Kamala Harris needs a message

By Office of the Attorney General of California — https://web.archive.org/web/20111212153543/http://oag.ca.gov/news/photo-gallery/more-100-arrests-ca-undercover-gang-operation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65240470

The big story to emerge from the Democratic debates last week was likely Kamala Harris. She far outshone candidates perceived to be much bigger stars than her, including Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. And her takedown of Biden was epic.

This should not be surprising. Her announcement led to a flurry of enthusiasm for her candidacy, enthusiasm that slowly but surely died down. We saw the same thing after she embarrassed Attorney General William Barr with her questioning, an exchange that led her colleague and competing Presidential candidate Cory Booker to grin despite himself.

Truly, in a debate setting, she is by far the most impressive Democratic candidate. So why is she not taking off the way Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttitieg have been?

By The Circus on SHOWTIME — YouTube, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77040528

The difference is that they have a message. Elizabeth Warren is the candidate of substance, fighting for the little people against the entrenched corporate interests. Pete Buttitieg is fighting for the millennials whose future has been mortgaged by the baby boomers — what used to be called, appropriately, the “me” generation. These two candidates have a message. They stand for something. Just what does Kamala Harris stand for, though?

The most effective campaigns have always been the ones that had a strong message. Consider Ronald Reagan. In 1980, it was “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Then in 1984, it was “morning in America.” With his spin doctor Michael Deaver and his background as an actor, this was a team that understood message.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush overcame a big deficit to Mike Dukakis by arguing that what people liked about Reagan, Bush was. But what people did not like about Reagan, Bush wasn’t. Remember “a kinder gentler America”? That’s what that was all about.

Then you have Clinton with “it’s the economy stupid.” He won the primaries by arguing that the Democrats needed to move to the center to change their losing ways.

Obama, of course, was “change you can believe in.” But Obama’s great strength was his ability to appeal to everyone. To liberals, his race made them think he was a liberal. To moderates, he actually was one of them, and stylistically, he made people comfortable with the fact that he was not some kind of radical black panther.

The key is letting people know what you will do for them.

Warren has shown how to do this. But even Andrew Yang has enjoyed a pop in his candidacy as a result of his guaranteed income. Promising to give every family $1000 per month certainly qualifies as letting people know what you will do for them.

But Kamala Harris’s message seems to center around her competence. She is a real leader. She was an impressive trial attorney. The question isn’t if she can lead us, it’s where she is leading us to.

In that respect, she is like Mike Dukakis, the one-time Democratic candidate for President who became the punchline for the Saturday Night Live joke “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.” But lose he did, and badly. The reason was that he believed he could win on competence. Indeed, consider his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech in which he argued that the 1988 election was “about competence, not ideology.”

Dukakis was certainly no raving liberal. He indeed was a competent administrator as Governor of Massachusetts. Ironically, Bush, who was ideologically very similar to Dukakis, pretended to be a firebrand conservative in the campaign and used that to win. People don’t vote for competence, they vote for someone they believe in.

Kamala Harris certainly does not run away from ideology the way Dukakis did. But what distinguishes her from the other candidates? Her competence. That won’t win this election.

She reminds me of a campaign I worked on back in 1992. Everyone told Bob Kerrey, the Democratic Senator from Nebraska that he should run for President. He was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam who could not be attacked as unpatriotic. The issue he championed was health care, which was recently shown to be a winning issue when Harris Wofford won a special Senate election the year before in Pennsylvania. Everyone thought he was a shoo-in.

But he lost. What became clear is that he really didn’t know why he was running for President other than the he was incredibly bright, well-read, competent, and seemed like a winner. Sound like Kamala?

That primary season was frustrating. When people asked why we supported Kerrey, the inevitable answer was because we thought he was a great guy who could win. But the primaries came to be dominated by two candidates who had thought long and hard about why they wanted to be President and what they would do in office: Paul Tsongas and Bill Clinton.

The contrast between Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, the two putative winners of the two debate nights, was telling. Harris got attention for her attack on Biden, her aggressiveness and her eloquence. Warren got attention due to her command of policy and her clear agenda. Which one do you think has thought more about what they will do as President?

This is not to say that Harris can’t turn things around. She is indeed very impressive, but she needs to find a way to articulate a message. Until she does so, I think she will remain mired as an also-ran.

Developing a message is not so easy. Hillary Clinton struggled mightily to develop one, and arguably never did. Does “I’m with her” inspire passion? Again, it says nothing about what she will do for you. My sense is that Hillary never developed a message because she never really knew why she was running other than that it was her turn. That’s why she lost to Obama in 2008, and to Trump in 2016.

Contrast her weak message with Trump. Like it or not, he is a guy who gets message. That is why his supporters are so passionate about him. He knew what his message was from the beginning, and he delivered it effectively.

Winning this election will take someone who can deliver a contrasting message from his racist one based upon white grievance. As of yet, Kamala Harris has not shown us she is capable of doing so.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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