The Democratic Party is having an identity crisis. This week, Kamala Harris became its first victim.
For years, the California senator was known as “the female Obama.” Six months ago, she had rocketed into the top tier of the primary field. But as her campaign floundered through the summer and fall, no criticism of Harris was more persistent than she was trying to be all things to all people. She was progressive, but not as persuasively as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She could be a centrist, but not as consistently as former Vice President Joe Biden or South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
As Democratic primary voters clustered around candidates with sharper ideological profiles, Harris struggled to persuade loyalists in either camp that she would be a reliable voice for their issues. The primary quickly crystallized into a contest between the party’s two wings and Harris fell by the wayside, fully trusted by neither faction.
Dismissed as an imposter
But Harris’ failure has less to do with her own inconsistencies as a candidate than her inability to unite a Democratic party still searching for its identity in the Trump era. The party’s leaders have divided along both ideological and attitudinal lines over the last three years, and the remaining presidential candidates have all chosen to align on one side of that line or the other. Harris attempted to bridge that gap, only to be dismissed as an imposter by both camps.
The first group, personified most intensely by Biden and Buttigieg, are the Adjusters. They believe that the world was a pretty good place in October 2016, and that removing Trump from office represents a necessary course correction that will allow the country to proceed upon the path that Barack Obama had outlined during his presidency. “We made a mistake”, they say. “Let’s just fix it and get back to normal.”
The other movement is led by the Revolutionaries. Warren and Sanders have made it clear that they see removing Trump from office as only the first step, which then must be followed by sweeping, even radical change. Revolutionaries see Obama as an incrementalist and dismiss the Clintons as sellouts. They call for a much more dramatic overhaul, but one that unnerves risk-averse establishment Democrats who worry that such an ambitious agenda could drive centrist voters to Trump.
In addition to Biden and Buttigieg, the ranks of the Adjusters have recently been swelled by the addition of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to the race. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Cory Booker of New Jersey are part of this faction as well, as are the lower-tier candidates Michael Bennet, the Colorado senator, and John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman. All face a similar challenge of trying to excite primary voters with some variation of a more cautious agenda.
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The rest of the primary candidates are Revolutionaries. Along with Warren and Sanders, non-traditional alternatives such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and impeachment activist Tom Steyer occupy this space as well, along with fading options like former Housing secretary Julian Castro and author Marianne Williamson. They may differ on the specifics of their policy prescriptions, but all advocate for a much more fundamental shift in the priorities of their party and the country.
Harris tried to bridge Democratic gap
Harris was the only Democratic candidate who made a serious effort to talk to voters in both groups. Lacking the skills of Obama and the experience of Bill Clinton, she was unable to convince either Adjusters or the Revolutionaries that she was one of them. Rejected by both, she now returns to the Senate, where the upcoming impeachment trial gives her the opportunity to burnish her credentials for a spot on the ticket or a Cabinet post. She wasted no time beginning that transition. When Trump tweeted Tuesday that “Too bad. We will miss you Kamala!” she retorted, “Don’t worry, Mr. President. I’ll see you at your trial.”
Though Harris has left the race, the divide in her party remains. Just as in 2016, when many Sanders supporters stayed homeinstead of votingor chose Trumpor third-party candidates, a similar temptation will exist in 2020 if a moderate becomes the Democratic nominee. Conversely, the late Bloomberg and Patrick entries reflect growing worries in the party’s centrist establishment wing about Democratic prospects in the general election.
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Most loyal Democrats can unite in their hatred of Trump, but the question of how forcefully to confront him and how dramatically to contrast themselves with him will not be answered until a Democratic nominee emerges, and perhaps not even then.
Harris was not capable of bringing the party together, but her failure should serve as a warning sign to the remaining Democratic candidates. The eventual nominee will not defeat Trump unless the Adjusters and Revolutionaries are able to put aside their differences. Harris’ greatest contribution to her party this year may be to serve as a reminder of what may happen if that unity is not achieved.
Dan Schnur was communications director for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. He left the GOP to become an independent in 2011 and now teaches political communication at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California. Follow him on Twitter: @danschnur