Kamala Harris is bound to benefit – and suffer – from the Barack Obama comparisons.
The first-term California senator officially launched her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on Jan. 21, barely two years after bursting on to the national scene. She is the biracial daughter of a black immigrant father. And she’s got a younger sister named Maya.
Perhaps her most striking similarity to the 44th president lies in her reasonableness. It could be her greatest strength in a general election against Donald Trump, in which she would need to win independent voters.
But it could also doom her bid for the nomination.
Ms. Harris, who hopes to transcend her party’s many factions to win the Democratic nod, espouses “a vision for our country in which everyone can see themselves.” That sounds a lot like the unifying message that worked so magically for Mr. Obama in 2008. But it’s not where the country, much less the Democratic Party, is right now.
Democratic activists are not in a very reasonable mood. Two years into Mr. Trump’s presidency, U.S. politics is veering evermore toward the extremes, and the soul of the Democratic Party has been captured by people who do not believe in compromise.
Frankly, who can blame them? As newly elected Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib so colourfully said in her vow to impeach him last month, many Democrats are unwilling to wait two more years for a chance to oust Mr. Trump from the Oval Office. And when they do, they don’t intend to replace him with a consensus-builder.
Progressive Democrats felt let down by Mr. Obama’s presidency. Instead of tackling racism, income inequality and globalization head on, the first African-American president avoided racial politics like the plague, bailed out Wall Street banks and signed still more free-trade deals. Progressives are unwilling to go there again.
It is hard to see, at this point, how Ms. Harris could ever win them over. Her career as a prosecutor – she was district attorney in San Francisco before becoming California’s attorney-general in 2011 – could be a deal-breaker. In the age of Black Lives Matter, a Democratic candidate who stands up for the police does not stand much of a chance.
Ms. Harris insists she was a “progressive prosecutor” and has evidence to back it up. She is accused of supporting California’s discredited “three-strikes” law – under which anyone convicted of a third felony, even if it’s a minor one, can go to prison for 25 years – but as district attorney, Ms. Harris sought to apply the law only in cases of violent crime.
“It is a false choice to suggest you must either be for the police or for police accountability,” Ms. Harris writes in her newly published memoir, The Truths We Hold. “I am for both. Most people I know are for both.”
Ms. Harris has sounded less cautious on health care and immigration, two issues at the centre of the Democratic race. She claims to favour a single-payer, government-run health-care system that would cut private insurers out of the picture. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who is considering a self-financed run at the Democratic nomination, has said her plan “would bankrupt us for a very long time.”
Ms. Harris has also said she would consider abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, the federal agency whose tactics in regard to illegal immigrants and migrants seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border have been decried as inhumane.
As bad as this sounds, some Democrats believe Mr. Trump’s strong support among white men means the party must nominate a man in 2020. The Democratic Party appears to have a lock on female voters. It needs to win over more white men.
Still, there is something about Ms. Harris that suggests her campaign could gain momentum. At her flawless first rally in her native Oakland – she spent her formative teenage years in Montreal, where her mother taught at McGill University – she projected the undeniable air of a winner. She breezed through a Monday night town hall on CNN with the easy confidence of someone who is ready for anything.
If she keeps it up, she may yet prove to be the leader her country needs.