Kamala Harris Offers No New Hope

The establishment has its champion.

Politics Features Kamala Harris
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Kamala Harris Offers No New Hope

I’ve seen this movie before. Kamala Harris, formerly California’s attorney general, was elected last November after dismantling Loretta Sanchez. She succeeded Barbara Boxer. Obama and Biden backed her; as the representative of the nation’s most powerful state, Harris pulls a lot of weight. According to the retrograde New York Post, Harris is being promoted as the Presidential hope for 2020:

The Democrats’ “Great Freshman Hope,” Sen. Kamala Harris, is heading to the Hamptons to meet with Hillary Clinton’s biggest backers. The California senator is being fêted in Bridgehampton on Saturday at the home of MWWPR guru Michael Kempner, a staunch Clinton supporter who was one of her national-finance co-chairs and a led fund-raiser for her 2008 bid for the presidency. He was also listed as one of the top “bundlers” for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, having raised $3 million.

In presentation, Harris is the apple of everybody’s eye: camera-ready, charming, able to relate in the way that our former cyborg hope, Secretary Clinton, could not. Verily, Harris’ bio is the stuff of Democratic longing: she was a cop, she’s from California, and so on. Should we look to the west for our salvation?

Certainly not. Harris is not the hope of tomorrow, any more than President Obama was. Obama’s tenure was the setting sun before the night of Trump. Sunsets can be easily confused with the dawn. Harris is more of the same.

She’s a centrist from the Hillary wing of the party: a Democrat who runs on conservative programs coated with liberal language. Her surface is progressive, but her policy is the same old Nineties triangulation. Per Emily Bazelon for the Times:

Harris’s timing and record have made her worth watching in another respect. She has made her career in law enforcement, elected twice as the district attorney in San Francisco. As the state attorney general for five years, she sits atop a giant law-­enforcement apparatus, with a staff of almost 5,000 in a state with the country’s second-largest nonfederal prison system, with about 135,000 inmates and a death-row population of almost 750. The rise of Black Lives Matter and the protracted protests in New York, Cleveland, Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have propelled criminal-­justice reform onto the national agenda. But when it comes to politics and policy, most Democrats (like Republicans) haven’t fully grasped the new sense of possibility.

Much as Harris is a creation of the financial sector which funds the Democratic Party, she is also a protector and servant of the carceral state, the jail-rich country that America has become over the past half-century.

WHAT HAS HARRIS DONE? PLENTY

There is nothing lovelier to centrists than a resume whose time has come, and Harris’ bio is the stuff of dreams: her mother was a brilliant immigrant who went to one of the country’s top schools, Berkeley. She scored her doctorate, married Donald Harris (a Jamaican grad student who went on to become an economist). Then Dr. Harris became a leading researcher of breast cancer. Her daughter, Kamala, goes to Howard, then works for the D.A. in Oakland. And then the most interesting moment of her biography occurs. Bazelon writes:

As some Democrats (including President Bill Clinton) tilted toward a tough-on-crime response — by backing mandatory minimum sentences, for example — Harris’s job as a young prosecutor was to help stem the tide of disorder and violence. Some civil rights activists in her Berkeley circle found her career choice “curious,” she told me. Her mother, who had taken an unexpected path herself, understood. “She got it,” Harris told me. “She was the original rejecter of false choices.”

The takeaway here is the phrase “false choices.” Neoliberals want a world without problematic decisions for their chosen folk. See, the essence of tough choices is confrontation with power. If you believe established might is just fine, if you earnestly think that there is no need to challenge authority, then, like Harris, you might very well see the embrace of militarized law as an unqualified good. This is a woman who denied the rights of trans prisoners to obtain gender reassignment surgeries—why would she listen to anyone locked away? False choice equals no choice at all.

Another phrase in the Times is especially telling: “stem the tide of disorder and violence.” This is the kind of thinking that led to a generation of African-American men in prison. If the writer of the Harris feature had checked an article (also in the Times) from two years before, an article titled “1.5 Million Missing Black Men,” the author might have read this:

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. … Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to an Upshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.

That is what the defenders of the law have wrought. What other “false choices” did Harris face? According to David Dayen in The Intercept,

OneWest Bank, which Donald Trump’s nominee for treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, ran from 2009 to 2015, repeatedly broke California’s foreclosure laws during that period … In the memo, the leaders of the state attorney general’s Consumer Law Section said they had “uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct” in a yearlong investigation … they recommended that Attorney General Kamala Harris file a civil enforcement action against the Pasadena-based bank. They even wrote up a sample legal complaint, seeking injunctive relief and millions of dollars in penalties. But Harris’s office, without any explanation, declined to prosecute the case.

