Kamala Harris Is the Jan Brady of the 2020 Race

The senator from California isn't quite a front-runner, but she hasn't had a sudden burst of underdog momentum either.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Donald Trump’s favorite word for Kamala Harris is “nasty,” but in the scramble to stick out in the crowded Democratic-primary field, the California senator is battling what she calls “this ‘cautious’ stuff.”

That’s become her caricature on the trail over the past few months, and it crystallized three weeks ago during a CNN town hall in New Hampshire. She kept responding to questions in the same way: ducking direct answers and saying, over and over, that she wanted to have “a conversation” about what to do. “[Harris] wants to study stuff. [Elizabeth Warren’s] college debt plan is ‘a discussion we should have.’ Reparations is “something we should study,” tweeted the former Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod, annoying but rattling members of the Harris team I spoke with.

“Is Kamala Harris Too Cautious? Let’s Have That Conversation,” was the mocking headline a few days later on a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, her hometown paper.

Harris has had enough, and so have a number of aides who have spoken with me directly and others about the current state of the campaign. She thinks cable and Twitter have been trying to dumb down the primary process, and that too many of her fellow candidates are playing along.

“This is not a game show where you’ve got a buzzer, and you should hit the buzzer, and you can win some money,” Harris told me over the phone last week. “I think we need to really agree that shouldn’t be the kind of incentives we’re having”—that “the pundits will be clapping and happy if, within 30 seconds, you answer the question that’s on the board.”

The problem for Harris, though, is that other people are winning the game. Pete Buttigieg has leapfrogged her in the polls, with both voters and the press drawn to his accessibility and constant off-the-cuff answers; Warren has been getting attention for her nonstop release of policy proposals; and other candidates have gotten noticed by making their own impromptu news.

Harris’s resistance to jumping into the news has meant that she can disappear for days, and sometimes weeks, from the headlines about the 2020 race. She’s been focusing on smaller meetings with advocates and activists—and, most of all, on fundraising, with lots of time spent flying back to her base of donors in California. When she sent Attorney General William Barr into a state earlier this month by asking him pointed questions at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, it was a reminder for even those paying close attention to the race: Oh, right, Kamala Harris is running too.

Some of her answers to questions she gets on the trail are short and easy. She would get rid of the entire tax bill Trump signed at the end of 2017, and she doesn’t approve of any of the tariffs he’s imposed. But when she hesitates, Harris argues, she’s not holding herself back—she’s showing where she really is.

“People shouldn’t confuse: Being quick with an opinion [doesn’t mean] that opinion isn’t necessarily a smart or well-thought-out one,” she said. “I prefer to have a smart, well-thought-out opinion on an issue than give a quick response to a question that’s presented, when I’ve not actually done the due diligence from hearing from whoever might be impacted from that position.”

Her team feels she’s stuck in a no-win situation: She’s characterized as boring if she doesn’t breathe fire at every policy question. But when she, for example, seemed to say that Medicare for All would lead to the end of private insurance companies, she’s tagged as a radical leftist.

On Wednesday morning in New Hampshire, she made clear that, while she’s heard the criticism, she doesn’t plan to change her approach. Asked at a town hall about imposing term limits on Supreme Court justices, along with other moves that would mean massive changes to judicial appointments, she told a voter, “I am open to that conversation.” She added, by way of explanation, “The bottom line is: We need a new president.”

Harris told me that her approach has been shaped by her years as the San Francisco district attorney and as the attorney general of California; lives were on the line, and financial markets could move based on her decisions. But it has also been shaped, she said, by her confidence that she’s going to be the president and her worry about following through on whatever positions she takes now. People who know Harris well say the roots of her approach, though, are in how careful and prepared she had to be to bust through the barriers she did—including becoming the first woman of color to serve as California attorney general, and the second black woman ever elected to the Senate.

Her campaign aides proudly tweeted that a video of her exchange with Barr had ticked past 5 million views. But they recognized that the moment had exposed both a problem and a challenge: How could Harris get people to see a connection between what they liked about her performance at the hearing and her campaign’s larger argument that she can make an effective case against Trump?

“It’s about prosecuting the case against his policies,” she told me, explaining how she plans to build this connection for voters when talking about the president. “There’s a lot of evidence ... about how he has misled and really not done well by the American people. You can look at everything from his trade policy by tweet, to passing a tax bill that benefits the biggest corporations and the top 1 percent. You can look at a policy that’s been about separating children from their parents. You can look at it in terms of the case of what’s clearly an obstruction of justice. You can look at creating a ban on who can enter the country based on the god they worship. Just across the board, there are so many issues that are ripe for prosecution, frankly.”

But it’s also about making more voters relate to her on a personal level, in the same way that she’s done with Democratic insiders, who say they’ve seen her warmth and punchiness. On Wednesday, she shot back at the hot political chatter of the moment—that she should be Biden’s running mate—by saying, “I think Joe Biden would be a great running mate. As vice president, he’s shown he can do the job.”

