On Politics With Lisa Lerer: The Kamala Harris Factor


Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

When people talk about the emerging 2020 Democratic primary field, it can sound an awful lot like the opening lines of a children’s book.

One candidate, two candidates

Old candidates, new candidates

Some are slightly left, some are far

Say! what a lot of candidates there are.

But there’s one thing many leading Democrats seem to agree on: Kamala Harris is a formidable contender. When you ask 2020 candidates, likely candidates and members of their teams what possible opponent they worry about, the California senator’s name comes up frequently.

Those concerns only grew on Monday when Ms. Harris formally announced her presidential bid: She matched Senator Bernie Sanders’s record by raising $1.5 million from 38,000 donors in the first 24 hours of her campaign.

So why is a first-term senator, with little experience outside California state government, making Democrats so nervous?

• She doesn’t fit into a neat ideological lane. As my colleague Astead Herndon wrote on Monday, Ms. Harris comes out of the Bay Area’s Democratic establishment. But since joining the Senate in 2017, she’s embraced elements of a Sanders-lite liberal agenda, backing “Medicare for All” and rejecting most corporate donations. As a result, her team argues, she can appeal to a wide array of factions in the party.

She would make history. Should she prevail in the primary season, Ms. Harris would be the first African-American woman and the first person of Asian heritage to be a major party nominee. As a graduate of Howard and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority, Ms. Harris has deep ties to the black community.

• The primary map favors a candidate who can win strong support from black voters — and California. It’s no accident that Ms. Harris is making her first campaign stop on Friday in South Carolina, where African-Americans will likely make up a majority of the electorate in that state’s early primary. The rising popularity of early voting also means that primary voters will start casting ballots in her native state of California on the day of the Iowa caucuses; in diverse states of Illinois and Ohio, voters can start casting early ballots before New Hampshire holds its primary.

After Iowa and New Hampshire, the race moves to potentially favorable terrain for Ms. Harris: Nevada, which borders California and has a large Latino population, then South Carolina. Then, on Super Tuesday, California will be among the states voting, as will four southern states where black voters made up more than a quarter of the 2016 primary electorate.

Even with these advantages, Ms. Harris still has plenty to worry about. Already, she’s fending off attacks on the “tough-on-crime” positions she took as a prosecutor in California. In her first remarks after announcing her campaign, Ms. Harris described the criminal justice system as “horribly flawed.” And her liberal bona fides may be found lacking by an insurgent wing that is ascendant in the party.

Obviously Ms. Harris does not have anything locked down. (Need I take you back to the winter of 2007, when Hillary Clinton led primary polls by double digits.) We’re in the early stages of what will likely be a very, very long primary contest. A lot can happen.

Just ask Howard Dean.


Advisers to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. are circulating a document to his supporters that outlines a rationale for him to run for president and rebuts potential lines of attack — the latest indication that Mr. Biden is leaning toward a 2020 bid but has not yet fully committed.

The talking points, which were sent to The Times’s Jonathan Martin by an ally of Mr. Biden, reflect some of his core arguments he would make if he does enter the Democratic primary. He and his advisers contend that his long experience in politics — he served in the Senate for over 35 years — would represent an appealing contrast to President Trump’s erratic style.

“In a time of almost unprecedented political chaos under a President whose first and last thought every day is about himself, his image, and using the most powerful office in the world to enrich himself, Americans are reacting to — and looking for — the trustworthy, compassionate leadership that Joe Biden has brought to the national and international stage his entire career,” the document states.

But what is more revealing about the 10-paragraph document is that Mr. Biden and his small circle of aides feel the need to sketch out his message before he announces his candidacy. It is, a Biden ally said, “a distillation of his thinking.” The decision to put these thoughts on paper while other Democrats are announcing full-blown campaigns indicates Mr. Biden is still eager to gauge reaction to his candidacy before taking the plunge.

To that end, the talking points attempt to grapple with some of the most frequent critiques of Mr. Biden:

• That his initial lead in some Democratic primary polls is simply based on name identification and will melt once other candidates become better known?

Lisa: Why did this video touch such a nerve?

Elizabeth: There are these flash points now in our political culture. This one was particularly polarizing because it touched every nerve — race, President Trump and the behavior of young white men.

As a religion reporter, I’ve covered a lot of sensitive topics and the level of vitriol and aggression from the right and the left about every part of this story is remarkable. Some of the people involved in the videos have been experiencing threats of violence all weekend.

So what did you learn about the context for these videos?

When you actually are on the ground, in the kids’ community, you start to get an idea of the cultural context behind these kinds of inflamed moments. The school is in an overwhelmingly white, heavily Republican and Catholic area. The boys in the video, their school is known around town as the “Colonel Crazies” for their intense school pride and their all-male brotherhood. And now the Catholic community and the parents of these kids are joining together to protect them.

The last time the country was this intensely focused on Catholic high school boys was during the Kavanaugh hearings. This time we’re seeing it in a pocket of the country that fueled Mr. Trump’s election.

And with the videos, there’s now this fight over whose narrative wins out.

What does this incident tell us about our political culture?

So Covington, where this happened, is right across the river from Cincinnati. The Covington area voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, while the Cincinnati area has become increasingly blue. They are very close, but may have very different realities of what it is to be American.

How have politicians tried to capitalize on this episode?

Mr. Trump jumped into the fray praising the Covington Catholic boys and used the moment to attack the media. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids get a visit to Washington or the White House or even the State of the Union, if it happens. The right already sees this as part of their narrative — that Christians are under attack.


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