Commentary: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren get enthusiastic response in California

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., during an event in Oakland, Calif., to launch presidential campaign on Jan. 27, 2019. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., each got enthusiastic responses from the crowd at California’s Democratic Party convention on Saturday even as they provided two entirely different approaches to the presidential race.

Warren, not surprisingly, devoted almost all of her speech to her plans. “We will pass the biggest anti-corruption plan since Watergate. We will end lobbying as we know it. And we will make everyone who runs for federal office post their tax returns online,” she said as she ticked through her agenda. “We will break up big ag. We will break up big banks. We will break up big tech.”

What’s she going to do with the billions raised from her wealth tax on those with $50 million and above? “Universal child care for every baby age zero to five. Universal pre-K for every three-year-old and four-year-old. We will make public college free, and put $50 billion into our Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And we will cancel student debt for 95 percent of people carrying it.”

Warren took a swipe at self-described moderates. She mocked their restraint. (“But when it gets hard, when there’s a lot on the line, too many powerful people in our party say settle down, back up, there’s nothing to be angry about. Wait for change until the privileged and powerful are comfortable with those changes.”) She painted restraint and consensus-building as cowardice. (“Here’s the thing: When a candidate tells you about all the things that aren’t possible, about how political calculations come first, about how you should settle for little bits and pieces instead of real change, they’re telling you something very important; they are telling you that they will not fight for you.”)

She’s aiming to be “the” progressive standard-bearer to take on former vice president Joe Biden or whoever else might fly the center-left flag.

Warren did not mention President Trump by name. (The closest she came was, “When I lead the Democratic Party, we will be a party of moral clarity, a party of courage, and a party with backbone. . . . A party that believes no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States!”)

Harris did the opposite. In her methodical, devastating critique of Trump, she auditioned to be the candidate who is going to cut him down to size. Her ostensible message was about truth. (“Democrats, we have a fight on our hands. It’s a fight for who we are as a people. It’s a fight for the highest ideals of our nation. With this president, it’s a fight for truth itself.”) That really was just the jumping-off point for a takedown of Trump’s entire presidency – child separation, roll back of environmental laws, climate change denial, tariffs (the “Trump Trade Tax,” she dubbed it). She accused him of “deregulating and deconstructing our government and our democracy” and declared, “We need to begin impeachment proceedings and we need a new commander in chief.”

Harris didn’t pitch her plans for a boost in teacher pay, a housing subsidy and her plan for a $500 per month credit for lower-income Americans. Perhaps in the brief time she had with the crowd it would have been foolhardy to compete with Warren’s cornucopia of plans. She is trying to bill herself as the most effective candidate to attack Trump, the best verbal fighter in the race (whom Trump dubbed “nasty,” his common insult toward female critics).

In a separate appearance at the MoveOn.org Big Ideas gathering she demonstrated the sort of cool under fire that may impress voters and frustrate a bully such as Trump. A man later identified as an animal-rights activist bounded onto the event stage and swiped Harris’s microphone as she was engaged in a Q & A. Showing uncommon bravery, Karine Jean-Pierre, a MoveOn.org adviser, swiftly intervened, stiff-arming the man to move him away from Harris. Harris calmly strode away from the assailant as he was hustled off stage and later continued with the program. (Consider it a metaphor for the realization that women need to take care of their own and not allow themselves to be passive victims.)

It’s not clear whether Warren’s or Harris’s approach will work best with primary voters. However, the two female senators removed any doubt they can energize the Democratic faithful. Each presented a clear contrast with the two male septuagenarians at the top of the primary polls. Neither woman should be underestimated.

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