“Kamala is a smart, strategic, charismatic candidate,” says Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, who’s neutral in the primary race, adding that Harris “will be able to incredibly effectively prosecute the case against Trump.”

Harris’s campaign, according to those involved, thinks the real race for the Democratic nomination starts now; the candidates are all announced (with the exception of Bill de Blasio), and the dynamics are clear. With Biden and Bernie Sanders likely to dominate into the summer—and perhaps all the way through to the Iowa caucuses early next year—it could be a race for third place.

Harris wants to establish herself as the alternative to the big two. She’s not baked into Washington, but she also doesn’t want to burn it down. She doesn’t have to defend 40 years of decisions, but she’s also not touting 40 years of throwing rocks from the sidelines. And, as has been part of her campaign’s calculus from the start, she’s the only candidate who checks all the key demographic boxes: She’s not old, she’s not white, and she’s not a man.

She’s also been trying to frame Trump in a way that’s very different from Biden. His concept of Trump is, as he put it in his campaign launch video, that “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time.” On Tuesday, during a swing through New Hampshire, he predicted that, if and when Trump loses the election, “you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”

Asked by a reporter in Detroit last week what she thought of Biden’s aberration comment, she said, “I don’t know what that means.” The reporter tried again, explaining the context of the quote a little more. Harris didn’t budge; “I don’t know what he means by that,” she replied. What she seems to mean, though, is that maybe, given who Biden is and how long he’s been around, he can’t see what she sees in Trump: not an aberration, but a problem that can’t be fixed unless it’s called out directly and confronted head-on. To her mind, pretending he’s a one-off, or that an epiphany is coming to the Republican Party, won’t actually fix anything.

“The campaign for me is so much bigger than [Trump],” Harris told me. “It’s a given that he should be replaced.”

Making people interested in Harris doesn’t seem terribly hard. The campaign’s internal polling shows that she’s the candidate voters want to know more about. But so far, Harris has been the Jan Brady of the 2020 race. She hasn’t been strong enough to qualify as a front-runner, especially now with Biden in the race, sucking up more oxygen than her aides say they anticipated. But she’s still strong enough that her victories don’t register as big news. She hasn’t gotten a boost from beating expectations when she’s consistently placed in the second tier after the two most famous names, or when she raised more money in the first quarter than every candidate except Bernie Sanders (and nearly double what most of the other top candidates brought in). She hasn’t had a fall to inspire any schadenfreude; she hasn’t had a sudden burst of underdog momentum.

To her critics, Harris is a consultants’ confection. She avoids taking a position because she’s looking for the right thing to say that fits into a specific formula. Take voting rights for felons, which was one of the topics she punted on at the CNN town hall. She was a district attorney for seven years, an attorney general for six. Is it really possible that she doesn’t have a position on felons voting?

“I’ve been in the process of talking to people about it,” Harris told me. “I hadn’t thought it through—there are a lot of nuances to a question like that. Everybody who’s incarcerated? Terrorists? But do I care about how we have almost 6 million people in our country who are formally incarcerated, who have been refused and prevented from having the right to vote? I care deeply about that.”

But to her supporters, Harris’s campaign is less about a specific policy agenda (though she has a few proposals: raising teacher pay, tax credits that would give many families $6,000 a year, an executive order mandating gun background checks and banning AR-15s). Rather, her candidacy is the answer to a set of interlocking questions. To start, they see her as the complete opposite of a president who is the uncorked essence of white male privilege, and who has rarely met a question of race he hasn’t come down on the paler side of. She’s a prosecutor who says she can take on a criminal presidency, and an intense cross-examiner who can take apart Trump’s deceits. And she’s a woman of color looking to lead a party propelled by women and people of color.

But even in the friendliest of environments, she seems hesitant to let loose. Harris delivered the keynote address last Sunday at the NAACP’s annual Freedom Fund dinner in Detroit, in front of thousands of the black elite from in and around the city. Reverend Wendell Anthony, the president of the Detroit chapter, introduced Harris as a “bad sister,” and highlighted how she, the daughter of an Indian-born cancer researcher and a Jamaican-born economics professor, went to the historically black Howard University.

Aides had told reporters to expect some news. Harris inserted a section into her speech about “this guy in the White House.” She said the president has enabled a culture of hate that has produced “domestic terrorism,” with white supremacists attacking mosques and synagogues and burning down black churches. In another section of the speech, she swung hard at the conventional wisdom around “electability,” calling it “simplistic politics” that prioritizes the traditional worries of certain white people over the struggles of everybody else.

