Do not underestimate Kamala Harris.
Leftists, Harris fans, and Biden haters alike rejoiced Thursday evening when the former California state Attorney General turned her withering prosecutorial fire on Joe Biden. The testy exchange centered around Biden’s amicable relationship with segregationists and long-standing opposition to busing. Harris’ incisive and aggressive questioning left Biden defensive and foundering. (The Harris campaign, perhaps aware of their middling ranking in the merch primary thus far, promptly made a t-shirt to capitalize on the moment.) In the wake of the debate, Harris has enjoyed a polling bump, and Biden’s support has dropped. We should be cautious about attributing too much significance to the exchange and the ever-shifting polls, but one lesson should not be missed: Harris demonstrated that she is a force to be reckoned with.
Leftists might be inclined to celebrate Harris’ destruction of Biden and think that she poses little threat emerging as the winner of the primary, given her own egregious record. There was of course something deeply ironic about Harris attacking Biden for supporting racist policies. My former colleague Briahna Joy Gray has written for this publication about some of the ugly things Harris has done, and the cynical use of identity to stifle criticism of those things. (So has my colleague Nathan J. Robinson.) Threatening parents with imprisonment if their children were too often truant, violating the civil and constitutional rights of criminal defendants, failing to prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s bank for foreclosure violations, propagating mass incarceration and some of the most punitive elements of the criminal justice system, and more—the wrongdoing of Kamala Harris has been chronicled at length (with more sure to come out over the course of the campaign). Even so, I think she is very appealing to a lot of people and suspect her popularity will steadily grow as her name recognition increases.
A common leftist jab at Harris is the sloganeering assertion that “Kamala is a cop.” This may seem kind of funny and enlightening to people on the left, but to liberals and many independents it’s like saying “Kamala is a firefighter.” From their point of view, being a cop is a neutral or even honorable profession. While it’s true that criminal justice reform is trendy at the moment, for most people being a prosecutor is not actually a negative. (Being a prosecutor isn’t even necessarily a negative for many on the left. Few leftists would hold Larry Krasner’s or Tiffany Caban’s work as a prosecutor against them, because they are working to reform the criminal justice system and chart a path forward for progressive prosecutors. Others may, however, contend that the phrase “progressive prosecutor” is an oxymoron or contradiction in terms akin to “compassionate conservatism” or “imposing democracy.”) It’s true that much of Harris’ prosecutorial record is quite repugnant, but if attacked she will undoubtedly turn around and tout the Justice she got for victims of sexual violence, for the families whose children were murdered, for the homeowners who had been defrauded by banks, and the Absolute Monsters she has managed to hold accountable for graphic, gruesome, and grisly acts. These accomplishments will likely be quite impressive and persuasive to a significant swath of people.
Rather than being turned off by her tough on crime record, many liberals will find her prosecutorial persona particularly appealing. Who better to bring the full punitive force of the criminal justice system down on Trump and his administration than Kamala Harris? (It’s a kind of “Lock Him Up!” rallying cry, especially for those who were psychically invested in the Mueller Report and left cold by its findings.) She is precisely the type of law-and-order candidate liberals crave to bring back stability, normalcy, and mete out punishment. And the symbolic power—not to mention immense gratification—of having a Black Indian woman beat Donald Trump (and then go on to prosecute him) should not be overlooked. A woman of color defeating the racist misogynist Trump is like a liberal wet dream. And I think it could actually happen. Harris won’t necessarily beat Donald Trump, but she is temperamentally well suited to parry many of his attacks.
But before that, she’ll have to win the primary. The field is large right now, but the fact that Harris was skillfully able to fluster and embarrass the undisputed frontrunner suggests that she is a seriously formidable candidate. It’s not difficult to figure out who she is likely to attack next. When Harris decides to turn her sights on Bernie Sanders—and it is coming—I am not sanguine about Sanders’ capacity to hold his own. Rightly or wrongly, there is a narrative that Sanders is insensitive and outdated on issues of racial justice and gender equality. I don’t have any great faith that if Harris were to turn her laser-questioning on Sanders that he wouldn’t put his foot in his mouth. Even if he comes out of an exchange with Harris relatively unscathed, the mainstream media will spin it to make Sanders look bad, unless the sparring match is obviously decisive in his favor. Media narratives shape public perception (would anyone be talking about Pete Buttigieg as a serious candidate if the media hadn’t decided to elevate him as the next big thing?), and enough bad press could contribute to the sinking of Sanders’ candidacy.
