Kamala Harris should try to be really popular

In spite of all!

Perhaps the worst-kept secret in Washington is that tons of Democrats are terrified of the prospect of Kamala Harris becoming the Democratic Party presidential nominee at some point in the future.

Indeed, it’s such a poorly kept secret that it’s barely even a secret. For example, even though officially Biden has not announced a reelection bid — and given his age, this is formally an open question — absolutely everyone wants him to run again. But the terror is that he might not, or even if he does, he might not make it all the way through eight years. But beyond the possibility that Biden would die or step down, if he serves through 2028, it seems overwhelmingly likely that she’d win a primary.

Why are people scared? Well, mostly because her approval rating lags stubbornly behind Biden’s.

Personally, I am not that scared of her current approval numbers. What scares me instead is the reaction that you hear from the Harrisverse to these worries, which is mostly to accuse critics of sexism or to attribute her political problems to sexism. Indeed, just typing this paragraph I can feel the people getting ready to yell at me on Twitter. But my point isn’t to deny that sexism is real (it clearly is) or that it’s felt by women in politics (it clearly is) but that this kind of fatalism is paralyzing and politically deadly. There are women in politics who are popular and successful at winning tough races, and they didn’t do it by making sexism vanish from the planet earth any more than Barack Obama and Raphael Warnock ended racism.

These are political problems, and they need to be addressed politically. And on some level, I don’t think there’s any problem with Harris that can’t be solved by her wanting to solve problems. If she wants to be president, she needs to win the nomination and then she needs to win a general election. And she is in such a favorable position to win the nomination that her biggest vulnerability by far is concern that she’d lose a general election.

So to win a general election, she needs to be popular with swing voters. And to win the nomination, she also needs to be popular with swing voters. And to be popular with swing voters, she needs to try to do something she’s never really done in her career and try to be popular with swing voters. It seems to me that if you look at Harris’ career, you see someone who is smart and hard-working and has a lot of impressive political achievements, but she’s never before been in a place where winning the allegiance of swing voters has been important to her mission, and so she’s never really focused on that.

But she needs to. And she needs to start ASAP.

People pick vice presidents for bad reasons

As everyone from John Adams forward has noted, the Vice Presidency is a very odd role.

But if you look at the postwar years, we have had 14 VPs (Barkley, Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, Agnew, Ford, Rockefeller, Mondale, Bush, Quayle, Gore, Cheney, Biden, Pence), and eight of them have become their party’s presidential nominee down the road. Eight out of 14 is great odds, and I wouldn’t entirely count Pence out yet. So in effect, when you are picking a VP you are putting a huge thumb on the scale for a future party nominee. Even when you do what Obama did and deliberately go out of your way to pick someone who you think is going to be too old, you might end up picking a future party nominee.

This means that when you pick someone, you really ought to be picking someone you think will be a good future party nominee.

And yet historically, this is almost never what actually happens. Indeed oftentimes you see something close to the reverse of that happening, and the nominee selects a vice president from the opposite faction of the party that he came from. That’s understandable, of course — nominees are trying to win the election so they address short-term party unity concerns. More recently, there’s less ideological factionalism in American politics, so you get something like Obama picking Biden to compensate for a lack of experience.

In Biden’s case, he found himself in a sort of weird situation where despite being an ex-VP and on some level a very “establishment” choice, his primary campaign actually didn’t raise much money or attract top-tier political operatives.

A lot of women who work professionally in Democratic Party politics like Harris a lot, so she brought that to the ticket, and major progressive donors love her. So she helped Biden consolidate the party not so much in an ideological sense as on the level of sensibilities. Biden had a lot of endorsements from frontline elected officials in swing districts, but Harris helped deliver the base. Not in the sense of the most left-wing people in America, but the kind of shock troops of Democratic Party politics who give time and money or even their whole careers over to the cause. Harris flatters their sensibilities of what the party is or should be all about in a way that Biden doesn’t.

But of course as a general election candidate, that’s the whole problem.

Harris impressive career is bad training

California is a huge-ass state and it’s overwhelmingly Democratic, but it only has two senators, and one of them has been in office since I was 11.

It is a very challenging feat to go from being the District Attorney of California’s 12th largest county to holding one of those precious Senate seats. But it’s a very particular kind of challenging feat. In 2010, Harris faced what was probably her toughest statewide race to become attorney general. The big problem there was that, unusually for California, the GOP had a viable candidate in LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley. And if you look at the final results, for a Democrat to win a statewide race in California 46-45 is really not very impressive.

But winning crowded primaries is hard, and Harris pulled it off. Then as Attorney General, she became a natural choice to succeed Barbara Boxer when her Senate seat opened up, but hardly the only choice. It’s a big state and it has four or five other statewide elected officials plus a couple of big-city mayors, former cabinet officials, and any number of billionaires, along with dozens of House members. But Harris once again rose to the top.

These are real political achievements, but they’re a particular kind of political achievement — mostly one that involves making elite actors in the Democratic Party like you a lot.

