Analysis |

Why Kamala Harris and Ehud Barak Are Oceans Apart Yet Strikingly the Same

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Ehud Barak and Kamala Harris
Ehud Barak and Kamala HarrisCredit: Meged Gozani, AFP

Ehud Barak and Kamala Harris are like apples and oranges. She is an up-and-coming 54-year-old U.S. senator who represents two disadvantaged minorities — blacks and women — and thus had to work twice as hard as others. He is a scion of Israel’s Ashkenazi elite who breezed through the army to command it and catapulted to prime minister just as easily. She is said to have a promising future; he was supposed to be a politician past his prime who keeps coming back for more.

In one crucial way, however, Barak and Harris are like identical twins: What Barak did to Netanyahu-detesting center-leftists by announcing his return to politics, Harris did to Trump-hating Democrats with her withering takedown of Joe Biden in the second Democratic debate.

Both Barak and Harris emerged from the wings as an answer to their constituencies’ yearning for a candidate who can not only compete against the nationalist demagogues who lead their nations, but humiliate them in the process as well.

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Harris isn’t climbing in the polls because she embarrassed Joe Biden over his past attitudes to busing and racists; the former vice president garners widespread sympathy among fans and critics alike. Rather, it is the tantalizing prospect that Harris would skewer Donald Trump — or “Joe Biden him” — that has fired up Democrat imaginations and given Harris a much-needed boost.

Barak’s appeal is virtually identical. Despite the fact that he was already tagged as a has-been and that his short tenure as prime minister is considered a dismal failure by nearly one and all, his decision to enter the race galvanized the center-left and gave it a much-needed injection of adrenalin and hope.

The tantalizing prospect that Barak’s sharp wit and quick tongue could decimate and humiliate Netanyahu excites center-left voters, including those who detest Barak himself and have no intention whatsoever of voting for him.

Trump and Netanyahu, after all, aren’t merely right-wing leaders pursuing policies abhorrent to the opposite camp. Both are viewed by their opponents as power-grabbing and democracy-trashing demagogues with authoritarian aspirations. Both are seen as clear and present dangers to the rule of law, the future of democracy and the fabric of their societies. Both inspire unprecedented fear, loathing and a lust to exact revenge.

Both Trump and Netanyahu have steadily eroded the self-confidence of their opponents. Netanyahu’s repeated victories in past elections, along with his proven ability to contort the truth, incite against rivals and whip up his base into a hateful frenzy, have made him seem invincible. In the wake of their defeat in the April 9 election, center-left voters have greeted the unexpected repeat opportunity to defeat Netanyahu on September 17 with apathy, resignation and expectations of another Netanyahu triumph.

Benny Gantz, the leader of Netanyahu’s opposition, may be well regarded. But he is seen as a cautious, if not lackluster, candidate unable or unwilling to tackle Netanyahu head-on — as are other center-left politicians who claim his throne.

Barak, on the other hand, is undeterred by Netanyahu. On the contrary, he seems anxious for a chance to jump into the ring, look Netanyahu in the eye and take him down with the same mud-wrestling tactics that Netanyahu has long mastered.

The same is true, to a significant degree, of Harris. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, despite his manifest deficiencies and brawling manner, was so upsetting for Democrats that they have developed an unhealthy fatalism about their chances of beating him in 2020 as well, despite his low approval ratings and poor performance in the polls.

The civility, timidity and restraint ascribed to most of the Democrats vying for office is seen as no match for Trump’s uncouth, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach to running both his campaigns and the White House.

Harris’ tough and unflinching grilling of Biden in the second debate last week echoed her similarly blistering questioning of Brett Kavanaugh in last year’s Senate hearings. With her years of experience as prosecutor, district attorney and California’s attorney general, Harris cast herself in the second debate as one tough cookie who could look Trump straight in the eye and obliterate him in front of a live audience of millions.

Democrats, it seems, dream of a classic crime-show TV moment, in which the tough and wily prosecutor demolishes the defendant and exposes both his crimes and evil intent.

Opponents of both Trump and Netanyahu aren’t just praying for both to be ousted from office; they are yearning for blood, lusting for humiliation, dreaming of payback for years of ever-growing frustration and rage. Harris may be inexperienced, Barak may be over-experienced and both may not be the strongest possible candidates on hand. But only they offer the sublime satisfaction of retribution and just deserts.

Whether they ever get the chance to fulfill their fans’ dreams and duel their adversaries one on one remains to be seen. Not only do they have to overtake their current competitors in order to get a shot at their main rivals — their rivals have to agree to meet them in open debate.

Netanyahu has refused to debate his rivals for over 20 years, following his catastrophic performance in a 1999 debate in which he was demolished by second-tier rival Itzhak Mordechai. Televised debates in U.S. presidential elections are far more entrenched and Trump is substantially less cautious than Netanyahu and more confident of his ability to destroy any rival.

If Trump decides to enter the ring against Harris, however, he may finally discover that he is also way too arrogant for his own good. That is the happy ending, at least, of the sweet dreams that Harris has evoked among Democratic voters, on the assumption that their dreams don’t turn out to be a nightmare in waiting.

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