Kamala: Next in Line
Running on Empty
Joy Reid: It was September 2018, and the Senate committee room was buzzing with anticipation.
Chris Coons: You know, Republicans sit on one side, Democrats sit on the other.
Reid: Delaware Senator Chris Coons remembers the tension in the room under the hot lights.
Coons: And the witness is right in front of us. I'm told it's somewhat intimidating from with witness perspective, because the senators are all several feet above you.
Reid: The witness, in this case, is a nominee for the highest court in the land. The stakes could not be higher. Senator Chuck Grassley kicks things off. And right away.
Chuck Grassley: I welcome everyone to this confirmation hearing on the nomination of Judge--
Kamala Harris: Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman--
Reid: He's interrupted.
Grassley: --Brett Kavanaugh.
Harris: Mr. Chairman.
Grassley: To serve as associate justice--
Harris: Mr. Chairman, I'd like--
Reid: Kamala Harris is sitting some distance away from Grassley, looking at him intently. He doesn't seem to look back at her. It's clear she's come prepared for this fight.
Harris: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to be recognized for a question--
Grassley: On the Supreme Court of the United States.
Harris: --before we proceed.
Senator: Regular order, Chairman.
Harris: Mr. Chairman, I'd like to be recognized to ask a question before we proceed. The committee received just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages--
Senator: Mr. Chairman, regular order.
Harris: --of documents that we have not (GAVEL) had an opportunity to review or read or analyze.
Grassley: You are out, you are out of order. I'll proceed.
Harris: We cannot possibly move forward, Mr. Chairman, with this hearing--
Grassley: I extend a very warm welcome to Judge Kavanaugh--
Harris: We have not been given an opportunity to have--
Grassley: --to his wife, Ashley--
Harris: --a meaningful hearing on this nominee.
Reid: In fact, Kamala and her team had been planning for this.
Lily Adams: I think the first thing she did was she assembled a, you know, sort of I guess you would call it a war room, but that's probably too dramatic of a term.
Reid: That's Lily Adams, who is the communications director for Senator Harris's Senate campaign, and would go on to the same role when she ran for president.
Adams: We brought in some folks, one who was a law professor from Columbia, one person who had worked on the Senate Judiciary Committee before, 'cause she really wanted a team of experts who could, you know, help her prepare as best she could for what's a pretty unique opportunity.
Reid: After attempting to stop the whole hearing seconds after it started, the committee moves forward. Kavanaugh is sworn in. Other senators ask questions. Finally, at the end of the second day, it was Kamala's turn.
Grassley: Senator Harris.
Harris: Thank you.
Grassley: You want to take--
Harris: Judge, have you ever discussed Special Counsel Mueller or his invest...
Reid: And then she was off.
Harris: Can you respond to the question of whether you believe a right to privacy protects a woman's choice to terminate her pregnancy? You're not answering that question--
Brett Kavanaugh: So I--
Harris: --and we can move on. Can you think of any laws that give government the power to... I'll repeat the question. Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?
Kavanaugh: I'm not, I'm not thinking of any right now, Senator.
Adams: There was a level of sort of fearlessness that was not concerned about abiding by the kind of old school rules of the Senate, that you're going sort of, like, pipe down and, you know, wait your turn and all that. I think she understood that if she wasn't using her voice and her bully pulpit to get answers, then what the hell are we doing there?
Reid: That hearing only fueled speculation that she was planning a run for president.
Stephen Colbert: Many people who put out books (LAUGHTER) two years before a presidential election do so to introduce themselves in a broad way to the American people. Are you gonna run for president? (LAUGHTER AND CHEERING)
Harris: I might.
Colbert: You might.
Reid: Four months later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019, Kamala Harris finally ended that speculation.
Robin Roberts: It is great to have you with us on this special holiday. Do you have an announcement you'd like to make?
Harris: I am running for president of the United States.
George Stephanopoulos: Well, that's a big (LAUGH) announcement.
Reid: Nearly 11 months later, though, she would be out. So what went wrong for Kamala Harris, presidential candidate?
Reid: From MCNBC and Wondery, I'm Joy Reid, and this is Kamala: Next in Line. This is episode five, Running on Empty. A week after Kamala Harris first told the world she was running for president, she was back in Oakland, California, in front of the city hall. The sun started to peek through the clouds, and crowds started to gather at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, just blocks from the Kaiser Hospital where Kamala Harris was born. It would be her first campaign rally.
