When Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, she hoped to get to the White House with the support of the coalition of voters who elected Barack Obama — women, people of color, young people and liberal white Americans. But more than 4 million people who were Obama voters in 2012 stayed home in 2016, and a sizable number of people actually crossed party lines to back President Trump.
Some Democrats have championed going after previous Obama supporters who got behind Trump’s campaign — and they believe former vice president Joe Biden, who is considering entering the 2020 race, is best positioned to do that. But Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who launched her presidential campaign Sunday, might actually be able to pull it off.
Most Americans believe Trump is divisive, according to a previous Washington Post-ABC poll, and many believe he is doing more to harm the country than to help it. Harris claims she can bring together the various demographic groups that have taken sides in the culture wars. She said in Oakland at her campaign launch:
“People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other. But that is not our story. That is not who we are. That’s not our America. You see, our United States of America is not about us versus them. It’s about ‘we, the people.’ ”
The obvious similarities between Harris and Obama have attracted a lot of attention — they both are biracial, attorneys and senators whose personal narratives made them popular with the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing. And they both appear to be optimistic candidates who believe America’s best days lie ahead.
Harris appears to be expanding on the message Obama introduced in his book “The Audacity of Hope" — something many watching her speech noticed.
Kamala Harris sounding some very Obama-like notes in her launch — Michelle as well as Barack — in her Oakland launch.— Joy Reid (@JoyAnnReid) January 27, 2019
Lots of echoes of Obama in Harris’ launch, but the pol she explicitly invoked to wrap up: RFK, quoting his own campaign ramp-up half a century ago.— Gabriel Debenedetti (@gdebenedetti) January 27, 2019
But things have changed within the Democratic Party since 2008 — particularly when it comes to issues of criminal justice reform. As the impact of long prison sentences on individuals, families and communities has attracted more attention, many on the left have been challenged on the role they have played in creating what critics call the mass incarceration complex. And Harris’s earlier work as a prosecutor is sure to attract much attention as the campaign gains speed. Harris was California attorney general from 2011 to 2017 and San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011.
Lara Bazelon, the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, recently wrote in the New York Times:
"The state’s top prosecutor has the power and the imperative to seek justice. In cases of tainted convictions, that means conceding error and overturning them. Rather than fulfilling that obligation, Ms. Harris turned legal technicalities into weapons so she could cement injustices. …
“If Kamala Harris wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past.”
Harris appears to be trying to get ahead of the criticism by acknowledging the disparity Trump — “the law and order" candidate on the right — has not. She said:
"Too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America. Too many black and brown Americans are being locked up … Our criminal justice system needs drastic repair. Let’s speak that truth.”
It is doubtful Harris will have as difficult a time as Clinton did convincing Obama supporters she is capable of continuing the more attractive parts of his legacy. A much briefer public career gives her some advantage in having a shorter paper trail of problematic statements and actions for which she will have to answer.
Trump’s high disapproval ratings will probably also give her an advantage Clinton, who had high unfavorability ratings herself, did not. Many voters — especially those on the left — are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and are looking for a leader who can reverse it. For some of them, that leader will look more like the occupant of the Oval Office before Trump.