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Can Kamala Harris Live Up to the Hype?

The new senator is already being floated as a presidential candidate, but that says more about Democrats' desperation than her progressive record.

Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images

By the time Kamala Harris spoke to her supporters on election night two months ago in Los Angeles, things already looked bleak. She’d won her bid for the U.S. Senate, capturing the California seat soon to be vacated by retiring Senator Barbara Boxer, but the early returns in the presidential race had Democrats despairing. Standing on stage with her family, the Golden State’s 52-year-old attorney general addressed anxiety in the crowd.

“Here’s the deal, guys,” she said, holding up both hands for emphasis. “It’s gonna be a long night.”

As the first Indian-American and only the second black woman to be elected senator in American history, Harris professed deep pride “to represent this beautiful, diverse state.” But the Berkeley-bred daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, who grew up attending civil rights protests with her parents, also acknowledged the obvious: “Whatever the results of the presidential election tonight, we know that we have a task in front of us.”

The results proved to be a worst-case scenario, the task more daunting than nearly everyone imagined. And as the party rebuilds under President Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, no rising Democratic star has been more hyped than Kamala Harris. Floated for years as “the next Barack Obama,” she’s taking office with “instantly high expectations,” reports Politico, which notes that The Hill, Mother Jones, and The New York Times have all shortlisted her as a 2020 presidential candidate. The San Fransisco Chronicle calls her the “Great Blue Hope”:

That she is coming onto the national stage at a time when the Democratic Party is looking for new, young leadership raises the stakes even higher for the 52-year-old Harris.

No sooner had she won the Senate seat ... than pundits began floating her name as future vice presidential or even presidential material, a kind of incarnation of President Obama, with whom she shares similar personal histories—both were born to immigrant black economist fathers, raised by their mothers in middle-class homes, and spent some of their childhoods out of the country, Obama in Indonesia and Harris in Canada.

The narrative certainly isn’t baseless. Obama himself said in 2013 that Harris “is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough.” (He also called her “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country,” for which he later apologized.) There’s also no question that a smart, experienced black woman vying for the White House could reanimate the Obama coalition in a way that Clinton wasn’t able to. She’d be a new face nationally, without decades of political baggage, and an even bolder symbol of racial and gender progress than Obama or Clinton.

Still, the hype about Harris is primarily a reflection of the weak Democratic bench, as the Chronicle alludes to. And if the party wants a bold, progressive leader to take on Trump, the incoming senator’s track record gives cause for concern.

If Kamala Harris is the Democratic nominee in waiting, it’s news to most Californians. “I honestly do not know of any Democrat in California who seriously considers her presidential timber,” George Skelton, a political columnist for The Los Angeles Times, said of Harris.

University of Southern California professor Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, another state politics expert, said excitement about Harris is primarily a phenomenon among national Democrats casting about for new leaders and fresh faces. “I don’t see a whole lot of hyperventilation going on around Kamala Harris in the state,” she said.

Harris attracted little statewide attention with her work as attorney general, and her Senate race flew under the radar, Skelton wrote in an October column. Harris was also criticized for not being bold enough as the state’s top cop. She did not have a sparkling resume as attorney general,” he said. “The word on her is she’s pretty cautious.”

This is a frequent critique. While Harris opposes capital punishment, she disappointed fellow opponents by defending California’s death penalty law when it was challenged in federal courts. Breaking with her recent predecessors, she declined to take public positions on state ballot initiatives, including sentencing-­reform measures.

Her hesitancy didn’t go unnoticed. The Times editorial board, while endorsing Harris last year as “persuasive, thoughtful and pragmatic,” nonetheless included this damning depiction of the candidate:

On the down side, Harris has at times seemed more focused on her political career than on the job she was elected to do. She has been too cautious and unwilling to stake out a position on controversial issues, even when her voice would have been valuable to the debate. She was an early champion for criminal justice reform, but she chose to stay largely silent when Gov. Jerry Brown implemented “realignment,” shifting low-level offenders from state prison to county jail, and when voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced certain drug, theft and other felonies to misdemeanors. Harris has said California needs bold leadership, but a bold leader can’t sit out on significant decisions.

It’s not that Harris is never bold. In a profile in The New York Times Magazine last year, Emily Bazelon writes, “One of her proudest accomplishments as attorney general involved ‘helping folks like the folks I grew up with’ by holding out for a higher settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers over their foreclosure practices during the financial crisis. Most of her counterparts around the country—and the Obama administration—wanted her to sign off on a deal that would have brought $4 billion to California. With Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York, Harris refused, and in the end California homeowners got $20 billion.

Harris also refused to enforce California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, and she’s a vocal critic of immigrant deportations already vowing to defy Trump on the issue. She also continues to face scrutiny for declining in 2013 to prosecute OneWest Bank—then run by Trump’s current nominee for Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin—over foreclosure violations.

Risk-averse politicians aren’t uncommon, and Obama was certainly hammered by Clinton and John Edwards in the 2008 presidential primaries after he voted “present” 129 times in the Illinois state senate—including on controversial issues like abortion. (In fairness to Obama, some of those votes were a party-wide strategy, and the practice was relatively routine in Springfield.)

But Obama was also a once-in-a-generation political talent, and he’d taken some bold political risks like opposing the Iraq war. It remains to be seen whether Harris is of his caliber. A great future leader of the Democratic Party shouldn’t be held to the same standards as convention politicians. And on the subject of comparisons, Obama shot to stardom with his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention; Harris’s address to the convention in 2012, meanwhile, did not put her on the map.

Harris is certainly confident in her abilities. (She told Mother Jones last year, “I eat ‘no’ for breakfast, and I’ve never been a fan of the word ‘can’t’—aimed at me or anyone else.”) And her caution could be the result of a double standard for women politicians, for whom taking risks—from fashion choices to policy positions—is more fraught than it is for their male colleagues (just ask Clinton). Still, the fact remains that the excitement surrounding Harris is largely about what she might accomplish in the future, not what she’s done in the past.

Criminal justice is a perfect example. Jonathan Simon, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Bazelon that Harris will be an ally of reformers in the Senate, but added, “I’m not saying that based on her record. I’m saying that because she’ll see that the future isn’t some money for re-­entry services or letting out nonviolent drug offenders. The future is challenging the draconian nature of our entire system.”

Bazelon then quoted New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who describes Harris as “a valued activist and ally” but allowed that “some people might think she’s not checking every box on the list for criminal-­justice reform.”

“We’ll have to see what she does in the Senate—what kind of mark she makes for herself in the next two or three years,” said Skelton, the Los Angeles Times columnist. “If she does some bold, heroic things, then she can run for president. As of now, I don’t see it.”

Maybe the Senate, and being yet closer to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, will free Harris to be less cautious. Her roots are unquestionably progressive, and some observers believe she was hamstrung on issues like the death penalty by California’s powerful police unions and other law enforcement groups, from which she might now have more leeway. In October, she told the Chronicle that, as a prosecutor, “I almost feel like my hands are tied behind my back.” Hopefully, they won’t be anymore.

Throwing caution to the wind would allow her to deliver on the dramatic pledge she made on election night—rousing rhetoric that wasn’t cautious at all.

Do not throw up our hands when it is time to roll up our sleeves and fight for who we are,” she told supporters. And she repeated the same refrain more than a dozen times: “I intend to fight.”

Her future in the Democratic Party hinges on how much she does.