The more you learn about Kamala Harris, the more formidable she appears. She is an amazing amalgam of different elements — highly educated elite meritocrat, Oakland street fighter, crusading, rough-elbow prosecutor, canny machine pol and telegenic rhetorical brawler.

She is also probably the toughest and most hard-nosed progressive on the scene right now.

Some on the left are criticising Harris because she was an aggressive prosecutor for years, participating in the era of mass incarceration. But as the Democratic Party has moved left ideologically, and grown more suspicious of cops and prosecutors, it has also hardened emotionally.

Democratic primary voters may decide that if they are going to take on Donald Trump, they’re going to want the roughest, most confrontational gladiator they can get. After they see how, well, direct she can be, they may decide that person is Kamala Harris.

Harris is very much a product of the highly educated progressive coastal elite. Her father is a professor at Stanford. Her mother, who was a breast cancer researcher, got her PhD at 25. Harris grew up with ballet, violin, French horn and perfectionism.

She went to a prestigious school (Howard), was president of various student organisations and got great internships (Federal Trade Commission, US Senate) before going to law school, zooming up the political ladder and marrying a partner at a prestigious law firm. She is famously comfortable in rooms of the very wealthy.

But in deciding to work as a prosecutor — rather than going to a law firm — Harris was immersing herself in the gritty world the rest of the achievatrons were rising away from. Working as a prosecutor put her in touch with a world in which brothers sexually abuse their 6-year-old sisters, in which a man literally scalps his girlfriend in a domestic dispute, in which parents are too financially stressed and personally strained to have the time to make sure their kids go to school.

The criminal justice system is an adversarial system, and it seems to have trained her in the art of confrontation. She developed what Benjamin Wallace-Wells of The New Yorker called an “eye for an enemy” — the ability to spot the villain in any situation.

In her memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” she describes her political campaigns as a series of hard-fought battles against tough foes. She ran for San Francisco district attorney against her former boss, whose nickname was Kayo (pronounced “K.O.”), for all the people he knocked out. But she beat him.

Supporters in an overflow area at a rally where Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) kicked off her Democratic presidential campaign, in downtown Oakland, Calif., Jan. 27, 2019. Harris is the most high-profile and politically connected black woman ever to run for president, but will have to persuade black activists sceptical of her record as a prosecutor. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times).

 

Gary Delagnes, a former head of the city’s police union, told Politico that he was standing at a party before that campaign when Harris put a finger in his chest and said: “You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?” Delagnes interpreted that as: I’m going to be a player here. You better get on board. He went on to tell Politico: “She’s an intelligent person. She is a — let’s see, I better pick this word carefully: ruthless.”

Harris was a beneficiary of the machine of California political giant Willie Brown, whom she briefly dated. Brown appointed her to the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the California Medical Assistance Commission, both of which paid comfortable salaries.

That association has haunted her over the years, but Harris made it clear at one forum that there is no way she’s going to bend if Brown or his allies try to influence her. “You just make them understand that if they’re going to try to hurt you, they’re going to get hurt more.”

Especially as it goes along, her book is largely a series of scenes in which she has angry confrontations with powerful people. “Get me Jamie Dimon on the phone,” she barked to her staff before having a raised-voice conversation with the CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Her brief Senate career has been defined by a series of confrontations with Trump administration officials at various committee hearings.

She reprints long transcripts of the episodes in her book. What you see is that she seems to have no inhibitions about hitting her opponent with full rhetorical force and landing the full blow.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) greets supporters as she kicks off her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign at an outdoor rally in downtown Oakland, Calif., Jan. 27, 2019. Harris described the nation and the world as at “an inflection point” in history. “Who are we as Americans?” she asked at the rally. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times).

 

We in the punditocracy are generally analysing the Democratic presidential race on ideological grounds: Which minute differences exist in the candidates’ various “Medicare for all” plans. I doubt that is how Democratic voters are thinking. Their immediate problem is Trump, and the culture of shamelessness he has instigated.

I suspect Democrats, to beat Trump, will want unity. They won’t want somebody who essentially runs against the Democratic establishment (Bernie Sanders); they’ll want somebody who embodies it (Harris). They’ll want somebody who seems able to pulverise Trump in a debate (Harris).

It will be interesting to see how primary voters wrestle with these questions: Is America too racist and sexist right now to elect a black woman? Or would nominating a black woman in fact be the perfect rebuttal to Trump?

But the larger issue may be temperament and toughness. Harris’ fearless, cut-the-crap rhetorical style will probably serve her well in this pugilistic political moment.

© 2019 New York Times News Service

David Brooksis a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, he writes about politics, culture and the social sciences.

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