State Issues

No lack of ambition in Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to members of the media at her alma mater, Howard University, in announcing her candidacy for president.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to members of the media at her alma mater, Howard University, in announcing her candidacy for president. AP

President Kamala Harris?

She thinks so. After just 1  1/2 terms as California’s attorney general and two years as a U.S. senator, Harris this week declared her candidacy for the White House. She joins a Democratic field that grows larger every day and could eventually reach two or three dozen – all trumpeting their implacable disdain for President Donald Trump.

“The American people deserve to have somebody who is going to fight for them, who is going to see them, who will hear them, who will care about them, who will be concerned about their experience and will put them in front of self-interest,” Harris said in announcing her bid Monday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

By announcing on the holiday commemorating civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Harris made it clear she will capitalize on her mixed-race heritage – Jamaican and East Indian – to appeal to voters of color in her quest to differentiate herself from rivals.

“The thing about Dr. King that always inspired me is that he was aspirational, like our country is aspirational,” Harris said, hinting at her strategy for winning the Democratic nomination. It’s predicated on doing well in Southern states early next year, setting the stage for what she hopes would be a big win in California in March.

She begins down that path Friday in South Carolina by attending a gala event hosted by a local chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first college sorority founded by African Americans, which Harris joined as a student at Howard University. South Carolina’s is the fourth 2020 primary and black voters are an especially influential bloc.

Is it a winning strategy?

At this stage there are no Democratic frontrunners, but Harris is better positioned than most to claim one of the pole positions, thanks to her telegenic persona and laser-like focus on grabbing media attention – very much on display during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

Name identification – having some sort of image that triggers a positive response when pollsters call – is the game now and she does fairly well in that.

None of this has anything to do with her qualifications for the presidency, of course, such as knowledge and experience in foreign affairs, economic issues and other weighty matters. The qualification bar has been slipping for decades – witness Trump’s election in 2016 – and she’s no less qualified than most of those who see themselves as presidential material, though she’s done nothing of note as a first-term senator.

Qualifications aside, Harris must navigate a political minefield to become the Democratic nominee.

Trump’s bombastic presidency has spawned a deep division within the party between business-as-usual liberals and a surging left wing, which views the establishment as too cozy with corporate America and insufficiently committed to causes such as single-payer health care, homelessness and climate change.

Harris and her rivals must appeal to those on the left without going too far out the ideological limb and rendering themselves unelectable in swing states such as Florida and Ohio in the general election.

Harris hopes to straddle the ideological chasm. For instance, in her campaign autobiography – a now-standard device for presidential hopefuls – she recasts her prosecutorial career as a quest for criminal justice reform.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: dan@calmatters.org.

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