Hot off what is being hailed as a solid debate performance, Kamala Harris’s campaign gambit seems to have paid off. Her take down of Joe Biden on Civil Rights, specifically desegregated school busing routes in the 1970’s, and Biden’s inability or refusal to fight back, instantly vaulted Harris back into the top tier (according to the punditry). But, Harris. while dazzling the liberal grassroots, planted a major landmine for 2020 in her party regardless of whether she is the nominee or not.
But first, the exchange between Biden and Harris showed two campaigns with very divergent views of the electorate and the related strategies. Biden’s campaign, leading a fractured pack, obviously did not want to punch down, especially at a minority woman. Meanwhile, Harris, lagging in the polls, needed to eat into Biden’s strength with black voters and the best way to do that was paint him as unfriendly to their needs over his career. Fair or not, the attacks seemed to have worked. with Harris getting praise from pundits and true believers alike. Doubts about Biden are renewed.
It’s not surprising the punditry failed to recognize Harris did this more to make herself relevant than to damage Biden. Biden’s support is evenly split between moderates and progressives with a base of support among blacks. One debate is unlikely to seriously damage the former Vice-President. Rather, it keeps Harris relevant and in the news. If nothing else, this ensures her campaign has the cash to keep on going.
More importantly though, Harris might have a sharp tongue and a keen mind but she also planted a massive cultural landmine her party will now have to navigate going forward. The party already faced a major hurdle fiscally with virtually every candidate’s embrace of a single-payer system (the moderates arguments it is unsustainable were ignored) but Harris’s attacks on Biden, a popular, moderate Democrat will likely haunt the party next November.
Trump won election in 2016 exploiting the cultural divisions which are ripe within the Democratic Party. As the party has grown younger and diversified it has reminded its older, whiter base, it thinks they are racist (but hey, still vote for us). Trump was the first Republican since Bush in 04 to signal to these voters cultural issues are more important than economic ones. Last year, as Trump was trying to play up the same cultural issues which led to his election the Democratic Party refused to play the game, stuck to an economic script, and managed to get dozens of moderates elected in suburban and exurban districts across the country.
But, Presidential races are completely different. In a field as massive as the Democratic Presidential contest to survive candidates must appeal to the the progressive elements of their party to challenge the front-runners. Combined with a party moving to the left and you have the recipe for the non-front runner candidates to get attention and money by appealing to their base at all costs.
This will have repercussions come next November. First, it will give Trump an impetus to hit on the cultural disconnect between Democrats and blue-collar whites. Even if Biden is the nominee, Trump’s reminder to blue-collar whites many Democrats think they are racist will bring some wayward supporters home. More importantly, and determinate of the Presidential contest is Harris’s drive to push race during the primary will drive a giant sized wedge between the party and suburban whites. You know, the same whites who agree with the party on government corruption, taxes and healthcare. One can easily imagine the ads running with clips of Harris and others talking about reparations and how aggrieved the party is on race. The sub-message, the party thinks you are racist and they will come for you.
Combined with every Democrat running to the left on healthcare and the booming state of the economy and the contours of how Democrats could lose to an unpopular President actually begin to become clear. Democrats fail to make inroads with blue-collar whites while seeing their margins in the suburbs held to 2016 levels. Meanwhile, the economy and Democratic cries for socialized medicine bring wayward Republicans and Independents home. This is to say nothing of the fact the Trump campaign actually is doing a better job than Democrats speaking to Hispanics in the critical states of Texas and Florida. If Trump and Republicans manage to squeak by in 2020, it may because of Kamala Harris.