Former Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris had the same problem as every other Democratic presidential contender. She, like the others, tried mightily to make the case that she was her own person, with her own programs, and her own visions of what her White House would accomplish.
That’s been a tough row to hoe. Former President Barack Obama made sure of that.
Obama’s shadow looms large over the pack of Democratic contenders, mainly because, unlike any of them, he was able to blend rhetorical flourish, present centrist programs on the economy and foreign policy, and bridge a growing ideological divide within the Democratic Party. He ultimately made history by being the first African American to occupy the Oval Office not once, but twice, all while standing up to GOP obstruction every step of the way.
The idea that they will be measured by Obama’s style, skills and accomplishments colors every move and action of all of the candidates. It’s not fair, just blunt political reality.
The early talk about Harris was that she could do what Obama did, and that was make history as the first black woman to win the White House. But it was really more about walking in the footsteps of Obama than cracking a gender ceiling. That was the first problem: She would not be the first black president.
For many African Americans, this was not a small point. For nearly a decade people stuck out their chests and bragged about Obama’s ascension to president. Today, the once novel idea of having another black person in the White House has worn off, and this posed another problem for Harris. She’d need to find some other hook than being a racial first to motivate African-American and other voters to rally behind her. This required her to spell out a coherent, consistent, and workable program on big-ticket issues like health care and criminal justice reform. But that did not happen. Instead, there was confusion and the nagging sense that she was making things up as she went along.
Then there was the sneak attack on rival Joe Biden at the first Democratic presidential debate for his past opposition to school busing. It got her a lot of attention and some plaudits. But it also got her a lot of scrutiny about her own checkered tenure as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General.
For many it was tough to figure out just what exactly Harris was political. Was she a centrist, a progressive? It just wasn’t clear. At times she sounded like both.
It seems the only thing left was to play the gender card. But that was a nonstarter for most black voters. Among the general Democratic electorate, this meant even less. Hillary Clinton had taken that distinction off the table. There are simply too many other women Democratic presidential contenders and officeholders for her to make that any kind of breakthrough.
Even if by some miracle Harris could have brushed aside these obstacles, there was one that she and the other contenders could not, and that was the question of who could beat Trump.
Democrats are frenetic about getting a candidate who can win; forget symbolism, race and gender. The party’s overriding mantra is “Just win, baby, win.” But that can’t happen unless a Democrat can take the five or six states which will decide the White House in November. To do that, a Democratic presidential nominee would have to make inroads into Trump’s base of white, less educated rural and blue-collar voters in those states. Despite all the putdowns about their importance in some circles, they vote, and they will vote again in 2020.
Harris had no chance at winning them over, and there’s no guarantee that any of the others, and that includes Biden, can do any better.
Obama, of course, stirred legions to storm the polls for him, and he was able to get many of the same voters who backed Trump to vote for him, not once but twice.
This is the Obama shadow that did in Harris and still looms over all the other Democratic candidates.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “The Impeachment of President Trump?” (Amazon Kindle) https://www.amazon.com/dp/B075XSXJM8. He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.