The hype for Kamala Harris as a possible presidential candidate began almost from the moment she won election to the U.S. Senate last fall, and so far she’s done little to halt it other than saying pro forma that she hasn’t considered the possibility.
At 52, she’s considerably younger than other Democrats now running “non-campaigns” for the nation’s highest office. She makes speeches to high-profile audiences and appears on talk shows regularly. Her office cranks out statements and press releases the moment anything of significance happens in the nation or world.
There are also parallels to Barack Obama, another candidate with a somewhat unusual first name.
Harris’ first name has never hurt her politically, just as it didn’t harm Obama. Like Obama, too, if she runs for President in 2020, Harris will have served less than four years in the Senate.
Like Obama, the first black man elected to the Senate from Illinois, Harris is the first black person elected to the Senate from California. Her mixed heritage also makes her the first Indian-American and first Jamaican-American elected to the Senate anywhere.
Her supporters could argue credibly that Harris has considerably more qualifications for the nation’s highest office than Obama did before his election. She spent more than a decade as a deputy district attorney, then won election as San Francisco’s top prosecutor, ousting the incumbent ultra-liberal Terence Hallinan. Almost immediately, the felony conviction rate in her city rose, from 52 percent in 2003 to 67 percent in 2006.
At the same time, she risked her political future by refusing to seek the death penalty against the killer of a local policeman, the murderer now serving a life term. But Harris’s critics said only four out of every 100 felony convictions in San Francisco during her tenure resulted in a prison term.
That may have been one reason why, in a Democrat-dominated state, she could only narrowly win the 2010 statewide race for attorney general over former Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley. The outcome of that vote wasn’t known until about a month after Election Day.
But Harris had a much easier time getting re-elected in 2014 and then moved up smoothly to the Senate last year. Part of that was her very early candidacy, which began the moment former Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement in early 2015. Harris’ early fundraising pretty much deflated Democratic opposition.
She’s taking a very different approach to the 2020 presidential race, which has begun in fact, even if it’s not yet formal. “I don’t know why my name is in that context,” she told one interviewer. “I’m focused on being the junior senator for California and very proud to be representing our beautiful state.”
All those candidate-like appearances are one reason her name is out. She’s been on panels at think tanks with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other top Democrats. She gave the commencement speech at her alma mater in Washington, D.C., Howard University. Her national TV appearances are carefully watched by potential campaign donors.
There’s also the fact that California will vote far earlier in 2020 than it has in the last few elections, possibly earlier than ever. That could give Harris, as a Californian well known to California Democrats, a huge leg up in the nomination process. It has been 21 years since a Californian made a serious bid for President and more than 32 since a Californian actually won the office.
So why should Harris wait, even though, at 52, in theory she has a lot of time? It’s unlikely she would have anywhere near as vulnerable a potential Republican opponent in any later election than the next one. No President has ever had start-of-term job approval ratings as low as Donald Trump’s. Very few have heard loud calls for impeachment from their first month in office, as Trump has.
Yes, patience is a virtue. But in politics, so is opportunism. And the ambitious Kamala Harris may never see a better opportunity than she has right now.