Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29’s weekly column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
A recent article in Politico lays out the argument that Sen. Kamala Harris’ warmth and ability to connect with audiences is the Achilles’ heel of her presidential campaign. The writer’s evidence? She relates to voters on a personal level rather than always going policy-wonk on them, for example asking for a woman’s mother’s name during a campaign stop in Iowa after hearing that the mother had fled domestic abuse in Mexico. She’s "noncommittal or vague on a range of issues." She’s just too warm. "[D]espite building a reputation as one of the Senate’s toughest interrogators and vaulting ahead of most of the 2020 field, [Harris] remains a politician under construction," he writes.
No one writes articles like this about men. If Harris were, say, likely 2020 candidates Joe Biden or Beto O’Rourke, it’s hard to imagine their charm being held against them. For Harris, being charismatic is somehow a harbinger of her downfall. The author spoke with "two dozen political strategists, elected officials and Democratic activists and voters," all of whom praised her ability to connect with voters emotionally — and somehow, the story’s overall point is still "this could hurt Kamala."
Of course, it was only a matter of time in this historic presidential election cycle, when more women than ever are running, that someone turned the type of campaign glad-handing that’s expected of candidates — actually talking to voters, kissing babies, etc. — into a fatal flaw. A perfect example is the incident when reporters went shopping with Harris and she tried on a colorful sequin coat (she later told Trevor Noah she bought it). When journalists join male candidates on fly-fishing trips, no one says anything. When they join women in boutique-shopping, they’re slammed.
We kind of forced @kamalaharris to try on this awesome oversized rainbow sequin jacket … She snapped it up. @alivitali perfectly named it as “the Mardi Gras Jacket” #2020 #SouthCarolina #CampaignFashionReport pic.twitter.com/2G0NFRkKL6
— Maeve Reston (@MaeveReston) February 16, 2019
"This is absolutely the kind of double standard and double bind [we often see applied to women candidates]," Celinda Lake, a pollster and Democratic political strategist, and the president of the polling firm Lake Research Partners, told Refinery29. "Likability is assessed much more for women than men. And when do you hear a man told he’s too nice?"
Tellingly, the writer also accused Harris of sometimes coming off as "too programmed." This is because after announcing her 2015 Senate run, she waited over a month-and-a-half to give her first interviews. So, it turns out, women can’t be too warm or too cold! We have to be just right.
If all of this is giving you reverse-2016 vibes, it should. Hillary Clinton was constantly told she’s icy (and worse) on the campaign trail, when there are countless reports of how warm and funny she was in private and in intimate settings. Because she was watched closer and judged harsher than any male candidate ever was, she protected herself by becoming closely guarded — which set off the vicious cycle of the press calling her aloof (which, to a lesser extent, is now being done to Elizabeth Warren, too.). In the meantime, there weren’t many reports about Donald Trump doing little to no personal connecting with voters on the campaign trail. His preference for huge, bombastic rallies instead of one-on-one conversations was treated as a quirk, for sure — but not a flaw.
While it’s more than acceptable to criticize a candidate’s policy positions based on facts, that’s not what the writer was doing. Even if you don’t agree with Harris on every issue, it’s hard to argue that the California senator and former California attorney general is a "politician under construction." It’s yet another example of the glaring double standard at play: Women have to prepare 10 times as hard to be admitted into the club.
His argument boils down to the fact that she’s shown nuances in her opinion on Medicare for All (she supports Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill, of which she was the first Senate co-sponsor), and that she slightly waffled when asked about Jussie Smollett, a case the entire country had whiplash about. Harris regularly talks about her major policy proposals on the trail, which include her effort to reform the cash-bail system, the LIFT Act tax credit for middle-class families, the Rent Relief Act, and the Maternal CARE Act to address the high rates of maternal mortality among Black women.
The "noncommittal or vague" line echoes a lazy Twitter trope about Harris’ campaign, which is that she doesn’t have her policy positions on her website. (For the record, BernieSanders.com doesn’t either.) When asked about this, a source close to the campaign said that an issues section will be added to the website as the team builds it out.
Harris has seen a rise in the polls recently and is catching up to Sanders and Biden (who is not officially running yet, but here we are). According to RealClearPolitics, she averages about 12%, although it’s always best to take polls — and men — with a grain of salt.
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Source: Refinery29 – Natalie Gontcharova