The Who-Can-Beat Trump Test Leads to Kamala Harris

Bringing the energy and hope to stare down Trump and his movement.

Nations, like people, may change somewhat, but not in their essential characteristics. The United States is defined by space and hope. It is an optimistic country of can-do strivers. They took the risk of coming to a new land. They are suspicious of government, inclined to self-reliance. Europeans ask where you came from. Americans ask what you can do.

The Declaration of Independence posited a universal idea, that human beings are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Americans, then, embraced an idea, however flawed in execution, when they became a nation. Their government, whatever else it does, exists to safeguard and further that idea, in the United States and beyond.

President Trump, in the name of making American great again, has trampled on America’s essence. He is angry, a stranger to happiness, angrier still for not knowing the source of his rage. He is less interested in liberty than the cash of his autocratic cronies. As for life, he views it as a selective right, to which the white Christian male has priority access, with women, people of color and the rest of humanity trailing along behind for scraps.

Adherents to an agenda of “national conservatism” held a conference last month in Washington dedicated, as my colleague Jennifer Schuessler put it, “to wresting a coherent ideology out of the chaos of the Trumpist moment.”

Good luck with that. One of the meeting’s leading lights was Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. Lowry’s forthcoming book is called “The Case for Nationalism.” Enough said. The endpoint of that “case” is on display at military cemeteries across Europe.

Nationalism, self-pitying and aggressive, seeks to change the present in the name of an illusory past in order to create a future vague in all respects except its glory. Trump is a self-styled nationalist. The “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chants at his rallies have chilling echoes.

Lowry holds that “America is not an idea” and to call it so is a “lazy cliché.” This argument denies the essence of the country — an essence palpable at every naturalization ceremony across the United States. Becoming American is a process that involves the inner absorption of the nation’s founding idea.

The gravest thing Trump has done is to empty this idea of meaning. His has been an assault on honesty, decency, dignity, tolerance and civility. On this president’s wish list, every right is alienable. He leads a movement more than he does a nation, and so depends on fear to mobilize people. Any victorious Democratic Party candidate in 2020 has to counter that negative energy with a positive energy that lifts Americans from Trump’s web.

I watched the Democratic Party debates among presidential contenders through a single prism: Who can beat Trump? In the end, nothing else matters because another five and a half years of this will drag Americans into an abyss of moral collapse.

Yes, how far left, how moderate that candidate may be is of some significance, but can he or she bring the heat and the hope to stare Trump down and topple him is all I care about. That’s the bouncing ball all eyes should be on, with no illusions as to how vicious and devious Trump will be between now and November 2020.

With reluctance, because he is a good and honorable man of great personal courage, I do not believe that Joe Biden has the needed energy, mental agility and nimbleness. Nor do I believe that the nation of can-do strivers I described above is ready for Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism.” Forms of socialism work in Europe, and the word is widely misunderstood in America, but socialism and America’s essence are incompatible.

Elizabeth Warren’s couching of a campaign for radical change as “economic patriotism” is a much smarter way to go, and her energetic advocacy of ideas to redress the growing injustices in American life has been powerful. Still, I am not convinced that enough Americans are ready to move as far left as she proposes or that she passes the critical commander in chief test.

Kamala Harris does that for me. The California senator is a work in progress, with

  • uneven debate performances, and policies, notably health care, that she has zigzagged toward defining. But she’s
  • tough, broadly of the center,
  • has a great American story, is passionate on issues including immigrants, African-Americans and women, and has
  • proved she is not averse to risk. She
  • has a former prosecutor’s toughness and the ability to slice through Trump’s self-important bluster.

Last month Harris said Trump was a “predator.” She continued: “The thing about predators you should know, is that they prey on the vulnerable. They prey on those who they do not believe are strong. And the thing you must importantly know, predators are cowards.”

Those were important words. It’s early days, but Trump’s biggest electoral vulnerability is to women. They have seen through his misogyny at last, and they know just where the testosterone of nationalism leads.

And Now, the Dream of a Harris-Buttigieg Ticket

Two new Democratic stars outshone Biden and Sanders on the debate stage.

The big question going into Thursday night’s debate was whether Joe Biden, the clear front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, would stumble.

That turned out to be the wrong one. The right question was whether he had sufficient vigor in his stride.

And the answer came in watching Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — two of the event’s standout performers — run articulate and impassioned circles around him.

Biden was O.K. Not bad, not good: O.K. He didn’t crumble under some tough interrogation from moderators — about his vote for the invasion of Iraq, for example — and occasional attacks from his rivals onstage.

But in his determination to prove how coolheaded he could be, he frequently turned his temperature down too low. In his insistence on not getting tangled in grand promises or lost in the weeds, he too often kept to the side of the field.

At one point, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed that crossing the border without documentation should be a civil rather than criminal offense, his gesture was so tentative and ambiguous that one of the moderators, José Díaz-Balart, had to follow up: Was he indicating his assent or seeking permission to make a comment?