And that same skillset is exactly what made her an appealing choice to Biden — hard-core Democrats love her.

We shouldn’t slight these achievements, nor should we say (as I’ve heard people do) that she is “bad at politics.” But it’s precisely when you appreciate that this in fact a highly difficult career path that you see the problem.

  • On the one hand, Harris has never before been in a position where she needs the support of anyone other than a hardcore Democrat.

  • On the other hand, Harris is now the overwhelming favorite to be the nominee in either 2028 or 2024, so this inside appeal is now absolutely useless.

I think when you’re good at something in life, it’s hard to stop just continuing to do the thing that you’re good at. So it’s natural for Harris to find herself gravitationally pulled toward trying to lock down Democratic Party inside support more and more and more and more. But she’s already got that. And to the extent she doesn’t have that, it’s because people are worried about her national favorability numbers. To win the nomination, she needs to start taking the nomination for granted and focus on swing voters.

Many women are successful politicians

The sexism factor is, obviously, real.

Just mechanically, the way politics works is that if you’re a high-profile politician then people attack you. And if you’re a woman and people want to attack you, then some of them will attack you in misogynistic ways. Of course, the fact that people attack you for something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a net disadvantage. Barack Obama lost votes due to racism, but he also gained the highest level of Black support of any candidate on record. Most voters, by contrast, are women. Life is much more complicated than “women can’t be sexist,” but just as a mathematical baseline, gender identity does give you some upside to work with. Studies of women in congressional races show no net penalty relative to male nominees.

Looking specifically at Democrats’ core challenge of winning in the midwestern swing states, we know from experience that Tammy Baldwin and Gretchen Whitmer have done this well. We also know that Tina Smith and especially Amy Klobuchar do extremely well relative to the fundamentals in the sociologically similar state of Minnesota.

Kyrsten Sinema, whether you love or hate her, has a solid electoral track record in Arizona. Stacy Abrams did not win her race in Georgia, but she performed well relative to the fundamentals there. Susan Collins is a Republican rather than a Democrat, but she consistently delivers some of the most impressive election results in the country relative to the partisan fundamentals.

It is certainly possible that this does not translate cleanly or perfectly into presidential politics. But I think we should at least take Jennifer Lawless’ “Women on The Run” data and the observed success of midwestern Democratic women as creating a presumption that it is possible for a woman to put up Whitmer/Baldwin-type numbers and win. To be totally frank, my sense is Democrats would be in better shape today had Biden just picked Whitmer to begin with.

But what’s done is done, and Harris is the odds-on favorite. She and her whole team need to get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say “we know women can win tough races and gain the support of swing voters in the key states, and now we need to win a tough race and gain the support of swing voters in the key states.” It’s not that sexism isn’t a factor in life, but it’s not insurmountable, and if your numbers are bad that means you are doing something worse than other politicians who manage to pull this off. And you need to fix it.

Swing voters for dummies

Whenever I say that Democrats need to try harder to appeal to the sensibilities of voters with moderately conservative views on cultural issues, people come out of the woodwork to ask what exactly I mean.

But I really do have two key opinions about this. One is that on one level, it’s not rocket science. The other is that on another level, it’s probably not possible to identify the exact single tweak that magically unlocks electoral success. The key is to do something like have everyone in the office put a sticky note on their computer screen that says “the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn’t go to college and lives in the suburbs of an unfashionable city.” If you try your best to run decisions through that filter, you are going to do a lot better than if you don’t run decisions through that filter.

The day-to-day work of Democratic Party politics is mostly done by under-50 college graduates who live in central cities and who socialize on a day-to-day basis with other under-50 college graduates who live in central cities. But even people in that kind of bubble aren’t truly in some kind of informational void. Think about how you’d talk to your mom or your uncle or your barber. Nobody is really so sheltered that they have no idea how to communicate outside their personal niche.

I don’t think the person who decided this was a smart pre-election thing for Harris to tweet believed that this message is a good way to appeal to 50-something working-class white suburbanites in the Midwest. I think that person decided that he or she didn’t care.

The mission for Harris is to care. To say “I am not going to say that unless I think it will increase my appeal to swing voters.” Then if someone else (a donor, a staffer, a foundation executive, an interest group leader) asks why she said something that they don’t like, the answer should be “I did it to increase my appeal to swing voters.” And then if someone says “look, Kamala, there are more important things in life than increasing your appeal to swing voters,” she should say “that is wrong, literally the most important thing in my life is increasing my appeal to swing voters. If I want to win the nomination, I need to increase my appeal to swing voters. If I want to win the general election, I need to increase my appeal to swing voters. If I do not increase my appeal to swing voters, there is literally nothing of substance that I can accomplish in politics. So my singular focus in life is on increasing my appeal to swing voters.”

A lot of people will find this extremely alienating, which is good because it means she will end up surrounded by people who believe wholeheartedly in trying to increase her appeal to swing voters.

Okay, but what does this mean specifically?

