Running for president is hard. Kamala Harris is the proof. And you don’t know if someone can do it until they do. If you’d given me two draft picks in January, I’d have chosen Kamala and Beto. Neither made it to Iowa. Some expert, eh?
So what happened? When she began, I figured this might be a version of Marco Rubio 2.0. He was similarly not perfectly suited to either Iowa or New Hampshire and needed to find a way to do well enough there, win South Carolina, and then pick up lots of delegates on Super Tuesday.
Both were strong orators who could be expected to debate well. Both were younger than some key front-runners. Both gave voters a chance to pick someone more interesting than another white male. I will go to my grave thinking Rubio could have pulled this off if only Chris Christie hadn’t broken his circuits in the New Hampshire debate.
For the first six months of her campaign, Harris was running ahead of Rubio’s pace. She did a bit better in polls, raised a bit more money (if you don’t count Marco’s PACs), was at or near the top of the prediction markets, and temporarily jumped up to the top group after the first debate.
Then it crumbled. With Rubio, you know where to point the blame. Know where his inside straight drew the wrong card. At first glance, it’s tougher here. Was it the reluctance to support mandatory busing after slamming Joe Biden for opposing mandatory busing?
Was it getting flattened by Tulsi Gabbard regarding her California prosecutorial record in the second debate? Did Elizabeth Warren crowd her out at a key moment, grabbing some of the upscale, liberal, but not insanely progressive voters Kamala was counting on?
I don’t think so. It took weeks for the bounce from the first debate to fully evaporate. Most voters still don’t have any idea what her views on busing are, and it’s not likely they care. They’re playing Tulsi’s takedown today as part of the obituary video clips, but it’s not something most voters remember either. A couple months ago, Harris was still a little ahead of Pete Buttigieg nationally, in Nevada, and in South Carolina, while being close enough to him in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It wasn’t a particular moment or a particular decision. Kamala Harris looked like a good candidate. For a few seconds at a time she sounded like a good candidate. But she was a bad candidate. Not a decent one, a bad one. Poor enough to overcome the advantage of being high profile, having some big donors, and 20,000 people at her kickoff speech.
The problem with presidential candidates is that it doesn’t matter how good they were at running for governor, senator, or some other office. I’m confident the conventional wisdom that Harris ran a good underdog race for San Francisco DA is correct. She probably did a good job to win her California AG campaigns. By the time her 2016 Senate race rolled around, she was a strong favorite, and didn’t have to do much.
You’d think it matters what a candidate did right, so that they can replicate that winning formula to win the presidency. Actually, it’s what they did wrong, so that they can keep those errors from occurring on a level where mistakes are often lethal. In lower-level campaigns, the type of candidate who runs for president can use superior charisma, financial resources, effort, or name recognition to overpower the competition. At this level, most don’t have the cushion. The earlier in their career they get hit, the better they do later.
Before Donald Trump, who’d never run for any office before (not going to count him thinking about the 2000 Reform Party presidential nomination), the last president to win election without ever losing on any level was JFK. He never lost. Not even a primary. When his brother lost the 1968 Oregon primary, he became the first Kennedy to ever lose a vote for anything.
LBJ lost a tough Senate race. Nixon lost a presidential election and then got embarrassed running for governor two years later. Carter lost his first try at governor. Reagan struck out the first two times he ran for a presidential nomination. Bush 41 failed in two Senate attempts and his first try at the presidency. Clinton lost his first ever campaign, and then was voted out as governor and had to win his office back. Bush 43 lost a House race. Obama lost a House primary. Badly.
Even Kennedy’s unbeaten record is a fraud. In 1956, Adlai Stevenson threw the vice presidential choice open to the convention. JFK wanted it. He campaigned hard for it. He didn’t get it. Estes Kefauver did. It was close, but in the end, delegates decided not to chance picking a young (39) Catholic.
This helped him two ways. Stevenson lost badly, and Kennedy avoided the stink of defeat and any blame that would have stuck to him. He also learned exactly what he’d have to do to win those same delegates four years later when he ran for president. His victory was seeded by the loss.
Not every loss begets a win. But it’s hard to win the presidency without understanding defeat. Sure, Biden still isn’t a great candidate, but you have to admit he’s hanging in pretty well. This is his third try. His first effort in 1988 wasn’t disciplined enough. In 2008 he was overshadowed by Hillary and Obama.
Yes, he still gaffes, but his campaign is very methodical. They get criticized for moving too slowly, but not for flopping all over the place. After 2008 he wasn’t going to chance trying to get past Hillary in 2016, waiting until now. He may still not get nominated, but he’s definitely learned from the losses.
Bernie Sanders lost constantly in the 1970s. For every imaginable office in Vermont. Finally in 1981, he learned how to sell Socialism, and became Mayor of Burlington. By 10 votes. He’d get re-elected 3 times. During this time he also lost a governor’s race and his first attempt at the House.
That was enough practice. He finally made it to the House in 1990, serving 8 terms, and has won election to the Senate three times, grabbing between 65% and 71% of the vote. As we know, he’s now on his second presidential spin. This is his 23rd election. Again, he may not win, but you can’t say Bernie doesn’t know how to deliver his message to a national audience.
Warren has not lost. Two wins in Massachusetts, a great start to her presidential campaign. Perhaps, like Trump, she doesn’t need to lose to win. But her recent struggles are an argument that she does.
As we’re thinking about the various reasons why Mayor Pete is riding high as Kamala goes home, remember he got vaporized in a 2010 Indiana Treasurer contest. Amy Klobuchar mentions this as a point against Pete. She’s won three times statewide in Minnesota, while he lost by more than 20 points to a Republican who then lost his Senate race two years later. It doesn’t look good.
His supporters will try to throw this aside. He was still twentysomething. Indiana is redder than Minnesota. Nothing to see here. Disagree. If you’re wondering why he’s so adept at sounding very moderate while pushing an agenda that’s still well to the left of 2008 Obama, here’s your answer. He got hit. He learned.
We’re not done hearing from Kamala Harris. She’ll be sitting in the Senate for next month’s impeachment trial. A senator looking to run for president is viewed one way by the media, one returning home after trying is seen another. She’s got an opening to restore her image.
Each of the Top Four could justify picking Harris as a running mate. Biden would absolutely look past the busing debate moment if he thought it would get him past Trump. Democrats will very likely want a person of color on the ticket. And being someone’s Veep nominee means Kamala gets a script to work from, one that I’m guessing she’d deliver very well.
Even if that doesn’t happen, based on current age rules, she’s got another 20+ years to try running for president again and a pretty safe situation in California as long as she wants a platform in the Senate.
Next time, she’ll raise more, spend less, package her message better, choose a stronger, more cohesive team. Backing out now doesn’t mean Harris has given up on the presidency. It means she thinks this is the best move now to ensure a future chance. One that looks better now that she’s lost.