As Democratic Party veers left, can Harris occupy middle lane?

Why We Wrote This

It’s textbook strategy to run to the left (or right) in primaries to appeal to base voters, and then pivot in a general election to win over a broader ideological spectrum. But is pivoting even possible in today’s divided America?

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) makes a campaign visit to the Narrow Way Cafe and Shop in Detroit, Michigan, July 29, 2019.

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As Democrats await the next round of primary debates in Detroit this week, many are wondering if they’ll see another skirmish between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Last time, the California senator’s well-aimed strike against the former vice president over busing gave her a boost in the polls.

Underlying that tactical question, however, is a bigger one: Is Senator Harris planting herself firmly to Mr. Biden’s left? Or is she laying the groundwork to try to topple him as the most viable “moderate” in the race?

On Monday, Senator Harris seemed to gesture back toward the center a bit, unveiling a “Medicare for All” plan that includes a role for private insurance within the Medicare system. Her plan calls for a 10-year transition and would be paid for partly by taxing stock and bond trades, rather than the middle class.

“Right now she’s looking for the center of the Democratic primary electorate, and she hasn’t quite figured out how that matches or doesn’t match with the balance that she did in California, where she was a bit center-right when she ran for Senate,” says Marcia Godwin, of the University of La Verne in California.

As Democrats await the next round of primary debates in Detroit this week, many are wondering if they’ll see yet another skirmish between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. Last time, the California senator’s well-aimed strike against the former vice president over his past opposition to busing rocked him on his heels, and gave her a big boost in the polls – though it has since slipped somewhat.

Underlying that tactical question, however, is an even bigger and as yet unsettled one: Is Senator Harris planting herself to Mr. Biden’s left – as her previous ambush seemed to do, implying she is more progressive than he? Or is she laying the groundwork to try to topple him as the most viable “moderate” in the race?  

It’s a critical question, not only for Senator Harris, but for the top tier of Democratic candidates generally. Lately, many political observers have been warning that the party’s overall leftward drift could hurt them in the general election. Remember 1972, they say, when the liberal senator from South Dakota, George McGovern, lost in a landslide to an unpopular incumbent, President Richard Nixon. Or just think back to 2016, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the electoral college in key battleground states in the Rust Belt. That could happen again.

Socialism unpopular in swing states

“It’s very dangerous,” says Phil Trounstine, co-editor and publisher of Calbuzz, speaking of the progressive tilt of many of the candidates. Democrats nationally are more moderate than the Twitterverse, the liberal caucus in Washington, and many of the presidential candidates, he maintains. “I don’t think socialism is going to be that popular in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.”

The president is already defining his campaign as one against “socialism.” A top issue among the Democrats’ more progressive candidates, “Medicare for All,” does not poll well nationally, according to a July NPR-PBS Marist poll. Only 41% of registered voters think that a national health insurance program that replaces private health insurance is a good idea, while 54% think it’s a bad idea. Of the leading four candidates, only Mr. Biden does not support Medicare for All.

All hands went up in the second June debate when candidates – including Mr. Biden and Senator Harris – were asked if they supported health coverage for unauthorized immigrants. Yet the NPR/PBS Marist poll shows only 33% of Americans think that’s a good idea, while 62% think it’s a bad one. Some candidates, including Senator Harris, have suggested decriminalizing illegal border crossings. That’s “tantamount to declaring publicly that we have open borders,” Jeh Johnson, former Homeland Security secretary under President Barack Obama, told The Washington Post.

Last week, the senator showcased her progressive – and prosecutorial – credentials when she said that under her presidency, the Justice Department would have “no choice” but to pursue criminal charges against a former President Trump for obstruction of justice. She supports impeachment.

“It is not surprising that she is now articulating the more progressive policies that she has supported in recent years,” says Dianne Bystrom, a longtime observer of women candidates and presidential campaigns in Iowa. Senator Harris’ critique of the vice president – and its positive impact on her polling numbers – is evidence that moving to the left can create positive results for her campaign, she says in an email.

