Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign

Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign
© Getty

In the Democratic presidential race, Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden officially clinches Electoral College votes with California certification Hillicon Valley: Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security | Biden says China must play by 'international norms' | House Democrats use Markup app for leadership contest voting Trump campaigns as wild card in Georgia runoffs MORE — on paper — had the most potential: She was smart, politically successful at the local, state and federal level, attractive and a mainstream progressive woman of color from delegate-rich California.

A presidential contest is fought not on paper but on the ground — and the airwaves. The freshman senator proved a bust, dropping out of the race yesterday.

The failure of this once-promising candidate offers several lessons.


One, know and establish your political persona before you get in. The 55-year-old former prosecutor, a moderate by national Democratic party standards, started in the Warren-Sanders left wing, with positions like endorsing a single-payer health care plan. She then segued to more mainstream positions months after, but offered little clarity.

Harris promised a focus on racial issues with an implicit suggestion that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaSmearing presidential election will turn off young voters and undermine democracy 'Black Panther' star criticized for sharing video questioning COVID-19 vaccine Black voters: Low propensity, or low priority? MORE, the first African-American president might have been too timid here. By this fall, there appeared to be no focus — race or otherwise.

A political campaign may be the worst place to create your political identity. A candidate can alter, modify or change a position or two, but the overarching message has to be consistent and coherent.

Two, when you get that moment in the limelight, be ready to capitalize on it and move on. Harris had that this summer after she eviscerated Attorney General William BarrBill BarrKellyanne Conway acknowledges Biden as apparent winner Trump Pentagon nominee alleged Biden 'coup': report Ex-FBI lawyer who falsified document in Trump-Russia probe seeks to avoid prison MORE in a Senate hearing and challenged former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE in the first debate on his past opposition to busing for school integration.

A grilling, albeit an effective one, of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE's controversial Attorney General, or reviving an issue that disappeared decades ago are not foundational building blocs. Unlike, say, Obama's famous Iowa Jefferson-Jackson Day speech in late 2007, when he skewered Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary and Chelsea Clinton to host series based on their book 'Gutsy Women' Democrats see spike in turnout among Asian American, Pacific Islander voters Biden officially announces ex-Obama official Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE, there was no real Harris sequel.


Three, a campaign matters. A staff is — to an extent — a mirror reflection of the candidate. Harris enlisted her California advisers and some Washington hands; her campaign headquarters were in Oakland, Calif., and Baltimore, Md. The campaign chief was her sister, Maya, who by every account is a very talented social activist with little national campaign experience. There is a reason no successful presidential campaign has been run by a relative since Robert F. Kennedy almost 60 years ago.

Before the campaign folded, the New York Times wrote a devastating piece on the internal chaos and conflicts in Harris land.

There predictably will be complaints that Harris faced larger obstacles as a woman of color. There is no doubt the political bar is a little higher for women — and more so for minority candidates.

It's hard to cite this as the major factor in Harris's collapse: In the past three presidential elections, twice the Democratic nomination went to an African-American, Barack Obama, the other to a woman, Hillary Clinton.

Still a relatively young and appealing politician, Kamala Harris will have opportunities. Previously rejected presidential candidates Ted Kennedy, Howard Baker and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSmearing presidential election will turn off young voters and undermine democracy Choking — not cheating — was Trump's undoing Gabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in MORE afterwards were titans in the Senate. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryLeft seeks to influence Biden picks while signaling unity 'Wise men' redux: The Biden national security team Jamaal Bowman: Hearing names like Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed 'makes my skin crawl' MORE went on to be Secretary of State, and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP By making Durham special counsel, AG Barr spares Biden tough choices MORE became Vice President.

So did Joe Biden, whose 2007 presidential campaign was more dismal than Sen. Harris's.

If Biden or any other male candidate is the nominee, there will be tremendous pressure to pick a woman running mate acceptable to the liberal and moderate wings, with prominent consideration to a minority candidate.

The flavor of the season for the left and some Washington pundits is Stacey Abrams, the African-American who last year lost a close race for Governor of Georgia. But Biden, given his age — or say a Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegJuan Williams: Clyburn is my choice as politician of the year 'Biff is president': Michael J. Fox says Trump has played on 'every worst instinct in mankind' Buttigieg: Denying Biden intelligence briefings is about protecting Trump's 'ego' MORE, given his inexperience — has to pick someone who appears to have some credentials to be president. Selecting someone like Abrams, who's never won more than a state rep's race, won't meet that test.

Despite a disappointing year, if she learns from this experience, there still could be a good future for Harris.

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.