Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who turned in a solid performance during her debate against Vice President Pence last week, faces another test this week during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, in which Democrats want to avoid making any big mistakes before Election Day.

Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, played it safe in her opening statement Monday, criticizing President Trump and his GOP allies in Congress more than Barrett, a mother of seven, whom Democratic strategists privately admit will be a tough target to hit this week.

Democratic strategists warn that getting too aggressive with Barrett, a devout Catholic who finished first in her class at Notre Dame Law School and has been praised repeatedly for her calm temperament, could backfire.

“I think she wants to come off as asking thoughtful and fair yet hard questions. I don’t think that she wants to come off as being on the attack,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist and former Senate leadership aide.

“There’s a fine line you have to walk here,” he added.

“If you’re going to go on the attack, you need to make sure your line of questioning is bulletproof and the way that you set up your argument and your attack is not seen as just a partisan ploy,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers want to avoid another messy Supreme Court confirmation fight after losing four incumbents after the 2018 battle over then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which was filled with personal recriminations.

The battle two years ago energized Republican voters in red states and at least two Democrats, Sens. Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.), lost that fall in part due to the backlash.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who narrowly won reelection in 2018 after voting for Kavanaugh, called the episode “a fiasco.”

Harris, who with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a 10-point lead over Trump and Pence, will be careful to avoid a lightning-rod moment that can become a rallying cry for the right.

Democrats also want to avoid the mistakes made during Barrett’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, when three senators asked or mentioned her Catholic faith and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) famously told the nominee: “The dogma lives loudly within you.”

“The pitfall would be [to] look mean-spirited. Don’t look like you’re beating up someone America doesn’t know and would beg the question why you’re being so harsh,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“Keep it above the personality level, to the policy level. That’s the strength for Harris, that’s the safest platform for Harris,” he added. “If it starts to look personal and it starts to look like you’re badgering this person … if you seem more mean-spirited than the potential justice hear, I would say stay away from that at all cost.”

Harris opened her statement Monday with a friendly back-and-forth with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who cheerfully congratulated her for winning her party’s vice presidential nomination.

It was a marked contrast from her sharp and stern questioning of Kavanaugh in 2018 or of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017.

In both high-profile moments, Harris seemed more like a prosecutor — which she was for most of her career before coming to Washington — than a senator, more focused on pinning down the witness than decorum or making broad political points.

During the Kavanaugh hearing, Harris pinned down the nominee on the question of whether he would ask the White House to authorize a broader FBI investigation into decades-old sexual assault allegations against the nominee.

When Kavanaugh tried to dance away, Harris immediately interrupted him and bluntly repeated her question. When he tried to deflect the inquiry a second time, she cut him off and posed her question again. When Kavanaugh tried to reiterate what had already been discussed before the committee, Harris abruptly interjected: “I’m going to take that as a ‘no’ and we can move on.”

During her sharp questioning of Sessions during a committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the attorney general blurted out that he was “nervous” and accused Harris of trying to rush him.

On Monday, Harris struck a different tone. She appeared in the hearing room through a video conference link-up smiling and relaxed before launching into a criticism of Graham’s decision to hold the hearing and Republican plans to confirm Barrett before Election Day instead of working on a coronavirus relief package.

She pointed out the contrast between Graham’s decision to hold hearings the same week Senate Republican leaders shut down the chamber after three GOP senators, including two committee members, tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

She then pivoted to a pending lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, California v. Texas, and scheduled arguments on it before the Supreme Court on Nov. 10, warning that if the court overturns the law “it will result in millions of people losing access to health care at the worst possible time.”

She highlighted Myka, an 11-year-old girl scout who lives in Southern California and depends on the Affordable Care Act to afford treatment for a congenital heart defect.

But she made no direct reference to Barrett’s record and did not mention her name, staying well above any confrontation with the nominee.

Her cautious and competent performance on Monday drew comparisons to her debate against Pence, which drew praise even from Republicans.

Trump tried to shift negative attention on Harris immediately after Biden named her as his running mate, floating the false assertion in August that she did not meet the requirements to be president because her parents were immigrants.

Republicans concede Harris accomplished her No. 1 goal during last week’s debate by appearing presidential and not giving her opponents any obvious ammunition.

“I thought both Sen. Harris and Vice President Pence came across as credible potential presidents should the need arise. That was their only important goal. They both succeeded in achieving that goal,” said Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster.

With Biden and Harris cruising well ahead of the GOP ticket in the polls, the smartest strategy is to ride out the final 28 days before the election without any major errors.

“It’s pretty clear Democrats are following the dictate, first do no harm,” said Ayers. “They know they screwed up in Amy Coney Barrett’s first confirmation hearing to be a judge three years ago by questioning her faith.”

“They’re going to err on the side of doing no harm,” he added. 

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Brett Kavanaugh Century of the Woman Claire McCaskill Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Joe Biden Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin Lindsey Graham Mike Pence

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