Kamala Harris: is she the right candidate for the Democrats to tackle Trump?

Article by Daniel Herborn /
CEO Magazine /
January 29, 2019 /
Click here to view original /

Last week, Californian Senator Kamala Harris officially entered the race.

Her decision to run surprised few but it has intensified the debate over whether she could win the nomination and then the presidency and what the ideal Democratic nominee in 2020 will look like.

Should Democrats offer voters a ‘return to normalcy’ after Trump or do they need to acknowledge the old norms of political campaigning have vanished?

One fundamental decision facing the Democrats is whether to embrace the populism that swept Trump to power or whether to select a centrist, ‘safe’ candidate and bank on Americans having tired of the tumult of the Trump era.

“This is the question that political scientists (as well as pundits and party hacks) are grappling with: is this the election in which the party needs to reinvent itself?” Lauren Rosewarne, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, says.

Chris Truax weighed in on the dilemma in a widely-shared opinion piece for USA Today, where he likened the nation to a plane which has run into grave trouble mid-flight. “We don’t need a pilot who will take us higher, faster and farther than ever before,” he continued. “We don’t need a pilot who will make America do barrel rolls and loop-the-loops. We need a pilot who can land the damn plane.”

Is Harris proposing to pull off the metaphorical loop-the-loop of transforming the US into a progressive and inclusive nation overnight when she just needs to ‘land the plane’ by offering a return to more stable leadership and reconnecting the US to the international community? As Rosewarne points out, the Democrats don’t actually need to entice Trump supporters across the political divide en masse to win, they only need to do slightly better than the 2016 presidential election, where Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote.

Former Australian Prime Minister Bob Carr is of the school of thought that “America after Trump is not going to return to a period of comfortable liberal internationalism.” He previously told this publication that Trump “is a radical transformative president” and concluded that “there is going to be no return to the old normal.”

Still, Carr felt a contender seen as an establishment candidate, Elizabeth Warren, was the most likely to emerge with the Democratic nomination. Rosewarne also feels Warren may be the candidate best placed to take on the incumbent president.

Jon Michail, Group CEO of Image Group International, has successfully packaged political candidates in the US and beyond. He believes that the old rules of political campaigning no longer apply. “Safe does not work in the tradition of what major parties have expected in the past,” he told The CEO Magazine. In this post-Trump landscape, he says candidates need a compelling backstory and feels that Harris fits the bill in this regard.

Current frontrunner Kamala Harris will make history if she wins

As a black woman with Tamil Indian and Jamaican parents, a Harris presidency would be without precedent on a number of levels. She is relatively youthful at 54 and presents as someone from both a diverse background and from outside the Washington establishment many US voters have lost faith in.

Harris ticks a lot of boxes as a candidate: she’s charismatic, a canny and articulate media performer and she has demonstrated the crucial ability to mobilise donors. She doesn’t have much political experience – she’s just 15 months into her tenure as a Senator, but that seems less relevant than ever for a candidate preparing for tackle Donald Trump, a non-politician before his presidential campaign.

Michail says Harris is a substantive candidate. “Harris is certainly not an unknown rebel that is looking for her 15 minutes of fame,” he says.

“She’s a solid contender with great qualities for the position. Leader, lawyer, prosecutor, author, great ancestry and a ‘congruent’ on-brand husband for the role.”

Further, she presents as a leader with authenticity, the new lingua franca of politics. For all the charges that can be laid at Trump’s door, it would be hard to argue that he comes across as guarded in his public communications. As Executive Coach John Baldoni puts it: “The unscripted Trump says whatever he likes and when wrong never apologises.”

Michail says authenticity is vital for 2020 candidates. “The public is expecting this in a candidate as trust in institutional leadership is now the lowest in living memory,” he adds.

Is Harris progressive enough to win the support of party faithful?

Rosewarne says that as a black woman, Harris “embodies an opposition to the current presidency”. But positioning herself as the anti-Trump is only half the battle. Does she have the right policy platform to mobilise Democrat voters?

There are mixed opinions on how progressive Harris is and whether she is the right type of progressive for this contest. Her background in law enforcement has made it difficult for some on the left to warm to her.

Some critics have painted her lack of action against instances of police abuse and decision not to pursue Steven Mnuchin’s OneWest bank for widespread foreclosure violations while she was Californian Attorney-General, as demerits on her record as a progressive.

She has voted with President Trump 17% of the time, less than other contenders such as Amy Klobuchar (30.7%) and Sherrod Brown (28.7%) and broadly comparable to Bernie Sanders (13.8%) and Elizabeth Warren (12.5%).

Rosewarne told The CEO Magazine that “she is nowhere near as liberal or left-leaning as many in the party want”, though other observers, like Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, see her as ideally placed on the political spectrum. Bouie concluded that “If there’s anyone who sits at the intersection of what Democratic voters seem to want in a candidate, it’s Sen. Kamala Harris.”

Another potential problem for Harris is that she currently does not have the profile in her home state one would expect of a presidential candidate; 28% of those in California reported they did not know who she is. Similarly, a December 2018 poll in Iowa found her well behind other contenders such as Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.

Harris’ star is rising quickly, however, and many experienced observers see her as the most viable candidate to emerge so far. Analysis from data journalism site FiveThirtyEight pegs her as the most electable of those likely to run, with strong appeal across key demographics of Asian/Hispanic voters, black voters, party loyalists, millennials and a broadly defined group called ‘the left’. Veteran political journalist Chris Cillizza arrived at the same conclusion, putting her at the apex of his 2020 Democratic candidate power rankings. Bookmakers currently have her listed as the favourite to nab the Democratic nomination in what is shaping as a crowded field.

The race for the nomination is still in its early days and will be every bit the gruelling political marathon. While there are many twists yet to come, Kamala Harris already shaping as a candidate with the pedigree, stamina and strategy to be there at the end.