Harris struggling with substance to match the aspiration

Harris struggling with substance to match the aspiration
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When Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Pompeo announces Israeli settlements do not violate international law Deval Patrick's 2020 entry raises stakes in New Hampshire MORE was going to run for President, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 Conservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE, his fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, gave him some advice.

McCain told me that he advised his Democratic colleague: “This hero stuff gets you in the door; but you need to have something to say when you get there” To drive the point home to Kerry, he noted that John Glenn, a Marine veteran and celebrated astronaut, “was a bigger hero than either of us,” and his presidential candidacy never got off the ground.

This may be the lesson of Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisFive takeaways from the Democratic debate Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE, the appealing African-American California Senator. The once top-tier presidential candidate has slipped in the polls, is struggling to raise money, and is laying off staff amid speculation she may drop out before the first contests in February.

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Harris wasn't a war hero, but she had future writ large when — as a local San Francisco prosecutor — the late renowned journalist Gwen Ifill called her “the female Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters Is Joe Biden finished? MORE.”

She was in the presidential race this year after widely-praised performances in the Senate Judiciary Committee where she effectively tore into Supreme Court nominee Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGOP senator compares impeachment inquiry to Kavanaugh confirmation Christine Blasey Ford receives ACLU courage award Election 2020: Why I'm watching Amy and Andy MORE and President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE's Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP rep predicts watchdog report on alleged FISA abuses will find 'problems' Barr defends Trump's use of executive authority, slams impeachment hearings GOP eager for report on alleged FBI surveillance abuse MORE. In the first Democratic presidential debate, she devastated former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE over his earlier position opposing school busing.

Harris was riding high, climbing in the polls, and racking up endorsements. Liberal pundits like cable television's Rachel MaddowRachel Anne MaddowFive takeaways from the Democratic debate Here's what searches spiked on Google in response to Democrats' debate Democratic debate kicks off with all-female panel of moderators MORE predicted she likely would be the nominee.

The door was open.

It stayed pretty empty.

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Harris seemed confused about her position on one of the most pressing issues, health care. Initially, she supported the Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE/Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE single-payer government-run program that would eliminate private health insurance.

Pressed, she retreated, espousing a public option that retains private insurance — and assailed the Sanders-Warren plan. 

She no longer is associated with any approach.

Harris has had some interesting ideas about taxes and raising teacher's pay. These pieces, however, haven’t added up to a coherent message.

The California Democrat, whose mother immigrated from India and whose father is from Jamaica, vowed to focus on race in a way that Barack Obama never did. While she talks about racial inequities and raises the matter of reparations for the sins of slavery, again it's disjointed.

The former DA and state Attorney General calls herself a “progressive prosecutor,” who’d go after Trump and his cronies. She showed her prosecutorial mettle in those Judiciary Committee forums, and the public would relish anyone who'd clear out the swamp the way Trump has not.

Voters’ top priority, however, usually isn't a prosecutor for president.

Harris uncomfortably has sought to straddle the party's left wing and the mainstream progressive constituencies. She veered left in the early phase and not just on a single-payer health care plan. She refused to take a position on Bernie Sanders' crazy proposal to allow convicted murderers and rapists to vote.

Now, out of necessity, as she shifts almost her whole campaign to Iowa, her long shot hopes rest chiefly with picking up any fallen away Biden voters. That's also the strategy of several other aspirants; they all seem to be eclipsed by South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Gabbard, Buttigieg battle over use of military in Mexico MORE who has soared into the top tier.

If the Harris’s presidential quest ends, it doesn't necessarily finish her political ascent. She's only 55 years old and still can be a commanding presence. She might even end up as a vice presidential running mate, as did other failed candidates, George H.W. Bush and Joe Biden.

But if Harris gets in that door, she has to have something to say.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.