Adams: We had it in one of the plazas in Oakland that was famous for a lot of the Civil Rights activism, back in the Civil Rights Movement that her parents participated in quite heavily, and where they met in Berkeley, originally participating in the Civil Rights Movement. So it was a meaningful place.
Reid: Lily Adams, Kamala's communications director, says she was hoping for a few thousand people, but was astonished at the number of people streaming in.
Adams: It was, I mean, just crowds as far as the eye could see. You could not even tell where it ended. And I think the other thing that was so notable for many of the folks who were there is that the crowd looked like America. It was old, it was young, it was white, Black, and Latino, and Asian. And it really did look a lot like sort of the Democratic Party and the coalition that had made the party successful in years past. But I think probably, you know, what jumped out to everybody from the beginning was just the mass of people.
Reid: Harris had chosen a yellow and red design for her logo, a tribute to the first Black woman who ran for the presidency, Shirley Chisholm, back in 1972. The signs read, "Kamala Harris for the People," in big block letters. The plaza was soon packed.
Adams: 22,000. It was like, "Oh my god. What do we do?"
Harris: Oh, (CHEERING) what's up, Oakland?
Reid: In her signature blue pantsuit, waiving to the crowd, she was greeted to cheers of, "Kamala, Kamala."
Crowd: Kamala, Kamala, Kamala, Kamala.
Reid: And after nearly 20 minutes, she capped her speech with.
Harris: And so, (CHEERING) I stand before you today, clear eyed, about the fight ahead and what has to be done. With faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother, (CHEERING) I stand before you today to announce my candidacy (CHEERING) for president of the United States. And I will tell you, I'm running for president because I love my country. I love my (CHEERING) country. I'm running to be president of the people, by the people, and for all people. (CHEERING)
Reid: You couldn't ask for a more picture perfect campaign kickoff.
Archival Recording: Kamala Harris is now running for president. And she is one of the top tier candidates in a highly competitive field that does not yet have a clear...
Deepa Shivaram: The overall sentiment was, like, this feeling of, like, "Oh, you just got assigned to the person who really might be the next president."
Reid: NBC reporter Deepa Shivaram remembers back then people really thought Kamala could go all the way. She was tasked with following Kamala on the trail.
Lawrence O'donnell: Please give a South Carolina welcome to presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris. (CHEERING)
Harris: Hi, hi.
Reid: Events like this town hall at Wofford College in South Carolina.
Harris: Lawrence, look, I think it's very clear that, and it has not changed, that women's ability to have access to reproductive health is under attack in America. It's under attack. And what we have seen...
Reid: The schedule was intense.
Shivaram: This was my life for, like, the next 365 days.
Reid: But Kamala seemed to enjoy being on the road, in South Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada.
Adams: She would love finding a local restaurant or a local kind of, like, food shop and talking to people there.
Reid: That's her communications director, Lily Adams, again.
Adams: Even if it was at the end of a long day, even if it wasn't an official event, we'd be in Des Moines, or we'd be in Cedar Rapids, she'd be like, let's find a place where, you know, we can eat some fresh food and we can sit down and talk to sorta folks who are at a restaurant or at a diner or what have you. She really did find that as a way to connect with people.
Shivaram: Especially in the beginning of the campaign when I was with her, where they would do, like, Women for Kamala, little, like, little events. Not even, like, these big rallies where it was, like, only women can come. It was supposed to be small. And the idea was that she was connecting with a lot of women in these communities and bringing them out to talk about issues that concern them and that they care about.
Reid: By the time the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami rolled around in June of 2019, the number of Democrats running for president had grown a lot.
Lester Holt: Good evening, I'm Lester Holt, and welcome to night two of the first Democratic debate in the 2020 race for president.
Savannah Guthrie: Good evening, I'm Savannah Guthrie. Last night we heard from ten candidates, and now ten more take the stage.
Holt: And again tonight, we'll be joined...
Reid: Kamala was no longer the front runner when she headed to Miami for the debates.
Shivaram: So not only was this the first primary debate, but as an NBC embed, we were kind of a little bit more involved in the process, and spent a lot of time at the debate site, and things like that. It was really exciting.
Reid: Ten candidates, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker, sparred the first night, but no clear winner emerged.
Shivaram: So there was a first night, and quite frankly, I don't really remember how that went. I don't think it was anything particularly memorable. This is a debate where everyone's kind of setting the stage. You know, it's not the kind of thing where everyone wants to immediately start going after each other.
