US economy

Downsides to the liberal diversity debate

I expect to get some agitated emails about this note, but here goes: Kamala Harris did not drop out of the Democratic race because she is non-white, the child of immigrants, or because she is a woman. Her campaign’s failure had very little to do with her identity. It had everything to do with the fact that she ran a poor campaign. I say this because I hear and read a lot of people who know better but are nevertheless blaming racism and misogyny for Ms Harris’s early exit. To further their case, they point out that the six candidates who have already qualified for the next Democratic debate are all white (though Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard still have time to qualify, and Cory Booker and Deval Patrick have time to make inroads before the first primaries).

Only institutionalised prejudice could explain why those in the final stretch are Caucasian and two-thirds male, they say. For example, Iowa and New Hampshire, the two decisive early states, are overwhelmingly white. Plus, the media keeps going on about the need for Democrats to regain the loyalty of alienated white working class voters, at the expense of every other demographic. Given such biases, what else should we expect to happen? Harris was just a victim of a demographically rigged system. 

Put like that, the argument sounds convincing. But it’s misleading. It reinforces the impression that liberals remain way too enamoured with box-checking tokenism — at everyone’s expense, except Donald Trump’s. The main responsibility of a party should be to select the best presidential candidate it can on merit. That person was Barack Obama in 2008 — and he owed his start to that thumping caucus win in the nearly all-white midwestern farming state of Iowa. Unlike Harris, who kept hopping from one half-baked campaign theme to another, never stopping for long, Obama had a clear theory of the case and a biographical story that gelled with it. His campaign story evolved as the race went on but never beyond recognition. Ms Harris’s problem was that she could not decide why she wanted to be president. 

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Initially she ran as a fearless public prosecutor. She quickly dropped that theme after liberal activists started to dredge up the “law and order” tone to some of her past cases and campaigns in California. Then she switched to the economy but was never convincing. I attended a fundraiser for Harris at a private home in Chicago last summer in which she spent almost two hours talking about pay raises for teachers and tax credits for middle class families but was unable to weave it into a larger story about the economy. She had similar problems with Medicare for all, which she initially embraced (including abolition of private insurance), then half walked back, then flubbed her lines in a debate clash over taxes with Joe Biden. To be fair, Elizabeth Warren is impaling herself on the same M4A stake and she is still polling well. But Warren has always had a coherent theme about rigged capitalism, which fits well with her career background. 

One of Harris’s stock answers to sometimes obvious questions about the economy or foreign policy was: “We need to have a conversation about that”. This NYT interview with her last summer, “What does Kamala Harris stand for?”, illustrates my point. Beto O’Rourke dropped out of the race for exactly the same reasons as Harris. He did not know what he was campaigning for. Nobody attributed his failure to institutionalised racism. Like Harris, he just wasn’t prepared. 

Perhaps the most important reason Biden is still in the lead is because he is winning by far the largest chunk of African-American support. Surely they did not spurn Harris because of her colour? One small addendum. It is possible Harris will be picked as the vice-presidential running mate, particularly if the nominee is Biden. She would be a good choice. She is tough, charismatic and has an impressive career record. If the nominee were Warren, Harris might still be a good pick. As I’ve written before, the idea of an all-woman ticket should not outlandish. Rana, do you think I’m being unfair in my assessment of Harris’s campaign (and Beto’s for that matter)? 

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Recommended reading

  • My column this week looks at the gathering storm around Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. His role as Trump’s unofficial secretary of state, hatchet job man, Russian-Ukrainian go between, and media attack dog is a far cry from his celebrated post 9/11 days as “Mayor America”. “If a person’s past were another country, Giuliani would be refused a visa,” I write. 
  • As I’ve said before, we pay too little attention to India’s troublingly illiberal direction. Dexter Filkins has a brilliant, and very disturbing, take in the New Yorker on the disturbing realities of Narendra Modi’s India. In my view India is in danger of losing its secular plural character. I urge Swampians to read this. 
  • My colleague James Politi has written a great piece on Trump’s failure to reverse manufacturing’s decline in the rust belt. If you want one gauge of the economic health of the Great Lakes, look at the share price of US Steel, which is below a third of where it was at the start of 2018. 
  • In the same vein, but on a grander scale, Martin Wolf has a characteristically stringent column on the direction of liberal capitalism. As a mostly pro-free market economist, Martin is as far from a Bernie Sanders bro as you get. Readers should take his arguments very seriously. The west’s way of doing business is in serious trouble. 

Rana Foroohar responds

Spot on, Ed. I never really understood what Kamala stood for, and as you say, it seemed to change (I understand there were also concerns within the Party that she was too close to some big California business interests and this would cost her the Warren/Sanders wing of the Democratic electorate if she got the nomination). But she’s certainly been a powerful presence during Democratic inquiries into the Trump campaign. One of her greatest hits was her questioning of Attorney-General Bill Barr following the release of the Mueller report. The first minute is a case study in how to grill a hostile witness. She’s definitely an asset, and would be a great VP candidate. 

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