Kamala Harris’ Exit From 2020 Primary Is Major Setback For Democratic Party Establishment

Democratic Senator Kamala Harris (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Senator Kamala Harris’ exit from the 2020 Democratic presidential primary before a single primary vote was cast represents a major setback for the political establishment.

The Democratic Party establishment saw in Harris a black woman who could potentially be a fresh voice. She was their female Barack Obama. They believed she might be able to help Democrats manage a grassroots insurgency, which demands the party support much more radical policies.

But she did not even survive a year of campaigning, which is a bad omen for establishment Democrats.

Harris could not escape her record as a participant in systems of mass incarceration.

She became a prosecutor in 1990. The Los Angeles Times notes, “A tough-on-crime political culture flourished in California, and African Americans were hit hardest.”

In her career, Harris opposed releasing minimum custody inmates because California would “lose an important labor pool,” including firefighters who are paid $1 an hour to fight wildfires.

She opposed a ballot initiative to reform California’s draconian “three strikes” sentencing law. She balked at granting judges more discretion for sentencing when it came to low-level crimes.

As journalist Roqayah Chamseddine highlighted, Harris backed an anti-truancy bill that “made it so that parents of truant children who miss more than 10 percent of their classes [could] be charged with a misdemeanor and given a $2,000 fine or a year in prison “if, after being offered state support and counseling, their kids still fail[ed] to improve their attendance.”

Harris boasted in 2009, “To date, I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy,” and added, “Our groundbreaking strategy has worked.”

She laughed about this harsh policy during an event at the Commonwealth Club in 2010, saying, “This was a little controversial in San Francisco. And, frankly, my staff went bananas. They were very concerned because we didn’t know at the time if I was going to have an opponent in my re-election race.”

When she was district attorney of San Francisco, according to CNN, Harris supported a policy of helping federal immigration authorities arrest children suspected of felonies, even if they had never been convicted for committing such crimes.

“Multiple juveniles faced deportation over relatively minor crimes: in one instance reported by the Times, a 14-year-old who had been in the United States since he was 2 was handed over to ICE after he took a BB gun to school to show off to friends. In another instance, a 13-year-old and his family faced deportation after he punched another boy at school and stole 46 cents,” CNN added.

On the flip side, Harris refused to deal with “prosecutorial misconduct,” according to a 2016 profile from the New York Times. She refused to grant a DNA test that would have exonerated Kevin Cooper, a death row inmate for 35 years. (Only recently did California Governor Gavin Newsom allow DNA testing.) She avoided prosecutions of police officers for fatal shootings.

Prosecutors in the California attorney general’s office “found over a thousand violations of foreclosure laws” by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s bank, OneWest, and “predicted that further investigation would uncover many thousands more,” according to The Intercept’s David Dayen. However, her office closed the investigation after refusing to file a “civil enforcement action” against OneWest for their role in mortgage fraud.

A report from the New York Times published on November 29, documented how her presidential campaign unraveled. It highlighted the campaign’s inability to figure out what to do with her record as a prosecutor.

“In the spring, Maya Harris [campaign chairwoman] and the consulting team were at war over whether the senator should embrace or downplay her record as a prosecutor, which some on the left have criticized, a dilemma the campaign has never resolved,” according to the Times.

The report further detailed:

On criminal justice, one of Ms. Harris’s calling cards, she did not unveil her own proposals until months after she began meeting with activists. Ms. Harris said she was being deliberate, but several aides familiar with the process said she was knocked off kilter by criticism from progressives and spent months torn between embracing her prosecutor record and acknowledging some faults.

At times, she avoided the topic, even initially rejecting her current campaign slogan, “Justice Is On The Ballot,” when it was presented to her earlier in the summer. At one point during the preparations, tensions flared so high that one senior aide pleaded with the candidate to provide some direction. “You know this stuff better than us!” the aide said, according to those present.

It was hardly the only time Ms. Harris has appeared uneasy or indecisive about whether to go on the offensive. In the July debate, Ms. Harris did not respond sharply to an attack on her prosecutorial record from Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, even after Ms. Harris had been prepped for the topic.

On a conference call after the debate, several of Ms. Harris’s donors were alarmed and urged the campaign to strike back at Ms. Gabbard more aggressively, two people on the call said.

Ms. Harris also knew her response had been insufficient, a view quickly reinforced by her advisers. In interviews, many of them point to that debate moment as accelerating Ms. Harris’s decline and are so exasperated that they bluntly acknowledge in private that Ms. Harris struggles to carry a message beyond the initial script.

During the debate in July, Democratic Representative Tulsi Gabbard was applauded when she said, “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”

“She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California And she fought to keep a bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

After Harris failed to grapple appropriately with what Gabbard asserted, Gabbard put an exclamation point on her remarks.

“The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not. And worse yet, in the case of those who were on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so,” Gabbard declared.

The Harris campaign recognized how devastating this was immediately and resorted to McCarthyism. Harris herself said this came from someone who has been an “apologist” for Syrian President Bashar Assad. Ian Sams, the campaign’s press secretary, suggested Russia was behind what Gabbard said during the debate.

Harris made a push for Twitter to ban President Donald Trump, even echoing this demand during a Democratic debate. Her demand went nowhere because of the First Amendment. But it illustrated how the professional liberal class seeks to impose their brand of “civility” while dodging responsibility for policies and programs they backed which harmed people.

Finally, consider where Harris ended up on Medicare for All. After she expressed support for abolishing private health insurance, she faced a backlash and flip-flopped. Eventually, she informed donors at the Hamptons that she was not comfortable with Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan, although she co-sponsored Medicare for All legislation in 2018.

Harris proposed a “middle-ground” for expanding Medicare that preserved the role of private health insurance, which made it harder for her to distinguish herself as a bold candidate. However, it sent a message to corporate executives, lobbyists, and political strategists that she could be reined in if she strayed too far outside of the confines of what is acceptable to elites.

In that sense, much of the scrutiny and resentment that Harris garnered was not a product of bigotry or racism. She was more concerned with maintaining her status in the professional liberal class, including as a prosecutor who was “smart on crime.” That fueled chaos within her campaign and impaired her ability to inspire voters.

Ultimately, Kamala Harris’ campaign faltered for many of the same reasons that Hillary Clinton’s campaign faltered in 2016. Democratic voters still favor anti-establishment candidates over liberals who cling to some abstract center.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store