Why didn’t she bother? Nobody’s sure. Dayen again:

Harris has been criticized for a lack of vigor in prosecuting foreclosure fraud before. She set up a Mortgage Fraud Strike Force in 2011, dedicated to “protect innocent homeowners and bring justice to those who defraud them.” But despite hundreds of complaints of loan modification fraud — a primary target identified by the office — it only prosecuted 10 cases in the first three years. County district attorneys and even attorneys general in other states filed many more California-based cases, despite more limited resources. And some of the cases Harris did file began under her predecessor Jerry Brown or were organized by other local and federal law enforcement teams; Harris just gave her strike-force credit for them. In fact, many of the cases Harris’s office is known for were part of multistate or prior investigations. The 2012 $25 billion National Mortgage Settlement with five large mortgage servicers (Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally Bank) over allegations of illegal foreclosure practices, which Harris touted in campaign ads, was a 49-state and federal matter, where she was not deeply involved with negotiations and was criticized as a grandstander.

HEY HERE’S TO YOU CALIFORNIA

Dayen suggests ties between Harris and OneWest. But I think the answer is simpler: Harris is not a progressive champion, but a propagator of the system. It wouldn’t occur to her to challenge concentrated financial power, any more than it would occur to the moon to strike at the stars. They’re part of the same sky, after all. Go down the list, and Harris marches to the tune of the status quo. She opposed revisal of the legal forfeiture policy of California, and backed a draconian bill of asset seizure as recently as 2015. Like Clinton, who used Arkansas prison labor in the Governors’ Mansion, Harris’ office is a fan of penal make-work. According to the L.A. Times’ Paige St. John:

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Since that time, Harris has come out against the War on Drugs, and forswears prison labor. But even there, I think, the Senator makes virtue from necessity. After citing examples of Harris re-evaluating her policies, Alice Miranda Ollstein at Think Progress writes that

Harris has not been as strong on drug policy reform as some of her constituents would like. She declined to join in other states’ efforts to remove marijuana from the DEA’s list of most-dangerous substances, and issued a somewhat mixed statement when federal agents raided compliant medical marijuana dispensaries in California.

This ties in with SB-1317, the California anti-truancy bill that Harris fought for. Its provisions are, well, curious, to say the least. Per Julianne Hing of ColorLines:

Parents whose kids miss any more than 10 percent of their classes can be charged with a misdemeanor and slammed with a $2,000 fine or a yearlong jail sentence if, after being offered state support and counseling, their kids still fail to improve their attendance. Before SB 1317, parents could be prosecuted under a child endangerment statute. Now kids’ absenteeism has become a crime all its own. The state labels a student as truant if they have more than three unexcused absences in one school year on their record.

And finally, Michael Sainato, writing for the Observer, argues that this is part of a larger pattern with Harris:

Her office also defended a state prosecutor falsifying the transcript of a defendant’s confession in 2015 that enabled a longer sentencing. In 2011, she fought a bill that would minimize civil asset forfeiture, and in 2015, she sponsored a bill to expand prosecutors’ ability to seize assets. ... As San Francisco’s district attorney, she was accused by the city’s public defender of withholding the names of police officers with histories of misconduct and arrest records. In May 2017, she mischaracterized the war on drugs by claiming it is in the past. In 2015, the most recent data available, the war on drugs in the United States resulted in 640,000 arrests for marijuana alone. Throughout her prosecutorial career, Kamala Harris chose to cover for power instead of demand accountability—the antithesis of what progressives stand for.

PROGRESS, OR THE LACK THEREOF

I think the evidence paints an unsurprising picture. Kamala Harris is a stateswoman who understands the need for woke rhetoric and centrist practice. Harris is Justin Trudeau redux. Consider Cory Booker or Emmanuel Macron with slightly more substance, and you’ve got Harris. What is she? The best the disgraced Hillary alliance of the party can offer in these fallen days.

Consider how devastated the establishment Democrats are. Having suffered a calamitous collapse, the corporate wing of the party is trying to return to what it knows. If given a free hand, they will choose someone who has exactly the same policies as the late Clinton dynasty, just without the baggage. Clinton’s sole argument was her lengthy track record and her competence.

But the Secretary’s vita was full of Libyas and welfare-gutting, and her competence was definitively disproven in the Fall of America, 2016. It’s hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain. Or after it. But that’s what the Dems are doing with Senator Harris. More to the point, they are trying to run back the tape and play Obama again, as if the world was an eight-track. I have no doubt that the brain-trust in the DNC’s Panera-bread HQ believes that if they go back far enough, the Clinton Administration will return. But as Stephen King once wrote, the world has moved on.

I get the Harris appeal, because it comes from the Obama narrative: freshman Senator, no national marks on her, charismatic. Like Obama, Harris is a disappointing mainstream politician with a great story.

But Obama was still a once-in-a-generation political Cicero. The establishment’s Harris fandom also ignores the fact that before Obama was an establishment sweetheart, the Head People were certainly opposed to him.

Remember that in 2008, the party did not want him. The machinery might have crushed him, just as it stopped Bernie. The fact that Harris will be handpicked by the party elite is only the beginning of the differences between Obama and Harris. Harris’ major qualification is that she is much-loved by the Clinton donor network. What does the rest of America matter? One politician with the Hamptons makes a majority. The Dems want to rewind this picture; but like with most movies, it’s worse the second time around.

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