Opinion | Kamala Harris, a front-runner

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By formally entering the presidential race, Kamala Harris immediately becomes one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination. As Nate Silver recently explained, Harris has the potential to fare well among several of the five big Democratic constituencies: party loyalists; hard-core progressives; young voters; African-Americans; and Hispanic and Asian-American voters.

So take her candidacy seriously. But once you’ve done so, I would encourage you to mostly ignore whether she is likely to win and focus your attention instead on whether she deserves to win. Make your own decisions about the candidates, rather than trying to guess what other voters will do.

Harris has signaled that she is likely to run a more thematically broad-based, less focused campaign than some others. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (if he runs) will focus on inequality and economic justice, for example. Joe Biden would probably emphasize his experience and electability. Kirsten Gillibrand has centered her pitch partly on #MeToo. The Harris campaign, for now, is looking less specific — which has both downsides and benefits.

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“Nobody is living their life through the lens of one issue,” she said yesterday. “And I think what people want is leadership that sees them through the complexity of their lives and pays equal attention to their needs. Let’s not put people in a box.”

Her policy agenda looks fairly typical for a Democrat today. One of her main proposals is a large package of tax cuts and credits for middle-class and poor families. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey has reviewed the proposal positively and Slate’s Jordan Weissmann has reviewed it negatively.

The core of Harris’s record is her six years as California’s attorney general. In a recent Times Op-Ed, the writer and legal advocate Lara Bazelon criticized Harris for supporting unjust imprisonment. Another California-based advocate, Lateefah Simon, responded to that piece with a defense of Harris.

Briahna Gray of The Intercept argued that Harris’s specific performance was not the most relevant issue: “The problem isn’t that Harris was an especially bad prosecutor. She made positive contributions as well — encouraging education and re-entry programs for ex-offenders, for instance. The problem, more precisely, is that she was ever a prosecutor at all. To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.”

My view is that Harris deserves to be treated as a front-runner. She has a fascinating personal story, and she has handled the national spotlight well in her first two years in the Senate.

I’ll be interested now to see whether she can offer a compelling story about what ails the country — how we’ve come to suffer from fraying democracy, stagnant mass living standards and a violently warming planet — and what she will do to change our course.

For more on her, see:

Jim Geraghty in National Review, on “Twenty things you probably didn’t know about Kamala Harris,” which includes her handling of the mortgage crisis in California.

Perry Bacon Jr. in FiveThirtyEight: “There may be no other candidate who better embodies how the modern Democratic Party has changed over the last few decades in identity and ideology … Post-Obama, the Democratic Party is increasingly the party of women and the ‘woke,’ and Harris’s biography and politics align well with where the party has moved.”

Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post: “Harris’s policy positions — Medicare for all, progressive tax reform, raise in the federal minimum wage, green energy, etc. — are not unique in a field with many progressive candidates. She is unique because of her biography — a daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and spent years as a prosecutor and then state attorney general — and her personal appeal. Of those candidates already declared, she might be the most engaging and dynamic.”

Reader responses

Several readers responded to my column yesterday about the shutdown by pointing out the connection to organized labor.

Paul Wortman, from Providence: “The shutdown is not [about] ‘the weakness of the resistance,’ but the weakness of the American labor movement. Labor has been under constant attack since the Reagan era with the firing of [air traffic controller] union members. Despite the strong labor market, government pay and benefits are much better than the private sector and workers are unwilling to risk an illegal strike and the fear of being fired.”

A reader from Atlanta: “Unions, unions, and more unions. Over the decades unions have been decimated by right-to-work laws. And until they’re resurrected nothing will occur. Those European countries that would demonstrate are all heavily unionized, including government employees. They don’t demonstrate, they go on strike, and their employers suffer.”

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David Leonhardt is a former Washington bureau chief for the Times, and was the founding editor of The Upshot and head of The 2020 Project, on the future of the Times newsroom. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, for columns on the financial crisis. @DLeonhardt Facebook

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