What can Sanders do to respond to Harris, then? Sanders should be prepared for the imminent incoming attack from Harris. He should think very carefully about how he will respond, and in particular about the optics of him being an old white guy and her being a relatively young Black Indian woman, particularly considering the racist attacks Harris has already endured. She will likely attack him on issues related to gender (reproductive rights, for instance) and race. I could see her going after Sanders for not supporting tough enough gun control measures. She might even hit him for his vote in favor of the 1994 crime bill. Or maybe she’ll cite the misleading statistic that there are nearly 10x more Black people in Vermont’s prisons than outside them. Sanders better be prepared. And the response better not be that Vermont does not have a racism problem, or that mass incarceration is not an issue in Vermont. Whether or not that’s true, it comes off as racially insensitive, because Sanders is a white man trivializing the problems that people of color in Vermont are purportedly facing.
I think Sanders’ best bet in combating the incoming attacks from Harris are threefold: First, his campaign should roll out some splashy new policies around the issues women and people of color are facing. Take, for example, the criminal justice system. Sanders needs to be clearly to Harris’ left on criminal justice issues. He should have signature policies ready to go, ideally ones which differentiate him from the rest of the pack. He should call for the decriminalization of drug use and sex work (and be ready to explain his SESTA/FOSTA vote), less punitive sentences for people who have committed felonies, including violent crimes, special independent prosecutors when police shoot someone, increased funding for public defenders so that everyone actually receives competent legal representation, an end to cash bail, civil asset forfeiture, and solitary confinement. It will be difficult for Sanders to differentiate himself, because the field is so large and Harris has worked hard to brand herself as a progressive prosecutor. She has cosponsored legislation with Rand Paul in the senate which encouraged states to reform or get rid of the cash bail system, and she has spoken about the need to treat drug use and addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal one. So the Sanders campaign will need to be creative and adopt positions far enough left that Harris and others will have second thoughts about jumping on the bandwagon. He has some of these positions already listed on his website, but we don’t often hear him talking about these policies. (Sanders should follow Tiffany Caban’s and Larry Krasner’s lead on the kinds of policies he should be promoting and the sort of rhetoric he should be using.) Sanders must be able to outflank Harris on all issues, but, on criminal justice policy in particular, otherwise he’s unlikely to fare well against her.
Second, Sanders and his team should think strategically about responding to criticisms Harris may levy. It’s not enough to explain that he’s supported a particular bill which funded women’s reproductive healthcare. He and the rest of the team need to think about the optics. What are the barriers to reproductive care that women, particularly poor women of color, face in receiving reproductive care? What are innovative policy proposals Sanders can implement which would ameliorate these challenges? His usual rhetorical approach in which he insists that people of color will be the disproportionate beneficiary of his policies will not cut it here. While it may be true, it’s rhetorically unsatisfactory if Harris were to attack Sanders over not doing enough to help Black women. What challenges do Black women face that are unique and what unique solutions does Sanders have for them?
Third, Sanders should be prepared to cite specifically where he disagrees with Harris. It goes without saying, but he should have at his fingertips some especially egregious incidents from Harris’ past, which are indicative of her work as prosecutor. He should not be shy about starkly laying out the differences between the two of them, then follow up with an example from her record, and how he would have done things differently. “Sen. Harris believes that locking people up is a solution to our problems. I happen to believe locking people up is the problem.” And he should have stats about the California criminal justice system memorized. How can Sanders differentiate himself from Harris on gun control, reproductive care, and immigration, in a way that makes Sanders the clearly more progressive choice? On gun control Sanders can say, “We know that the criminal justice system is racist and disproportionately impacts people of color. While I think that gun control is an important measure, we need to be careful that in our eagerness to eliminate gun violence we don’t also end up putting more African Americans in prison. Sen. Harris has worked as a prosecutor, and when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But a lot of times the criminal justice system creates more problems than it solves.”
It’s really very crucial that Sanders not stumble and lose the nomination to Harris, even though Harris may very well defeat Trump, because the stakes are much higher than merely defeating Trump. A Kamala Harris presidency will look like a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama presidency, which is to say in many ways better than a Trump presidency but still unacceptable. I am sure many people yearn for the days of the Obama presidency and will dismiss my criticisms as melodrama and cynical leftier-than-thou kvetching. Obama had some important, though flawed, accomplishments like the Affordable Care Act, Iran nuclear deal, Paris Climate Accord, and normalization of relations with Cuba. But it’s simply descriptively true that this country did not radically transform during his presidency. This is not the place to rehash Obama’s record—and radical transformation may seem like an unreasonably tall order—but given the nature of the challenges we’re facing (climate change, war, poverty, etc.) that’s all we can accept. Anything less is suicide. Unreasonable challenges demand unreasonable solutions.
I worry that if we don’t elect someone who drastically shakes things up for the better, as bad as the Trump administration has been, someone far more competent, extreme, and ideologically committed will get into office and really wreak havoc the next time around. I don’t think I’m handwringing or catastrophizing here. Donald Trump is a symptom, not the disease. And unless we treat the underlying cause—something I don’t think Kamala Harris will do—we’re in big trouble.
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