Kamala Harris gets real

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Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris said she’s pitching herself as the kitchen-table realist of the field, who eschews lofty speeches and understands the day-to-day financial struggles of regular Americans. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

2020 elections

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.

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To the extent the former California attorney general and district attorney has defined herself, it’s as the tough-minded prosecutor with the backbone to litigate the case against Donald Trump. Yet her law enforcement credentials have been met with some resistance from progressive Democrats, and at times she’s seemed to shy away from her record.

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.

But if she makes it far enough, Trump is certain to yoke Harris to “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal,” no matter how she talks about them. She endorsed both proposals early on, amid a rush by some Democratic hopefuls to align with what was thought to be — at least at the time — a sharp leftward turn of the party to align more closely with the energy of the base.

Still, Harris and her team believe she won’t be perceived as a Sanders- or Warren-like figure. They’re hoping her positioning could find favor with — or at least not alienate — voters in a face-off with Trump, who is trying to paint all Democrats as radicals and socialists.

“When I see a tax cut, or teacher pay, or equal pay, those are actually issues that are very important to Democratic primary voters, but also can communicate to swing voters” in the general election, said Neera Tanden, who served as policy director on the campaigns of Obama and Hillary Clinton and is now president of the Center for American Progress. “Democratic primary voters want to see candidates who can appeal to swing voters.”

Harris’ plans call for spending $315 billion over 10 years to boost teacher salaries, which amounts to a raise of $13,500 for the average teacher, a 23 percent increase in base pay. Another plan would mandate that companies prove they aren’t discriminating against women and would fine corporations that don’t close their pay gaps between women and men. If Congress doesn’t act on the gender-pay plan, Harris pledged she would take executive action as president to force federal contractors to comply. She also has promised to take unilateral action on sweeping gun control measures that have stalled in Congress.

A Harris adviser said her upcoming policy plans will fall into three categories: wages and pay, bills and the cost of living, and economic and social justice. Harris said she also plans to release criminal justice reform and immigration proposals.

Harris has long tried to present herself as pragmatic, particularly on issues in her law enforcement wheelhouse, such as dealing with first-time offenders, tackling human trafficking and negotiating a settlement with big banks during the mortgage crisis. But when she arrived in the Senate two years ago, there were still vast areas where she remained a blank slate. Since then, she’s compiled a portfolio on economic issues that she’s rolled into her presidential campaign.

She’s proposed a tax credit of up to $6,000 a year—$500 a month—to address the rising cost of living, a separate refundable tax credit for people who spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities and a bill to help low-income families pay for rising sewer and water bills. On health care, Harris is running on Medicare for All, focusing her remarks on the out-of-pocket deductibles more than premiums.

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.”

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