In what CNN called the first major prime time event of the 2020 presidential election, Senator Kamala Harris swung for the fences and consistently pulled the ball to left field. While others are testing the waters, Harris jumped into the deep end of the pool with a town hall in Iowa moderated by Jake Tapper. What became clear almost instantly is that Harris is planting her flag on the Democratic Party’s left wing, in a position where, at least from that side, she cannot be outflanked.
Recently, one of Harris’s likely opponents, Bernie Sanders, noted that the Democrats have moved farther to the left in the last two years than he could have imagined or hoped for. This was on full display in the a la carte menu of progressive goodies Harris promised in Iowa last night.
Old and busted for example is keeping your health insurance plan if you like it. The new hotness is Medicare for all. She told Tapper, “Who among us has not had that situation? Where you got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, ‘Well I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this.’ Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on.” Apparently moving on means a single-payer system that even a few years ago would have been a bridge too far for most Democrats.
But the queen of the ban was just getting starting. Along with banning private health insurance, Harris also wants to ban for-profit colleges, assault weapons, fossil fuels, personal cars, and presumably members of the Knights of Columbus serving as federal judges. It’s quite a list, and a sign of the times in the party of Jefferson and Jackson.
In some respects, Harris, like many other Democrats these days, seems to apologizing for old sins with her fantastical progressive policy ideas. She is running away from a history as a district attorney and attorney general in California that was, well, not so progressive. The blog AfroPunk put it pretty bluntly: “As someone from the Bay Area and living in Oakland, I am constantly reminded of her history of locking up Black people in the Bay Area. Her track record consists of terrorizing Black communities through the prison industrial complex and she has consistently shown herself to be an enemy to the masses of Black people.”
Harsh, but from a progressive perspective, fair. Just as Hillary Clinton had to run away from her husband’s ’90s crime bill in 2016, Harris will have to run away from her own record as a tough-as-nails law and order prosecutor. Based on last night’s performance it seems clear she believes she will find her absolution with a left-wing wish list that would make Noam Chomsky blush.
She expressed her support for a Green New Deal, a candy land farce of a policy that envisions Americans using no fossil fuels in a mere decade or so. The concept is profoundly unserious, yet important nonetheless, in that it shows us the temperature of the Democratic Party just now, and it is running a high fever.
Short of sporting a hammer and sickle lapel pin, it’s hard to see how even hardliners like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders can out-progressive Harris now, who laid out an agenda that falls, as Herb Gardner once put it, somewhere to the left of whoopee. And frankly this is useful, insofar as it allows us to see where the Democrats really are, or at least where Democrats like Harris think they are.
As more and more candidates emerge from the crowded clown car, we will eventually see a challenger to Harris’s right. Likely Joe Biden, perhaps Mike Bloomberg, or if the Democrats feel like it’s not the right time for another white guy, it could be Tulsi Gabbard. Whoever it is, this will be the telling tension of the Democratic primary, a largely urban base that likes socialism, against a more suburban and rural constituency that’s slightly more in line with traditional American values.
But for now, in these early days, Harris has staked her claim as the progressive candidate. It’s risky, it’s always risky to be the first one to put yourself out there, but it also has the promise of rewards. Just as another junior senator did ten years ago, Harris hopes to shock the system and run away with the prize. This time around there will be far more runners, but she has at least gotten out of the blocks fast.
The race for president is on. If Kamala Harris has her way, it will usher in a new kind of Democratic Party. But is it a party that can win? Time, as they say, will tell.