Harris and Gabbard, Similar Candidates, Face Conflicting Press Coverage
A week ago today, anti-Trump viewers and Democrats alike were graced with a monumental announcement on The Rachel Maddow Show. More than a year before the Democratic primaries even begin, host Rachel Maddow predicted who might be going to go face-to-face with Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election:
“Sen. [Kamala] Harris, I am excited to see the effects that you have on the primary process,” Maddow said. “I think that you are going to be a formidable contender, and I will just say honestly that I think that there’s a good chance that you are going to win the nomination. You in a general election fight against Donald Trump would be the funnest thing in the world to cover.”
Harris announced that she would be running, in fact, three days before this interview aired. The general election is nearly two years from now. Good thing the Trump opposition already has a candidate figured out, right? The daughter of two immigrant parents, a Tamil Indian mother and Jamaican father, Harris is a relatively new face to Washington. She has seen success as a self-made politician, having previously served as the Attorney General of California before joining the Senate in 2017.
Given all of this, Harris appears to be the perfect foil to President Trump, except she is far from the only paragon running. Earlier this month, on January 11, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaiii announced her own presidential bid. In terms of sheer identity politics, both share demographic commonalities. Harris and Gabbard are both biracial, female candidates with established backgrounds in public service who are relatively new to Washington. That’s partly why the difference in tone the coverage of the two is taking merits further analysis.
“Tulsi Gabbard’s 2020 Plan Threatens The New Left Foreign Policy Of Sanders And Warren,” read a Huffington Post headline a day after Gabbard’s announcement. The piece argues that Gabbard’s voting record on scaling back acceptances of refugees from Iraq and Syria to the U.S. could alienate many progressive Democrats. Her economic agenda, environmental concerns, and diverse background — all of which that align with the leftist wing of the party — are only mentioned in passing in the first few paragraphs. But the criticism is certainly warranted.
“But perhaps a more serious liability for her campaign will be her interactions with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad,” the New York Times wrote in its first article posted about Gabbard’s announcement. The American Samoa native met with Assad in January 2017 to discuss the Syrian conflict, and she opposes U.S. intervention in the region. “Her noninterventionist perspective and her desire for diplomacy could appeal to many progressive Democrats, but her decision to meet with a man who had attacked his own people angered many others.”
Considering the conclusions of both pieces in tandem, Gabbard’s foreign policy record will alienate both progressives and the rest of the political spectrum. These assessments seem like strong ones to make within 24 hours of the announcement of her campaign. The attacks on her foreign policy positions are abundant, as are criticisms about her previous stance on LGBTQ+ rights and relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among other issues. The primary criticisms Harris is facing, meanwhile, are coming mostly from the farthest left reaches of the party.
Both candidates, as anyone running for public office does, are providing the American electorate a list of reasons to vote for them or against. Regardless, the media has a duty to cover every candidate in a fair and objective manner, and so far the coverage feels a bit uneven. A look at their juxtaposed profiles from the New York Times Democratic candidates page suggests as much:
“Would bring a star power and history-making potential to the race.” This is absolutely true for Kamala Harris: she is already the first Senator of Jamaican or Indian descent, and of course could become the first female president as well. But couldn’t the same be said of Tulsi Gabbard? She might not enjoy the same name recognition that Harris has, but is her candidacy not equally historic? Gabbard is the first Samoan-American member and first Hindu member of Congress, both of which surely seem similarly groundbreaking as Harris’s achievements.
Instead of focusing on Gabbard’s similarly diverse background and progressive economic agenda, the Times profile paints her as a former homophobe and current apologist for the Assad regime. Unless you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, very little written about Gabbard in this profile resonates, especially in comparison to the laudatory points about Harris. To some voters, these are disqualifying issues that Gabbard must address. The Times absolutely has a duty to report them, but it seems the coverage has unfairly glossed over some of the controversies marking Harris’ political career.
Is it not worth mentioning that Harris opposed statewide regulations mandating body cameras for police officers in California? Or that she appealed a ruling declaring Daniel Larsen, a wrongfully-convicted California man, innocent, over a procedural technicality? What about her off-the-record talk at the 2018 American Israel Policy Affair Committee Policy Conference, which came five months after ten fellow Democratic senators penned a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging him not to demolish a Palestinian village in the West Bank? Harris, like Gabbard and like any other presidential candidate, has some policy positions that need further examination, and it is irresponsible to merely sweep them under the rug.
So let’s take a step back for a minute and look at some reasons why the media might treat these two differently.
MSNBC wasn’t the only cable news outlet giddy over the launch of the Harris campaign. CNN’s election expert Chris Cillizza, along with FiveThirtyEight writer Harry Enten, updated their “definitive 2020 Democratic candidate power rankings,” to lodge Harris at the top of the list just days after she announced her candidacy. Call me a cynic, but this sort of rapid consensus from Cillizza, Maddow and other members of the mainstream media on the viability of a candidate feels a bit manufactured and inauthentic.
Examining the breakdown of campaign finances provides important insight into the motivations of any candidate. While Harris’ presidential campaign is in its early stages, she is far from a newcomer in running for public office. What organization, one might ask, has been Harris’ top contributor in her political career thus far? None other than WarnerMedia Group, the parent company of CNN: since 2013, WarnerMedia employees and executives have donated $127,975 to Harris’ various campaigns.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to insinuate that Chris Cillizza and other CNN analysts are somehow carrying out the political bidding of their employers, although Cillizza did pen an article the day after the Harris announcement with the not-so-subtle title “How Kamala Harris wins.” This sort of convenient link between a massive media company and the candidate it openly supports, however, should at least raise some eyebrows about the objectivity of that company’s election coverage.
