The little things matter in politics. Subtleties – like the seating arrangement at a dinner or the speaking order at an event – can spark big drama among elected officials. And if you really want to spite a politician’s ego, simply sing praise for their rivals.
So Sen. Kamala Harris was likely horrified to see Gov. Gavin Newsom gushing with enthusiasm for two of her main White House competitors last week. In an interview with Politico’s Carla Marinucci, Newsom described former Vice President Joe Biden as “formidable beyond words” and called Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg “many people’s second choice – if he’s not already a first.”
Zing! California’s governor is pretty much on board with a Biden-Buttigieg ticket if, heaven forbid, Harris’ campaign tanks.
Newsom endorsed Harris on a Friday night in February. Most politicians dump bad news on Friday nights. The two share the same political advisers, but Newsom delivered his nod unceremoniously during an MSNBC interview. Now, he’s cozying up to her rivals.
Why the hedging? For one thing, Newsom’s an experienced politician. He knows it’s smart to keep a wide network of options. But Newsom’s outburst of public praise for Harris’ rivals also reflects the fact that her White House campaign has encountered serious turbulence.
In the days before Newsom’s effusive interview, the tough hits kept coming for Kamala 2020. Politico detailed how Buttigieg’s quick rise has begun to eclipse Harris in her home state. He’s connecting powerfully with California’s LGBT community at sold-out fundraisers. Big California donors who endorsed Harris are showering him with cash. Ouch.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who called Harris a “dear friend,” mugged for the cameras with Buttigieg, calling him “one of my closest mayor friends.” Democratic strategist Garry South, a former Newsom adviser, told Politico: “I think the amazing thing is that nobody is ceding California to Kamala Harris … no one is abandoning California to the native daughter – which tells you something.”
The story came on the heels of a highly-detailed New York Times piece dissecting internal conflict in Harris’ campaign. The notoriously cautious Harris is struggling with the main tension in a Democratic primary: Do you allow the Democratic base to push you left of Bernie Sanders? Or do you plot a more conventional, poll-driven approach to maintain wider appeal in a general election?
Harris’ advisers apparently disagree on the path. He sister and campaign chair, former ACLU executive Maya Harris, is pushing to the left.
“But such pressure is coming up against the advice of three top Harris consultants — Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and David Binder — who have extensively polled and run focus groups on the Democratic primary electorate and do not believe she should bow to activists,” according to the Times.
The story depicted Harris’ campaign as one attempting to “reset.”
Two more truths about politics: First, you can’t fight the boss’ family. Second, when your campaign’s internal disagreements spill into public view, you’ve lost control of the narrative.
“When a candidate’s advisers call up the New York Times, or anyone else, and then explain in gory detail the political calculation between that candidate’s next utterance, you’re doing that candidate a massive disservice,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama advisor who co-hosts Pod Save America.
Campaigns run on internal conflict. You just don’t read about it in the papers when a campaign is rolling toward victory.
Polls show Harris trailing both Biden and Sanders in California. The recent run of bad press hardly suggests a comeback. Fickle politicos may head toward the exits.
Her fabulous campaign launch on the steps of Oakland City Hall seems like ancient history, but don’t count Harris out. Many find her inspiring. She’s raking in campaign cash. Her shaky management skills have never halted her rise.
Facing the biggest test of her political career, the question is whether she can figure out who she is – and what she represents – in time to recover. You can’t run the country if you can’t run your campaign.
Gil Duran wrote this for The Sacramento Bee.