Like no other candidate in the presidential race, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) can create viral moments in which her intellect and presence rivet our attention and command our respect. She filleted Attorney General William P. Barr as no other Senate Judiciary Committee member could. In an appearance with Stephen Colbert, she managed to indict (pun intended) President Trump for failure to do his job and for threatening our democracy — while she slipped in an explanation for why crumbling infrastructure costs ordinary Americans real money and how her expanded earned-income tax credit is going to help families:
Boiling down important but boring policy matters (e.g., infrastructure) and abstract concepts (“threat to our democracy”) to punchy, amusing nuggets may not help you govern, but it sure helps you get elected. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 57 plans with 14 sub-parts (or however many there are) may indicate her policy prowess and work ethic, but they might not be explainable in a one-minute debate answer. Unfortunately, our politics now is much more likely to reward rhetorical jujitsu than meticulous policy craftsmanship.
So why hasn’t Harris broken out yet?
Her recent attempt to refocus her campaign to stress her prosecutorial skills suggests that her message to date has lacked an overarching theme that distinguishes her from other candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is farther to the left, Warren (D-Mass.) has more policies, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the wunderkind. Harris’s ideological position and platform remain fuzzy for a lot of voters.
Part of her difficulty also rests with African American voters’ affection for former vice president Joe Biden. In the last Quinnipiac poll, for example, Biden gets 39 percent of the nonwhite primary vote. Looking at Harris, one is reminded of President Barack Obama’s situation before he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008. Until he demonstrated his viability, African American voters stuck with Hillary Clinton, who, along with her husband, was a popular, known quantity.
However, Harris’s biggest problem may be that most voters simply don’t know her or know enough about her. In the same Quinnipiac poll, 34 percent of Democrats didn’t know enough about her to render an opinion. That’s an asset in one sense, though; she has a vast audience who have no fixed views about her. The latest Monmouth poll suggests that her appeal increases when she is introduced to voters. While she draws 8 percent nationally in that poll, among early-primary-state voters, who presumably are more plugged into the race and have seen local coverage of her, she draws 14 percent.
The debates may be the first time many Democrats get to see and hear her. That makes the debates more critical for her than for candidates who are better known. If she is able to put together a few powerful moments in which her dynamism, intensity and smarts are on display — and impress voters as the qualities that would help defeat Trump — she could make progress.
She might make hay out of the fact Trump thinks a talented, African American female prosecutor is “nasty” — or she might remind viewers that if she can cut Barr, a previously respected attorney, down to size, she can obliterate Trump.
With a few succinct policy explanations — like the one she provided on Colbert’s show — and some previews of what her debate against Trump might look like, she might raise her profile as the candidate who will utterly flummox Trump. It does seem he has particular problems with strong women from California.