Kamala Harris’ Road to Nowhere

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Mike Segar/Reuters

By ABE ASHER

The star of the first round of Democratic debates last month in Miami was, without question, California senator Kamala Harris — her star-making moment a personal attack on Joe Biden for his opposition to busing and coziness with senate white supremacists.

Harris had been lining up her attack against Biden for months, and the payoff was worth the wait: After struggling to gain traction in the late spring and early summer, Harris’ polling average more than doubled in the week after the debate.

It was a big moment — a second campaign launch of sorts, one that has vaulted her directly into the top tier of the battle for the nomination.

Now, approaching the second round of debates next week and another centerstage meeting with Biden, Harris is back in the national media spotlight — and the slate of recent profiles of her have centered around one major question: Who is she, really?

You could be forgiven for not having a clear idea.

As Ben Terris wrote in The Washington Post this week, Harris has at different times been “tough on crime, progressive, pragmatic, hard to fit into an ideological box.”

That pattern of unpredictability has continued in the buildup to and during her run for president, a run that Harris set up by moving to the left on a range of issues before pivoting back to the center earlier this year as her poll numbers and fundraising slid.

She wants to sit in the Oval Office. But what would she do — who would she be — if she got there?

In an appearance two weeks ago Friday on “The Breakfast Club,” Harris was asked about the feasibility of achieving major progressive change should she or another Democrat win the White House in 2020.

“That’s why I’m not churning out plans like a factory,” Harris responded. “Because it is really important to me that any plan that I am prepared to implement is actually doable.”

Aside from being a poorly designed shot at Elizabeth Warren, whose propensity for both churning out and detailing plans has been fundamental in her resurgence as a force in this race, it was a telling and troubling response.

The work of progressive politicians in this country and elsewhere is to redefine the logic of what is doable — not be constrained by it.

When Bernie Sanders started campaigning alongside a crowd of activists for a $15 federal minimum wage four years ago, the idea had virtually no mainstream support in Congress. Last week, it got 231 votes in the House.

That Harris insists on operating within the doable is no surprise. This is, after all, a politician who — despite purportedly reformist instincts — decided to make her career inside the system, as a prosecutor in a state with an especially appalling criminal justice history.

Harris’ tenure as California’s attorney general was plenty ugly, but even her most sympathetic audience would have to admit that it was also decidedly orthodox: conducted well within the established American criminal justice framework of police, prisons, and retribution.

The question, then, is not so much about where Harris’ heart is. The question is whether she has the vision to, from a position of immense power, imagine how to deconstruct parts of a system designed to punish the poor and enrich the privileged.

So far, the evidence is not encouraging.

Her stance on Medicare-for-all is a prime example. Sanders’ proposal for Medicare-for-all is straightforward: it covers everyone on the government’s dime, virtually eliminates private insurance for essential healthcare functions, and empowers the government to negotiate drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies.

That is what Harris has signed onto twice, both in 2017, her first year in the Senate, and again this year. At a CNN town hall in January, moderator Jake Tapper asked Harris asked whether she supports the elimination of private health insurance.

Her answer was clear. “Let’s eliminate all of that,” she said. “Let’s move on.”

Then, the next day, her campaign took it back — pointing out that Harris also co-sponsors less aggressive healthcare plans, like the buy-in plan proposed by Michael Bennet and Tim Kaine, and that there are multiply acceptable paths to Medicare-for-all.

In a later interview with Tapper, asked again about eliminating private health insurance, Harris this time said “no, no, no, no, it does not get rid of insurance. It doesn’t get rid of supplemental insurance.”

At the Democratic debate in Miami last month, it was more of the same: When the candidates were asked on stage whether they support eliminating private health insurance, Harris raised her hand.

Then, the next day, she backtracked — claiming that she had misunderstood the question, that she thought she was responding in the affirmative to a query about whether she would be willing to give up her own personal private insurance.

Implementing and running a Medicare-for-all system like Sanders’ is expected to cost between $30 and $40 trillion over the next decade. To meet that cost, Sanders has said that he will raise taxes on the middle class.

Ultimately, the idea is that middle class families will save money in a Medicare-for-all system in which they no longer have to pay insurance premiums or deductibles and the country’s per capita healthcare expenditure plummets.

But it’s unclear that there is any way to meet the cost of a government-administered system without raising taxes. Sanders has been clear on that point, as have his advisors.

Harris, is, apparently, living in a different reality. After making a strong case for Medicare-for-all in a sit-down interview with CNN a week ago Tuesday, she said that, while she does support Sanders’ plan, she’s “not in support of middle class families paying more taxes for it.”

How would she pay for it, then?

“Well, part of it is going to have to be about Wall Street paying more,” Harris replied. “It’s going to have to be about looking at how we — and what we tax in terms of financial services.”

The idea that the program could be funded through a $30 trillion tax on Wall Street that no one has yet thought of seems quite fantastic. Pressed on this point, on how we could afford Medicare-for-all without a tax hike, Harris delivered a veritable word salad.

“The status quo is not enough,” she said. “So, we have to be open to challenging status quo so that everyone has access to health care and price is not the burden, is not the barrier.”

This is a completely unserious answer. Recognizing that the status quo is not enough when tens of millions of Americans are uninsured or underinsured is a terrific first step — it is not, however, a plan to change the status quo or rectify that injustice.

Of the three other major contenders for the Democratic nomination, Warren supports Medicare-for-all, Pete Buttigieg does not, and Biden really, really does not, to the point where he told a crowd of AARP members that “all the Medicare you have is gone” if the bill passes.

We know where they stand. Harris, on the other hand, wants to have it both ways: to support Medicare-for-all without owning anything connected to it that might be unpopular, whether it’s the outright elimination of private insurance or a potential middle class tax increase.

That’s not leadership. That’s not vision. That’s politics for personal gain, vacuous and wasteful, adherent to a common sense responsible for ensuring that the status quo is not seriously threatened.

Kamala Harris is talented. But she has done nothing significant in her career or her campaign to suggest that, in a country and on a planet in need of radical change, she can deliver anything except for the narrow and the staid.

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