That was a metaphor for his whole night.

Other candidates demanded that America march forward. Biden kept looking backward. He repeatedly alluded to his decades of experience and even more pointedly reminded voters of his eight-year partnership with President Barack Obama, a towering and popular figure in the Democratic Party. While Bernie Sanders pledged a revolution, Biden promised a restoration.

Will that make voters feel tingly enough? It’s possible, given the ongoing trauma of the Trump years.

But the debate brought into vivid relief the shortcomings of his candidacy and the risks of graduating him to the general election.

When you’ve been in politics and in Washington as long as he has — 36 years in the Senate, plus eight as vice president — there are votes from eras much different from the current one, controversial positions galore and mistakes aplenty. All of these were ammunition used against him on Thursday night, most electrically when Harris pressed him to defend his opposition to busing to integrate schools.

Harris made it personal, telling him that she got the education she did because of busing. Biden said that he hadn’t been opposed to busing so much as in favor of local decision-making, and he thus left himself open to her righteous response: Did he not think that the federal government should swoop in to remedy obvious racial injustice?

“That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

One of these two candidates was in much better sync with Democratic voters right now, and that candidate was Harris, a black woman who, at 54, is more than two decades younger than Biden, who is 76. The only candidate on the stage older than him: Bernie Sanders, 77.

And the sense of a generational divide was acute, partly because Buttigieg, 37, and Eric Swalwell, 38, made sure to highlight it. At the very start of the night, Swalwell noted mischievously that Biden had long ago stressed the importance of passing the torch, and Swalwell exhorted Democrats to do precisely that, saying “pass the torch” so many times that Díaz-Balart asked Biden, “Would you like to sing a torch song?” Biden then rattled off a few canned remarks about the importance of education.

Biden and Sanders stood at the lecterns in the center of the stage, their prize for having significantly higher poll numbers than the others. They were supposed to be the pace setters.

But they receded more than they popped. Maybe that was a function of familiarity. I couldn’t detect any difference between Sanders now and Sanders four years ago: The mad gleam, bad mood and hoarse-from-yelling voice were all the same. A screenwriter friend of mine emailed me midway through the event to say that Sanders resembled “a very angry chess player in Washington Square Park in an undershirt and madras shorts in the summer heat.” He did indeed look steamed.

Buttigieg didn’t. He has this way — it’s quite remarkable — of expressing outrage without being remotely disheveled by the emotion, of taking aim without seeming armed, of flagging grave danger without scaring the pants off you. He’s from some perfect-candidate laboratory, no?

And nobody onstage spoke with more precision and shrewdness, though Michael Bennet came close a few times. Buttigieg said that the God-garbed Republican Party, in its treatment of migrants, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.” It wasn’t just a dig; it was a deft reminder of his public fight with Mike Pence over Pence’s vilification of L.G.B.T. people like Buttigieg.

On the subject of health insurance, Buttigieg said that sick people “can’t be relying on the tender mercies of the corporate system.” He spoke of China “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.” Phrases like these came like candies from a Pez dispenser — colorful, sweet and one after the other.

And when Buttigieg was confronted with questions about the recent police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Ind., where he is mayor, and asked why the police force wasn’t better integrated, he admitted, bluntly: “Because I couldn’t get it done.He didn’t make excuses, instead recognizing that between African-Americans and white police officers, “There’s a wall of mistrust, put up one racist act at a time.”

Harris had a fire that Buttigieg lacked, and it was mesmerizing. She challenged Biden not just on busing but on sloppy recent comments of his that seemed affectionate toward segregationists. She picked apart Trump’s boasts of a spectacularly booming economy, telling the right number of right anecdotes at the right time.

And she mixed strength with warmth and even humor. As candidates shouted over one another in a lunge for microphone time, she found a cranny of oratorical space in which to land a good line. “Hey, guys, you know what?” she said. “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” It neatly pegged men as compulsive interrupters — a leitmotif of the previous night’s debate — while flying a feminist flag less strenuously than Kirsten Gillibrand, at the lectern beside hers, did.

Imagine a Harris-Buttigieg ticket, and not only what a wealth of poise but what a double scoop of precedents that would be. Plenty of people on Twitter on Thursday night were doing precisely that.

Plenty more will do so in the coming days, and they should leaven that fantasy with a reality check about how far to the left Harris in particular has moved. She was one of just two candidates on Thursday night who said that she wanted to do away with private health insurance. Sanders was the other. And that could be a general-election problem for her, as it could for Elizabeth Warren, who took that same position the night before.

But I write now in praise of a commanding performance that easily overshadowed Biden’s, with his herky-jerky delivery and his reflexive glances in the rearview mirror. Elections, according to all the political sages, are about the future. Biden didn’t seem to be pointed in that direction, and he didn’t demonstrate any sense of hurry to get there.

