The Atlantic wonders: Is Kamala Harris the Jan Brady of 2020?

If one reads the polling trends at RealClearPolitics, Kamala Harris might appear more to be in a 20-way tie to be Cindy Brady. However, Edward-Isaac Dovere thinks that the California senator who seemed to have all the advantages at the beginning of the year has become the middle child of the Democratic presidential primary crowd. And perhaps, Dovere writes in the Atlantic, it’s because Harris has deliberately placed herself in the middle region between different identity-politics constituencies:

Making people interested in Harris doesn’t seem terribly hard. The campaign’s internal polling shows that she’s the candidate voters want to know more about. But so far, Harris has been the Jan Brady of the 2020 race. She hasn’t been strong enough to qualify as a front-runner, especially now with Biden in the race, sucking up more oxygen than her aides say they anticipated. But she’s still strong enough that her victories don’t register as big news. She hasn’t gotten a boost from beating expectations when she’s consistently placed in the second tier after the two most famous names, or when she raised more money in the first quarter than every candidate except Bernie Sanders (and nearly double what most of the other top candidates brought in). She hasn’t had a fall to inspire any schadenfreude; she hasn’t had a sudden burst of underdog momentum.

To her critics, Harris is a consultants’ confection. She avoids taking a position because she’s looking for the right thing to say that fits into a specific formula. Take voting rights for felons, which was one of the topics she punted on at the CNN town hall. She was a district attorney for seven years, an attorney general for six. Is it really possible that she doesn’t have a position on felons voting?

“I’ve been in the process of talking to people about it,” Harris told me. “I hadn’t thought it through—there are a lot of nuances to a question like that. Everybody who’s incarcerated? Terrorists? But do I care about how we have almost 6 million people in our country who are formally incarcerated, who have been refused and prevented from having the right to vote? I care deeply about that.”

But to her supporters, Harris’s campaign is less about a specific policy agenda (though she has a few proposals: raising teacher pay, tax credits that would give many families $6,000 a year, an executive order mandating gun background checks and banning AR-15s). Rather, her candidacy is the answer to a set of interlocking questions. To start, they see her as the complete opposite of a president who is the uncorked essence of white male privilege, and who has rarely met a question of race he hasn’t come down on the paler side of. She’s a prosecutor who says she can take on a criminal presidency, and an intense cross-examiner who can take apart Trump’s deceits. And she’s a woman of color looking to lead a party propelled by women and people of color.

However, as Dovere notes, Harris doesn’t want to campaign explicitly on that basis:

I asked her why she didn’t talk about her background that night. It was the NAACP, the perfect place to lean in. She diverted. “People are going to want to know that their next leader is going to be an improvement over the last one, but also have the ability to take us to the next place,” Harris said. “I don’t expect people to vote for me because I’m a woman. I don’t expect people to vote for me because I’m a person of color. I believe that people are going to elect me because they believe I am the best one for the job at this point in time.”

But why not be more explicit, both about her historic candidacy and what it could mean to have a black woman follow Trump? She said she feels she doesn’t have to be. “There are certain self-evident truths,” she replied.

That might be a good policy to follow — many readers here would certainly agree — but Harris’ problem is that she’s not offering much else to distinguish herself from the rest of the field. Her policies are almost a carbon copy of everyone else’s except for Joe Biden, who’s leading the pack, and just a shade to the right of Bernie Sanders, who’s the actual number two in polling thus far. Harris complains that she’s getting criticized for offering the same kind of repetitiveness as her competition but forgets that they’re stuck in the same polling band that Harris is, too.

Just for reference, here’s the RCP chart I posted last week that covers the entire year:

Now as then, Harris (7.7%) is stuck in a virtual three-way tie for Cindy Brady status, with Elizabeth Warren slightly ahead (8.3%) and Pete Buttigieg slightly trailing and on the decline (6.8%). Biden leads the pack with 39.8%, twenty-three points ahead of Sanders, who just bounced a slight bit from his 2019 polling bottom and stands at 16.3%.The race hasn’t changed significantly in two months except that Biden’s entry gave him a massive polling boost.

Can Biden keep that up? House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy doesn’t think so. If Harris is Jan Brady, then McCarthy thinks Biden will be Happy Days‘ disappearing brother Chuck Cunningham:

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday panned Joe Biden’s prospects in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, calling the former vice president the “Jeb Bush of this cycle.”

“I think Biden, no disrespect, is the Jeb Bush of this cycle,” the California Republican said at an Axios event. “I think he could have run at a different time and he would have been the nominee. I think he has too much to apologize for.”

McCarthy argued that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has trailed Biden in recent national polls, “has a much better chance” of winning the Democratic nomination. He noted that candidates need an energized base to sustain and fund their campaigns, saying Sanders “has a bigger base for a longer duration of the time.”

Er … maybe. For what it’s worth, Jeb Bush may have been considered a theoretical frontrunner, but he never had this kind of a lead, nor did anyone start off with this kind of polling lead in 2015’s GOP primary. Four years ago in a CNN poll, Jeb Bush was about where Bernie is now even without Trump being part of the polling, and had three of his competitors within six points of him. Just a few days later, Marco Rubio eclipsed him in a Quinnipiac poll which again didn’t include Trump.

If Democrats have a Trump-like figure on the sidelines who jumps in very, very soon, then perhaps Biden might get eclipsed in the way Bush, Rubio, and everyone else did in 2015. If it doesn’t happen soon and Biden can keep avoiding gaffes, then those numbers will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and the money will start lining up behind Biden.

At that point, Kamala Harris will only wish that she’s the Jan Brady of the race. She’s more likely to be Cousin Oliver.