Reid: On the second night, Kamala Harris took her place in the middle of the stage, in between Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
José Diaz-balart: We're going to let you all speak. Senator Harris.
Male Candidate: We can't afford to wait for evolution on this issue--
Harris: Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we're going to put food on their table. (CHEERING)
Reid: But the pivotal moment came later.
Shivaram: You got no sense from them that they were planning this, you know, we're gonna go after Joe Biden moment. That had not been simmering. There was no glimpse of that.
Harris: There is not a Black man I know, be he a relevant, a friend, or a co-worker, who has not been the subject of some form of profiling or discrimination.
Reid: Kamala turned to Vice President Biden.
Harris: I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree when you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe, and it's personal. And I was actually very, it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.
And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools. And she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.
Shivaram: Obviously Biden's comments had taken hold. There was a lot of coverage of his comments about segregationist senators. People like Cory Booker had spoken up about it, and Cory Booker later revealed that, you know, he and Joe Biden had talked on the phone about it after that had happened.
And, you know, it was a moment, you know, all of the stuff with Kamala Harris is going on in the background. I'm obviously with her. But at the same time, you know, Joe Biden's in this race. People weren't super enthused about him. There was this, you know, kind of sense that he's older, he's a white man in a race where there's so many women and so many people of color running.
There was a lot of apprehension. And then these comments come out, and it was kind of just, like, okay, on top of everything else, is this a candidate who's really capable of meeting this moment? Is Joe Biden really someone who the Democratic Party should put their faith and trust in right now? And that was all being questioned at the time.
Reid: Biden defended his record.
Joe Biden: It's a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists, that is not true, number one...
Reid: But Kamala pushed on.
Harris: Vice President Biden, (CHEERING) do you agree today, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?
Biden: I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed. I did not oppose--
Harris: Well, there was a failure...
Adams: Even though that's what people remember most from that debate, it wasn't like that was what the whole debate was hinged on. She really had a, I think by far, even if you took that exchange out, her most impressive performance probably of the primary cycle. Which was something, you know, I had seen her rise to big moments before, and so I had seen her do it again.
Reid: This was the Kamala Harris viewers recognized from those Senate confirmation hearings.
Shivaram: It all just kinda happened, and you could feel the temperament and, like, the temperature shift in the room. You know, we were in this, again, this big, big space with tons of press, and it was kinda just, like, "Oh, this is happening." And everyone's looking at me, right?
Like, all the people who I'm sitting with around me are all working with NBC, and everyone's kinda just, like, "Oh, like, this is your candidate. Like, what's goin' on?" You just hear everyone, like, furiously typing and tweeting and sending emails and flagging their networks. And like, it was quiet because you're listening to what's happening. But it was also like, you could just tell, like, everyone just started ticking.
Adams: The best predictor of questions that will come up in a debate is what's been in the news. And so I didn't know if it would come up or not come up. I bet she didn't know whether it would come up or not come up, but it did. And so that's how it played out. You know, it's not like there's a big kind of, you know, concocted, like you're drawing up a play in sports.
Shivaram: And it was impactful. It was impactful. I mean, the remarks that she made, Joe Biden's reaction, it was a memorable enough moment that given, you know, her circumstances and being picked as Biden's VP, that conversation was still coming up more than a year later. It was a moment that stuck the rest of the campaign. It was huge.
Reid: A huge moment in the debate, and for some, a demonstration of what she could do if pitted against Trump.
Shivaram: The immediate impact of this debate was that we're going to some of these events in Iowa, and there's 100 people outside who wanna be let in, who can't be let in, (CHANTING) because we've hit the limit on the fire code of how many people are allowed inside.
Crowd: Kamala. Kamala. Kamala. (CHEERING)
Shivaram: And that was the kind of surge in interest that she received from voters. I talked to a lot of people I remember in Iowa who expressed that the way she went after Biden on the debate stage in that first debate kind of gave them a visual image of how she would go after Trump if she were to debate Trump.
And I remember I spoke to one man at that event, where he couldn't get inside because it was so packed. He told me that he kind of noticed that Trump has never really attacked Kamala Harris, and never really, like, made a nickname for her. And to him, he was like, "You know what that means? Like, he's scared of her. Donald Trump is scared of Kamala Harris."
Reid: But Deepa says there were signs that it might've backfired for some Democrats. She remembers talking to voters in South Carolina.
