DANIEL VAUGHAN: Extreme pandering is failing for Kamala Harris

September 23, 2019

We’re still several months out from the first Democratic primary elections, but outside the top slot, long held by Joe Biden, there’s been a seismic shift in the ranks.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been slugging it out for second place; meanwhile, Kamala Harris has seen her poll numbers drop faster than the expected win total for the Miami Dolphins this season. (At least the Dolphins have the excuse that they’re tanking this season — Kamala Harris is actually trying to win a race.)

It’s not just that Harris has lost ground — it’s that she’s falling like the stock market in a sell-off. Her own campaign’s polling reveals that she’s lost 13 points in Iowa, falling to single digits in support. She’s collapsed to a distant fifth place in New Hampshire.

And in her home state of California, a place her campaign has long targeted as its electoral firewall, Harris has fallen beyond longshot candidate Andrew Yang — a collapse so stunning that her campaign financiers are starting to jump ship. And that’s not to mention her national plummet to single digits of irrelevance.

Harris had her moment in the sun. She prepared an attack on Joe Biden in the first debate that focused on his history of dealing with segregationists in the Senate during the early part of his career. The attack was calculated, dishonest, and briefly effective.

It set Harris up in the position she wanted: a place in the top tier — and she even said so herself. But for all the bravado, Harris lacks two critical skills: 1) the ability to defend her record, and 2) the capacity to hold any consistent beliefs.

These two points are related, I think, to explain Harris’ inability to break through. There’s a general theme with the top three or four candidates — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and even Pete Buttiegeg: each of them has a coherent idea and vision for why they’re running for president. They can describe their plans, defend them, and argue the various points needed to make their points.

Kamala Harris has never presented a single cohesive point or idea for why she decided to run for president, other than that she wants the Oval Office and is willing to say — or do — whatever it takes to get there.

Kamala Harris follows in the footsteps of the likes of Kirsten Gillibrand and even Hillary Clinton. Gillibrand has already dropped out of the race, but she was well-known for doing whatever it took to get to higher office.

She started as a Clinton-acolyte, running on center-right issues like gun rights to win a conservative district. When it was time to pivot to the Senate and presidency, Gillibrand embraced every form of progressive ideology you could name, with nary an explanation for her shift. Her attempt at genuineness was standing in a bar, pretending to dance and serve drinks while randomly yelling out: “Gay rights!”

The only reason Hillary Clinton won the primary in 2016 is that the Democratic Party cleared the field for her. In 2008, Barack Obama, who had a coherent vision and idea for why he was running, eviscerated Clinton’s absence on that front. (Clinton still couldn’t answer those same questions in the 2016 primary, but when you’re running against a crackpot socialist who refuses to attack your weak points, you don’t have to worry about anything.)

Kamala Harris fits this same bill. She supported and even co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” plan. Her position on this is essential: health care is the most critical issue for all Democratic primary voters. Nancy Pelosi pushed House candidates to run on the subject in 2018, and the most successful candidates pushed that issue through the midterms.

But Kamala Harris has taken every side of the health care debate in the Democratic primaries. She’s given Bernie Sanders socialism a full-throated endorsement, but also backtracked and denied everything. She’s claimed she would eliminate all private health insurance, but later run away from that statement.

She’s done so much flip-flopping on this — and other issues, like criminal justice reform — that no one can identify what she believes.

Her inability to defend herself is explainable. If you’re always trying to figure out what your audience wants to hear, you can’t protect yourself from legitimate attacks.

When Tulsi Gabbard legitimately hammered Harris for her record as attorney general for California, Harris was stunned and spinning — she didn’t have a poll-tested, focus-group approved answer for an attack. And because she lacked any genuine beliefs upon entering the race, she couldn’t fall back on those beliefs to answer the question.

Voters see through that charade. Gillibrand and Clinton couldn’t pander themselves out of those rhetorical holes, and neither can Harris.

If this new pivot to Iowa works, as Harris’ campaign is loudly announcing, she’ll have to learn how to defend her positions — which requires holding a consistent set of beliefs voters can rely on in the primary. At the very least, that means some of the extreme pandering we’ve seen in the Democratic primary is failing, and there’s something beautiful about that thought.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.