If you miss Hillary Clinton, then you’re probably already swooning over Kamala Harris, the freshman senator from California who announced her candidacy for president on Martin Luther King Day. She is expected to be one of the best financed and most formidable candidates in the large and growing field of Democrats seeking the nomination. If you’re not one of the odd people who hike the trails of Chappaqua hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dowager Empress but are wondering what to make of Harris, try this: she will run as the slightly more charismatic, somewhat less corrupt Hillary Clinton, pantsuits and all.
Like Clinton, she tried too hard to pander to her audience, like dropping her ‘G’s (‘I’m just here talkin’ to you fine people…’) when she thinks that mimicking the diction of her audience will make her sound more relatable. Obama did this too. (‘Stars! They’re just like us!’) When she was interviewed on The Breakfast Club radio show in New York, she went the extra mile, reminiscin’ about hip-hop stars of yesteryear and how the much cannabis smoke she inhaled. That’s the same urban radio show that a g-dropping Hillary infamously – and unbelievably – told that she always carries hot sauce in her purse (‘How do you like me now?!’). But Hillary likes a highball more than a blunt, so score one for Kamala. Pot is cooler than booze with Democrats.
Score another big one for Kamala in the identity politics Olympics about which Democrats care so much. Here’s how you play Intersectionality: The Home Game: Take all of the groups, sub-groups, minorities, marginalized this and othered that and add them up. Whoever has the highest score wins. Harris is female. Check. She’s half-black. Check. She’s half-Indian. Check. Both of her parents are immigrants. Check and doublecheck! You slay, queen! But poor old Hillary is just another upper middle-class white, Methodist (with apologies to Charles & John Wesley) first-wave feminist from Chicago. In other words, she’s yesterday and Kamala is tomorrow.
Or so we’re told. I suspect a lot of people will see through all of this and discover that, in fact, they’re actually more alike than their marketers would like us to believe.
Harris will have oodles of money to spend because big donors love her. And she’ll be the recipient of the sort of fawning press coverage that would embarrass Pyongyang Daily for all of its treacly sycophancy. But underneath it, Harris is very much like Clinton. She’s just as conniving, just as poll-tested, just as smarmy – too much like the candidate created by the creative committee at a hipster marketing firm. She’s a she, she’s mixed race, she hates the wall (‘Totally!’) except when she doesn’t (Harris is opposed to building the wall but also doesn’t want to remove the sections that already exists). And she totally believes everything Jussie Smollett says: ‘This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate,’ Harris tweeted. Whoops, not anymore. That tweet was deleted after Smollett was arrested for perpetrating a hate-crime on himself in a hoax that should have been obvious to anyone purporting to possess the political maturity necessary to be president.
So Democrats who thought Clinton was just what the doctor ordered in 2016 will be able to choose from a few very similar candidates this year. In particular, they can pick the even more severe, even more scolding, the 1/1024th (or less) Cherokee from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren. But you’d probably reckon she’s a tough sell to the general public in 2020. That leaves Kamala Harris. She’s younger, photogenic, and affable. And pretty too. Barack Obama noticed. He said in 2013 that Harris is ‘the best looking attorney-general in the country.’ The old dog. Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco and Speaker of the California Assembly apparently agrees. He cheated on his wife with Harris – who is 31 years younger than he – and then rewarded her with two plum political appointments that paid her nearly $400,000 while requiring almost no work. The fact that such positions exist at all is a scandal of its own, but that wasn’t enough. Brown was so delighted by Harris’s charms that he also reportedly gave her a BMW as a token of his gratitude. Harris now having thrust herself onto the national stage, must be conflicted on whether to portray herself as the aggressor using her sexual empowerment to advance her career and smash the patriarchy or to claim that she was a starry-eyed ingenue who had suffered a #MeToo moment at the hands of a powerful, older man. Such dilemmas! You’ve come a long way baby!
What will be more difficult for Harris is that the true-believers in her party don’t trust her. They see her as a manipulative careerist who believes in nothing so much as her own advancement. And it’s not a new or even controversial criticism. The reliably liberal Jacobin magazine ran a story on her in 2017 entitled, ‘The Two Faces of Kamala Harris’ saying that ‘Harris has matched every one of her progressive achievements with conservative ones.’ Be it known that Jacobin’s version of a conservative achievement is not the same as mine. But it’s true that Harris, who was a prosecutor and then attorney-general of California, was a proponent of three-strikes laws.
On the flipside, when questioned about the killing of Kate Steinle by an illegal immigrant in San Francisco, she took the opportunity to praise sanctuary laws. And though a longtime foe of prostitution as a prosecutor, Harris reversed her position in preparation for her presidential run because a large part of the liberal base considers what they call ‘sex work as a dignified, even empowering, career choice for women’. The point is that real liberals realize that Harris is an opportunist. Yet, there are many Democrats who like Harris because they think that with her they get the only thing better than Barack Obama, which is the female version of Barack Obama.
In fact, I think they will have buyer’s remorse when they realize she’s much more like Hillary Clinton. Still, there is a relentlessness to the internal logic of identity politics that will make her difficult to resist. That might work for people who have already bought into that dehumanizing ideology, but for a lot of normal people I think Harris won’t wear well. She wears her careerism too transparently and her ideological flexibility will seem calculating and disingenuous rather than wise. That was one of Mrs Clinton’s most offputting traits.
In many ways Kamala Harris is the exact opposite of people like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard who, whatever their faults, are conviction politicians. She may feel like the safe choice, but manufactured, blow-dried candidates may find it much more difficult to beat authentic, if quirky, opponents.