The California senator Kamala Harris has been in office for eight months, but she’s already one of the more visible Democrats emerging in the wake of the party’s leadership void. Long touted as a future star of the party, she’s been embraced by liberal Democrats and has been a target of the socialist and progressive left, owing to a questionable record as attorney general and her connections to the donor class.
But last week, Harris backed the forthcoming single-payer health care proposal from Sen. Bernie Sanders, a major endorsement for one of the left’s most coveted policy goals that has been rapidly picking up support in the Democratic base amid repeated threats of Obamacare repeal. And Harris’ decision to endorse the plan indicates that she and other Democratic hopefuls are being forced to acknowledge the growing American left as a constituency they’ll need to win elections.
It’s not hard to see why liberals, particularly those who supported Hillary Clinton last year, love Harris. For a party that’s been so thoroughly decimated at pretty much every level of government over the past six years, culminating in the humiliation of losing an election to Donald Trump, the Democratic leadership is old, from the House and Senate to potential 2020 contenders. Harris, by comparison, is 52, only the second black woman to serve as a U.S. senator and one from the country’s most populous state, and was a relatively progressive attorney general, if you believe such a thing exists. This all makes her a compelling foil to Donald Trump and the Republican leadership, and she’s been vocal about her opposition to both.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why socialists and Berniecrats aren’t sold on her. Like other prosecutors throughout the country in the wake of the financial crisis, Harris didn't seek criminal charges against bankers for their role in the housing crisis. One of those bankers was Steven Mnuchin, who is now Trump’s Treasury secretary; as The Intercept reported in January, Harris declined to file charges against Mnuchin despite the “strong recommendations” of her own Consumer Law Division in 2013 to do so.
It’s not hard to see why liberals, particularly those who supported Hillary Clinton love Harris.
On criminal justice, too, Harris has benefited from low expectations. While Harris has been outspoken about the need for reform, she defended the death penalty as attorney general, tried to block a transgender inmate from receiving gender reassignment surgery, and pushed harsh anti-truancy laws that allowed for the prosecution of parents whose children aren’t attending school. Should Harris seek higher office — whether it be the governor of California or the presidency — that record will be held against her, especially as other potential candidates like Cory Booker have pushed for criminal justice reform. (Sanders, it should be noted, voted for the terrible 1994 crime bill – according to a statement last year, he voted for it due to Violence Against Women Act protections as well as an assault weapons ban — so should he run again, he’ll have his own questions to answer about that.)
Harris, should she run for president, has work to do if she wants to win over a significant portion of the 43 percent of Democratic primary voters who cast their ballot for Bernie Sanders last year. And given that the primary field promises to be larger and void of anyone with anywhere near the clout of Hillary Clinton, that’s going to be a necessity. Enter Harris’ endorsement of the Sanders healthcare plan.
Harris’ backing comes just months after a widespread organizing push on behalf of groups like the National Nurses Union and the Democratic Socialists of America (full disclosure: I’m a member of the latter) for single-payer in California resulted in the passage of the bill in the state Senate on June 1, until Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon shelved the bill until next year. After that move, Rendon became public enemy number one of progressives in the state.
Sanders’ plan, which hasn’t even been introduced in the Senate yet, has no chance of passing until Democrats win back both chambers of Congress (and end the filibuster, unless they manage to win over sixty pro-single payer seats in the Senate). So it’s a relatively safe bet on Harris’s part to back the plan, given the obstacles in front of the bill and the fact that she represents one of the most progressive states in the country. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein (who hasn’t announced whether or not she’s retiring in 2018), on the other hand, is publicly against it.
Harris is far from the only liberal to endorse single-payer, though. Michigan Rep. John Conyers has put forward a Medicare for All proposal every year in the House since 2003; in the last Congress, it had 62 Democratic co-sponsors. This year, it has 117, or 60 percent of the Democratic caucus. That support hasn’t been driven just by an influx of new progressive legislators, but by bringing over existing membership, including Blue Dogs like Jim Cooper in Tennessee and Vicente Gonzalez in Texas. Meanwhile, other 2020 hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have endorsed the idea of single-payer healthcare, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly shot down the idea of a government-run health system.
All of this indicates that single-payer is rapidly becoming a mainstream position in the Democratic Party, just 18 months after Hillary Clinton said at a rally that Sanders’ plan for single-payer would “never, ever come to pass.” And this owes not to some epiphany on the part of Harris or her fellow Democrats, but to the tireless work of activists on the left over the past year, who have started to drag a fundamentally centrist party kicking and screaming to the left by convincing elected officials that it’s politically expedient to support some of the left’s policy goals.
Single-payer is rapidly becoming a mainstream position in the Democratic Party.
And while it takes more than merely co-sponsoring a bill that won’t pass to show a commitment to health care being a right, the fact that Harris sees being on the right side of this position as helpful to her career is a good thing for the left. The truth is that the Democrats will likely never be the kind of party that openly embraces socialism, and it will take time for the left to build concrete electoral power. So given the constant barrage of attacks on the safety net (not to mention a rapidly destabilizing climate), the left could do far worse in the short-term than push moderate and liberal Democrats like Harris into the right positions.
So between our never-ending election cycles, the left should keep pounding away at presenting an alternative to Republican governance that isn’t just more of the status quo. Meanwhile, Democrats should follow Harris’ lead and recognize that the progressive movement is not only a force to be reckoned with, but one they’d do well to get right with. They might actually surprise themselves and win.