Kamala Harris' sincerity problem
Backing off a debate statement about school desegregation is only her latest apparent flip-flop
The Democratic presidential primary is pretty clearly a four-way race at this point. As per the Real Clear Politics poll average, Joe Biden is still out in front with 27 percent, with Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris tied for second with 14 percent, and Elizabeth Warren only a point behind them. The other 2,000 candidates are all down in the low single digits or lower.
Not long ago Harris was only doing half as well. Clearly she was the major beneficiary of the recent debates, especially her forceful confrontation with Biden over school desegregation. But afterwards, she backtracked on the issue, saying that in cases where school segregation is not the result of discriminatory laws, "any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district."
That is directly at odds with her debate statement that the "federal government must step in" when schools refuse to desegregate. It's not the first time Harris has given reason to believe her answers to thorny questions are less than sincere.
The Harris campaign seems to be trying to thread this needle by arguing that mandatory integration was necessary back in the bad old days of Jim Crow, but not today. "Federally mandated busing was essential in the '60s/'70s to force the integration of schools," Harris spokesman Ian Sams said in a statement, but today "we need a comprehensive approach[.]" Harris has not released a formal desegregation program of her own, though she says she supports the Fudge-Murphy plan which would provide $120 million in grants for voluntary integration.
But this historical distinction doesn't hold up, because segregation is not much better today than it was in the 1950s. Indeed, it has gotten considerably worse over the last few decades, as whites have moved out of cities and schools which got out from under court desegregation orders rapidly re-segregated themselves. White Americans generally loathe integration, whether they're liberal or conservative — even those without school-age children, because wealthy white parents buying into "good" (read: white) school districts increases neighborhood property values, and thus integration might reduce them.
All this is why the Sanders campaign has a considerably more aggressive desegregation plan than Fudge-Murphy. In addition to more subsidies, he would bring back desegregation orders and end the ban on federal funding for busing, in addition to other measures. Warren and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, on the other hand, would indirectly address the problem by overhauling housing subsidies and regulations, allowing more low-income people to live in wealthier neighborhoods. (As my colleague Jeff Spross argues, ending the funding of schools by local property taxes altogether would be better still.)
But that isn't the only Harris backtrack from the debates. When moderators asked which candidates would get rid of private insurance in favor of Medicare-for-all, Harris raised her hand, only to clarify afterwards that "private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage." She did the same herky-jerky move during and after a CNN town hall a few months ago.
Now, private insurance would probably exist in some small form under Medicare-for-all, but the vast bulk of private coverage would certainly be eradicated, if only because the Medicare coverage would be so much better. Canada, for instance, has a rump private insurance sector mainly because its Medicare system does not cover most vision, dental, or prescription drugs (which the Sanders bill would include). Insofar as Harris is trying to reassure private insurance companies or their customers, she is either not being straight about her favored policy, or she doesn't actually favor it.
Most disturbing of all, Harris has not been straight about her record as California's attorney general. She has boasted a great deal about her role in the national mortgage settlement of 2012, in which banks paid money to avoid mass prosecutions over the robosigning scandal.
In reality, as David Dayen detailed at The Intercept, the settlement was at bottom yet another bank giveaway — on top of the TARP bailout and Tim Geithner's backdoor subsidy of banks through a fake homeowner assistance program. As Dayen writes, "more families lost their homes as a result of transactions facilitated by the national mortgage settlement than those who got a sustainable loan modification to save them." Nearly half of the dollar value of Harris' settlement was for debt that could not be legally recovered in the first place. She also declined to prosecute OneWest, run by now-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin from 2009-2015, after her own prosecutors said they discovered over a thousand violations of foreclosure law committed by the bank. (OneWest donated $6,500 to Harris' attorney general campaign in 2011, and Mnuchin himself donated $2,000 to her Senate campaign in 2016.)
Back in the 2004 election, Republicans made great hay out of John Kerry's supposed flip-flopping. And to be clear, there is nothing wrong with changing one's mind when new evidence comes to light.
The problem with Harris instead is her tendency to say what is popular in front of progressive audiences while defaulting to the political status quo when it comes time to make tough decisions. It would have taken real courage to stand up to the Obama administration in 2012 when it was pushing states hard to sweep the robosigning scandal — which involved flagrant document fraud on an industrial scale — under the rug. But Harris was the top law enforcement official in the largest state in the country. She certainly could have gotten far better terms than she did.
Even attempting to fix the many crises afflicting the United States — from hideous inequality, to climate change, to structural racism, to a broken foreign policy — is going to take some steely resolve, not just talking a big game. So far Harris' is not promising on this front.