Opinion writer

On Wednesday night, Sen. Kamala D. Harris made what is now a required stop for Democratic presidential contenders, going on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC program for one of their first major interviews as an official candidate. She offered an interesting preview of what her campaign could look like and how it differs from those of other candidates.

I want to focus on one part in particular, when Maddow asked Harris why she's running now after being in the Senate for only two years. It's when they answer the "Why are you running?" question — which they all know is coming and they've no doubt practiced their answer to — that candidates show us what they want us to think about them and how they want us to think about this contest.

Harris began by noting that she has held positions in local, state and federal governments, a quick way of saying that she’s qualified despite having only been in the Senate a short time, then said this:

I was raised by a mother in particular who taught us that if you see a problem, you don’t complain, you do something about it. And when I look at what is going on in our country, and the way that frankly there’s an attack not only on the American dream but American values — and I know that might sound corny but it’s happening — each of us has to figure out where we’re going to step up and what we’re going to do. You know, it’s one thing to complain but I think this is a moment that should require everyone to look in a mirror and ask, “What am I doing right now, and what can I do?” 

Here’s my perspective, if you want to just take it to a long term. Years from now, members of our family, our children, our grandchildren, they’re going to look at us and they’re going to ask us, “Where were you at that inflection moment?” And they’re going to want to hear, and I think we’re going to want to say something that is more than just how we felt. This is a moment that has to be about what is each of us prepared to do. And Rachel, you’ve seen this, so many people are answering that question by doing so much.

She then talked about “dreamers” who came to Washington to protest the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, families where someone has a disability protesting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, survivors speaking out about Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. But in each case, she described the people but didn’t actually name the thing they were protesting, instead paying tribute to the activism itself. Nor did she mention that one of those activism efforts succeeded (stopping ACA repeal), one failed (Kavanaugh), and one is still uncertain (DACA).

Just to be clear, it isn't that Harris doesn't have plenty of specific criticisms of Donald Trump and plenty of specific positions on issues, because of course she does. But with this answer, Harris seems to be positing herself as the candidate who captures the spirit of this moment in left politics, one that's about not just anger at Trump, but anger that gets translated into political action.

This is a smart move, because one of the things that Donald Trump bequeathed to the left is a new sense of efficacy. To make what I think is an important comparison, one of the things that made Barack Obama's 2008 campaign so powerful was how he convinced his supporters that they were not spectators but actors in history, taking action and making profound change. For all their frustration with politics right now, liberals have that sense again — it's evident in the women's marches and thousands of Indivisible chapters and local Democratic Party operations overrun with volunteers, and it's how they got a huge victory in the 2018 elections. So Harris is saying that she's the candidate who's tuned into that activist spirit, despite the fact that her career is as an insider, not an outsider.

This is an interesting way of speaking directly to liberals without having to be the most ideologically liberal candidate (even though the issue differences between the contenders are relatively small, that distinction still belongs to Bernie Sanders). And it’s distinct from someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose answer to the “Why are you running?” question is that she is the one who can break down an economically and politically corrupt system. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand answered that question by saying “I’m going to run for president of the United States because, as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” then described the kind of supportive society (health care, education, economic opportunity) we should have. Sen. Sherrod Brown says, “The whole idea is that, if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to get ahead.”

All of those are ideas that appeal to liberals and conservatives and even excite them, but Harris’s rationale may be the one most directly aimed at the primary electorate. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work, but it just might.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Kamala Harris is in. She’ll be a formidable challenger.

Jonathan Capehart: Is Kamala Harris running for president? Passages from her book make her intentions known.

Jonathan Capehart: When you read Kamala Harris’s book, you’ll come away with one thought