Since the moment that she announced that she was withdrawing from the presidential campaign on December 2nd, there has been no shortage of commentary from journalists, pundits, cultural critics, armchair psychologists and other assorted common folk assessing what went wrong for Kamala Harris. Social media, print and electronic media, a few political scientists as well as other academics to name just a few have frantically engaged in days later quarterbacking, pontificating on “what went wrong” for the junior senator from California. It has been an intense several days. The varied analysis has been nothing short of dizzying. Well guess what? I am adding my assessment to the political fray.
Once thought to be one of the most promising 2020 democratic candidates for president, the former California Attorney general (the first Black woman to serve in the position), never seemed able to capture any significant level of political traction for her campaign. Save for a brief few weeks mid -summer when she took former Delaware senator and vice-president Joe Biden to task for his past positions on school busing and others issues in which he fondly reminisced working with staunchly segregationist senators further referring to such times as the good days of Washington. Indeed, such ill stated comments immediately placed Biden and his campaign on the defensive. After seeming blindsided after being caught off guard, he issued a rambling, awkwardly stated response.
Instead of acknowledge that he seriously erred, Biden spent the next few weeks digging in his heels, fumbling his words, engaging in deflective and defensive antics as his poll numbers slowly dipped. Press coverage of his remarks were intense. Issues of his age, health, mental state etc… suddenly became routine fodder on nightly and cable news programs. Realizing that trouble was on the horizon, the Biden campaign came to the abrupt realization that despite whatever he initially thought, the fact was, his comments were not a minor, but rather, major faux pas and that papa Joe had better address the issue aggressively, convincingly and effectively and do so DAMN QUICK! Grudgingly, he did so.
During this tenure of the campaign. many of her supporters (and many others) believed that Harris’ had seized her breakout moment, distinguished herself apart from the pack of fellow rivals and was likely to be a serious contender, or even the likely democratic party nominee. Such assumptions were short lived. Unfortunately, for Harris, neither she, nor her campaign was ever able to build upon the temporary advantage they had acquired coming out of the second debate. On the contrary, such momentum was rapidly squandered by a campaign that appeared to be mired in poor management, ambiguous messaging, relentless inquiries about her tenure as California attorney general and other issues.
The fact is that no honest person can dismiss the fact that being a woman of color was a definitive handicap for Harris. We saw how sexism impacted Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Some will argue that this is an unfounded argument in that Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Tulsi Gabbard are women. Corey Booker, Andrew Yang and Julian Castro are men of color and Pete Buttigieg is an openly gay man.
Absolutely true, but Kamala Harris is a woman of color and a biracial one at that. This meant that she was dealing with the twin evils of “Jim crow and Jane crow.” The term espoused by pioneering legal scholar, Pauli Murray. Yes, Barack Obama was biracial, but he was male. He was also running for president in an era, although recent, was not as politically fractured and divisive as the current climate.
Indeed, the present-day atmosphere of polarization is undoubtedly a significant (though certainly not the only reason) for Harris’ inability to advance further in the presidential contest. Some of her supporters point their fingers at the current racial atmosphere for Harris’ demise. Yes, racism is a deeply pernicious and endemic problem in America. That being said, the nation has always been racist from its inception! Thus, racial strife is nothing new.
The fact is that a number of factors can be attributed to Kamala Harris falling short in her quest to become the 46th president of the United States. Unlike 2008, voters of color and young people are not necessarily seeking a candidate in the mold of Barack Obama who was deeply endowed with a magnetic personality and infectious charisma. On the contrary, in an era of increased political, social, cultural and economic uncertainty, pragmatism and substance outweighs personality for this constituency.
The truth is that Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have proven to be solid candidates with committed constituencies. For the moment, Biden has formidable support among middle aged and older Black voters (not so much so among younger Blacks or young people in general). Warren (and more recently, Pete Buttigieg), have built increasingly solid support among college educated, upscale voters. Bernie Sanders has captured the admiration and hearts of younger and progressive voters. These were the combination of diverse coalitions that Harris needed in order to be competitive. but failed to mobilize to her campaign.
If we are being honest and keeping it real, the indisputable reality is that Kamala Harris was not the most inspiring candidate. Indeed, a number of people, myself included, were both intrigued and taken aback at how surprisingly inept she appeared as a presidential contender. In more than a few instances, she came across as disturbingly ambiguous in her positions. She struggled to explain her policy stances and seemed to routinely equivocate when asked where she stood on an issue. It was this consistent tendency to triangulate that made her come across as a multi-faceted “every woman” with no genuine convictions.
The fact is that we are in an era where voters across the political spectrum want a candidate who is unmistakably definitive in their beliefs and free of any level of ambiguity. At the present moment, the American people, across the political spectrum want radical, wholesale restructuring as it relates to the current state of the nation They are not willing to settle for “gradual and incremental change” despite what some establishment figures, including former President Obama have argued. Thus, Kamala Harris and perhaps her campaign managers were responsible for many of her seemingly glaring shortcomings.
It is highly likely that such an unsettling perception of vagueness and seeming lack of authenticity and conviction accounted for her unsuccessful attempt (the same can applied to Corey Booker) to garner the support of Black voters. Unlike Barack Obama, who, at the time he was running for president, (recently he has taken a more right of center approach) seemed to possess an intense level of inspiration and hope to legions of Black people and others as well.
On the contrary, Harris and her fellow candidates of color (at least at this point), have failed to convince the majority of their non-White brethren that they harbor the politically vital ingredients necessary to defeat Donald Trump in 2020. In my opinion, if any candidate of color suddenly emerges, I believe that it is likely to be Julian Castro. That being said, in the interest of disclosure, I am a Julian Castro supporter.
Campaign flaws aside, Kamala Harris is a formidably intelligent, sophisticated, attractive, accomplished person. There is no doubt that despite her inability to capture her party’s nomination, she undoubtedly has an unquestionably promising future in democratic party politics. She will almost certainly, if not already be considered on the short list of candidates for Vice President, possible attorney general in a democratic administration, democratic party chairman or some other influential position. The odds are we have not seen or heard the last of Kamala Harris.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. Is a professor, author and public speaker. His recent book, Keepin It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America was published by the University of Chicago Press.