Shivaram: Joe Biden has, you know, a relationship with some of these communities. And to see Kamala Harris go after him on that front bothered a lot of people. And it was a lot of white people, it was a lot of Black people. It was a lot of, like, other people of color.
Like, it really, you know, it was kind of split. And so I don't want to give the impression that it was, like, an overwhelming, like, "Oh, Kamala Harris is so popular and everyone really likes her." It was very much a split vote. There were people who really had their interest piqued and really wanted to learn more about her.
And then there were people who were like, "That was outta line. That was not okay. She shouldn't have done that. It was unbecoming." Now, does the fact that she's a woman and does the fact that she is a Black woman factor into that? Absolutely.
Are women of color held to different standards? Absolutely. Had a white man made the attack to Joe Biden on the debate stage, would the reaction have been different? Probably. We don't know that for sure. But I do think it's safe to say that some of that notion of seeing a woman of color, a really strong woman of color very confidently go after a very well politically established white guy, it did rub people the wrong way.
Reid: In the end, despite all the attention that moment on the debate stage received, it didn't translate into a shift in the polls. And Kamala would face criticisms for her own positions on racial justice in the next round of debates.
Tulsi Gabbard: I want to bring the conversation back to the broken criminal justice system that is disproportionately, negatively impacting Black and brown people all across this country today. Now, Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor, and that she'll be a prosecutor president. But I'm deeply concerned about this record.
Harris: As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work.
Reid: And to make matters worse, the campaign was dealing with serious problems of its own.
Reid: Despite all the attention Kamala Harris's debate night got her, the campaign was struggling.
Shivaram: I covered Elizabeth Warren after her, right? And Elizabeth Warren's biggest issue was anti-corruption. Anyone, anyone who walked away from her event, which by the way, she repeated that exact same stump speech every single day, every single event for the entire campaign. The messaging there was so sharp that you had no doubt when you walked away that Elizabeth Warren's main point in this campaign was to fight corruption.
Reid: Kamala's message was less clear. In August 2019, the Harris campaign aired a TV ad celebrating her devoted single mother, and focused on the kitchen table issues, the immediate problems facing most Americans. It was called her 3:00 a.m. agenda.
Harris: She'd work all day, then pour her whole heart into Maya and me when she got home. And then after we were fed and in bed, our mother would sit up, trying to figure out how to make it all work. That's something most Americans know all too well. And that's what my 3:00 a.m. agenda is all about. A real plan to help you solve...
Shivaram: It was like, okay, a 3:00 a.m. agenda means, like, it could mean education, it could mean equal pay for women, it could be, like, getting a tax credit.
Harris: Health care for all, with Medicare for all. And for companies that don't pay women the same as men...
Shivaram: It could be, like, this hodgepodge of issues where you're just, like, kind of walking away. And the only tangible thing that voters would walk away with was how they felt about her, right? Not about issues, not about topics.
Reid: Deepa says this translated into problems on the campaign trail.
Shivaram: Not about how she was gonna tackle things. It was just, like, "Oh, did I get a good vibe? Did I feel like I like her?" And they'd be like, "Oh, I really like her shoes." Like, "She wore Converse." "Oh my gosh, her style is so great." "Oh, she's so funny. I love her laugh."
Like, I would hear comments like that. But when you're running for president of the United States and you have a slate of issues that you need to tell voters, "This is what we're focusing on," people couldn't point that out. And it was a huge, huge problem.
Reid: By September 2019, the campaign was in serious trouble. The strategy shifted to focus everything on Iowa. The campaign opened ten new offices and nearly doubled the number of paid staffers it had on the ground. Kamala herself was heard joking with Hawaiian Senator Mazie Hirono that she was effing moving to Iowa.
Shivaram: Every time she, like, kinda came back she would joke. In that first couple weeks she'd be like, "Haven't you heard?" Like, "I'm moving to Iowa." And it was, like, this thing that we heard over and over and over again.
Reid: It didn't work. And by this point the campaign was running low on cash. There were larger issues among the team too.
Shivaram: But at the same time, there was this huge power struggle going on.
Reid: In November, those internal struggles leaked onto the pages of The New York Times, describing a contentious meeting at Harris campaign headquarters in Baltimore. Days later, the state operations director, Kelly Mehlenbacher, resigned. Her letter wound up being leaked.
"It is with a heavy heart that I submit my resignation as state operations director at Kamala Harris for the People effective November 30, 2019. This is my third presidential campaign and I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly.
