this crucial subject.

When Harris is asked about gun control and climate change, though, her answers are crisp and detailed. She’s on firm ground there.

Harris faces a long, and perhaps an uphill, battle for the nomination. Nonetheless, her zest for retail politics might help her gain traction in Iowa and New Hampshire. Stay tuned.

The Wall Street Democrat

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