The ‘fe­male Obama’ tries to be just fa­mil­iar enough

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

IT’S deja vu for Ohio Democrats. At the state party din­ner last Sun­day, the star at­trac­tion was an ex­cit­ing speaker who’s a new­gen­er­a­tion voice for change, a per­son of color with bira­cial par­ents who has been in the Se­nate for about 20 min­utes.

This sen­a­tor hails from Cal­i­for­nia, not Illi­nois, but the mes­sage, too, re­called the one that Sen­a­tor Barack Obama used to test the wa­ters for his 2008 pres­i­den­tial run.

“There are such pow­er­ful voices that are try­ing to sow hate and di­vi­sion among us,” Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris told the en­thu­si­as­tic Ohio au­di­ence. “But the vast ma­jor­ity of us as Amer­i­cans have so much more in com­mon than what di­vides us.”

The fresh­man law­maker is a talked-about com­mod­ity in Demo­cratic cir­cles these days, even more so af­ter the rau­cous Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ings on Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh, where she was a force­ful op­po­nent of his con­fir­ma­tion.

“He tried to in­tim­i­date her, and she gave it right back to him,” said Re­becca Doss, a Colum­bus nurse who saw Har­ris at an ear­lier po­lit­i­cal event on Sun­day.

While the com­par­isons with Obama are in­evitable, po­lit­i­cal analo­gies tend to miss the mark.

Democrats for decades looked for the next John F. Kennedy. For more than a quar­ter-cen­tury, Repub­li­cans have longed for the next Ron­ald Rea­gan; they cer­tainly didn’t get him with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. It may take ages be­fore any­one emerges with the unique tal­ents of Obama.

Yet, ever since a decade ago, when the late jour­nal­ist Gwen Ifill called Har­ris “the fe­male Barack Obama” on the Late Show With David Let­ter­man, the con­nec­tion has stuck. At the Ohio party din­ner, Tony Pinto, a small busi­ness­man from Wil­loughby, used al­most the same words, call­ing Har­ris “a young, fe­male ver­sion of the pres­i­dent.”

That’s a tough bench­mark for any Demo­cratic politi­cian to meet. When asked about Obama on Sun­day, Har­ris sighed, ex­pressed ad­mi­ra­tion for the 44th pres­i­dent, and de­clared, “I’m my own per­son, not some­one else.”

The 53-year-old for­mer dis­trict at­tor­ney and Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral is in de­mand from Democrats around the coun­try as they cam­paign for con­gres­sional and state­house seats in this year’s midterm election. This also is the sea­son when po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates test their own prospects. New Jersey Sen­a­tor Cory Booker was in Iowa over the week­end.

Un­like many am­bi­tious politi­cians, Har­ris ac­knowl­edges that she’s in­ter­ested in a pres­i­den­tial run as she cam­paigns for col­leagues on the Nov 6 bal­lot. (It was hard to be coy when her speeches were in­ter­rupted by shouts of “Har­ris 2020.”)

The Har­ris ap­peal is as a fresh face with solid pro­gres­sive cre­den­tials, but she’s not an ide­o­logue in the mold of Sen­a­tor Bernie San­ders. She was a co-spon­sor in 2017 of a San­ders bill to in­tro­duce govern­ment-spon­sored health in­sur­ance na­tion­wide, but also talks more cau­tiously about mov­ing to­ward less rad­i­cal forms of univer­sal cov­er­age. She’s sharply crit­i­cal of the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency, but un­like many pro­gres­sives says she wants to re­form it, not abol­ish it.

She is a main­stream pro­gres­sive Demo­crat on eco­nomic is­sues and a down-the-line lib­eral on so­cial is­sues like guns, abor­tion and gay rights.

While Obama gen­er­ally avoided talk­ing ex­plic­itly about race dur­ing the early days of his pres­i­den­tial run, she con­fronts it more di­rectly, urg­ing Democrats to “speak truth” on mat­ters that make many vot­ers un­com­fort­able.

“Racism, sex­ism, ho­mo­pho­bia and anti-Semitism are real in this coun­try,” she told the Ohio Democrats.

Last year, when na­tional Democrats went to hear her speak, she fell short of ex­pec­ta­tions. She has got­ten bet­ter. Dur­ing the Ka­vanaugh hear­ings, she flashed her pros­e­cu­to­rial back­ground, ask­ing sharp, di­rect ques­tions. There was one point of con­fu­sion when she re­peat­edly asked, and Ka­vanaugh re­peat­edly ducked, whether he had dis­cussed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Trump cam­paign links to Rus­sian election in­ter­fer­ence by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller with any­one at the law firm that rep­re­sents Trump. The is­sue was left hang­ing puz­zlingly in the air and the ex­change ended, as her home­town news­pa­per the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle put it, “with a thud.”

Repub­li­cans ac­cused her of dem­a­goguery. Democrats were de­lighted. The 2020 pres­i­den­tial election is both many months away and right around the corner. The cam­paign be­gins in full right af­ter Nov 6. For Democrats, it’s wide open, but one of the few cer­tain­ties is there will be a woman on the ticket. If Har­ris runs, the only woman who starts in a stronger po­si­tion is Sen­a­tor El­iz­a­beth War­ren of Mas­sachusetts. If a man is se­lected, the Cal­i­for­nian would be on the short list of po­ten­tial run­ning mates.

Some ob­servers – in­clud­ing Democrats in Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton D.C. – say she has prom­ise but won­der if she’s ready for that big next step.

It’s a fair ques­tion. But it’s one that was of­ten asked 12 years ago about an­other fresh­man sen­a­tor. Yes, the one from Illi­nois.


Yes, she can: Har­ris, an ex­cit­ing bira­cial speaker who’s a new­gen­er­a­tion voice for change, is many Democrats’ hope for the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race.

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