In concrete terms, it seems to me that the biggest thing Harris could do to close her polling gap with Biden is to embrace hokey patriotism.

Biden loves hokey patriotism. Harris, when asked about Tim Scott’s contention that America is not a racist country, gave an answer that sounds to me like she wanted to give a smart answer to the question. But she shouldn’t be trying to give smart answers to questions, she should be trying to appeal to swing voters, and the correct answer is “this is the greatest country on earth — period.”

Isn’t it more complicated than that? Well, yes, obviously the question of racism in American life is more complicated than that. But the question of what do old white people in the suburbs of Grand Rapids want to hear from Kamala Harris? is really simple. Nobody who sometimes votes for Democrats and sometimes votes for Republicans is worried that Harris is too patriotic. As the child of immigrants, she’s ideally situated to really lean into patriotism and say that her parents came here because they knew it was the greatest country on earth. Where else can you move and then watch your daughter grow up to be vice president? What an amazing land of opportunity!

Troops are good. Criminals are bad. College students sometimes get out of control with political correctness.

Politicians with a less commanding position than Harris need to do things like “sound smart and impressive to journalists,” but she’s lucky and she doesn’t need to do that. It’s important to respect the flag. People are too sensitive sometimes these days.

In a lot of ways, I think Tammy Baldwin is the most instructive example. She was the first woman elected to Congress from Wisconsin, the first openly LGBTQ woman elected to the House, and the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the United States Senate. And while none of that is a secret, she doesn’t really talk about it much at all. If you were trying to make your way up the ladder of Democratic Party politics in California and had that list of identity markers you would talk about it constantly, because the main thing that matters in California politics is what hard-core Democrats think, and hard-core Democrats love that stuff. But Baldwin works in Wisconsin, so she talks relentlessly about her work on behalf of the Wisconsin dairy industry.

Obviously, California’s members of Congress do work on behalf of California industries too, but it would be considered crass to go on and on about how you got the U.S. Trade Representative’s office to prioritize Hollywood’s requests on copyright policy when negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s the difference between California politics and Wisconsin politics. And what Harris has to do is try to flip the switch from California to Wisconsin.

The hero Democrats need

There’s a valuable lesson in how quickly the White House and Democrats more broadly embraced Eric Adams after he narrowly won the NYC mayoral primary.

Simply put, there are a lot of white Democrats who are leery of super-woke politics but feel uncertain about how to express that without triggering a backlash. And one of the most effective means at their disposal is to elevate moderate Black and Hispanic Democrats who are willing to go out with a little swagger and punch left. James Clyburn has often played this role, but he’s 81 years old and not going to be the future of the party.

But Harris very likely is going to be the future of the party. She could play that kind of role much more effectively than either Clyburn or Adams.

This is a particularly valuable opportunity not just because of her personal identity but due to the weird nature of her job. VPs often become their party’s nominee, but they also often struggle politically because it’s an inherently awkward position. You’d like to be defined in the public eye as your own unique person, but you’d also like to have a good working relationship with your boss, which requires you to be deferential and not make trouble. A thing that Harris could do that would distinguish her from Biden without being disloyal to Biden would be to operate with a little more boldness than an old white man would be permitted.

She can remind people that she challenged the incumbent DA in San Francisco from the right to win her first election — that she is well aware of the excesses of big-city liberalism and has in fact fought against them. I always thought it would’ve been an easy layup for her to denounce the San Francisco school renaming drive and say she had plenty of experience tangling with these kinds of lunatics.

Somebody like that would be playing a valuable role for lots of people in the party. They’d be saying “thank God Harris is around.” You might even start to see someone suggesting somewhere that it might be better for the party if Biden were to step aside. Obviously, she shouldn’t try to encourage that kind of talk, but I do think she should be worried that nobody at all is even bothering to make that kind of counterintuitive pitch. Journalists are easily bored and we need material. The fact that nobody at all finds that to be a credible thing to say is not great. But the biggest possible trap is to act defeatist about it rather than take action.

Well, what if she doesn’t want to say and do the kinds of things I’m suggesting? To me, that’s politics. When I wrote “Obama won downscale white people’s votes by pandering to their views,” I remember Intern Marc pushing back a little bit and saying I was making Obama out to be too cynical and he was probably saying what he believed. I think successful politicians manage to work themselves to a point where they are beyond these kinds of petty questions of sincerity. Lying is bad, morally speaking. But nobody says every single thing that they believe, and certainly nobody does so in public. Politicians, especially, edit themselves. And Obama edited himself differently during his 2008 and 2012 runs than he did post-2014 and in his post-presidency.

Harris needs to work her way into something more like an Early Obama Edit — showily patriotic, unifying, and optimistic. After all, either highly woke ideas are wrong, in which case it’s good to eschew them, or else they are correct and it’s necessary for someone in Harris’ position to pander to white fragility in order to win. I don’t really care which of those lines of analysis her team sells themselves on (they can disagree among themselves); the point is to reach an overlapping consensus around the benefits of a culturally moderate style of politics.