Mr. Trounstine believes that Senator Harris’ primary strategy is to do “well enough” in Iowa and New Hampshire, try to win in South Carolina, and then attempt to use California as a slingshot to victory in other states. A post-debate July poll by Quinnipiac University saw her overtake the former vice president in her home state, though voters who identified themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning still said Mr. Biden would be the best leader and had the best chance of beating President Trump.

If the senator’s strategy works, “the danger for the Democratic Party is that Kamala Harris would not have been tested in any of the industrial Midwestern states that one has to win in order to beat Trump,” says Mr. Trounstine.

Roger Salazar, a Democratic consultant in Sacramento, does not see 2020 unfolding as a 1972-like liberal trouncing. “This is not the same country that McGovern and Nixon were battling it out over. This is a much different country,” he says. People used to be more “flexible” in their positions. Now, “what you see is a lot less of a battle for the middle, because the middle seems to be shrinking.”

Still, he is concerned about the battleground states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Progressives need to do a better job of communicating to working-class voters there that they have their best interests at heart, says Mr. Salazar. They need to focus on issues of affordability and job creation.

Senator Harris proposes giving working families a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year, raising teacher pay, and ensuring equal pay for women.

Is a pivot possible in 2020?

Of course, it’s textbook campaign strategy to run to the left (or right) in primaries to appeal to base voters, and then pivot in a general election to win over a broader ideological spectrum. But can a candidate like Senator Harris pivot? Is pivoting even possible in today’s divided America?

On Monday, she seemed to be trying to lay the groundwork for such a move, unveiling a Medicare for All plan that includes a role for private insurance, as long as it meets Medicare standards and is within the Medicare system. Today, about a third of Medicare enrollees have private insurance, known as Medicare Advantage. Her plan would also extend Medicare services to include, for instance, mental health care, and it would move quickly to universal coverage by immediately signing up newborns and the uninsured. While Sen. Bernie Sanders would allow four years to transition to his Medicare for All plan, her plan would take 10 years. And it would be paid for partly by taxing stock and bond trades, rather than the middle class.

“Right now she’s looking for the center of the Democratic primary electorate, and she hasn’t quite figured out how that matches or doesn’t match with the balance that she did in California, where she was a bit center-right when she ran for Senate,” says Marcia Godwin, of the University of La Verne, in La Verne, Calif.

Some wonder if it’s already too late. “I don’t think there’s room to move back to the center,” given how far left many of the candidates are and the nature of the primary turnout, says pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Even Mr. Biden is moving further to the left, though he is in the best position to tack back to the center later on, says Mr. Madonna.

Democrats retook the House last year by running more moderate candidates who could win in swing districts. But Mr. Madonna points out that Democrats also won by driving up turnout among young voters, as well as with college-educated women. Those cohorts are culturally very liberal, and not opposed to having the government play a major role in many areas of the economy, he says. Add in hostility to President Trump and it explains the progressive shift.

Since Senator Harris was elected to the Senate in 2016, she has built a strong, progressive voting record – if a short one. Progressive Punch ranks her as the third most liberal member of the Senate for her “lifetime” voting record, just below Elizabeth Warren. With many more years under his belt, Sen. Bernie Sanders ranks seventh.

But some question how firm her beliefs are. Over the course of her prosecutorial career in California, for instance, she changed positions on the death penalty, opposing it as the San Francisco district attorney when a police officer was killed, then defending it as state attorney general. Last week she lambasted the Trump administration for resuming federal capital punishment as “misguided and immoral” and called for a national moratorium. And she has stepped back from her controversial policy to punish parents for their children’s truancy, which resulted in a few parents going to jail.

“Her own record is ambiguous,” says Mr. Trounstine. “She can make it sound left, she can make it sound moderate, depending on what she has to be emphasizing at any given moment.”

That ideological flexibility can be useful, but it can also open her up to attacks from other candidates, and it could prompt voters to question her authenticity.

In the end, political observers still expect a desire to defeat the president will override all else for Democrats. And that may be the biggest risk for progressive candidates, says Mr. Madonna. “You can’t rule out that [President Trump] can’t win the electoral college again. So for the Democrats, they’re in a sense trapped in their own agenda.” They don’t want to hinder the enthusiasm of their base voters, but that may not play well enough in the Rust Belt.

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