A tale of two Democratic resets: Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke

There are resets, and then there are resets. Some resets are calibrations, the normal adjustments one makes in the course of a long campaign. Others are admissions of failure, a sign that something is deeply wrong with the candidate, the message or both.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Ca., Harris questions Attorney General William Barr as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1. (Washington Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is in the first category. She reportedly will start emphasizing her prosecutorial skills, taking on the president more directly. (The New York Times reported, “Ms. Harris’s insistent questioning of Mr. (William) Barr at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s multiday spat with Mr. Trump … have been clarifying moments for Ms. Harris and her aides, demonstrating the value of elevating her voice of opposition to the president and seeking direct confrontation with the White House, according to her advisers.”)

She’s also getting some much-needed advice: Stop chasing Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Like other candidates, she is getting pressure from the left to adopt an extreme agenda, one that will cause her headaches in the general election. Efforts to appease the left, however, have led to stumbles (e.g., a declaration and then a walk-back on outlawing private insurance, brief consideration of allowing incarcerated, violent felons to vote) and embrace of easily caricatured policies such as the Green New Deal.

As she slices and dices the president (for his cruelty, his international recklessness and his abuses of power), she’d be wise to heed the advice of those advisers counseling her to stay firmly in the center-left, according to the Times:

“Three top Harris consultants – Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and David Binder – who have extensively polled and run focus groups on the Democratic primary electorate … do not believe she should bow to activists. A recent survey of voters in early states and a handful of Super Tuesday states tested potentially negative aspects of her record as district attorney and state attorney general and found they did little damage to her standing, according to two officials briefed on the findings.”

They’ve got that exactly right, and Harris’ willingness to take their advice to heart may be the difference between winning and losing.

Among all of the rivals to former Vice President Joe Biden, Harris arguably has the most raw political talent (charisma, the “it” factor, if you will) and greatest ability to draw together African Americans, young voters and an amalgam of progressives and moderates in much the same way President Barack Obama did – that is, without going so far left as to doom his general-election prospects.

Now, there is the other kind of “reset” – a political triage to see if the candidate can be saved. With headlines such as “Beto’s Long History of Failing Upward,” backlash to his fawning early coverage and an unfortunately accurate personification of “white privilege,” Beto O’Rourke is well down in the polls, drifting from middle to low double digits.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg stole O’Rourke’s thunder as a young white man with a sizzling intellect and arguably the most effective political spouse in the presidential primary. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., ate O’Rourke’s lunch – and most everyone else’s – with the most serious, substantive agenda we’ve seen in many campaign cycles (whatever you think of the merits).

Hence, the O’Rourke reset. The Associated Press reports:

“In a tacit recognition that this approach isn’t working, O’Rourke is planning to try again, taking a hands-on role in staging a ‘reintroduction’ ahead of next month’s premier Democratic presidential debate. As he finalizes his plans, O’Rourke has entered an intentional ‘quiet period’ to build out campaign infrastructure, according to an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign’s strategy.

“That will end soon. O’Rourke is planning to significantly ramp up national media appearances – he is appearing live on ABC’s ‘The View’ on Tuesday after skipping most such exposure in recent months. He’s also poised to offer more concrete policy plans on top issues. So far, he’s issued just one – a sweeping proposal to combat climate change.

“O’Rourke admits he’s struggled to find his presidential campaign footing.”

(Unlike just about every other candidate, O’Rourke has avoided town halls, giving the appearance he literally is not ready for prime time.)

If a campaign foreshadows how a candidate would govern, O’Rourke’s operation previsions disorganization and restlessness. (The A.P.: “One holdover from O’Rourke’s do-it-yourself style in Texas is his insistence on driving himself between events, repeatedly climbing behind the wheel of rented Dodge Grand Caravans. Some campaign staffers see it as time that could be spent doing more productive – or at least less potentially dangerous – things, but O’Rourke’s unfazed.”) Like his dizzying hand gestures and jumping on counters, quirks like this don’t help him project presidential-level steadiness. Hyperactivity is not endearing in a presidential candidate.

There is more than enough time for O’Rourke to make adjustments, lest we forget only a fraction of the Democratic primary electorate is paying attention right now. The question, however, is whether there is something more fundamentally wrong here.

A man who’s fond of the classics and named a son Ulysses surely must know the story of Icarus, the audacious young man who disregarded his father’s directions not to fly too close to the sun. Unless he pulls off a dramatic reinvention, O’Rourke risks melting in the bright lights of the presidential campaign.

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