Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

When it comes to the framework dominating coverage of the 2020 Democratic primary, Robb Willer and Jan Voelkel provide us with a good summary.

Two theories dominate. One says that he or she should run to the left, focusing on energizing the party’s base. This strategy, exemplified by Elizabeth Warren’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, appears plausible given the base’s recent progressive turn.

The other theory says that a nominee should run to the center, making a bid for swing voters. This strategy, exemplified by the short-notice candidacy of the former Republican Michael Bloomberg, is supported by research on the electoral perils of ideological extremism.

The problem with that framework is that it rests on an assumption that candidates like Warren and Sanders are energizing the party’s base. The further assumption is that the base of the Democratic Party is energized by “ideological extremism.”

All of that is why so many people have been mystified by the success of Joe Biden’s candidacy. It is always assumed that he falls in the second category of running in the center, making a bid for swing voters. And yet, in poll after poll, Biden is strongly supported by voters of color, the people who increasingly make up the base of the Democratic Party.

The problem with the center vs left framework is that it posits an ideologically-based political continuum on a party that has always been a coalition. In a column that garnered a lot of attention over the weekend, conservative Ross Douthat rather contemptuously acknowledged the coalitional aspects of the Democratic Party, while suggesting that the candidate who can unite them is Bernie Sanders.

That decent polling, I suspect, reflects a sense among voters drawn to populism that Bernie is different from not only the more centrist candidates — latecomers Michael Bloomberg and Deval Patrick especially, but Buttigieg as well — but also from his fellow left-winger, Warren, who has fully embraced the culture-war breadth of the new progressivism while Sanders remains, fundamentally, an economic-policy monomaniac…

This is why, despite technically preferring a moderate like Biden or Amy Klobuchar, I keep coming back to the conservative’s case for Bernie — which rests on the perhaps-wrong but still attractive supposition that he’s the liberal most likely to spend all his time trying to tax the rich and leave cultural conservatives alone.

What Douthat did is substitute his own duality for the one that has become conventional wisdom. He prefers to look at Democrats as divided over economic policy vs the so-called “culture war.”

In contrast, Al Giordano explores why the Bloomberg campaign would view Kamala Harris as a threat—going so far as to plant a story about her demise in the New York Times.

The Times piece leads with the resignation letter penned by the Harris campaign’s former “state operations director,” Kelly Mehlenbacher, a resignation “effective November 30, 2019,” in other words, tomorrow. What the Times failed to disclose is a fact Politico reported two days ago: Mehlenberger now works in a similar capacity for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign – days before her resignation was to be official.

Bloomberg has obviously bought into the center vs left narrative and is aiming to take the center lane away from Biden and Buttigieg. Here’s why Giordano thinks Harris would be a threat to that goal.

Harris – who is one of the candidates supporting her own version of “Medicare for All” – has not aimed ideologically at that center lane but remains a plausible threat to be the last one standing who can command it, because at the core the campaign and the candidate are coalitional.

Coalition candidates don’t need to stake a claim on a single “lane,” right, left or center. They just need to sew together two or more of the Democratic Party’s many lanes as a base while being acceptable to the other working pieces of the coalition. Ideology is only one of the factors that make up those lanes…

Barack Obama is still the defining coalition builder of Democratic politics of the 21st Century. Hillary Clinton also won the 2016 nomination simply because she proved far more agile at building coalition than Bernie Sanders. If we look at the current field from the point of view of which Democratic candidates have the highest potential to be that coalitional candidate in 2020, Kamala Harris is one of a very short list that fits the bill.

Here is Harris making that case at the last debate.

The question that raises is, “why isn’t Harris doing better in the polls?” I would suggest two answers. First of all, she doesn’t fit into the media’s favorite narrative of center vs. left. With that as the framework, any candidate who doesn’t buy in gets ignored. Harris isn’t the only one facing that problem. It also happened to Castro, Booker, and O’Rourke.

The other reason Harris isn’t doing better in the polls is that, beyond all of the ways the Democratic Party is sliced and diced, the most important question on the minds of primary voters has been “who can beat Donald Trump?” At a time when the president and his party are determined to exploit racism and sexism to divide us, people are worried about nominating a black woman. It is clear that Harris is very well aware of that dynamic, which explains her most recent ad.

When it comes building the kind of coalition that will be necessary to win in 2020, it is worth re-visiting something Jamelle Bouie wrote almost a year ago.

One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

We are now about a month away from the time that voters in the early states start to make up their minds. So it remains to be seen if Harris can launch a come-back. But the important thing for Democrats to keep in mind is that the most electable candidate in 2020 will be a coalition-builder. At this point, the ones who are best positioned to do that are Biden, Warren and Harris. Each of them garner the support of different groups in the Democratic coalition, with Biden and Warren appealing to opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and Harris bridging the divide.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.