Both comments drove headlines for a few days—especially the electability bit—inspiring a wave of secondary columns and cable-news segments. In the room, though, neither seemed to get many people going. Some of the quiet could be chalked up to bad acoustics and the room’s odd setup—there were multiple daises for dignitaries, arranged in a circle around the tables where food was being served, which diverted attention and ramped up the noise. But her delivery didn’t help. She didn’t raise her voice, she didn’t seem to try to whip up the crowd, and there were no cheers or chants. When she finished, there wasn’t much applause, and no standing ovation.

What Harris didn’t do in Detroit, and almost always avoids doing, is talk about her identity or her life story, even though both are an essential part of her political calculation in the race. She has only a few anecdotes she regularly shares: about what an imposing figure she says her mother was; how anytime Harris and her sister, Maya, saw something unfair going on, her mom would ask them what they were going to do about it; how Harris had such a good relationship with her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, that she came to her law-school graduation. A recent exception to this pattern: In the last week, Harris has spotlighted an aspect of her life that she hasn’t spoken about much publicly: her relationship with her two stepchildren, which she wrote about in a deeply personal column for Elle and discussed in a TV interview.

I asked her why she didn’t talk about her background that night. It was the NAACP, the perfect place to lean in. She diverted. “People are going to want to know that their next leader is going to be an improvement over the last one, but also have the ability to take us to the next place,” Harris said. “I don’t expect people to vote for me because I’m a woman. I don’t expect people to vote for me because I’m a person of color. I believe that people are going to elect me because they believe I am the best one for the job at this point in time.”

But why not be more explicit, both about her historic candidacy and what it could mean to have a black woman follow Trump? She said she feels she doesn’t have to be. “There are certain self-evident truths,” she replied.

Harris’s aides say the campaign’s strategy is shifting to put her out there at news-making events. They want to push her to make more news, to take on Trump, Biden, and everyone else.

What Harris doesn’t want to do, though, is stray far from her stump speech. She told me she wants to say the same thing no matter the crowd, to drill the same message into voters’ minds. It doesn’t matter to her that the beat reporters covering her campaign can recite the lines from memory—which has fed her cautious image—and she doesn’t think it’s fair that of a whole field of candidates who stick to their stump, she’s the one derided for it.

“The audiences that I am speaking to are new audiences that have not heard it,” Harris said, “and these are messages that are resonating because they are actually thoughtful about where we are and what they need.”

Joining Harris on the trail, Randi Weingarten, the president of the national teachers’ union, acknowledged that she’s heard about Harris’s reputation for being cautious. But Weingarten said she saw the opposite in Harris last week while the two toured schools in Michigan, with Harris “melting” as she spoke with children.

“There are exceptional people in life, people whose caring and compassion is as deep as a summer day. And people who are smart as a whip and who could actually, just by her steely eyes … take apart a prospective Supreme Court justice, as she did, or an AG,” Weingarten said, introducing Harris to a group of 200 educators at a teachers’ union town hall, referring to Harris’s questioning of Barr and of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in September. (The teachers’ union hasn’t endorsed a candidate for 2020.)

If there were a Senate hearing every week, Harris would have a clearer shot at being top of people’s minds—she got more positive press coverage out of those eight minutes with Barr than she has since her launch rally in Oakland, California, at the end of January. For now, she’ll have to settle for the primary debates, at the end of June and July, though standing onstage taking questions won’t have the same effect.  

Harris aides hope the debates make voters think about what she’d look like standing onstage next to Trump. Grilling is her natural state. Even in a library full of fourth graders in Dearborn, Michigan, last week, Harris was pulling out the Socratic method for the juice-box crowd. Harris read Each Kindness, a book about a poor girl made fun of for her raggedy clothes who suddenly stopped coming to school one day. In the story, her classmates realize how mean they were to her, but it’s too late to do anything. There’s no resolution or happy ending, just a bunch of children who feel terrible and are never able to make it better. Harris seemed surprised by how it ended—she’d never read the book before; the teachers’ union had picked it—but immediately started asking for the moral of the story.

“Speak up, I can’t hear you. Make sure everyone can hear you,” she told one girl. When she asked a boy to say his name before he shared the story’s lesson and he replied, “Be kind to everyone,” she ribbed him: “Your name is ‘Be kind to everyone’?” (Once she’d drawn it out of him, Harris said how much she loved the sound of his name, Farouk.)

The next day, Harris was back in Washington for a few days of official business. She spent the afternoon locked in a secure room for an Intelligence Committee briefing, and in the elevator on the way back, she was giving the person walking with her tips on how to poach an egg. She likes to cook, and this somehow became part of the passing conversation. I asked her later what the secret was. “Create a vortex,” she told me. Add a quarter cup of vinegar to the boiling water. Stir really quickly, so the egg “doesn’t get all fragmented” when it goes in the pot, then decide how long to let it cook. (She likes a four-minute egg.) But make sure to create that vortex so it comes out right.

That’s the Harris approach: Have the right ingredients, but follow the method—even when spinning things up.