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Friday, May 7, 2021

Kamala Harris might become the 2020 Democratic nominee — and she could

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Kamala Harris dined with Beto O’Rourke in a back room of the House in the late ’80s. It was my first Washington hangout with a future president, and it was a serious occasion.

“She’s coming around,” O’Rourke told a friend. “We should have her back in Austin.”

According to the recollections of the Tribune Review — a prominent Austin newspaper — Harris was courting Charlie Henry, who founded the Tribune Review, to work for her campaign for the Legislature. Henry could be counted on as an endorsement.

“She wasn’t your typical politician,” Henry told me, at the time. “At all. She sat down with us. She knew our viewpoints.”

Harris is very different than O’Rourke. She’s smart and competently qualified. She still seems unsure of herself in many ways, but she’s a hard worker and a crowd-pleaser, as well as an accomplished prosecutor who has carried out important reforms of California’s prison system.

When she calls herself a progressive, it may not mean what it means to her political consultants. But she’s neither right nor left. She’s a serious mainstream politician who understands that winning elections begins with performance on the stump. She gets an enormous amount of mileage out of her familial background — a grandfather who fought in World War II, parents who converted to Islam and became Muslims, etc. She talked about her parents’ religion during her Senate campaign and is unafraid to discuss it openly.

Harris was a politician before she was a prosecutor. And she won her Senate race in 2018 without spending a lot of money, without relying on the Democratic Party machinery that leads to success in general elections. She got to Washington because of her prose.

The early conventional wisdom was that she is not one of the last great candidates for 2020. Her name has not been on the short list of candidates for a while. To quote Andrew Sullivan, she is “too substantive, too idiosyncratic, too haughty, too uppity, too brilliant to be a great general election candidate.” To Sullivan, she’s the next Dick Cheney.

But as the 2020 nominating contest proceeds, I’m beginning to think that people have been unfair to Harris. She looks at least a little like a leader. She’s tough, even on her own party. She is not just funny, she also has a certain toughness that sets her apart. She brings out his most engaging qualities — the affability and the self-deprecation.

I was on hand as she announced her campaign in early 2019. I gave my remarks in a friendly way, but very softball. I even mentioned Ed O’Neill, which often is how I describe others. She handled it better than I could.

“She doesn’t love Donald Trump,” she said with an almost condescending laugh. She didn’t bring up his name when she came close to him at one rally.

That was not how she seemed to the Tribune Review and the press. Her way with a barb took on a different tone. O’Rourke was not a very good guy and Harris dismissed him in her book, “The Truths We Hold.” Then she unveiled a new schtick that made her seem more friendly and inviting than usual. She started saying things like, “We were all there when we watched him beat up a biker on an episode of ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”

At rallies, her style seemed to follow the philosophy of James Carville — “pull the lever or pull up the curtain.”

I probably should have saved some of this content for my Iowa book tour in spring of this year. That was when I met Harris and wrote about her very interesting life as a black female in America and her story with the Jeffries family. She is a remarkable woman.

Her authenticity can be an asset. But in 2019, it seems untraditional in a campaign that is supposed to be a “blue wave.”

If Harris beats O’Rourke — and she may even win — it will require a different strategy than a team of A-team political operatives. The campaign must be decided by a politician who simply performs. O’Rourke was a superstar. The run of the other Democratic contenders feels like the democratic equivalent of being an astronaut in a Buzz Aldrin film.

Harris doesn’t just go into the astronaut’s suit. She goes into it and makes her mark.

I think she has the makings of a political superstar.

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