The most meme-friendly and amusing explanation for Kamala Harris’s demise is that she was splattered by Tulsi Gabbard over the summer and never recovered. There’s some truth to that: Kamala had never been challenged on her record in a high-pressure national setting before, and the moment someone finally turned up the heat, she crumbled. The New York Times article last week presaging the end of her campaign noted that donors were so flustered by her performance that they demanded she ‘strike back at Ms Gabbard more aggressively’, which was a tad ironic given on that same night Kamala had infamously declared herself a ‘top-tier candidate’ who need not trouble herself with the insignificant pesterings of a minor contender like Tulsi.
But eventually Kamala took these donors’ pleas to heart, and in her final rodeo launched into a full anti-Tulsi diatribe (with some help from MSNBC). Maybe this was just a bit of emotional gratification on her part, knowing where things were headed. One of her top aides would soon resign from the campaign in disgust, and waltz straight into the arms of the Mike Bloomberg operation. (So great to see you landed on your feet, Kelly Mehlenbacher.)
The downward trajectory of her campaign had been obvious for months, however. In fact, it was obvious from the moment that she announced, given how swiftly she’d been anointed ‘front-runner’ by every data-wiz and professional party operative. (Nate Silver, call your office.) They believed her to be such an impressive contender not because she demonstrated any particular political strengths that would have vaulted her into contention, but because she represented what sections of elite opinion thought the Democratic presidential nominee ought to look like. Professional prognosticators projected onto Kamala their perfect ideal for what the electorate wanted, mistaking their own preferences for the preferences of actual voters.
This was extremely silly in numerous respects. First, the assumption that Kamala Harris, a mixed-race lawyer from Berkeley (whose husband’s name is Douglas Emhoff) would automatically resonate with black voters in the Deep South was always laughable, not to mention highly condescending. Democratic-aligned operatives and pundits tend to use minority voters as instruments in their ideological crusade to depict the wider electorate as identity-fixated as they are. But even in terms of the raw identity question, there was never any intrinsic connection between Kamala and those voters, aside from skin pigmentation, which of course is only one facet of identity. Kamala was immediately heralded as an obvious ‘front-runner’ because of the fallacious pundit belief that black voters naturally prefer black candidates, which is not borne out by their voting history in recent national elections or in the data concerning this election, and neglects any consideration of factors like geography and professional background — neither of which boded particularly well for Kamala.
The mistake in analogizing her to Barack Obama was that Obama made his initial political bones in black-dominated Chicago politics, which he skillfully coupled with a cultivation of white political elites. His background in ‘community organizing’, while derided by the right, gave him an intuitive sense of how to forge such connections. He often adopted the cadence of black preachers and it didn’t sound forced or clichéd. His wife and adopted family were descendants of American slaves. While Obama was practicing civil rights law, Kamala was establishing a career in law enforcement. All these salient ‘identity’ factors seemed to get ignored in the hoopla around Kamala’s supposed ascendance, which was always largely a media creation, and as such extremely superficial.
Kamala’s brief shining moment came in the first debate, when she took old Joe Biden to task for his decades-old position on racial issues. Media commentators were absolutely scintillated by this, and declared that the dynamics of the campaign had been completely upended. Voters didn’t agree. Shortly after that viral debate moment, I wrote: ‘Don’t believe the Kamala hype until she demonstrates something beyond an ability to impress media elites.’ That demonstration clearly never arrived.
Maybe her campaign was really and truly sunk beyond repair, but (fittingly) there’s still something a bit disingenuous about her departure. She was guaranteed a spot at this month’s debate, which is more than most of the still-running candidates can currently say. She’d repeatedly boasted about being ‘all-in’ on the Iowa Caucus, pledging to spend an extraordinary amount of time in the state making her case directly to voters. She had a bunch of high-dollar fundraisers lined up just this week, so the spigot wasn’t entirely dry. Then all of the sudden: poof. If you’re willing to terminate your campaign at this juncture, just like that, then you clearly lacked some fundamental confidence in your basic reason for running in the first place.
That was already evident by her manic oscillation between various electoral strategies, ‘pivots’, and campaign themes, none of which caught on or were even especially coherent. Because there was no core there. When you lack a core, you’re going to be exposed eventually. Tulsi may have ‘accelerated her decline’, as Kamala aides whined to the NYT, but given the ridiculous premises underlying her campaign from the outset — ‘Progressive Prosecutor’? Really? — declining was the only direction she had to go.