Why is Kamala Harris running for president?

In a POLITICO interview, the Democratic hopeful says she wants quick action to put more money in people’s pocketbooks and suggests she’s not interested in big, systemic overhauls.

Joe Biden is offering a return to normalcy. Elizabeth Warren aims to bring big corporations to heel and prop up the working class. Bernie Sanders wants a political revolution.

Kamala Harris’ one-sentence rationale for wanting the presidency is less clear.

Harris, who has now begun fleshing out her policy agenda, told POLITICO in an interview that she’s looking to offer something tangible to voters. She’s pitching herself as the kitchen-table realist of the field, the candidate who eschews lofty speeches and understands the day-to-day financial struggles of regular Americans and, bottom line, wants to put more money in their pockets.

Harris’ plans include big raises for public school teachers, a proposal to pay women equally to men and a tax plan that calls for a $500 monthly credit for families earning less than $100,000 a year. Her paycheck agenda, which one adviser described as a platform of “big tangible solutions,” centers on how Americans are experiencing the economy and is aimed at people whose wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living. She’s trying to reach voters who are too often left out of the conversation, with an emphasis on women — and women of color.

Harris said she thinks about the issues she’s taking on in the context of “literally looking at people through the prism of their lives—not some plate glass windows.”

“It’s about solving the problems that keep people up at night,” she said.

“It’s about the value of work and dignity of work and paying people their value — understanding that people are working hard, but they still aren’t able to get through the month and make it with dignity,” Harris added. “And it’s about meeting people where they are.”

Another adviser compared her positioning with the other Democratic candidates more bluntly: Harris is calling for direct payments to families to ease their paycheck-to-paycheck burdens. It’s a simple message they hope will set her apart as a proactive “doer” focused more on delivering immediate results than waiting around for broad, systemic overhauls. “She’s not creating liberal trickle-down policy,” the adviser said. “She’s focused on bottom-line economics, not abstract economics.”

Harris’ big challenge will be breaking through on policy in a way that captivates voters and tells a broader story — about herself, but also what she’s trying to accomplish. Ben LaBolt, a veteran of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, credited Harris’ tough stance against Trump, calling it smart. “Democratic voters are looking for a candidate that can take the fight to Trump and win,” LaBolt said.

He noted that Harris had breakout moments during Judiciary Committee hearings when she grilled then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr to the point that they appeared to trip over their answers.

But LaBolt suggested it won’t be as easy for Harris to stand out on policy. “As the Clinton campaign learned, it is difficult for pragmatism to match or drown out Trump’s provocation in the headlines — and driving powerful and memorable moments to communicate our message will be more powerful than white papers this cycle,” he said.

Harris is betting that her focus on issues people worry about at “3 a.m.” — “when you wake up in a cold sweat”— will pierce the noise. Her next opportunity in front of a national TV audience comes Tuesday night in an MSNBC town hall in South Carolina. Her faith that the approach will catch on is based partly on her own experience and partly on what she’s heard over and over on the campaign trail.

The teacher pay idea, for example, wasn’t planned as a standalone proposal but turned into one because Harris heard from so many educators.

Harris’ platform has taken shape over several months. She laces her stump speech with statistics and anecdotes diagnosing economic disparities: Nearly half of American families are one unexpected $400 expense away from financial distress, she often says, and in 99 percent of the counties in America, a minimum-wage worker can’t afford market rate price of a one-bedroom apartment.

She describes how her late mother, a breast cancer researcher, sat at the kitchen table and shuffled through bills after Harris and her sister had gone to bed. “She was focused on the demands of what it means to keep all the trains moving on time,” Harris said of her mother, who split with her husband early in her daughters’ lives and took charge of raising the children.

Harris’ policy remedies take a page from Democrats who ran during the 2018 midterm election cylce, when pocketbook issues such as jobs, health care, prescription drug costs and infrastructure resonated with voters in swing districts. Her pitch aims to strike at primary voters who want direct action more than changes that could take generations to bear fruit. She’s keeping it simple and avoiding talk of radical change even when the plans include significant changes to government.

In the interview, Harris sought to ground her policies in a broader governing philosophy. She stressed that Americans’ hardships are largely the result of policies written over many decades and designed to favor the wealthy at the expense of working people. She blamed those in power for the lack of meaningful commitments on more affordable childcare, universal pre-K and paid family leave. Even the tax overhaul Trump signed, Harris said, was pushed by Republican lawmakers and interest groups that long pre-dated Trump.

The spirit behind the tax bill—that is not new. It’s not an aberration,” Harris said.

“A large part of what I do, and I try to do, is to actually see people,” she added, turning her attention to Trump. “And that requires having some curiosity and concern about the condition of the lives of people other than one’s self. And then when you ask the questions and you hear the stories, seeing what the opportunities are to actually bring solutions.”