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Kamala Harris Goes to Washington

eye on the news

Kamala Harris Goes to Washington

California’s vaunted “next Obama” debuts to mixed reviews in the national spotlight. June 27, 2017
Politics and law

Prior to arriving in Washington earlier this year, Senator Kamala Harris was known, mostly just among her fellow Californians, as the two-term district attorney in San Francisco and two-term state attorney general, heralded for her stylish wardrobe and reliably progressive—if low-key—policy positions. Harris has now represented the Golden State for only a few months, but the glamorous 52-year-old is already among the top tier of potential Democratic nominees for the 2020 presidential race. The field of presidential prospects includes fellow senators Cory Booker (NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Tim Kaine (VA), and of course progressive mainstay Elizabeth Warren (MA). Given her scant national experience and rookie status in the Senate, does the ambitious Harris have a chance?

Harris came to the Senate with certain undeniable advantages. California’s 55 electoral votes—nearly one-fifth the number necessary to be elected president—give Harris a boost over politicians from less populous states. She was elected in a landslide, with over 7.5 million votes—a staggering number, exceeding the population of many states. In the general election in November, Harris defeated her Democratic opponent (because of California’s unusual “top-two” primary rule) by more than 23 percentage points. 

So Harris is very popular, at least in California. Due to her multiracial background and confident self-presentation, Harris has been called “the next Obama,” an appellation that may reflect no more than shallow stereotypes or wishful thinking by her supporters. In a Senate full of “rising stars,” including six other newly arrived freshmen, she will have to work hard and avoid mistakes to meet the high expectations set for presidential aspirants.

The consensus so far seems to be that Harris has faltered coming out of the starting blocks. Rejecting the conventional wisdom that Senate newbies should be seen but not heard, Harris’s initial objective has been to put herself forward as the most vigorous and vocal figure to obstruct President Donald Trump on all fronts. If her goal was to convince her constituents back home that she is a central part of “the Resistance,” she has succeeded, albeit without distinguishing herself as a leader or compelling thinker in the process.

In order to establish both her progressive credentials and her prosecutorial chops, Harris had to do more than merely oppose Trump’s cabinet nominees; she had to demonstrate their unfitness to serve. In this, she fell short. Harris was widely ridiculed for questioning Trump’s nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, about climate change, same-sex marriage, and the LGBT agenda—topics that are high-profile among the California Democratic donor class, but which have zero to do with the CIA’s mission. Likewise, Harris was tone-deaf on the vital issue of border security that understandably concerns many Americans, grilling General John F. Kelly, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, about the potential deportation of so-called DREAMers, illegal aliens brought into the country as children. By contrast, even liberal Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) praised Kelly as a “good choice” who offered the Senate Homeland Security Committee “good answers.”

Given the importance of teachers’ unions to the base of the Democratic Party, it wasn’t surprising to see Harris oppose Betsy DeVos's appointment to head the Department of Education, due to her advocacy of school choice. But even in Washington, D.C., partisanship has its limits. The well-regarded Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as Deputy Attorney General by a 94-6 vote, with only diehard, showboating leftists voting no. Harris was among this group. Harris also resorted to bush-league tactics such as boycotting the committee hearing when Scott Pruitt’s nomination to head the Environmental Protection Agency came up for a vote.

Harris predictably joined her Democratic colleagues in opposing Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court (imprudently forcing the Republican-controlled Senate to exercise the “nuclear option” by eliminating the filibuster for judicial appointments), but went further, railing against Gorsuch in a San Francisco Chronicle opinion piece. Though Gorsuch was unanimously confirmed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals a decade ago, Harris urged that he be rejected for the Supreme Court, despite his stellar credentials, because “Judge Gorsuch has consistently valued narrow legalisms over real lives.” It is astonishing that the former chief law enforcement officer of California—let alone a current legislator—dismisses federal law, and the Constitution itself, as “narrow legalisms.”  

Demonstrating presidential timber requires statesmanship, not knee-jerk devotion to caucus talking points. In her first televised interview as a senator, with CNN anchor Jake Tapper in May, Harris called for the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey. This followed a prior call for Sessions’s “immediate” resignation, ten weeks earlier, when it was revealed that then-Senator Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador while serving on the Armed Services Committee. In contrast, the more seasoned Feinstein responded to news of Comey’s firing with the measured statement that “The next FBI director must be strong and independent.” Loyola law school professor Jessica Levinson explained the difference in the reactions of the two Democrats: “What we see is someone who’s not going to run for higher office again and somebody who wants to run for president.”

Harris is discovering that the Washington press corps is not as docile as the reporters covering statewide politics in California. When Harris tweeted that “infrastructure spending isn’t a transportation issue for most Americans—it’s a human rights issue,” her statement was mocked as a “Moron Alert” by the Daily Wire, and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro responded, “please name the Americans starving at night because of potholes.” The Washington Post did a fact check on Harris’s false claim that 129 million Americans with preexisting conditions “could be denied coverage” under the GOP overhaul to Obamacare, giving her spurious assertion a “Four Pinocchios” rating. When Harris dropped the f-bomb before a friendly audience at a podcast taping on health care, the impolitic remark was widely reported.   

One of the unmistakable lessons of the 2016 election—and the string of Republican victories in four subsequent special elections to fill vacant House seats—is that, in order to win outside of urban areas and liberal strongholds such as California and New York, Democratic candidates must appeal to moderate voters and offer solutions to anxieties afflicting the middle class. Harris does not seem to have learned that lesson.  Her top priorities include protecting illegal aliens from deportation, preserving sanctuary cities, decriminalizing marijuana, easing penalties for criminal offenders, and strengthening gun control—all stands anathema to heartland voters. In a recent commencement address at her alma mater, Howard University, Harris invoked the liberal canard that America’s prisons represent a “broken system of mass incarceration” that “disproportionately” trap men of color. Harris is positioning herself to the left of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, a strategy that makes sense in uber-liberal California but not for a serious presidential candidate courting nationwide voters.

Prior to her election to the Senate, Harris was sometimes criticized for “playing it safe” politically, a stance that she has dramatically shed. If Harris is serious about building a national following, however, she would be well-advised to exercise a bit of her previous caution. She’s not in California anymore.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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