"While I still believe that Senator Harris is the strongest candidate to win in the general election in 2020, I no longer have confidence in our campaign our its leadership. The treatment of our staff over the last two weeks was the final straw in this very difficult decision."
The letter went on, "It is unacceptable that with less than 90 days until Iowa, we still do not have a real plan to win. Our campaign for the people is made up of diverse talent which is being squandered by indecision and a lack of leaders who will lead." Mehlenbacher also criticized the campaign manager and the campaign chair. The chair was Maya Harris, Kamala's sister.
Shivaram: This was a top heavy campaign from the start. They had more senior advisors than anyone else. So when you have this top heavy leadership it means that no one is really making final decisions, which means that staff doesn't really know who's in charge.
And on top of that, you know, her people were really unhappy with her campaign manager. At the same time, her sister was the campaign chairwoman, so there was always this weird thing of, like, "Okay, who's really the person we're reporting to?"
And at the same time there was just so many different opinions, different ideas, mixed messaging. You saw that in the beginning. You know, here's a campaign about the quote unquote "3:00 a.m. agenda," which moved to a campaign of, like, "justice is on the ballot," which moved to a campaign, like, they were at the end just throwing things at the wall to see what stuck.
Reid: Lily Adams, Kamala's communications director, didn't wanna talk about that New York Times story.
Adams: Just to be candid, I don't think it's particularly sorta helpful to look back in that way.
Reid: But she agrees that the lack of funds hurt the campaign.
Adams: I wanna be a little mindful here that there are some conversations that I've had with her and had with other staff that I'll, you know, sorta never talk about. But I would just say that there was certainly a time where, you know, I think one of the biggest competitions in this race, in the primary, was not polls.
It was money. It was how are you gonna put together the money to compete in Iowa? How are you gonna put the money together to sustain a campaign that can win, that can do well in Iowa, that can then sort of, I mean, we knew New Hampshire was gonna be tough, but then could get a boost through Nevada, and then on to South Carolina? And so I think that she was sort of very real about looking at the money that was coming in, looking at the money that we had.
Reid: By November 2019, the campaign was unable to afford TV advertising or to conduct polls. They also had to stop buying Facebook ads. Brian Brokaw, her campaign manager from her successful AG and Senate races, watched from the sidelines.
Brian Brokaw: She's actually an incredibly strong fundraiser, and has a very strong network of support around the country. And I think that's part of the reason why she was so overwhelmingly elected as senator, and I think honestly that's probably part of the reason why she's on the vice presidential ticket as well.
Every campaign I've ever been involved with, including the winning ones, resources are always an issue, because political resources are finite. And you have to make decisions every day about how you deploy them. And any decision you make means that you can't do something else. And a lot of it is guesswork and calculated risk. And sometimes the decisions you make early pay off, and sometimes they don't.
Reid: Kamala had been in tough situations financially before, but this time there was not going to be a comeback.
Adams: She was only gonna continue to run if she saw a path to win, because I think she felt that that was the only way to be fair and honest with her supporters and the folks who were chipping in month after month, and you know, supporting her. And again, making an extremely practical assessment of where she stood in the race, and sort of what her path forward was.
Reid: In the end, that extremely practical assessment led to only one conclusion.
Harris: So here's the deal, guys. My campaign for president simply does not have the financial resources to continue, and the financial resources we need to continue.
Reid: And just like that it was over.
Harris: Although I am no longer running for president, I will do everything in my power to defeat Donald Trump and fight for the future of our country.
Reid: And four months later, she made her endorsement.
Harris: So I just wanted you guys to know, I have decided that I am, with great enthusiasm, going to endorse Joe Biden for president of the United States. I believe in Joe. I really believe in him, and I have known him for a long time. So join me in supporting Joe, and let's get this done.
Reid: That's next time on Kamala: Next in Line. From MSNBC and Wondery, this is episode five of six of Kamala: Next in Line. This is a six part series about the making of Kamala Harris. If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, and be sure to tell your friends.
Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now. Join Wondery Plus in the Wondery app to listen ad-free. I'm your host, Joy Reid. Associate producers are Chris Seigel and Allison Bailey. Production and research help from Carrie Dann and Julie Tsirkin.
Production assistance from Hank Butler. Music supervisor Scott Velasquez. Managing producer Lata Pandya. Sound design by Lindsay Graham. Executive produced for MSNBC by Steve Lickteig. Executive produced by George Lavender, Marshall Lewy, and Hernan Lopez for Wondery.