Back when the 2020 election seemed more remote than an expedition to Mars, the most vapid social-media fantasy provoked by Donald Trump’s White House ascendancy was the notion that the candidate to beat him next time around would be Michelle Obama. Never mind that the former First Lady hates politics like the plague and Washington, D.C., even more. Democrats can be awfully literal-minded, and if they were looking for a new Obama to magically lead them back out of the wilderness, who qualified better than someone whose marriage license ID’d her as the real thing? All in all, it’s a wonder Sasha and Malia dodged 2020 boomlets of their own, and that was only thanks to having to finish their schooling first.
Like the somewhat similar Oprah-for-president fantasy, the Michelle- for-president-fantasy sputtered out some time ago. It does still flicker occasionally among the politically clueless, as does an equally pointless, even more anachronistic yen to put a Kennedy—any Kennedy, whether literal (Joseph P. Kennedy III) or figurative (Beto O’Rourke)—on the ticket. But its lingering after-effects could have something to do with why people are so smitten with Kamala Harris, who’s got a great double whammy working in her favor. It’s the Clintons’ old “two for the price of one” package, but with a twist: Unlike any other candidate in the race, Harris can evoke Barack Obama’s cerebral cool and his wife’s vibrant style simultaneously.
If the joint comparison is a little crude, blame how few other people we’ve got to compare her to. Plausible African American presidential candidates are still a long way from being routine in American politics, and so are female ones. The great joke on every Democrat either running against her or about to join the fray is that simulating a hybrid of both Obamas turns her into a dynamic novelty as opposed to a 2008 rerun, which is the been-there-done-that ghost that Sen. Cory Booker will probably be stuck with instead.
Her campaign has certainly had the best roll-out of any announced candidate’s so far. It may not be a total fluke that, aside from relative long shots like Julian Castro and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, the earliest contenders to make it official have been women. Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard have all decided it’s in their best interest to jump out of the gate ahead of the mostly male (and mostly white) competition. With the partial exception of Warren, they don’t enjoy the same level of name recognition as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or possibly even Beto O’Rourke. This was their best chance to seize the limelight, define themselves unimpeded, and leave the boring white dudes looking like yesterday’s news once they do jump in. If the future is female, who does that leave stuck in the past?
Her campaign has certainly had the best roll-out of any announced candidate’s so far.
However, the early-bird gambit didn’t work out so well for Harris’s rivals. Warren still hasn’t recovered from the disastrous DNA video she released last October to refute Trump’s “Pocahontas” slur, and she’s pretty much a genius at wearing out her welcome anyway. With all her intelligence, there just isn’t a whole lot of flexibility or surprise in her public demeanor, and she comes a cropper whenever she tries to act like just folks. We’ve seen Marines pull the pins on grenades less warily than Warren popped open a beer in her widely ridiculed New Year’s Eve Instagram chat with supporters from her kitchen.
Both Gillibrand and Gabbard, meanwhile, found themselves on the defensive as soon as they announced: Gillibrand for the belated turnaround on gun control that dropped her NRA rating from an “A” to an “F” as soon as she moved up to the Senate from New York’s conservative 20th Congressional district, Gabbard for the antigay rhetoric she used to spout back in Hawaii and her ill-starred 2017 meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. It’s never good when the stuff you have to apologize for marks the first time most voters have ever heard of you, and both women are virtually unknown outside their home states and the D.C. punditocracy’s political bubble.
That’s equally true of Harris, of course, although it makes a difference when your home state is California—whose population exceeds that of Massachusetts, New York and Hawaii combined. Compared to the competition, her debut moves as a presidential candidate came off awfully well, starting with a book tour that modulated without a glitch into her formal announcement she was running. The book itself was the informal one, of course, because you don’t call your memoir The Truths We Hold: An American Journey if you’re planning to head back to Oakland and open a knick-knack shop next.
Her first full-dress interviews once she was in the race—with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, then on Rachel Maddow’s show—were impressively smooth. It takes a politician of unusual skill to align herself with the idealistic activism galvanized by the Trump era, as Harris took care to do, while simultaneously touting her quarter-century of government experience at the local, state, and now federal level. As a bonus, she’d already charmed Stephen Colbert’s Late Show viewers the week before with a bubbly Mood Mix segment that made her seem like. . . gosh, could the right word be “fun,” not exactly a quality Harris has been renowned for until now?
We may never again see another pair of white dudes yanking their suit jackets out of whack as they haul each other’s hands skyward at a Democratic convention, and good riddance.
Indeed, this isn’t the Harris most Californians thought they knew back when she was the state’s Attorney General, or even the one CNN junkies first got acquainted with during her grillings of Trump’s minions as a newly installed member of the Senate’s Judiciary and Intelligence committees. Her hard-nosed track record as AG is likely to be her biggest liability with left-leaning primary voters as they learn more about her, since Harris was only very intermittently the “progressive” prosecutor she now styles herself as. The rest of the time, she was on the wrong side of one hot-button liberal issue after another, including several that disproportionately affected the African Americans she’s now courting as her natural constituency nationwide. All the same, she’s undoubtedly shrewd and, well, hard-nosed enough to know that, down the road, that same c.v. will probably help win over the suspicious white moderates she’ll also need to woo, reassuring them that she’s no Left Coast bleeding heart.
In today’s transformed Democratic Party, it’s already conventional wisdom that the 2020 ticket had darned well better include a woman or a person of color. We may never again see another pair of white dudes yanking their suit jackets out of whack as they haul each other’s hands skyward at a Democratic convention, and good riddance; that combo hasn’t won an election since Cardi B was a toddler. As the only twofer in the mix, Harris would be an obvious pick for the No. 2 spot if (yawn) Joe Biden, (creak) Bernie Sanders, or (dude, where’s my car?) Beto O’Rourke ends up as the nominee.
Unlike at least some of her current rivals, however, she doesn’t seem to be running in hopes of nabbing the Veephood or a Cabinet slot. One reminder of why she could be a contender is that her first state visit after announcing wasn’t to Iowa or New Hampshire, but South Carolina—where around 60 percent of potential Democratic primary voters are African American, and which is shaping up as this year’s first key battleground for the nomination. Under a week later comes Super Tuesday, which might look a lot more uphill for Harris if the states voting that day didn’t now include California, which has finally gotten fed up with being the supersized Cinderella of the Dems’ primary schedule. We know a lot can happen in 13 months, but right now, if we were working for one of the other campaigns, we’re pretty sure we’d be sizing her up as the one to beat—or a threat to somehow head off early, anyhow.