Careful of the hype around Kamala Harris

RW Johnson examines the political record of the new US Vice President

At the moment Kamala Harris is being greatly celebrated in the media for identity politics reasons. That is, the big deal about Kamala is not anything she’s achieved but the fact that her mother is Indian and her father Jamaican, so she is that wondrous thing, the first Vice President who is a woman, black and Asian. Uniquely, this is already referred to not as the Biden Administration but the Biden-Harris Administration. Given that Joe Biden will be almost 82 by the time of the next presidential election, it is already assumed that Harris will be the Democratic candidate in 2024.

This merely illustrates what a trap identity politics is. Harris was no shooting star. At age 36* she had climbed only to the position of deputy district attorney of Alameda county, California. Her real ascent began only in 1994 when she was appointed to lucrative positions on two government commissions by the powerful Speaker of the California Assembly, Willie Brown, later mayor of San Francisco and the most powerful black politician in the state.

Brown was known for his flamboyant lifestyle - $6,000 suits, sports cars, night-clubbing - and the press noted, it was not unusual for Brown to arrive at a night club with his wife on one arm and a girlfriend on the other. Brown was the subject of a five-year FBI investigation for his extensive use of patronage and contracts apparently to buy off opponents and reward friends, including a girlfriend whom he put on the city payroll.

At the time that Brown started Harris’s rise to prominence, Harris was his girlfriend. Later, in 2004, Harris made the big jump to become the District Attorney of San Francisco – despite being the least known candidate – largely because of Brown’s public support. By 2016 she had become a Senator for California. In 2019 she announced her presidential candidacy, which triggered a good deal of media attention about her relationship with Brown.

Harris attracted attention by attacking Biden over his record on race in their first TV debate. Biden had talked of how he had, over time, built relationships with senators on the other side of the aisle, even including two Southern segregationists. Harris denounced this as “very hurtful” and talked about how she had been bussed to a formerly white school as a little girl. Biden, whose record on civil rights is exemplary, dismissed the attack as “a mis-characterization of my position across the board”.

This playing of the race card was, however, Harris’s high point. The next month in a TV debate with the no-hoper candidate Tulsi Gabbard, Harris boasted of her record as a prosecutor and said she would be a “prosecutor President”.

Gabbard replied: “I’m deeply concerned about this record. She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, and then laughed about it when she was asked if she’d ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence which would have freed a man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labour for the state of California. And she fought to keep a cash bail system that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

Harris never recovered from this and thereafter her polling numbers drifted steadily down. The first real test would be the Iowa caucuses in October 2019 where she announced she had to run at least third (behind Biden and Elizabeth Warren). In desperation she declared that “I’m fucking moving to Iowa”, but her performance had been so weak that she was trailing badly.

She challenged Warren to join her “crusade:” to get Trump pushed off Twitter. Warren demolished her: “I don’t just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House. That’s our job.” Originally Harris had polled at 16% in Iowa but by mid-October an Emerson poll put her down in 10th place with only 2%. Initially Harris had attracted plentiful donor funds but by now these had dried up. Realising that she was about to be humiliated, Harris pulled out of the caucuses and primaries.

Part of the problem was that Harris was just not a good campaigner. But she also simply didn’t have well-developed ideas about economics, health care and other key issues. Despite her talk about being a “prosecutor-President”, the fact is that presidents have no role in the prosecution process. Running for President also meant that Harris came up against far tougher competitors than anything she’d faced hitherto.

Elizabeth Warren was a Harvard professor, is one of the cleverest people in Washington and has well-worked out plans on just about every issue, Amy Klobuchar, now in her fourth term as a Senator from Minnesota, was chosen as “Attorney of the Year” when she practised law, has a stellar record on many issues and has won enormous majorities even in areas won by Trump. Harris is, by comparison, a mere novice.

The Republicans will be thirsting to regain the White House in 2024. They will do their work thoroughly on Harris if she is the nominee and they will play hard ball. Thus far most of the questions about Harris’s relationship with Willie Brown have been about whether he was favouring a girlfriend but next time Harris can expect far tougher questions as to whether she was seeking a backstair to promotion by cultivating a relationship with an older and powerful man.

And without doubt the Republicans will tear into her over the issues opened up by Tulsi Gabbard. They will be delighted if she makes the mistake of playing the race card: that works in Democratic primaries where blacks are a large part of the electorate but it won’t work in a general election where only 10% to 12% of the voters are black.

So the Democrats will almost certainly lose badly if they nominate Kamala Harris in 2024. The success of Barack Obama has allowed many black politicians to dream but there is a tendency to forget just how exceptional he was: the first black president of the Harvard Law Review – probably the top law student in America – and the finest orator since Jack Kennedy.

Obama never played the race card. He was ambitious to win and that meant taking on his opponents on their own ground. He was not a protest candidate like Jesse Jackson and anyway he had grown up in a non-racial environment in Hawaii, his white grandmother a huge influence.

Almost certainly Obama could win another election but when this idea was rather wistfully put to him he merely grinned and said “Michele would kill me”. Only if race relations in America continue to improve can one hope for another Obama to come along.

This is the problem with identity politics, as South Africans know too. You can have fun playing identity politics when you’re selecting running mates (balancing old, white male Biden with a young woman of colour) or appointing proteges – because this can be done in a non-competitive environment. But such nominees then have to face the tough political market and the intellectual and managerial tests of running a party, a department or an Administration.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton excitedly talked about “breaking the glass ceiling” by becoming the first woman President. Voters in the mid-Western swing states were unimpressed – they had their own issues, like getting back jobs which had been off-shored.

About that Hillary had nothing to offer and she lost. It will be the same if Kamala Harris relies on hype about being the first this or that to hold office. More likely, the Democrats will lose badly in the 2022 mid-term elections, realise that Kamala is an albatross around their necks and start a frantic search for someone else.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.

* Age at which Harris became district attorney in Alameda County corrected 26 Jan 2021.