Their candidates work to extinguish any original ideas they might have held.
The Democratic Party’s list of 2020 contenders grew by two last week when Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker made their White House ambitions official. Liberals and the media are celebrating the “diversity” of the candidates thus far—which I suppose is something to cheer if your measure of diversity is skin deep.
Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker “identify as black,” to use the popular locution, and join a presidential field that already features candidates who identify as female, Hispanic and gay. Liberals tell us that they pine for the “postracial” society of Dr. King’s dreams, but their relentless focus on identity politics belies that claim. Sen. Elizabeth Warren took a blood test to try to prove Native American ancestry to advance her political career. She has finally apologized to tribal leaders, but the fact that other liberals are openly debating whether a candidate’s race or sex ought to be disqualifying goes a long way toward explaining Ms. Warren’s behavior.
Ms. Harris is the product of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, and her exotic heritage has become a point of fascination for the political press. On CNN the other night, Don Lemon explained to Chris Cuomo that Ms. Harris’s prospects might hinge on “the whole idea of how does she identify.” Mr. Lemon kindly educated viewers on the proper use of terms like “African-American,” “black” and “person of color,” and how certain Democratic voting blocs could be put off if Ms. Harris chooses one label instead of another. “Remember that whole thing with Obama, is he black enough?”
What’s really off-putting is a discussion focused on Ms. Harris’s biracial background instead of on her views, but there’s the rub. In 2019, the only things that truly distinguish the Democratic candidates are superficial characteristics. On any number of issues—single-payer health care, guaranteed jobs, free college—Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker dutifully toe the progressive line. The irony is that there was a time not too long ago when they weren’t afraid to express sensible opinions that were unpopular among fellow Democrats.
When Mr. Booker was elected mayor of Newark, N.J., in 2006, his defining issues were public safety and education. Mr. Booker “brought Giuliani-style ‘broken windows’ policing to New Jersey’s largest city,” wrote Steven Malanga in City Journal. The new mayor’s police director was a New York City Police Department veteran known for pursuing drug dealers. “I will be relentless in the enforcement of the law,” Mr. Booker said at the time. “My residents shouldn’t have to deal with drug dealing on their corners punctuated by violence.”
Mr. Booker’s other major focus was school choice for low-income families. In the late 1990s, he helped found an education-reform group that advocated for charter schools and vouchers. In a 2007 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he said that Newark parents “deserve a plethora of options of excellence to choose from that meet the needs of their kids.”
Mr. Booker has since changed his tune on both fronts. Like other progressives, he insists that drug laws are a bigger problem than drug dealers, though polling suggests that inner-city residents strongly disagree. Mr. Booker’s about-face on school choice is perhaps even more troubling. In 2017 he opposed the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, even though he worked closely with her for years to promote education options for low-income kids through her philanthropy.
Democrats could also use more of the old Kamala Harris, who served as San Francisco’s district attorney. In a 2010 speech, she discussed her decision to crack down on truancy in the city by threatening to prosecute the parents of kids who skip school. In 2016, she said she had a “fundamental problem” with “liberals” and “progressives” who regularly complain that we should be building more schools and fewer prisons. “I agree with that conceptually,” she said. “But you have not addressed the reason I have three padlocks on my front door.” There should be a broad consensus, she added, “that there should be serious and swift and severe consequences to crime.”
Ms. Harris once believed the way to help poorer communities is to hold them to the same standards as everyone else, not to coddle them, and that criminal-justice reformers too often play down the reality of violent crime and neglect its victims. Mr. Booker once cared more about kids than the wrath of teachers unions. The Democratic Party today could benefit from some diversity of thought on these matters and others, but as Howard Schultz is learning, their base isn’t in the mood. That means Sens. Booker and Harris will likely spend an inordinate amount of time on the campaign trail apologizing for once making so much sense.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal
Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty