Lessons of the Kamala Harris campaign

In the Democratic presidential race, Kamala Harris — 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 Obama, 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 Barr in a Senate hearing and challenged former Vice President Joe Biden in the first debate on his past opposition to busing for school integration.

A grilling, albeit an effective one, of Donald Trump’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 Clinton, 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 McCain afterwards were titans in the Senate. John Kerry went on to be Secretary of State, and Al Gore 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 Buttigieg, 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.

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates 2020 election Al Gore Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Kerry John McCain Pete Buttigieg William Barr

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