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Can Any Democratic Candidate Satisfy the Left?

The recent uproar over Kamala Harris shows that the left needs to decide how to approach flawed candidates who meet its litmus tests.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

It is the year 2017, a full three years out from the next presidential election, and yet we are already talking about 2020. We dream of a savior, and alas for the left, the Democratic Party is responsible for producing one.

Kamala Harris, the junior senator from California, is widely considered one of the party’s rising stars, with as good a chance as anybody else at this very early stage to earn its nomination in 2020. And that possibility is a problem for the left. “The former attorney general of California, Harris is mistrusted by the left mostly because of her roots as a prosecutor,” Ryan Cooper wrote in an August 3 piece for The Week that also criticized two other theoretical candidates, Senator Cory Booker and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

This article ignited days of outrage, much of which revolved around the issue of race, but that outrage threatens to obscure a legitimate point. Harris has a deeply troubling record: As a district attorney, she implemented a law that penalized the parents of truant children with a fine of up to $2,000 and a year in jail. Later, as California’s attorney general, Harris fought a transgender prisoner’s attempts to access necessary health care. And her record on prosecuting financial crimes is poor, particularly her decision to refrain from going after OneWest Bank for allegedly breaking foreclosure laws. And she’s not the only one—as David Dayen wrote for the New Republic, virtually the entire Democratic Party has been criminally negligent when it comes to taking on corporate malfeasance during the housing crisis.

The Democratic Party hasn’t met the left’s standards in this area, and that is a problem with the party, not the left. But all of this prompts a question: Under what circumstances could the left accept a flawed candidate for high office?

To understand where the left might draw that line, it is necessary to first understand the substance of its critique. By questioning Harris and the party’s other rising stars, the left performs necessary political work. It’s vital to criticize Harris’s record as a prosecutor, Cory Booker’s ties to pharmaceutical companies and school reform groups, and Deval Patrick’s work for Bain Capital, as Cooper did in his article for The Week. The problem of extreme income inequality in this country, in which the vast majority of wealth goes to the very people these politicians have either protected, solicited, or worked for, can only be combatted with a similarly drastic redistribution of wealth. Activists are right to wonder if a Patrick or a Booker will deliver the changes the country needs.

Which is precisely why the left doesn’t restrict its criticism to Harris, Patrick, and Booker. As Cooper noted in a follow-up piece on Monday, the same left-wing concerns apply to the white, male members of the party’s establishment. “Leftists like myself believe that in addition to traditional civil rights policy, nothing short of a total overhaul of American capitalism will suffice to actually eradicate oppression from our society,” he wrote. “Neoliberals like Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden, by contrast, believe that the capitalist framework only needs minor tweaks.” The left’s real focus is beyond Harris or even the Democratic Party: It has more systemic concerns.

However, that broad goal is impossible without allies in government, and the left is not spoiled for choice. A cluster of lawmakers—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ro Khanna, Keith Ellison, Mark Pocan, and other members of the House Progressive Caucus—come closest to the mark, on issues including Medicare-for-All, free college tuition, a federal $15 minimum wage, trust-busting, immigrant rights, and police brutality. But with the exception of Sanders and Ellison, these politicians did not come up through the ranks of the activist left. They have flawed records, as most politicians do, marked by bad positions and dubious compromises.

But that is grounds for criticism, not outright dismissal. The left’s most realistic hope is for a candidate with a spotty record who enthusiastically and sincerely takes up its cause. And that means approaching the party’s Kamala Harrises with flexibility.

In theory, this shouldn’t be difficult for the left to accept. It prides itself on emphasizing policy over personality, in contrast with the establishment. This is what makes the left such a necessary force, and it also implies a certain responsibility. If policy, not personality, is what really matters, there’s no reason to shun a candidate who checks the necessary boxes and pledges to do the necessary work. Harris herself is for universal health care, a $15 minimum wage, and free college tuition.

The point of establishing litmus tests is to embrace candidates who meet them. If Harris, or a Democrat like her, moves left, then that is a victory for the left. If Harris were to run, this would inevitably entail a transparent reckoning with her record as attorney general. And if she were to win the nomination, this doesn’t mean that the left should refrain from criticizing her or pressuring her to enact progressive populist positions. It does mean turning up to vote—and maybe knocking on a few doors.

This all requires serious commitments from a party that seems unwilling to grant them. Democratic leaders are so allergic to the notion of litmus tests they’re willing to equivocate on abortion rights—an issue that has long formed a key plank of the party’s platform and that crosses the left-center divide, uniting Clintonistas and Berniecrats. Indeed, they view demands for such commitments as a threat. Politico reported on Monday that Democrats fear that the issue of Medicare-for-All will torpedo some of its candidates. “There’s a concern that [Sanders-allied] people will try to make a stir,” a party aide told Politico. “You can’t just be a liberal Democrat in a lot of these states and be elected. [So] the question is how we improve the lives of these people without playing political games.”

There is always going to be a push-and-pull between a dissatisfied progressive base and a Democratic Party superstructure that is unable to meet its needs. Each side will ask the other to make compromises. At some point in the not-so-distant future, however, the left should have more options—thanks largely to activists who demand vision and purpose from a party that they feel is lacking in both. Meanwhile, formal organizations like Brand New Congress and Democratic Socialists of America are working to create a political climate that is friendlier to the left, and to recruit candidates committed to the cause. But these efforts will take years to bear fruit, and in the meantime, the left’s rank-and-file must decide exactly what their standards are going to be.

They could do worse than to campaign for candidates who are late converts to, say, free college or genuine universal health care. When a politician changes course, recognize this for what it is: a concession, won by a newly invigorated movement. It’s too soon to say #NeverKamala.