Kamala Harris has what it takes to fill a big political stage. During Sunday’s announcement of her 2020 presidential run, the California senator looked very much like a political contender who belongs in the big leagues.
It’s always a great unknown leading up to such events whether a particular politician has the charisma to carry off the successful launch of a presidential campaign. Whether that certain someone has what it takes to step up to a microphone, heart pounding, and seize the moment. All this while tens of thousands of supporters hang on every word and a ravenous political world lurches forward, ready to pass savage judgment: Is this a pathetic political pretender or the Next Great Hope? To policy wizards, pundits and most candidates themselves, the answer is unknown until the first words of that first speech begin ringing out of the forum’s public address system.
Harris’s introductory remarks were predictable enough for a progressive Democratic candidate seeking the party’s nomination in what may prove to be the most crowded political field in U.S. history. The content of her Oakland speech did little to differentiate her worldview from those of the dozens of other progressive politicians eyeing a nomination that will move its winner within close reach of the White House.
Still, while Harris’s speech may have been boilerplate, her presence was inspiring. Like Barack Obama’s contagious laugh and Ronald Reagan’s winning smile, Harris’s electrifying announcement was powered by under-the-radar years of experience and shrewd political calculation. It could all be enough to move the former California attorney general to the cusp of a history-bending breakthrough.
To be sure, Harris’s oratory was short on specifics. Her “policy” proposals were predictably progressive and vague. Every worker should be able to join a union. Every working-class American has a right to health care and a raise. College students should be able to graduate debt-free. The wealthy should absorb tax increases so middle-class Americans can receive the largest tax cut in a generation.
Even in a party conditioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to accept liberal rhetoric without policy specifics, Harris will surely have to flesh out her agenda to prove to Democrats across the political spectrum that she has what it takes to defeat President Trump in 2020. That trait — above all other considerations — will determine who wins the most valuable Democratic nomination since 2008.
Harris has much more to prove, but so does everyone else thinking about entering this contest. Can she raise hundreds of millions of dollars? Can she debate effectively? Can she survive the enormous scrutiny of her record, scrutiny that will surely intensify if her success continues?
It is one thing to propel a presidential campaign off a launch pad and quite another to successfully send it into safe political orbit. But a few days into her campaign, even Harris’s critics should take note that the junior senator managed something in her first campaign speech that the last Democratic nominee failed to do throughout the whole of the 2016 campaign. She gave Americans a compelling explanation as to why she wanted to be president.
Her message — “we are better than this” — was delivered with the fierce urgency of now. In that, it was much like the earlier campaign launch by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), who framed her own White House bid as the continuation of her quest to protect consumers, to hold corporate leaders accountable and to promote a fiery brand of progressivism shaped by the prairie populism of Oklahoma and the liberal ethos of Harvard intellectualism.
Like Warren, Harris will be underestimated by Team Trump at its own peril. We are, of course, in the opening steps of a grueling, nonstop, two-year battle. Perhaps Harris will prove far more adept at beginning a presidential campaign than actually running one. And Warren may prove her critics correct by proving she lacks the personal touch to navigate the ugly give-and-take of modern presidential politics.
But I doubt it.
There are other interesting candidates in the race. But with Harris’s and Warren’s entrance into the pitched battle to crush Trumpism and its toxic legacy, Democratic primary voters may at last have reason to believe that their eventual nominee can take on Trump, win back the White House for Democrats, and bring a sense of stability and sanity back to Washington for all Americans.
More tests and more candidates are coming soon enough. But a party that produced a weakened nominee in 2016 has begun the 2020 cycle on a path that looks certain to produce a tougher political challenger than Trump has ever faced before.