Nine Democratic presidential candidates appeared on Monday at an event in Washington hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign, which is led by the Rev. William Barber II. The campaign focuses on the systemic and interconnected problems of racism (including voter suppression) and poverty.
It was a revealing event. Former vice president Joe Biden lambasted President Trump, ran through a demonstration of moneys that would be available for antipoverty programs and others if, for example, simply one tax loophole (the step up for capital gains) were to be removed. Biden touched on his experience as a single father (after his first wife and daughter were killed) when talking about health care, his success in persuading some lawmakers to support the stimulus plan (go into their districts and campaign against them, he declared) and, of course, his tenure at President Barack Obama’s right hand. You know me. I know how to get it done. You know my heart is in the right place. Pure Biden.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unsurprisingly pushed her wealth tax, which she claims will pay for universal child care, universal pre-K, free technical, two-year and four-year college, provide $50 billion for historically black colleges and universities, lift student debt for 95 percent of those carrying it, and focus on opioid abuse. It was a lot of programs, and a lot of figures. She hit all the progressive notes (e.g., eliminate the filibuster, rein in corruption). For better or worse, she sounded an awful lot like she does when talking to mostly white audiences. I’m in this fight. Everything on my list is going to help the poor, especially people of color. You can see that her policy-laden, almost academic presentation might not quite reach this audience on an emotional level.
The surprise might have been Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who gave one of her best performances of the campaign. She began with the parable of the Good Samaritan, pointing out that the story is not so much about helping one’s neighbors but defining the most vulnerable as one’s neighbor, deserving of love and attention. Yes, she laid out some of her programs (e.g., a rent subsidy, a monthly credit for working people), but she also took the audience on a journey to understand how criminal justice issues become economic issues.
Drawing on her experience as a prosecutor, Harris explained how the cash bail system forces many people of color to plead guilty — even when they have a defensible case — so they don’t lose their children, their homes or their jobs. She explained how she and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) teamed up on the issue. When asked how his constituents liked it, she recalled that Paul said, “Kamala, Appalachia loves this!”
All in one story, she made use of her experience as a prosecutor and senator, and conveyed how these issues are not merely “black issues.” When she said a familiar line — “We have so much more in common than what separates us” — it had meaning and specificity.
She stressed (as Barber did) that suppression of African American votes helps elect Republicans whose policies disadvantage both whites and blacks (e.g., opposition to the Affordable Care Act).
In sum, Harris has the personal experience, has the details, has the ability to explain how it affects people’s lives and has the ability to build a coalition. She has not, to date, given enough of that rich detail — the stories that put her in the center of major policy issues which allow people to understand that her issues extend well beyond one community. In this outing on Monday, she connected her policies, her admonitions and her biography into an emotionally compelling message. That’s what she needs more of.
What Harris has lacked, so far, is a more personalized story of how she has helped ordinary people and how people’s lives can be transformed. Warren has the story of her Aunt Bee (who solved Warren’s child-care problem and allowed her to flourish as a professional). Harris needs the stories that make her agenda personal and that put her in the role of the insightful, empathetic healer. Do that, and Harris, with her raw political talent, has the ability to win the race. And then, boy, would she give Trump fits in the general election.