Despite the fact that she’s repeatedly referred to as “the female Obama,” and that she formally announced her candidacy on Martin Luther King Day, could it be that the most apt description of Democrat Sen. Kamala Harris in the 2020 POTUS race is… Hillary Rodham Clinton?
The comparison comes from the fact that the 54-year-old former California Attorney General appears to be running on a Clinton-esque combination of identity politics and moderate Democratic policy.
“The way Harris is likely to position herself on policy issues during the campaign — liberal as any candidate on noneconomic issues but not as liberal on economic issues as, say, Bernie Sanders — echoes Hillary Clinton’s platform in 2016,” writes Perry Bacon, Jr. at the FiveThirtyEight website. At the same time, Sen. Harris’s embrace of identity politics is unabashed and beyond dispute.
Harris talks extensively about her biography– she would be the first woman, the first black woman and first person of Asian descent to serve as POTUS–and she openly defends identity politics as part of Democratic Party ideology, suggesting the phrase itself is a divisive slur. And like Hillary Clinton, Sen. Harris highlights what she claims will be the unique challenges of attempting to break the glass ceiling as a woman of color running for the White House.
“Let’s be honest. It’s going to be ugly,” Harris told MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski in December. “When you break things, it is painful. And you get cut. And you bleed.”
But will the Democratic POTUS primary really be a “bloody” battle for the four women (Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris and Warren) already in the race? According to a Suffolk poll in September, while most voters still claim to be gender-neutral at the ballot box, the percentage of voters who would prefer to vote for a woman is twice as high as the number who would prefer a male candidate. That sentiment is highest among the most liberal voters–more than a third of whom say they want to vote for a woman. Those voters will have a disproportionate impact on the primary.
So playing the identity card as hard as Hillary #ImWithHer Clinton did in 2016 looks like a winner. But what about the Clinton centrism?
Admittedly the word “centrist” is problematic. To most Republicans, and probably many more Americans, the idea that Hillary Clinton was a centrist or moderate candidate seems counter-intuitive. And not long ago, it would have been. But for Democratic primary voters–particularly in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez politics–Mrs. Clinton is a relative moderate. Is Kamala Harris, too?
“I don’t know any progressives who would support her, largely due to her record as district attorney and attorney general in California,” longtime progressive activist Ted Bosen of New Hampshire told Inside Sources. “Next to Biden, I believe she is the least favorite prospect among us. But she has support among Hillary Clinton supporters.”
And a recent Vanity Fair profile of Sen. Harris included this nugget: “Have you seen her speak?” a (male) Democratic strategist says of Harris. “It feels very Hillary-like.”
As the liberal journal Jacobin reports: “Harris’s rise has produced a fiery debate among liberals and the Left. Leftists and progressives have come out in strong opposition to Harris’s candidacy, with some declaring #NeverKamala and some high-profile Bernie Sanders supporters, such as National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, making clear their lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy.”
“I expect Harris to struggle with The Left,” Bacon writes in his analysis for FiveThirtyEight. “Harris’ professional life has been as a prosecutor and some on the left already are highlighting what they view as flaws in her record — being too hard on low-level offenders of crimes like truancy but not aggressive enough in taking on those accused of white-collar offenses, for example.”
In a press conference on Monday, Harris said she rejected the notion “that you either have to be tough on crime or soft on crime. We should be smart on crime.” However, some critics suggest she tried to burnish her “not-soft-on-crime” credentials by defending police and prosecutors in cases when they didn’t deserve it. She also bragged in the past about increasing her conviction rates and sending more people to prison, while also promoting liberal social issues like same-sex marriage popular on the California Left. This style of “third-way” politics is straight from the Clinton playbook.
Not everyone agrees with the Clinton/Kamala comparison.
“Their profiles as candidates couldn’t more different,” DC Democratic consultant Joel Payne told InsideSources. “Sen. Harris is a fresh face with relatively low name ID and a lot of room to define herself to voters. Hillary Clinton had been a household name for 15 years before her runs for the White House.”
Payne, who advised the 2016 Clinton campaign says the Democrats he talks to “believe that black voters and, in particular, black women are the key voting bloc in 2020 and Kamala Harris is very well positioned to appeal to those voters.”
But the comparisons are likely to continue, in part because of the campaign team Harris has assembled. Her campaign chair is her sister–and former Clinton senior advisor– Maya Harris. Her general counsel is Hillary’s former campaign attorney Marc Elias, who made headlines when it was discovered his firm was the funnel for Clinton’s campaign to pay oppo-research outfit Fusion GPS, at the center of the “Russia dossier” story.
Other top Kamala Harris staffers include Hillary’s deputy national finance director Angelique Cannon; and David Huynh, the Clinton campaign’s director of delegate operations and ballot access whose job at the Democratic convention in 2016 was to keep protesting Bernie Sanders’ supporters off TV.
Nobody is going to mistake Kamala Harris for Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. By historical standards, she’s one of the most liberal candidates to ever seek the presidency, as her announcement statement makes clear. But in the #NeedToImpeach/#Medicare4All world of Democratic primary voters of today, virtually every candidate is (at least) as progressive as Harris, and without the “third-way” politics baggage or a staff straight off Hillary Clinton’s campaign bus.
It’s very possible that Kamala Harris’s identity politics can overcome the perception that she’s not progressive enough. But with so many strong progressive candidates in the field, maybe not.