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Why Couldn’t Kamala Harris Get Her Groove Back? A Campaign Epilogue

This week, Nevada Democrats and the national party have noticed their field of presidential candidates winnow some more. While virtually no one was watching, Montana Governor Steve Bullock (D) and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pennsylvania) dropped out, and Bullock made some more news on another closely watched race that’s frustrated national Democratic leaders this year. And while nearly everyone was gossiping about her campaign’s “implosion”, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) finally bowed to pressure to end it already.

So why did she end it already? And are we the poorer for her ending it so soon?

She was once a “rising star”, but was this tragic fall always the more likely fate?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Just over 13 months ago, Nevada voters were still casting ballots in the 2018 midterm election when we got a sneak preview of what lay ahead. At a “Get Out the Vote” in Downtown Las Vegas on the final day of early voting, Kamala Harris tested out a key theme of what would become her own campaign while pitching for then candidates Jacky Rosen (D) and Steve Sisolak (D) in our perpetual electoral battleground of a state.

As Harris said that night, “This is a moment in time that requires us to fight for who we are. If it’s worth fighting for, it’s a fight worth having!”

Sound familiar? It should. Just as fellow Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden did last year, Harris used the 2018 campaign to test her message for 2020. Yet while Warren, Sanders, and Biden began to articulate clearer visions of their respective agendas, Harris’ message seemed open enough to draw broad appeal, but also vague enough to leave Democrats wondering where she’d land in the 2020 field.

So what was Kamala Harris fighting for, and why couldn’t we see the fighter who she is?
Photo by Andrew Davey

For much of the year, Harris has gotten a bad rap for not explaining what she meant when she demanded we “fight for the best of who we are”. However, we didn’t have to look far to find plenty of specifics on what and who she was fighting for.

Earlier this cycle, Harris was early to release thorough plans on gun violence and women’s reproductive health care. At the SEIU Forum in April, Harris presented bold ideas to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit into a $500 per month boost in working families’ incomes, create a new tax credit for working-class renters, and guarantee workers’ rights to form unions nationwide. And while meeting with local immigrant rights activists at UNLV in June, Harris announced a suite of executive actions to provide legal protection for immigrants currently at risk for deportation.

Later that day, at a Fight for 15 rally in Las Vegas, Harris exclaimed, “If we have to fight for it, if we have to march and shout for it, if we have to let people know we are not going to stand for it until we get freedom and equality and fairness and livable wages, we’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice.” And on several policy grounds, Harris showed us exactly what she was fighting for and how she intended to win the fight.

Why couldn’t she convince us that “justice is on the ballot”?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Even when Kamala Harris got into the weeds and provided specifics, it was hard for voters, activists, and journalists to see a larger theme, a larger cause, or a larger overarching message. For Elizabeth Warren it’s, “Dream big, fight hard, and win” the fight for “big, structural change”. For Bernie Sanders it’s, “Think big” to achieve the “political revolution” to “bring justice to this country”. For Joe Biden it’s, “This is America! There’s nothing we can’t do when we work together. We need to remember who we are!”

Yet for Harris, it’s been an alternating progression from “for the people” to “fight for who we are” to “speak truth” to “3:00 AM agenda” before she finally found a condensed pitch for her campaign with, “Justice is on the ballot!” We caught a sneak preview in Mesquite last month, when State Senator Pat Spearman (D-North Las Vegas) pitched for Harris at a local Democratic event. 

Spearman commented on Biden’s occasional promise to “beat [President Donald] Trump like a drum”, then added the twist of Harris being the expert drum major America needs. As Spearman put it, “She is well prepared to change the rhythm from injustice to justice. She knows that justice will be on the ballot, and she is a killed percussionist who will change the tune from injustice to justice.” At that moment, Spearman offered a more concise and more exciting rationale for Harris’ campaign than anything else we had heard up until that one moment.

Was she held to a different standard?
Photo by Andrew Davey

From that moment on, I witnessed a tighter, cleaner, and clearer message of “Justice is on the ballot!” that seemed to resonate with voters on the campaign trail. Whether it was a union hall, a national spectacle of a state Democratic Party fundraising event, or a community forum, Harris wowed audiences and got them to their feet. Yet at the same time, she wasn’t getting enough of them to commit to caucus for her in order to move the polls and fundraising in her favor for longer than an occasional media cycle bump. 

As we’ve already documented, Harris previously struggled with message discipline. And as we discussed last month, Harris increasingly garnered headlines for the lack of discipline throughout her entire campaign. However, there’s a much more disturbing factor that can explain Harris’ sudden fall from grace, a factor that many Democrats still feel uncomfortable discussing openly after Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s history-making presidential campaigns.

Harris often had to answer questions about “electability”, even as Joe Biden papered over his past primary losses and South Bend (Indiana) Pete Buttigieg hyped up the value of his paper-thin electoral record. Harris was often scrutinized over her “authenticity”, even while Biden, Buttigieg, and other men who are running never had theirs questioned. And Harris was excoriated by some critics and Democratic “influencers” for her now famous clap-back at Biden at the first Democratic Debate in June, only for Buttigieg to be praised for his attacks on Warren and Sanders at the September and October Debates.

Was she crushed by the highest glass ceiling in the land?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Just like Hillary Clinton’s past struggles to become the right amount of everything to the right amount of voters, Harris struggled the same way… Except it was compounded for Harris as a woman of color who always had to answer for her womanhood and her blackness/brownness. Just as we’ve called out the increasingly absurdly outrageous misogyny that’s befallen Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail (and fellow Senator Kirsten Gillibrand [D-New York] when she was in the race), we shouldn’t ignore the one-two punch of racism and misogyny that Kamala Harris battled all the time.

Just like Clinton, Harris had to find a way to be “tough” yet “compassionate”, and “stunning” yet “relatable”, even as their white male rivals often enjoyed much more freedom to develop their own respective narratives regardless of how “authentictheir narratives actually are. And now, just like Clinton, all of us in the media are rushing into a forensic investigation of the shattering of her campaign.

As I noted last month, there were clear structural problems that caused Harris’ campaign’s meltdown. Yet as I noted in September, there were also plenty of top talent working in her campaign and plenty of investment on the ground here in Nevada before Buttigieg staffed up and a clique of billionaires launched last-minute campaigns. Harris clearly made mistakes that we in the media rightly called out, but I can’t help but wonder whether enough of us gave her enough credit for what she did right.

Now that she’s gone, what’s (and who’s) next?
Photo by Andrew Davey

As I noted in the very beginning, Kamala Harris isn’t the only presidential candidate to drop out this week. So did Steve Bullock and Joe Sestak. And when Bullock dropped out, he took one more opportunity to thumb his nose at party leaders by refusing once more to run for the U.S. Senate, thereby denying what may have been Democrats’ only chance to expand the map that currently gives them a fairly narrow path to any kind of Senate majority in 2021.

Today, Kamala Harris returns to the Senate as a legislator and a soon-to-be-juror in President Donald Trump’s impending impeachment trial. She continues to be one of two Senators representing the nation’s most populous state. She continues to have a future on the national political stage should she choose to pursue it.

Yet today, it’s hard not to choke up over how the 2020 field is winnowing. Yes, I’ve spoken with quite a few voters who’ve said all along that they wanted this 2020 field to winnow down to a more manageable amount of candidates. But when the winnowing down results in a less diverse and more monotonous field, I can’t help but wonder: Should we have been more careful in what we wished for? Now that it’s looking increasingly likely that the December Debate will have an all-white and mostly male array of candidates on the stage, I must ask: Were we too quick to rush Kamala Harris off the stage?

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