Commentary: Unable to hold on to the spotlight, Kamala Harris returns to her day job

Commentary: Unable to hold on to the spotlight, Kamala Harris returns to her day job

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris kick starts her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2019.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris kick starts her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2019. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES - It seemed fitting somehow that the news of Kamala Harris' withdrawal from the presidential race would be quickly blotted out Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee's release of its impeachment report. Even in retreat, Harris couldn't hold onto the spotlight.

Ten months ago, Harris made a sizzling debut as a Democratic presidential contender, quickly becoming the most popular candidate in the race who was not named Bernie Sanders. She had charisma, she had a prodigious first day of fundraising, and she had an ace in the hole: Her home state of California would be holding its primary early in 2020, presumably showering Harris with love and delegates.

But then, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg became the "it" candidate, at least in the eyes of the media. And then former Vice President Joe Biden jumped in, and Elizabeth Warren began her long ascent. Despite a surge after her strong showing in the first debate, Harris sank into the middle of the pack, outpaced by candidates on both the left and in the middle. Polls now put her support in the low to mid-single digits, even in Iowa, which she was counting on to save her candidacy.

I'll leave it to the campaign junkies to offer a better explanation for why that happened. I've been covering Harris since her first run for California attorney general, and she's impressed me as sharp and persuasive. But she's also struck me as a cautious politician, someone unwilling to wage fights that could alienate supporters. Instead, the battles she fought tended to be against figures Democrats were quick to demonize - Wall Street banks and for-profit colleges, for example, or Brett M. Kavanaugh. That's not to say they were all the wrong fights; they just weren't lonely ones.

Still, there's no penalty for that sort of thing in the Democratic presidential primary. A bigger problem for Harris seemed to be the lack of a coherent message. On health care, for instance, she was for single payer, but then she wasn't. Sadly, it didn't matter that her new plan was better; what mattered is that people couldn't grasp quickly what she was advocating.

In a smaller field, Harris would have been better able to showcase her personality and her strengths as an advocate. In a big field, where she's lucky to get 12 minutes of time on camera in a three-hour debate ... .

I know, it's risky to suggest that policy matters a whole lot in these races. But when there are a couple dozen candidates vying for the spotlight (and the campaign contributions that come with it), it really helps when voters can pick your message out of the lineup. Everybody knows what Sanders is for. They also know that Warren is the anti-Wall Street candidate with a plan for everything, that Biden represents a return to the normalcy of the Obama administration, and that Buttigieg is the guy who speaks really, really well. (Relax, Mayor Pete devotees - that's just a joke. Although he does speak really, really well.)

Who is Kamala Harris? She's the freshman senator from California, and will stay that way for at least three more years.

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