Bill Whalen

Can Kamala Harris overcome Democrats’ California curse?

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to members of the media at her alma mater, Howard University, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019 in Washington, following her announcement earlier in the morning that she will run for president.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks to members of the media at her alma mater, Howard University, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019 in Washington, following her announcement earlier in the morning that she will run for president. AP

California may be America’s most defiantly Democratic state, but the land hasn’t been kind to the party’s national hopefuls.

The Democratic faithful have yet to select a presidential nominee from west of the Continental Divide (Republicans can claim Reagan, Nixon, Goldwater, McCain and Herbert Hoover – as well as California patriarch John C. Fremont, the GOP’s first nominee in 1856).

Perhaps Calif. Sen. Kamala Harris ends that oversight. But for that to happen, she’ll have to demonstrate one quality that Hillary Clinton sorely lacked in 2016: Is she cool enough to pick up where Barack Obama left off?

Such is Harris’ early strategy: Kamala 1.0 = Barack 2.0. The news on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that she’s running, and her subsequent appearance at her alma mater, Howard University, show that ethnicity will be a large part of her narrative. But with a twist: Harris is channeling the late Shirley Chisholm – in 1972, likewise a woman of color seeking the Democratic nomination.

But one thing about Obama: In 2008, he was of the moment. Will the same be said about Kamala Harris a year from now?


The next time you’re in a grocer’s dairy aisle, think about the men and women who hope to unseat Donald Trump. Like many a product on the shelf, they promise wholesomeness and better health.

And they all come with “sell by” dates.

When she first arrived in Washington two years ago as California’s first black senator and the first Indian-American member of that exclusive club, Harris was fresh dairy.

It stayed that way in 2018 as she worked the fundraising circuit for fellow Democrats – conveniently, making friends in early-primary states.

bill whalen new.jpg
Bill Whalen

A funny thing about being the “cool candidate” is that there’s always the threat of a backlash. Look no further than former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

Last fall, O’Rourke nearly took down the liberal-reviled Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The bumper-friendly first name, his community activism, hip startup CEO presence and toothsome Kennedyesque looks had some grassroots faithful in a lather.

But three months after that race, O’Rourke is under attack. His Instagram posts are silly and self-involved, some critics insist. His public navel-gazing is the stuff of white male privilege (no female or minority candidate could get away with such public agonistes).

How does this relate to Kamala Harris? It’s her turn in the presidential spotlight, and already the knives are out.

Liberals question whether she was indeed a “progressive prosecutor,” as the senator’s memoirs claim, back in her days as a district attorney and state attorney general.

Conservatives chime in, invoking the memory of Isaac Espinoza. He’s the gang-slain SFPD officer whose killer is serving two lifetime sentences because Harris refused to pursue the death penalty (murdering a peace officer qualifies as a “special circumstance).”

The history of presidential politics is the intersection of timing and candidate. In 2016, Donald Trump tapped into an exasperation with status-quo politicians. Prior to that, Barack Obama was the public expression of an electorate yearning for inspiration.

And in 2000, George W. Bush was the polar opposite of the “slick” Bill Clinton, just as Clinton was the empathetic force America craved in 1992.

And Kamala Harris?

2020 could shape up as a year of harmonic convergence: Voters wanting a candidate who speaks to race, gender and progressive idealism.

Or Democratic women could decide that Harris wasn’t their preferred choice. She’s the fourth woman in the Democratic field, with three more – Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 2016 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and spiritual author Marianne Williamson – giving it a look.

As many as seven women of different races, professions and life stories running for president in 2020? Now, that’s cool.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at