vision 2020

Will Impeachment Bring Back ‘Kamala the Prosecutor’ and Save Her Candidacy?

This is the Kamala Harris — grilling Brett Kavanaugh — a lot of people found attractive. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Although it was not exactly an unpredictable development, the arrival of formal impeachment proceedings against President Trump could change a lot of things for the Democrats hoping to face him in 2020. On the one hand, it has made it easy for impeachment fence-sitters to finally go with the flow, making impeachment itself no longer a divisive campaign issue. On the other hand, it is a massive distraction from the messages the candidates had carefully prepared before and during the early stages of the campaign, as Sean Sullivan observes:

What’s clear is that the furor in Washington injects another huge dose of uncertainty, at a critical moment, into a contest that was already highly fluid. The field is likely to winnow soon, and the impeachment focus threatens to take even more oxygen from hopefuls who already had limited time to make an impact …

[T]he drama set to unfold in coming weeks — likely to feature explosive congressional hearings, angry partisan debates, bitterly contested votes on the House floor and possibly further revelations about Trump — adds a daunting, unpredictable dynamic that, even more than the campaign so far, is outside the candidates’ control.

As South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said recently, “Nobody knows what the political consequences of impeachment are.”

There is one candidate, however, who may view the impeachment issue as a possible way to get her mojo back: Kamala Harris. Molly Hensley-Clancy lays out how that might work, and why it could give Harris a boost:

Iowans know what they like about Kamala Harris. They’ve seen it on TV: the sharp-tongued, compassionate, and courageous prosecutor that leaves them imagining an unflappable black woman on the debate stage next to Donald Trump …

Her presidential campaign had fallen into a dangerous pattern: after capturing the country’s attention with moments of prosecutorial brilliance, she had seen excitement about her candidacy soar, only to fall back to Earth …

In Iowa last weekend, the roots of her campaign’s see-saw were clear: It was hard for voters to see Harris the prosecutor. Harris the presidential candidate was meandering and often indirect, struggling to present a strong argument for her own campaign …

With President Donald Trump teetering on the edge of possible impeachment, though, Harris has a clear opportunity. Kamala Harris the prosecutor is already back on Americans’ television screens and could be set for a prime role in a potential Senate impeachment trial.

I’m not so sure. Like the other five senators in the presidential race, Harris has the problem of being more or less a spectator to the drama unfolding in the House, and a prisoner to Republican control of their own chamber. Yes, she is a member of both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, potential venues of hearings related to the impeachment drive and the underlying issues. But she won’t have a chance to grill witnesses as she did during the Comey and Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, unless the Republican chairs of those committees (Richard Burr and Lindsey Graham, respectively) choose to give her and other Democrats that opportunity. In theory, Mitch McConnell could create some sort of special committee to handle ancillary investigations — of the sort that, during the early stages of the Watergate scandal, made the Foghorn Leghorn soundalike Sam Ervin and even the racist demagogue Herman Talmadge national icons. But why would he want to do that when the GOP’s party line is that there is absolutely nothing worth investigating in Trump’s conduct?

As for the impeachment trial (assuming there is one), the one thing we know for sure is that Mitch McConnell will make it just extensive enough to claim that Trump is exonerated at the end of its forgone conclusion in acquittal, and not a moment longer or deeper. And traditionally, senators have been quiet in anticipation of and during impeachment trials, in accord with the criminal-law analogy of them as “jurors” weighing evidence for the impeachment “indictment,” as I explained recently:

According to precedent, senators act like jurors, making no public statements on the proceeding until after their votes are cast (in the Clinton case, senators spoke before the vote in a closed-door session, with their remarks published in the Congressional Record after the vote).

Not a lot of headline-grabbing drama in that procedure.

While I am dubious of the idea that Harris will definitely have a “prime role” in an impeachment trial or related Senate proceedings, Hensley-Clancy is spot-on in observing that the Californian really needs a boost and probably a change in the topics she is addressing on the stump. Harris’s original campaign strategy, based explicitly on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, was to establish herself as a nationally credible candidate before or during the Iowa caucuses, and then win a breakthrough victory in South Carolina by taking away African-American support from Biden just as Obama did from Hillary Clinton. Indeed, she had an advantage even Obama didn’t enjoy, thanks to her home state holding its own primary just a few days after South Carolina, as I observed soon after she entered the race:

In the sports language often used (along with combat and gambling lingo) by political operatives, one of Harris’s people called this strategy: “the SEC primary meets the West Coast offense.” And it makes sense, on paper, particularly if Harris can go into South Carolina with a head of steam and win there.

In fact, after she boxed Joe Biden’s ears in the first candidate debate in June, it looked like Harris was emerging as a world-beater whose stock would rise in every state. But her subsequent downward drift in polling, which continued throughout the summer and into the fall, has led to a strategic reassessment by her campaign. Long story short, she’s been doing so poorly in South Carolina that she’s pouring most of her resources into Iowa to execute the sort of jiujitsu that salvaged John Kerry’s once-doomed candidacy in 2004 (Kerry was badly trailing Howard Dean in New Hampshire, so he went for broke in Iowa and won there in an upset that revived his standing in the Granite State and elsewhere). So far, it’s not working any wonders just yet: in Ann Selzer’s recent gold-standard Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register, CNN, and Mediacom, Harris was running a poor fifth with 6 percent of the vote. Trouble is, the four candidates above her in Iowa are emphasizing the first-in-the-nation caucuses, too, and unlike, say, Elizabeth Warren, Harris is not exactly setting Iowa on fire with her many personal appearances there, as Hensley-Clancy and others have reported.

And meanwhile, the news from later states on the calendar keeps getting worse for Harris. A new CNN poll of South Carolina has her tied with Tom Steyer for fifth place at a mere 3 percent — a point behind Pete Buttigieg, for whom the Palmetto State is hardly a major target. And the latest poll from California, conducted by the Berkeley IGS for the L.A. Times, has the state’s favorite daughter running fourth in single digits, 21 points behind front-running Warren.

Sure, this could all change again: The combative and compelling Kamala Harris of that first debate could return in subsequent debates, and perhaps she can find a way via impeachment to play the prosecutor again (though that role has its own perils, as Tulsi Gabbard showed in eviscerating Harris’s record as California attorney general in the July debate). What she most needs is a collapse of support for Joe Biden, who stands directly in the way of Harris’s efforts to attract African-American votes and to serve as a fallback candidate for voters worried about Warren and Sanders’s vulnerabilities as symbols of the Democratic Party’s leftward drift. But in any event, Harris will soon run out of time. At this point in 2008, Obama was doing a lot better in Iowa, South Carolina, and nationally. There’s only so long that she can remain a candidate of great, if unrealized, potential.

Will Impeachment Save Kamala Harris’s Candidacy?