The Democratic Race: Kamala Harris — or a Caveat

Diversity is important, but not enough. More will be needed from the Democratic nominee.

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Progressive? As in, "progressive enough"?

While everyone is mulling Mueller, let’s get serious about the 2020 election. For Democrats, the job is twofold: take back the Senate and elect a new president. It’s a tall order, but given that Donald Trump’s extremism has cost the GOP the support of independent voters in swing states, it is perhaps uniquely achievable.

The Senate looks tougher than the presidency, but, for now, it matters less. The body’s quirky rules mean you need 60 votes, rather than a simple majority, to pass anything of substance. For this reason, the prospect of rapid progress on anything at all is doubtful. Nonetheless, the long-shot hope remains that voters will usher in both a Democratic Senate and president, and that Republicans will have been sufficiently battered by the collapse of their party under Trump that they will vote for something as simple, obvious and urgent as climate-change mitigation. Don’t look for progress on anything underlying the problems, though, such as campaign-finance reform.

Only weeks ago, it seemed questionable whether Trump would be the GOP presidential nominee in 2020. Now it seems likely, yet it hardly matters: what is left of the GOP cannot bring itself to nominate anyone with the slightest pretense to moderation. The general election, therefore, will in all likelihood go to a Democrat. The situation bears a great resemblance to 1976, when an obscure peanut farmer won the White House mostly because of a revulsion against the most corrupt and vile president up to that time. That doesn’t mean we quite yet know who the 2020 version of such an obscure peanut farmer will be. After all, the nominating convention is still a long, long way off in both real and political time. Attempting to handicap the Democratic race at this point is silly. Let’s do it anyway.

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My money today is on Kamala Harris. She’s eloquent. She is female, handsome and not white. She’s doing a fine job of impersonating a progressive to appeal to an increasingly liberal Democratic base. If she becomes the nominee, and then president, progressives’ job will be cut out for them: keep the pressure on her to hold her base, because her history is to cave in to big money. People are creatures of habit; they tend to resort to doing what they normally do.

Here’s comes my caveat: Harris may be a progressive masquerading as something else. Perhaps, in the style of Lyndon Johnson, she could reveal herself to be a true, New Deal progressive only once she reaches the nation’s highest office. We don’t know yet.

The Democratic Party remains divided between people we’ll call moderates and those we’ll call progressives. Moderates are center-rightists in the mold of the Clintons and Obama. They sound like liberals on the “social” issues — abortion rights, affirmative action, gun control — but they don’t want to mess with the economy, whose gross numbers appear to be unassailable to them by any traditional metric. Progressives realize two things that moderates have a hard time with: first, that low unemployment and high stock prices are cruelly misleading measures of economic performance when the middle class continues to disappear, and economic disparity is still increasing between the haves and have-nots.

Second, it is meaningless to be a liberal on anything if you’re conservative on economics. Progressives want to up-end the economy by nationalizing significant, dysfunctional sectors such as healthcare. They also want a steeply progressive tax system. Many want either a guaranteed job or a guaranteed minimum income for all workers.

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The possible contenders who fit the progressive mold include Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and maybe Harris and Jay Inslee. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar do not. Beto O’Rourke? His positions in his failed Senate race against Ted Cruz were a great deal farther left than his voting record, so it’s hard to say. My editor and CFR colleague Robert Burney calls O’Rourke “undeniably progressive.” From this point of view, he appears to have plenty of what Richard Nixon would call “plausible deniability” against that assessment.

Progressives owe Sanders a great debt for demonstrating in 2016 how a democratic socialist can raise the money and light a fire under a raft of new voters. He owes it to the movement now to step aside in favor of someone younger. He would be almost 80 upon assuming the toughest job in the world. That’s just too darned old, and he’ll succeed only if, say 14 months from now, he’s the last one standing on the left side of the party.

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The sad thing — the tragic thing, actually — is that climate change, economic justice and campaign finance reform are the hugely important questions of the day, and it’s not particularly likely that the race will be decided on these issues. Identity politics is real. It’s damaging and stupid, but very real.

Because of this, any man in the Democratic race is at a disadvantage, as surely as a woman would have been up to 2016. People on social media are already lamenting the rise in support for Buttigieg, possibly the most interesting candidate in the field. “Whoa!,” they say, “how can we elect a gay man before we can elect a woman?” Even more absurd is this question apparently raised in some seriousness: “Is Mayor Pete gay enough?” Good grief. That is uncomfortably close to saying that if Buttigieg isn’t a walking, talking stereotype, no one will perceive him as what he actually is.

We still have a long way to go before we can hear solutions to the most important questions in the world and make our decisions as voters. We always do. Probably we always will. Certainly we won’t know whether these candidates’ propositions would work until America can elect enough people of diverse ethnic, sexual, gender and religious backgrounds. Yet we won’t see any progress at all until we realize that while diversity is important, it alone is not enough. Something more will be needed from the next Democratic nominee.