Last week, as the second night of the two-part extravaganza that was the first Democratic primary debate finally wrapped up, it was clear to almost everybody (including even Bernie supporters like myself) that Kamala Harris was one of the night’s big winners — her forceful and methodical critique of Biden’s recent comments praising segregationist Senators and his past position against federally mandated busing as a means to integrate schools was one of those moments that political pundits would be replaying for weeks and that high school debate nerds would likely study for years to come. After months of declining poll numbers, Harris, in a single night, rebooted her stagnant campaign with a burst of energy, proving that she was one of the more poised, commanding, and charismatic candidates running — and her sudden jump in the polls only proves this assessment.
But then, on Wednesday, less than a week after the debate, Harris bafflingly reversed her position and said that she actually wasn’t in favor of federally mandating busing to combat segregation. It wasn’t the first time she’d abruptly reversed her position — twice before she’d called for eliminating private insurance as part of a Medicare for All plan, once at a CNN town hall in January and then again at the debate on Thursday, and each time she backtracked the following day. But the about-face on the issue of busing felt particularly bizarre, especially given that her argument that sometimes the federal government had to step in to enforce integration laws that states and localities were unwilling to was the centerpiece of her critique of Biden and the main reason she’d been declared the debate’s winner. Now, suddenly, she was admitting that, after all that, she actually agreed with Biden.
It would be easy to attribute this flip-flopping to a simple error, a mistake by a candidate who’s never before faced the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. But I don’t buy it. Harris may be a junior Senator only recently elected, but she’s too experienced with politics to make the same error three times. No, I think the backtracking is part of a deliberate campaign strategy to maintain an ideological fluidity, so that she can be all things to all potential voters. To Americans watching the debate, she positioned herself as a fiery progressive, raising her hand with Bernie to call for ending private insurance and then challenging Biden’s problematic record on racial issues — but then, the next day, she reassured the Democratic establishment that she’s not too progressive, and that actually, she and Biden aren’t all that different, a way to ensure she doesn’t lose the support of centrists. More importantly, this ideological vagueness allows her to emphasize her style rather than her substance — whatever she believes, the point is that she’s an aggressive, forceful debater who will be more than capable of taking on Donald Trump. Her closing statement at the debate, after all, didn’t emphasize any policy positions, but instead reminded us that she was the best person to “prosecute the case” against Trump — a clever way of spinning a problematic element of her political career (her role as a prosecutor) into an asset, one which we’d just seen deployed against a hapless Biden.
Harris, of course, isn’t the only candidate running on an ideological vagueness. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also has very few specific policy proposals and is instead campaigning on being smart, serious, and civil — all qualities Donald Trump doesn’t possess. Like Harris, he appeals to centrist Democrats because the changes he’ll make won’t be ideological, but instead only aesthetic: he’ll bring an Obama-style seriousness and decorum back to Washington and make idealistic but empty speeches while the neoliberal establishment continues to consolidate its power.
The truth is, ideological vagueness is just a mask for conservatism — an admission that nothing fundamental actually needs to change. The problem, of course, is that this belief is at odds with the reality of our world: between Brexit and Trump’s election and the rise of right-wing leaders all over the world, it’s obvious that our moderate-liberal world order is in trouble. People are discontented, and in the absence of a strong left, they’re turning to authoritarians who make false promises of economic security and vilify immigrants, refugees, and minorities. And that means that a campaign centered purely on an aesthetic shift, a return to an Obama era when everyone was “nice” and “smart,” is doomed to fail. It’ll excite about as many people as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign — and we all saw how that turned out.
Instead, what America needs is a politician with an ideological consistency — someone who’s been saying the same things for over thirty years and who voters can trust to have a coherent vision for how to save this country. Elizabeth Warren comes close, but sadly Warren has too often demonstrated the same ideological fluidity as Harris: as I wrote last week, in 2016, she failed to endorse Bernie despite supposedly agreeing with most of his policies, and more recently she’s made clear that she still believes in capitalism, even when so many of our problems, from climate change to income inequality, are the direct result of that system. No, ultimately, there’s really only one candidate with an ideological consistency, whose vision of democratic socialism addresses every one of our country’s major problems, and who’s had that vision his whole political life.