Kamala Harris' Skin Color Is Not Why Her Presidential Bid Is Tanking
Blame her censorious and authoritarian approach to public policy instead.
California Sen. Kamala Harris' bid for the Democratic presidential nomination is imploding even before President Donald Trump could think up an insulting nickname for her. Once regarded as the Democrats' best hope to take down Trump, Harris has seen her polls collapse, her donations tumble, and her campaign in shambles. She claims her woes show that the country is just "not ready for a woman of color" to be president.
This is self-serving rubbish. What the country is not ready for is another cynical and self-serving bully-in-chief who, in her case, is masquerading as a progressive.
Harris, who catapulted herself to the second spot behind former Vice President Joe Biden in one or two polls over the summer, is now struggling to stay in the mid-tier. The latest USA Today/Suffolk survey shows that her support among primary Democratic voters has dropped from 15 percent at its peak to a mere 3 percent now. She is way behind South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Even Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has inched ahead of Harris, a particularly humiliating development given that Gabbard viciously attacked Harris' record as a public prosecutor in California on the debate stage, just like Harris attacked Biden's alleged opposition to school busing to propel herself up several notches in the polls in July. Stunningly, Harris, who everyone expected to be right at the top, is now tied with entrepreneur Andrew Yang, a political nobody.
All of this is affecting her fundraising ability, with her early lead dissipating in the last few weeks. She has spent $2.5 million more than she has raised, and she recently fired dozens of staffers because she can no longer afford them. Her New Hampshire operation has reportedly shuttered.
If Harris' fall from grace could be attributed to her gender and her mixed Indian and African-American heritage, then she would never have shot up in the first place. Also those very same attributes would doom Gabbard, who is part Samoan and a practicing Hindu. Moreover, if the country is not ready for a "woman of color," it is even less so for an openly gay man with a husband. Yet Mayor Buttigieg is surging.
Harris is right that minorities and women have to scale a higher bar for the presidency. It is inconceivable, for example, that a black man—much less a black woman—who behaved like Trump would ever come within hailing distance of the White House. Still, Harris is crashing not among general election voters but among the more progressive ones in the Democratic primaries. So unless she believes her own party's base is racist and misogynistic, she should look within to understand why she is in trouble.
Here's the real reason she's falling: The more voters learn about Harris' decade-and-a-half record, first as a San Francisco prosecutor and then as California's attorney general, the more they recoil. And rightly so.
Harris has long billed herself as a "progressive prosecutor." That would strike many people as oxymoronic. But to her this meant using the carceral state that conservatives like to tackle social problems that progressives care about. She's got the mindset of a cop who wants to save you not from the bad guys but from yourself. "She repeatedly fought for more aggressive prosecution not just of violent criminals but of people who committed misdemeanor and 'quality of life' crimes," Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted in an exhaustive look at Harris' record.
What kind of "quality of life" crimes did she crack down on? Panhandling, prostitution, graffiti, loitering, driving under the influence, and living in an unapproved homeless encampment. This issue set would have made former New York mayor (and now Trump confidante) Rudy Giuliani proud. It is also one that targets people of color the most. Of all people, Harris should have understood that, especially since she was railing against mass incarceration and its disparate impact on poor and black communities at Yale University in 2006, when she was launching her "quality of life" crackdown.
Her most notorious "quality of life" crusade was against school truancy. She first launched it as the district attorney of San Francisco, an office she won after defeating her truly progressive boss, who had alienated police unions with his alleged softness on crime, and then scaled it up when she became California's attorney general.
On the theory that high school dropouts are more likely to become criminals, Harris personally championed a 2011 state law that made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to let kids in kindergarten through eighth grade miss more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. As if that was not bad enough, she also persuaded the state legislature to back the law with such harsh penalties as a minimum of $2,500 in fines and a one-year jail sentence. To prevent criminality in the future, she criminalized parents here and now.
HuffPost reports that hundreds of parents have been booked under her law, the vast majority poor minorities juggling several jobs and struggling to keep their heads above water. One particularly tragic case HuffPost highlighted involved a poor, black mom, the sole caregiver of a daughter who missed school because she was suffering from severe sickle cell. The police whisked the mom away from her home in handcuffs and then subjected her to a harrowing and expensive two-year court ordeal.
If Harris didn't spare parents, there was no way she was going to go easy on less sympathetic offenders, such as sex workers. In fact, on the pretext of stopping human trafficking, she ramped up stings in immigrant communities and aggressively targeted websites such as Backpage on trumped up charges of child sex trafficking—even though Backpage, Brown reports, was one of the few venues where sex workers could seek clients without having to roam the streets. And although Harris now says she's in favor of decriminalizing sex work, she doggedly opposed the idea previously.
And then there is Harris' duplicity on three-strike laws. Such laws, along with mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, came into vogue in the 1990s and decimated minority communities in inner cities. Harris campaigned against California's law, which threw third-time offenders in jail for 25 years. She pledged to invoke it only in rare cases of very serious and violent crimes. What she didn't say was that she counted sex crimes and the possession of an unauthorized firearm as "serious" crimes, even though the penal code did not define them as such.
As if all that was not bad enough, Harris threw 1,500 people in jail for minor marijuana violations and, as Gabbard pointed out on the debate stage, argued against commuting jail sentences. She also pushed to increase the cash required to obtain bail. All of these issues have a disparate impact on people of color far more unfortunate than Harris.
What accounts for Harris' draconian record?
Part of the reason is that just as surgeons have a bias for wielding their scalpels to treat illnesses that can be cured by less invasive means, Harris wanted to use the tools of law enforcement and government coercion at her disposal to solve social problems that could be far more humanely tackled through other means. (That's also apparent in her ham-handed attempt this week to ingratiate herself to working parents by sponsoring a bill to fund a pilot program to prolong the school day so that these parents don't have to quit work early to pick up their kids.) But the bigger reason is that her law enforcement career took shape in the pre–Black Lives Matter days, when the progressive backlash against the aggressive policing techniques of the 1990s hadn't yet fully matured. Her political strategy was to present herself as a centrist, courting law-and-order conservatives and police unions with a tough-on-crime approach and appealing to progressives by backing various social causes.
That was a massive miscalculation born of an inner lack of convictions, and it is backfiring spectacularly. Instead of pointing fingers at voters, Harris ought to do a little soul searching. Looking past her skin color at her actual record is one thing America is doing right.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.