Calculating Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris (D, Calif.) at the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) 2019 legislative conference in Washington, D.C., April 10, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

It’s time for a conversation about the senator’s equivocations.

If you want to know which way the wind is blowing in the Democratic primary, just watch Kamala Harris.

Asked about impeaching President Trump on Saturday, the California senator and presidential candidate said: “I believe that there is room for that conversation, but right now what I want is, I want Mueller to come before Congress to testify. I want to be able to see the full unredacted report, and specifically also the underlying evidence.” But by the time Harris appeared on CNN Monday night for a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire, she had apparently heard enough of the conversation going on inside the Democratic party to make up her mind. “I believe that Congress should take steps towards impeachment,” Harris said, following the lead of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who had called for impeachment last Friday.

Harris and Warren were joined by South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in pushing the party towards impeachment during Monday night’s CNN town halls. “I think he’s made it pretty clear that he deserves impeachment. I’m also going to leave the House and Senate to figure that out,” Buttigieg said. Of the five Democratic presidential candidates who appeared on CNN Monday night, only two stopped short of calling for impeachment. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar said she wouldn’t prejudge the matter because, as a senator, she would effectively serve as a juror in any impeachment case against Trump. And Vermont senator Bernie Sanders called for a “thorough investigation” but expressed concern that if the House moves toward impeachment, the political debate will be focused on “Trump, Trump, Trump and Mueller, Mueller, Mueller” — not the progressive/socialist domestic-policy agenda.

Sanders may be lagging behind his colleagues in his enthusiasm for impeachment, but make no mistake: He is driving the conversation inside the Democratic party on matters of policy. When asked about Elizabeth Warren’s proposed federal program to forgive up to $50,000 per person in student-loan debt, Sanders pointed out that he is the intellectual godfather of such plans. Sanders said that four years ago, everybody was saying: “Bernie is a little bit crazy, talking about making public colleges and universities tuition-free.”

“Ain’t such a crazy idea today,” Sanders added.

Indeed. And on Monday night, Sanders did more to display his power to make previously extreme ideas seem mainstream in his party. When asked specifically if the Boston Marathon bomber and those convicted of sexual assault should be able to vote while they’re incarcerated, he answered in the affirmative. Pete Buttigieg answered the same question with a simple “No.” But Kamala Harris equivocated: “I think we should have that conversation.”

Asked later about lowering the voting age to 16, Harris said: “I’m really interested in having that conversation.” Some Democratic bigwigs now think it’s time to have a conversation about Kamala Harris’s interest in “having that conversation.”

“At some point this could end up being a problem,” David Axelrod, a former Obama adviser, said last night on CNN. “She is an incredibly compelling personality; a very bright and accomplished person. But she’s very cautious — and that caution was pretty apparent in a lot of her answers.”

The point at which Harris’s cautiousness could be a problem for her appears to be right now. Asked about the fact that Medicare for All would eliminate private insurance, Harris emphasized that there was “absolutely” still room for “supplemental insurance.” Jonathan Cohn, who covers health-care policy for the Huffington Post, pointed out that while Harris’s statement was technically correct, it was also something of an evasion because Medicare for All “would include every medically necessary service, so that doesn’t really leave much for supplemental to cover.” As Bernie Sanders, the bill’s chief sponsor, has said, Medicare for All would effectively reduce supplemental insurance to covering nose jobs.

Harris doesn’t want to let Bernie Sanders get to her left on matters of policy, but she avoids his forthright defense of Medicare for All because she doesn’t want to appear too extreme. The dilemma, more broadly, is that it’s Bernie’s party; Kamala is just living in it.

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