Why are so many in corporate media insisting that Sen. Kamala Harris is a “pragmatic moderate,” as The New York Times put it? Could it be they’re hoping if they can convince voters that Harris is a moderate then maybe, just maybe they can get the old Obama coalition back together again?
For the past four years, Democrats have been trying to figure out how to reassemble the Obama coalition. They seem to think the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket will do the trick, but they’re wrong.
That’s not to say Biden doesn’t have a good chance of beating President Trump in November. Trump, whose own coalition carried him into office by the slimmest of margins, faces the unique challenge of running for reelection amid a pandemic that’s crushed the economy. His approval ratings have always been relatively low, and he’s trailing Biden in the polls.
But if Biden wins, it won’t be because he managed to re-create the Obama coalition—much less that he re-created it by adding Harris to the ticket.
To begin with, Harris is not a moderate. Voteview, which tracks individual senators’ votes based on ideology, ranks her as the second most left-wing senator after Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By another measure, she was the least bipartisan candidate for the nomination.
It was Harris, after all, who led the charge against Brett Kavanaugh, smearing him as a rapist during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings despite a complete absence of evidence against him. It was Harris who as attorney general of California actively targeted pro-life journalist David Daleiden for exposing Planned Parenthood’s scheme to harvest and sell aborted fetal body parts. It was Harris who wanted to impose a religious test, suggesting that being a Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus charity should disqualify candidates for the federal judiciary.
What does this have to do with the Obama coalition? Simply put, adding Harris to the ticket in hopes that voters will follow the mainstream media lead and start thinking of her as a moderate represents a fundamental misunderstanding of who made up that coalition and why they voted for Obama.
The Obama coalition was not, as many in the media seem to think, merely a surge of young, educated, diverse urbanites coming out in droves. It was not a “coalition of the ascendant” that represented a new Democratic majority of workers in the “new economy.”
No, the Obama coalition depended above all on white voters in northern states, and especially on white voters without a college degree. Obama performed better with this demographic in northern states than any Democrat in history. From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Lakes region to the Northeaster Rust Belt, Obama made huge inroads among working-class white voters.
Why did they vote for Obama? Because he’s charismatic, because he has a unique and compelling personal story, because he’s a skilled politician who can connect with people. That is, the Obama coalition was sui generis, it depended on and belonged to Obama himself. You can’t swap Obama out with Biden or Hillary Clinton or anyone else and hope to bring it back to life.
The irony is that many of these same voters went on to support Trump in 2016. They in fact became the backbone of Trump’s own unique coalition, drawn by his personal charisma, his political skill and ability to connect with people—that is, many of the same things that drew them to Obama. What’s more, Trump sounded many of the same notes Obama did, vowing to protect manufacturing jobs and push back against globalization.
There was of course a huge difference between how Obama campaigned and how he governed, but the campaigning was enough to bring these voters along. Recall that Obama campaigned as a moderate who would bring a “post-partisan” approach to Washington. He billed himself as an outsider who could overcome the institutional torpor of the political establishment—drain the swamp, if you will—and make Washington work for ordinary Americans.
Too much is made of Obama’s “bitter clinger” comments. The fact is, a critical mass of white working-class voters in northern states gave him their enthusiastic support, and then they gave it to Trump.
If Biden wants to win these voters over, he’ll need to do more than rely on his roots in Northeast Pennsylvania and Delaware. At this point, he’s pretty much the definition of a Washington insider, so he can’t sell himself as an outsider who’ll take on the establishment—a message that has appealed to white working-class voters in the north for the last three election cycles.
And he’s certainly not going to appeal to these voters by adding Harris to the ticket—not because she’s a woman or because she’s black, but because she’s an authoritarian West coast elite. She’s cozy with Wall Street, wants to kill the oil and gas industry, and is far to the left of 2008- and 2012-era Obama on most cultural issues.
You’d think after Clinton’s dismal showing in 2016 among these voters, Democrats would have realized the “Midwest Firewall” isn’t something you can assume. Biden can’t recreate it, with or without Harris. He might nevertheless end up winning the White House in November, but it won’t be because he managed to get the old Obama coalition back together for one last hurrah.
That coalition belonged to Obama, just as Trump’s belongs to him, and what comes next for the post-Obama Democrats and the post-Trump GOP remains to be seen.