One of the many bizarre things about the dismal science of politics is the odd notion of “the generic candidate.” You’ve seen it in the polls, especially for an election that’s pretty far off in the future. “If the election were held today,” a TV announcer intones, “President Trump would lose to a generic Democrat in a landslide!” Of course, it’s a silly exercise because a) the election is (almost) never held today and b) there’s no such thing as a generic candidate — only human beings covered in warts to be exploited by their opponent, even when that opponent is as consistently as unpopular as Donald Trump.
At least that’s how I understood it coming out of poly-sci class, but watching the agonizingly long 2020 president election as it emerges from its bubble wrap is beginning to change my mind.
I have seen “the generic Democrat,” and her name is Sen. Kamala Harris.
Before you jump all over me, I mean “generic” in the sense of her policies and her ideas, the rotted and nearly forgotten leg of the president-electing stool. Because when it comes to campaign charisma and repping the artistic side of politics, California’s junior senator is a flat-out rock star.
That was on display on President’s Day, when the Oakland native made her first-ever campaign trip to the first-primary state of New Hampshire. Hundreds of people lined up outside the historic South Church in Portsmouth to see her, typical of the huge crowds that Harris is drawing while other first-time candidates are struggling to break out of the coffee-klatch circuit. When Harris launched her campaign with a rally in Oakland, she turned out a throng of 20,000 — the type of gathering you usually see the week before Election Day, not 12 months before the primaries even begin.
What are they lining up to see, exactly? As the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel noted in a piece on her New Hampshire foray, Harris has a stock phrase — “Let’s speak the truth" — but what follows is not so much a bombshell or even insider insights but simply the current Democratic zeitgeist. The positions she espouses — solid if vague support for ideas like Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal, bold legislation that was written and introduced by other people — run right down the left-center lane of the expressway to 2020′s Democratic convention. The core premise is that Democratic primary voters like a good idea but they love a winner, and that’s her.
Indeed, Harris’ most forceful answer on Monday may have come when she told New Hampshire voters who she isn’t: A far-leftist like Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who jumped into the race on Tuesday. “The people of New Hampshire will tell me what’s required to compete in New Hampshire," the Californian said in response to a voter’s question, "but I will tell you I am not a democratic socialist,”
Her answer reminded me a lot of something GOP icon Bob Dole said, as he worked past his centrist credentials (supporting crazy stuff like civil rights) to win the 1996 presidential nomination in an increasingly far-right Republican Party. “I’m willing to be another Ronald Reagan,” the Kansas senator declared, ''if that’s what you want.'' That was a losing strategy for Dole, but in the crazy, mixed-up world of Trump-era politics, that level of shape-shifting may be the winning ticket for Kamala Harris.
Because make no mistake: Harris is a juggernaut. There was a new national poll of Democrats that showed the two septuagenarians candidates coasting on the fumes of huge name recognition — ex-veep Joe Biden and Sanders — out in front but that Harris is separating from the pack of newcomers that Democrats (who fall in love, not in line, every four years) are just starting to sift through, California influential new governor, Gavin Newsom, casually endorsed her on national TV Friday night without waiting for all the top-tier candidates to announce. Not to mention the huge crowds. If you forced me to make a bet right now on whom the Democrats will ultimately nominate, I would bet on Harris.
Why? I haven’t seen Harris in person, yet, but like a couple of other million folks I saw her on a CNN town hall (she was the first candidate to get that helpful boost from the cable network) and her political skills are remarkable — maybe the best Democratic campaigner since Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. She, too, feels your pain. She stands up, walks toward her inquisitor, addresses the person by name, with warmth and empathy. She laughs at all the right times, but talks tough when she has to.
“I believe this is a moment in time that we need fighters on the stage who know how to fight,” she told her Portsmouth audience. She’s indeed a fighter, a woman in a time of righting the wrongs of #MeToo, the offspring of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother in the party that celebrates diversity, and she’s won every election in her life ... so far.
The only unanswered question is a pretty big one: Just what exactly is the fighter fighting for? Harris is rising in the polls at the same time that a chief rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is introducing yet another bold bill — universal child care — that would be funded from her proposed wealth tax on billionaires and multi-millionaires, on top of her plans for reining in corporations. Sanders, in announcing Tuesday, also pointed to the bills he’s sponsored like Medicare-for-all and ending the war in Yemen.
When it comes to policy, Harris is more of a glib-itarian, better at reading a room than writing legislation, At that CNN town hall, she got huge applause for not hesitating to endorse Medicare-for-all or — when pressed in a follow-up — the speedy abolition of private insurance. Only in the next morning’s hangover did her staff try to tamp down the expectations raised by her seeming off-the-cuff comments.
Harris has been a consistent winner by backing inconsistent governmental policies. The former San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General built a record as a fairly typical Democratic prosecutor of the 2000s, with a few head fakes toward reform but mostly locking folks up on mass-incarceration autopilot. She even backed the death penalty. Harris’ criminal-justice stances of 15 years ago would make her politically DOA if she pushed them in today’s Democratic Party.
In 2015-16, the enthusiasm that I (and many other voters) expressed for Sanders was partly based on his consistency: That he’d pushed his brand of democratic socialism even when they were nationally out of favor in the Reagan-soaked ’80s. In 2019, with the threat posed by an unfit and unstable president, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. And Harris’ willingness to adapt her platform to whatever rank-and-file Democrats want it to be reflects a change in the party — and it’s actually a good one.
One reason the Democratic Party went so far off the rails was that party elites listened a lot to its millionaire donors, and not so much to the little people in the Portsmouth church pews. That started to change once candidates — starting with Obama and perfected by Sanders — showed it was possibly to finance a campaign with small donations from regular folks.
The old, standard response was to rip politicians like Harris or Sens. Amy Klobuchar or Cory Booker who’ve drifted left from their centrist beginnings as wishy-washy or even fake. But the Democrats’ ideological shift feels more like leaders finally welcoming the ideas favored by the rank-and-file — and isn’t that what we want? Indeed, the broad consensus among so many Democrats about expanding health care, college access and workers’ wages has freed voters to look at other things — like the charisma of a Kamala Harris.
For a change, it feels like the energy in the Democratic Party is no longer top-down but finally bottom-up — starting with the millions who marched on the day after Trump’s inauguration, which flowed straight into the 2018 midterms and the wave that brought a new generation of leaders like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. It’s logical to think that tsunami’s positive energy — and the ideas floating on the surface— will flow to virtually any Democratic president, whether it’s Kamala Harris or someone else.