In one sense, Barack Obama is an unexceptional politician. Don’t believe me? Look at his politics—his record in the Senate, his accomplishments in office. A bank bailout, a public-works project, getting more Americans on private health insurance, flying deadly robots and a mass of deportations.
What made Barack Obama exceptional—what made him the President of the United States, in spite of the very significant disadvantage of being a black man in America—was his personality, which he was apparently able to turn on and off and tweak on command, fine-tune to the tenor of the situation as if he were some kind of political HiFi.
At this, Barack Obama is a master, probably unparalleled. Look: Here he is preaching, channeling Martin Luther King, bringing 20,000 people to their feet. Here he is acting completely cool and human with comedians, who may not be cool but who project cool, whose coolness looks lame compared to Obama’s effortless glide through their clearly starstruck world. I am not saying those tears after the Sandy Hook massacre were not real—I think he was moved at the thought of a roomful of massacred first-graders—but it is not every politician who can cry and be seen as a real human with emotions and not a cynical, calculating robot.
I bring this up because Kamala Harris—the former California attorney general, the former San Francisco district attorney, the one-time protege (others may use less generous words; they are welcome to deign to do so, but I feel their relationship was first and foremost political from the outset and the ensuing 20-plus years only reinforce this belief) of California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown—was supposed to be something not far from the lady Obama, if not exactly that. I think Barack thought this, or something close to this.
But here is the problem: Kamala Harris has yet to demonstrate Barack Obama’s ability to be human. The career cop lawyer, Kamala Harris has the prosecutor’s power of inquiry, to make another human squirm and wither and shrink, but she does not have the defense attorney’s ability to wheedle and connect emotively. This will be a problem with her next jury, who number more than 100 million and do not get instructions from a judge.
One reason why is Harris’ struggle is the struggle of many centrist Democrats—many politicians, really, but centrist liberals seem to fall into this trap more often than most—the struggle that Obama somehow, at some time, either learned to overcome or naturally knew to avoid: the struggle of authenticity. When Kamala Harris tries to be normal, rather than carefully practiced, studiously articulate, precise and cutting like the legal scalpel she has honed for the past three decades, it just doesn’t really work.
Harris’s 2pacalypse, the ridiculous debate over when the senator smoked weed and what she was listening to when she did it, is an example of this trait—this flaw—at work. The issue is not whether she claimed to be listening to Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg while at Howard University in the mid-1980s, back when neither of those two men were making music you could hear, or whether she smoked weed while a prosecutor in Alameda County when they were. Not even the right-wing circle jerkers on Twitter care about that. This was days ago; they won’t get any more likes or retweets out of their manufactured outrage.
The issue is that we don’t really know what Kamala Harris was doing at all, because none of it really makes sense—a prosecutor, whose job it is to work with police officers and put people in jail, who ran a campaign that leaned hard on white fear of gang members, listening to gangsta rap and smoking weed? Something is off. The tone and the timbre are wrong—and Team Harris’ furious attempts to qualify her otherwise boring and anodyne response (Snoop Dogg’s brand these days is wise and stoned avuncular; to say one listens to Snoop Dogg is basically to say, “I was alive when MTV was relevant”) are just highlighting the discomfit. You see? It feels manufactured. It’s too neat. It’s just not real.
If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is. Hillary Clinton has a similar problem. When Hillary cried, when Hillary took a shot of whiskey, when Hillary wrote a book that was not really an explanation or an apologia or a path forward when all three were needed, it came off as plastic. If she had released instead—or if her campaign had strategically leaked—the “fuck-laced fusillade” she dropped on her staff, after frustrations over, among other things, concerns about her authenticity and messaging boiled over, I think it would have won her some voters.
But she did not do this and instead trod carefully, with the final result being a fundamental incoherence aside from “I am not Donald Trump.” The usual line of defense was that as a woman and as the ambitious wife of an extremely (if not viciously) ambitious man, Hillary had to navigate treacherous waters and thus learned to adopt a calculated inoffensiveness. This is absolutely true, but the sad fact is that winners here are those who learn to avoid the dragons while also coming off as smooth operators. This requires an ocean of charisma. Bill Clinton had this gift. Barack Obama had it, too. So does Willie Brown, while we’re at it, a great and terrible man with an amazing life story and terrible politics, who I find revolting in many ways but would absolutely pay to hear speak. (And in fact, as a San Francisco Chronicle subscriber, I already do.)
Bernie Sanders does not have this gift, at all. Then again, he is not a centrist. Wearing his unapologetically socialist politics on his rumpled and grumpy sleeve is his charm. Even when Bernie is a little corny, he does not seem fake. For our big soggy saggy-pants president, who really does appear to say whatever is on his mind—often Joycean in its flow and a white-supremacist Clifford the Big Red Dog in his content—who has already triggered enough alarms among frightened white people to really say or do anything at all and still be assured at least 45 percent of the vote in a national election, this is no issue.
Harris’s 2pacalypse won’t sink her campaign. It’s way too early for that, and it has yet to be demonstrated that in the Trump era anyone actually gives a shit or that they will give a shit about what actually matters: Harris’ record on marijuana—the marijuana that she claims to have smoked, the marijuana for which she absolutely, indisputably wrecked lives and put people in jail for, while casting herself as a tough on crime prosecutor, using imagery perfectly designed to scare white people into voting for her to do it, and dislodging arguably the most progressive prosecutor in the country, an old leftist who cops hated, in order to do it.
How does she square all of this? What Kamala Harris did in her career is what any ambitious politician in her shoes would do to win, but what else besides winning is Kamala Harris about? She ought to have figured that out by now. And if she wants to be president, she really ought to let us know the answer.