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Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is coming under pressure to define her policy proposals from rivals raising questions about where she stands on "Medicare for All" and other key issues.
Allies for former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), both of whom are seeking to beat back a challenge from Harris's surging campaign, are calling Harris's past remarks into question, saying she has obfuscated her positions in an effort to endear herself to the liberal base.
"I think her statements, campaign are smoke and mirrors," said Dick Harpootlian, a Biden campaign surrogate and the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "As the campaign wears on and as she's pressed to prove details, I think she's going to find herself realizing this isn't a campaign for attorney general of California. This is a presidential campaign, and what you say has to be verifiable, and so far it has not been."
Harris's allies roll their eyes at such criticisms, saying her rivals are playing an insider game of trying to pin her down on obscure matters that ordinary Americans don't care anything about.
They say Harris is resonating with voters as an aspirational figure - a woman of color who rose to attorney general of California and a U.S. senator - not because of policy minutiae.
"People are responding to her for who she is and what she says about the future," said Marguerite Willis, a Harris supporter and former Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina.
"She talks about the promise of expanding health care, of better race relations, of taking care of our teachers, of getting our terrible gun problem under control. That's what people are looking for, and that's what she speaks about on the stump with eloquence and believability. The rest of it is just politics."
Critics have centered their fire on Harris's position on Medicare for All, the single-payer health care proposal championed most prominently by Sanders.
Harris is a co-sponsor of the legislation that Sanders introduced earlier this year. But she has gone back and forth on the specifics, such as whether it should abolish employer-sponsored private insurance or how to pay for it.
During a CNN town hall event in January, Harris appeared to say she would "eliminate all of that" on a question about private health insurance.
At another town hall on CNN in May, she clarified that she would eliminate the "bureaucracy" but that she believes consumers should have the option to use a supplemental private insurer.
But at the first presidential debate last month, Harris raised her hand when the candidates were asked if their plans would "abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan."
She clarified immediately after the debate that "private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage."
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are all co-sponsors of Sanders's bill, though Booker and Gillibrand have said that they do not support shutting down private insurance.
Warren has sided with Sanders on the matter, insisting that private health insurance should be done away with.
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders, avoided a direct attack on Harris when asked about her position on Medicare for All but said supporting the proposal means backing the elimination of private insurance.
"Look, she will articulate her position, and voters can evaluate it," he said. "That's what this process is. But if you're for Medicare for All, then you're for eliminating private insurance in the area of covered services. If you're not for that, you're not for Medicare for All."
In an interview on MSNBC earlier in the week, Weaver also rebuffed Harris's suggestion that Medicare for All could be implemented without a middle-class tax hike. Doing so, he said, would be impossible "without unicorns, magic wands."
Harris's campaign did not respond to a request for comment, but her supporters dismissed the criticism as unfair.
Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who is backing Harris, said that voters don't care about the specifics around a complicated economic debate.
Everything that's unfolded so far, Mulholland said, has been part of the normal push and pull between candidates working out their differences in a heated primary contest.
"When you're running for office, anyone can say, 'Oh, that's not exactly what you said last year.' You could say that about any candidate," Mulholland said. "Fact of the matter is, Harris and all the Democrats want to protect and expand health care, and that's what our nominee will focus on."
Harris also raised eyebrows when she announced at the first Democratic debate that she supports decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
Some Democrats have warned that's an untenable position in the general election for the eventual nominee, who will be accused of supporting open borders by President Trump.
In a subsequent interview on "The View," Harris initially contested the notion that she had come out in support of decriminalization, though she later acknowledged that she does support reducing illegal border crossings from a federal crime to a civil offense.
Harris also seemed to be caught in between responses at a town hall event in April when she was asked if incarcerated felons should have the right to vote. At the time, she said that "we should have that conversation," but she came out the following day in opposition to murderers and terrorists voting from jail.
In explaining her initial answer, Harris said that it's a "complex issue" and that many people who have served time in prison are still deprived of the right to vote now that they've been released.
"I'm going to be very thoughtful and serious about the issues I weigh in on," she said. "And so I'm going to think about it and talk to experts."
Political veterans say they think Harris is seeking to appeal to liberal and centrist voters and that this sometimes risks causing her trouble.
"She seems fearful of losing the left, and I think that sometimes leads her to say things she cannot actually support and defend, and then she has to come back and say she doesn't mean it," said Howard Gutman, a former ambassador who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Obama-Biden ticket and has endorsed Biden for president.
Biden's supporters were incensed by Harris's attack against him in the first debate, where she pointed to his past opposition to a federal busing program she used as a young girl that was aimed at integrating schools.
Harris was asked the next day if she supports mandatory federal busing, and she said it should be "considered" by school districts. Biden's campaign pounced, saying that Harris had attacked him over something that even she doesn't believe should be mandated at the federal level.
She later said that she would support federally mandated busing if other means of integration were ineffective, but "that's not where we are today," she added.
"If we got back to the point where governments were actively opposing integration, yes," Harris told reporters in Iowa in response to a question about mandatory busing. "I could imagine that would be when the courts would have to step in."
Harris's supporters say Biden failed to support the policy decades ago when it was needed the most and that Harris never claimed to be in favor of mandatory federal bussing in 2019.
"[Biden's allies] are not being forthright, and they're trying to find an answer for their lack of preparation and their lack of performance," said Melissa Watson, a Harris supporter and the Democratic chairwoman of Berkeley County in South Carolina.
"Where is the discrepancy? She said busing is an option. When you teach, like I do, everything should be an option when you're talking about improving outcomes. She said it should still be considered today. There's no discrepancy. Our problems are complicated, and everyone knows there's not one solution to solving them all," she said.
Still, insiders say questions about where Harris stands are likely to be an issue at the next debate, where she'll square off against Biden once again on July 31.
"Of all the top contenders, I think her message is least fleshed out," David Axelrod, a former Obama campaign strategist, said Thursday on CNN. "And so beyond having Biden on that platform, she needs to use that time to tell people exactly what her candidacy is about."