Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29’s weekly column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
A recent article in Politico lays out the argument that Sen. Kamala Harris’ ability to connect with voters is the Achilles’ heel of her presidential campaign. The writer’s evidence? She relates to the people she meets on a personal level rather than always going all policy-wonk on them, like when she asked for a woman’s mother’s name during a campaign stop in Iowa after hearing that the mother had fled domestic abuse in Mexico. She’s “noncommittal or vague on a range of issues.” She’s just too warm. “[D]espite building a reputation as one of the Senate’s toughest interrogators and vaulting ahead of most of the 2020 field, [Harris] remains a politician under construction,” he writes.
No one writes articles like this about men. It’s hard to imagine the personable charm of, say, Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke, both likely 2020 candidates, being held against them. But for Harris, being charismatic is somehow a harbinger of her downfall. The author spoke with “two dozen political strategists, elected officials, and Democratic activists and voters,” all of whom praised her ability to connect with voters emotionally — and, somehow, the story’s overall point is still “this could hurt Kamala.”
It was only a matter of time in this historic presidential election cycle, with more women than ever running, that someone turned the type of glad-handing the public expects of presidential candidates — having actual conversations with voters, signing autographs, kissing babies, etc. — into a fatal flaw. Same goes for the hobbies candidates engage in from time to time on the campaign trail. No one said anything when the press went motorcycle-riding with Gov. Scott Walker or skeet-shooting with Sen. Lindsey Graham. But when reporters accompanied Harris to a boutique where she tried on a colorful sequin coat (she later told The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah she bought it), all hell broke loose in their Twitter mentions.
We kind of forced @kamalaharris to try on this awesome oversized rainbow sequin jacket … She snapped it up. @alivitali perfectly named it as “the Mardi Gras Jacket” #2020 #SouthCarolina #CampaignFashionReport pic.twitter.com/2G0NFRkKL6
— Maeve Reston (@MaeveReston) February 16, 2019
“This is absolutely the kind of double standard and double bind [we often see applied to women candidates],” Celinda Lake, a pollster and Democratic political strategist, as well as president of Lake Research Partners, told Refinery29. “Likability is assessed much more for women than men. And when do you hear a man told he’s too nice?”
Tellingly, the writer also accused Harris of sometimes coming off as “too programmed.” This is because after announcing her 2015 Senate run, she reportedly waited over a month-and-a-half to give her first interviews. So, it turns out, women can’t be too warm or too cold! We have to be just right.
If all of this is giving you 2016 vibes, it should. Hillary Clinton was constantly told she’s icy (and worse) on the campaign trail, when there are countless reports of how warm and funny she was in more private, intimate settings. Because she was watched closer and judged harsher than any male candidate ever was, she protected herself by becoming closely guarded, which caused the press to call her aloof. (To a lesser extent, this is now being done to Elizabeth Warren, too.) In the meantime, there weren’t many reports about how Donald Trump did little to no personal connecting with voters on the campaign trail. His preference for huge, bombastic rallies instead of one-on-one conversations was treated as a quirk, but not a flaw.
While it’s more than acceptable to criticize a candidate’s policy positions, that’s not what the writer was doing. Even if you don’t share Harris’ views on every issue or have problems with her record, it’s hard to argue that the senator and former California attorney general is a “politician under construction.” It’s yet another example of the glaring double standard at play: Women have to work 10 times as hard to be admitted into the club.
His argument that Harris lacks “precision and detailed policy prescriptions” boils down to the fact that she supports both Medicare for All and bills that expand Medicare, but don’t completely do away with private insurance — as does Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose Medicare for All bill she was the first senator to co-sponsor. He also noted that she slightly waffled when asked about Jussie Smollett, whose case caused the entire country whiplash. Harris regularly talks about her major policy proposals on the campaign trail, which include her effort to reform the cash-bail system, the LIFT Act tax credit for middle-class families, the Rent Relief Act, and the Maternal CARE Act to address the high rates of maternal mortality among Black women.
The “noncommittal or vague” line echoes a lazy Twitter refrain that Harris’ website doesn’t include her policy positions, and therefore her policies lack specificity. (For the record, BernieSanders.com doesn’t either.) When asked about this, a source close to the campaign told Refinery29 that an issues section will be added to the website as the team builds it out.
Harris has seen a rise in the primary polls recently and is starting to catch up to Sanders and Biden (who is not officially running, but here we are). According to RealClearPolitics, she averages about 12%, although it’s always best to take polls — and men — with a grain of salt.
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