What Happened to Kamala Harris?
Many of Harris’ wounds were self-inflicted, but her downfall also shows just how much Trump’s racism and sexism have influenced the 2020 playing field
Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign started with a bang, and ended with a whimper.
When the senator from California launched her campaign in January, some 20,000 people showed up at a rally in Oakland to hear her speak. But a nosedive in fundraising after months of lagging in the polls proved insurmountable for someone who once was seen as one of the leading 2020 candidates. “I’ve taken stock and looked at this from every angle, and over the last few days have come to one of the hardest decisions of my life,” Harris wrote in a Medium post announcing she was ending her bid. “My campaign for president simply doesn’t have the financial resources we need to continue.”
Harris was the only Black woman running for president, and the only person of color to qualify for the next debate (so far). Candidates who remain in the race include a mayor who won office with fewer than 10,000 votes, two billionaires who entered the race at the 11th hour, and a former congressman who launched his campaign in July 2017 but has never won significant support in the polls. All of them are white men.
This could have been Harris’ year. As soon as she was elected to the Senate in 2016, she was seen as a political rising star. When she launched her campaign for the White House, she became the most prominent Black woman to ever run for president and one of just a handful of Black candidates to do so since Reconstruction. Before her, only Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley Braun had sought the nomination from a major political party, and Harris made sure to honor the legacy of pioneering Black women like them throughout her campaign.
“I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done — with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother. I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States,” she said at her campaign launch. “I’m running for president because I love my country. I love my country. I’m running to be president, of the people, by the people, and for all people.”
Her campaign launch would be the high watermark of her candidacy. She was never really able to recreate that magic.
A lot of Harris’ wounds over the next 11 months were self-inflicted. She struggled to carve out a strong policy identity for herself, wobbling between supporting “Medicare for All” and pushing for a nebulous plan calling for incremental change. Instead, she positioned herself in an awkward political middle space to the right of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but to the left of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That did not resonate with many in today’s Democratic Party, which is torn between hyperprogressive and moderate factions. There was also her prosecutorial record, which was condemned in a scathing New York Times op-ed even before she officially launched her bid, and which would haunt her entire candidacy. And then, there was the consistent infighting within her campaign.
But Harris dropping out also shows the pervasiveness of the idea that Trump — and his racist, sexist ways — will be a huge obstacle to any challenger who is not a white man. Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, struggled from the very beginning with the question of electability — a question that feels most pointed when aimed at candidates from underrepresented communities. The fear that a country that preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton is not close to being ready for a woman president, much less a woman of color president, plagued her campaign from early on. Supporters and aides say misogynoir played a role in this narrative, from the way Harris faced the same racist conspiracy theory deployed against Obama, to the subtle ways in which her candidacy was treated by the media and her opponents.
Despite the Democrats’ 2020 lineup being the most diverse field of presidential candidates in history, Trump’s influence can be felt in how the racial and gender politics his opponents’ campaigns play out. This election is about navigating the world he has made, not the one many hoped for following President Obama’s election.