Monday, July 31, 2017

Kamala Harris and internal Democratic Party politics

A Facebook friend called my attention to this article from last April on California Sen. Kamala Harris: Evan Halper, Sen. Kamala Harris sees a path out of the wilderness for Democrats — but can she sell it to them? Los Angeles Times 04/06/2017.

Harris is currently a new hope for corporate Democrats. Although it's not really clear at this point that she's going in that direction. Halper's article gives some indication of that. But mostly it's confusing.

“We can’t afford to be purists,” Harris said. “You have to ask that question of yourself: Are we going to be purists to this resistance to the point that you let these guys go? Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions. So that is part of the question. What do we have to do in this movement to be pragmatic?”
This sounds like a corporate Dem lecturing New Deal Dems about why we should all cheer for conservative Dems who vote for the Republicans. But the main current version of the corporate Dem position, as illustrated by Hillary Clinton, is to emphasize a libertarian position on equal rights for women, blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the LGBTQ community, while sticking to neoliberal economic positions with an emphasis on the desires of the finance sector and pursuing a more-or-less hawkish position on foreign policy that continue the Cold War triumphalism shared by Presidential Administration since Bill Clinton's and Old Man Bush's.

But Halper says of Kamala Harris, "California’s freshman senator, a civil rights crusader whose India-born mother and Jamaica-raised father met during political protests in the Bay Area, is so associated with the identity politics of the left that her Twitter feed was a punchline in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit. But as she finds her way in Washington, Harris is embracing an approach somewhat at odds with that image."

And in the interview, she positions herself this way:

“There is this conversation that we’ve got to go back and get him,” she said, referring to the prototypical white, male Trump voter. “The inference there is that to do that we need to walk away from that Latina or black mom. That is a mistake.”

But she suggested the party has too often seized on wedge, identity politics issues that divide voters. “What I do know about those two ladies and that guy is when we wake up at 3 in the morning or something is troubling us, it is never through the lens of, ‘am I Democrat or Republican,’ or on our identity based on what other people have decided is our identity.”

Instead, she said, it is economic issues that weigh on people: their bills, their job troubles, their difficulty getting health insurance.
This sounds like a mishmash of the Clinton approach (emphasis on "identity" politics, corporate-friendly economics), the New Deal Dem stance (an aggressive approach to civil rights with distinctly prolabor economics) and the old DLC stance (try to sound more conservative across the board).

I was struck by her abstract example, "Or can you understand that you may not agree with 50% of their policy positions, but I can guarantee you will disagree with 100% of their replacements’ policy positions." So does this mean that Democrats should be satisfied with candidates who are only half-Democrats? That would be the literal meaning of the statement.

But beyond that, where does that percentage become too small a fraction of a Democrat for Harris not to support them? And for members of Congress and state legislators, the voting percentage is less important than what the Democratic position they vote for and when. It's typical for legislators on both sides to vote with the other party on some issue in which the other side's position is more favored or more vocally favored in their district. But on big votes - a major health care plan, a Supreme Court Justice, a major infrastruture program, public financing for political campaigns - if Democrats are casting deciding votes on those issues against the Democratic position, then those Dems are probably not Democratic enough, regardless of the percentage of overall votes they cast with their own party.

There's also a big difference between party primaries and general elections. No incumbent really wants to have a party challenger. (Or one from the other party, for that matter!) But if the Democratic left wants to move the party in a more progressive direction, they have to give attention to party primaries. And win a lot of them. Because even if there is a Democratic majority in both Houses of Congress, if only half the Democrats vote for Democratic positions ... The math on that is brutal.

Another head-scratcher in the Harris interview is this:

She pointed to the incident at a bar outside of Kansas City, Kan., in February in which an attacker shot and killed an Indian immigrant he mistakenly believed to be a Muslim. Patrons in the bar risked their lives trying to protect the victim, she said.

“I bet you that patrons in that bar voted for Trump,” Harris said. “But when presented with that situation, at that moment, without reflection, they did the right thing…. We can’t afford to put people in boxes.”
This would be more meaningful if she could say, for instance, that the Kansas Republican Party took the opportunity to start a publicity campaign against racial violence. Or, for instance, used it to talk up the need for better gun control. Ha! As if!

But what is her point there? That some Republicans would be willing to come to the assistance of someone who had just been gunned down? And she had to speculate to make that point in this particular case she brought up.

And it's a misleading example anyway. An election is a collective political event, not an individual moment of someone being in danger of their life. Maybe Harris knows of some poll that surveyed the partisan inclinations of people who spontaneously came to the aid of shooting victims. But that didn't make it into the interview.

Halper also seems to read a lot into the following, which sounds like boilerplate to me. Even Bernie Sanders says in general that he would support a real infrastructure program if Trump proposed it. Which he won't.

But despite pressure from activists on the left, Harris refuses to rule out working with the White House.

“Political capital is something that does not gain interest,” she said, when asked how she thought Democrats should respond if the White House offers to collaborate on joint priorities, such as federal money to rebuild outdated roads, bridges and airports. “When you’ve got it, you’ve got to spend it.... If the Trump administration puts in place a real, significant and genuine plan for infrastructure, I'll be down with it.” [my emphasis]
That ain't gonna happen.

For some less ambiguous takes on Democratic patisanship and winning elections, here is Michael Moore, Democrats Aren't Running The Right People 07/31/2017:

Also: Dean Baker, A Better Deal Than What? Truthout 07/31/2017.

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