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 KerryDemocratic debates are magnet for lobbyists The Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Bring on the brokered convention MORE was going to run for President, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials 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 HarrisDemocrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change 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 ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo 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 KavanaughDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment January reminds us why courts matter — and the dangers of 'Trump judges' Planned Parenthood launches M campaign to back Democrats in 2020 MORE and President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE's Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrParnas attorney asks William Barr to recuse himself from investigation Dems plan marathon prep for Senate trial, wary of Trump trying to 'game' the process Pentagon to place new restrictions, monitoring on foreign military students MORE. In the first Democratic presidential debate, she devastated former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team 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 MaddowParnas attorney asks William Barr to recuse himself from investigation Hypocrisy is the currency of the realm for GOP in the age of Trump GOP senator, Chuck Todd spar over whether Lev Parnas should testify in Senate impeachment trial 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 SandersSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country MORE/Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country The American disease and death bowls 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 ButtigiegJayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Former health insurance executive: Current system is bankrupting country Biden leads Democratic primary field in Iowa: poll 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.