Wouldn’t you know it, on the very delicious-to-watch week that Republicans start jumping off the leaky Trump frigate, some Democrats began testing attacks on one of their own, possible 2020 presidential contender Kamala Harris. The charge, leveled by a few folks on the left, including one member of the Democratic Party Unity Commission (!), is the usual one: that Harris is a corporate stooge in the mold of you-know-who and if the Democrats are even thinking about nominating her, the dis-unity commission will get to work sabotaging her.
I hold no particular brief for Harris, who’s been a senator for all of seven months. Frankly, to me, this presidential talk seems awfully premature. Yes, Barack Obama had served briefly; he was elected to the Senate in 2004 and started running for president the next year, whereas Harris would have three years under her belt. But Obama had electrified the political world with that convention speech back in 2004, and that night he showed obvious presidential potential. Harris asked some good questions in two Senate hearings, but I’m a little mystified as to why that gets her on presidential lists. She was shortlisted by some people before she was even elected.
In addition to that, her critics have one good point. As David Dayen pointed out in the New Republic in early 2016 as her Senate run was getting off the ground, she has a history of being overly cautious (uh, just like you-know-who), especially with regard to her decision not to prosecute Steve Mnuchin’s bank for foreclosure violations. The California Attorney General’s Office had found ample evidence of possible wrongdoing, but Harris declined to pursue the matter and hasn’t said why.
So she should say why, if she runs for president, and people can judge whether her response is adequate. That’s part of the scrutiny.
But these attacks have the feel of something else. They have the feel of a group of people, most or all of them Bernie Sanders supporters, itching to refight 2016 and demand a level of purity that lo and behold only one candidate can possibly attain.
I wrote this many times in 2016, and I’ll write it again here: The fact that Sanders is from the state he’s from gives him the luxury of purity. I don’t doubt that he’s principled. But it’s also a fact that he (along with colleague Pat Leahy) faces less pressure from powerful interests than probably any other senator in the country.
Why? Because of the nature of their state. Nearly every state has either a big corporation of a large extractive industry or something. Not Vermont. Vermont has no huge banks. It’s home base to no massive corporate conglomerates. It doesn’t have a single billionaire. The biggest “company” in Vermont is the state university. And of course it’s home to all the left-leaning back-to-the-earth types who started moving there in the 1970s. When that’s your state, and it’s 95 percent white to boot, and a mere 150,000 votes will win you statewide elections, you have a lot of freedom to do and say whatever you please (although on the one issue that might cause him problems in the state, guns, we saw him trim his sails aplenty in 2016).
When you’re running in California, it’s a different ball game. Harris has raised $16.5 million since 2015, when she started running for the Senate. She got off easy because no first-rank Republican pursued the Senate seat; in 2022, assuming she hasn’t moved into the White House, she can probably expect that things will be different and she’ll need to raise $50 million. Bernie, by contrast, raised around $7.8 million for his last election but spent only $3 million and at this point could win by spending $200,000 if he wanted to.
Harris is running in an insanely more expensive state. It’s also a much more complex state. California has tech, of course, but also huge banking and retail and oil-refining businesses, and a hundred other things. A senator shouldn’t prostrate herself before these interests, but as they all represent jobs in her state, she can’t simply denounce them as capitalist predators. She’s bound to take some donations that Sanders would refuse—or simply wouldn’t need to solicit in the first place. And I can guarantee you that if Bernie Sanders were a senator from California, he either wouldn’t be the same Bernie Sanders we know today—or he wouldn’t be a United States senator.
Virtually every potential candidate will have some blemish or another. During the health care debate, Elizabeth Warren was “bad,” if you want to put it that way, on the medical device tax. Which is to say she was against it. Why? A lot of them are made in her state. Sherrod Brown has taken positions on coal that aren’t perfect from the environmentalist point of view. Coal is mined in his state. This is what senators do, and it’s what they should do. They all can’t be from Vermont.
Someone, probably David Sirota, will respond to this column by saying we don’t need any lectures on electability from Tomasky, who assured us Hillary would win. And it would be a fair point. I was sure she would win. I and everybody else in America except Allan Lichtman, but still; I was wrong.
So I’m going to try to refrain, for the next three years and three months (!), from giving electability lectures. But this isn’t that. This is an argument that demanding a precise stance from candidates because one candidate takes that position and therefore it’s the only right and true position is absurd. One example—even Dean Baker, about as left as a mainstream economist can be, will tell you that he’s not sold on a $15 minimum wage because “we really don’t have enough data to say with much certainty what the employment impact will be.” So turning $15 into a litmus test is just a political posture that’s intended to stifle actual debate and doesn’t have anything to do with economic substance.
If this kind of thing is starting this early, we have reason to fear that 2020 will be worse than 2016. And we know how that ended.
UPDATE: Senator Harris’ press aide wrote me to point out that she did go after the big banks in California in playing a key role in the passage of a Homeowner Bill of Rights in California (see this Nation article) and that she did defend the decision not to prosecute Mnuchin’s firm in January, saying, “We went and we followed the facts and the evidence, and it’s a decision my office made.”