Monetary connections aside, there is little to no empirical data that warrants putting Harris at the top of any candidate power rankings at this moment. A recent Real Clear Politics average of eleven national polls found Harris polling in fourth place at about 5 percent among likely Democratic candidates. Joe Biden leads the pack at 31.3 percent. The aforementioned CNN rankings, which place Biden in third, are based on arbitrary political insight rather than polling data. For example, Cillizza ranked Sanders as the seventh best Democratic candidate, while the RCP average has him at second place only to Biden. The political tides of the party could change drastically in coming months, and Harris (or anyone) could organically become the party frontrunner. To claim right now that there is a clear favorite to run against the incumbent president, though, is ludicrous.
None of this is to say that Kamala Harris doesn’t have the qualities to be an effective candidate or president: she’s a self-made political figure with some impressive experience, especially as California’s Attorney General. What this does mean, however, is that the Democratic Party and so-called political experts need to tread very, very cautiously through the next year and a half. They cannot make the mistake of getting caught up in the media sensation of a singular candidate who isn’t actually that popular with the general public. The unanimous and immediate enthusiasm for Kamala Harris’ campaign looks and feels a lot like the unanimous and immediate enthusiasm that came with the announcement of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2015. That should give pause to anyone who thinks the 2020 election will be a cakewalk for a Democratic challenger because, of course, we saw a familiar narrative play out around three years ago. There’s some quote about insanity and doing things over and over again that feels appropriate here.
Now, on to Tulsi Gabbard.
Much of the criticism surrounding Gabbard’s policies is justified, including her connections to Hindu nationalism in India and dismal record on LGBTQ+ rights. However, some of the media attacks stemming from these genuine criticisms have been intellectually dishonest and shallow. As noted above, one of the primary attacks against Gabbard thus far has been her opposition to American intervention in the Syrian Civil War. "In order for any peace agreement, in order for any possible viable peace agreement to occur, there has to be a conversation with him,” Gabbard said last year. “The Syrian people will determine his outcome and what happens with their government and their future."
The New York Times profile above distorts her stance on the crisis in Syria. That Gabbard both met with Bashar al-Assad and opposes military intervention in Syria is not grounds to conclude she must support the Assad regime. The Times tries to paint Gabbard as a pariah on Syria, when, in fact, her views are consistent with much of the public opinion on the issue. According to a Pew poll released earlier this month, the public is fairly split over whether to withdraw from the country, with about 43 percent in favor of withdrawing and 45 percent against. It seems much more likely that, like Gabbard, 43 percent of the country merely wants to bring U.S. troops home, and are not actually active supporters of Assad’s chemical weapons campaign. This sort of careless and biased reporting on Gabbard’s foreign policy is unacceptable, especially considering the Times’ own editorial board was more than willing to question the necessity of America’s never-ending wars in much the same way Gabbard has.
The censures appeared in rapid succession following her announcement. “Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's past anti-LGBT efforts plague 2020 presidential campaign roll out,” an ABC News headline read on January 14. In 2004, Gabbard opposed Hawaii’s House Bill 1024, which would have established legal parity between same-sex couples in civil unions and married straight couples. Gabbard has since apologized for her past views, but should Democrats consider forgiving her social policy transgressions and giving her their vote? Voters will, of course, decide her fate in the primary elections, but marking her previous stance on the issue as a total disqualifier seems a bit hypocritical: the party’s previous presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, did not endorse same-sex marriage until 2013. Gabbard endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, and a year later was one of the 212 members of Congress whose amicus brief paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Why is Gabbard such a target? Again, many of the criticisms of her policies both past and present are justified, but she has changed her views in the same way other Democrats have, and most of them have escaped the media ire Gabbard has faced thus far. A possible source of the disdain for Gabbard may stem from the controversy surrounding her tenure as a Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee. In the lead-up to the 2016 general election, Gabbard voiced criticisms about DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s decision to hold only six debates during the primary season, compared to the 25 that were held in 2008. Some viewed the debate decision as a move to bolster Clinton and keep Bernie Sanders out of the spotlight. In February 2016, Gabbard resigned from her position as Vice Chair in order to support Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, even as most rallied around Clinton for the party nomination. However, an infamous email leak in July 2016 showed Democratic Party officials had indeed conspired to sabotage the Sanders campaign throughout the primary season, a realization that later led to the resignation of Wasserman Schultz.
It’s important to note that even if Gabbard’s coverage were more even-handed, it is nonetheless unlikely she would shoot to the top of the polls; the RCP average previously mentioned has her in ninth place at only 3.5 percent. However, the media coverage of her campaign is certainly not helping her chances, and all candidates should have the opportunity to voice their platform before voters decide on a nominee.
The principle issue here should be obvious: the press and mainstream political pundits have already selected at least one starlet for the 2020 election, more than a year before the primary season even starts, all the while unevenly bashing another candidate. Coverage of each candidate should address both good and bad policy positions and voting records, and it is not the place of the media to start a romance with someone because it makes for interesting (or “the funnest,” if you’re Maddow) coverage.
Again, both Gabbard and Harris have some attractive qualities and some less-than-desirable ones, and as such, voters will have to decide what aspects of each candidate matter most. However, the media needs to stay out of the election and not let political pundits make self-fulfilling prophecies about primary season, thus propping up a candidate who might not be popular with the rest of the country. Let the voters chose someone that genuinely excites the party base and the general public, whoever it may be, or I suspect we’ll be seeing another four years of a Trump presidency.
In the meantime, you can buy a Kamala Harris action figure here for $19.99. No word on the Gabbard edition yet.