If grassroots Democrats, especially the men, still doubt that a post-Hillary female nominee could slug it out with Donald Trump, they need only re-watch last night’s boffo performance by U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
Early in the Democrats’ latest 10-contestant clash, I tweeted this: “Optics matter. Kamala Harris is clearly projecting herself as someone aggressively tough enough to go toe to toe on a debate stage with Trump.” And that was roughly 20 minutes before she reeled in former Vice President Joe Biden and left him gasping like a fish out of water.
A dominant victory in one debate, especially this early in the calendar, guarantees nothing. The California senator and former state attorney general has been polling in fourth place, and her instantly historic exchange with Biden, with its generational and racial resonance, won’t necessarily catapult her into the top tier. But this woman was a seasoned prosecutor. Given her telegenic performance in her first national debate — and her instinct to go for the jugular, as evidenced by her memorable Senate takedown of Attorney General William Barr — it’s abundantly clear that she has the moxie to gut Trump.
Optics do matter. In these debates, style is often more important than substance. What viewers often remember most is how a candidate behaves, the lingering impression that he or she makes. Harris, more than anyone else on stage last night, exuded a sense of command — starting with the early moment when everyone was talking all at once, like characters in a Robert Altman movie, and suddenly Harris cut through the clutter: “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 the table.”
A small moment, perhaps. But it signaled strength. Women are routinely interrupted by men, yet here was a woman interrupting the mostly male cacophony, taking charge as the adult in the room. And not long after, there was a deft gender moment, while she was talking about the children that Trump has been caging at the border: “I will ensure that this microphone, that the president of the United States holds in her hand is used in a way that is about reflecting the values of our country.” (Italics mine.)
But the marquee viral moment was her confrontation with Biden.
Somebody was bound to take him on. A front-runner always gets targeted, and this particular front-runner’s support is perceived to be somewhat soft. It was generally assumed that Bernie Sanders would do the deed, since Biden’s insider incrementalism is anathema to the finger-wagging preacher of “revolution.” But, in retrospect, it makes sense that Harris stepped up. Lest we forget, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April she got William Barr to admit that he had totally exonerated Trump without having read the underlying evidence in Robert Mueller’s report. (Harris, at the end of her memorable exchange: “I think you’ve made it clear that you have not looked at the evidence, and we can move on.”)
Biden, as we know, recently told a fund-raising audience that he’d worked closely in the Senate with racist southern segregationists back in the ’70s. Harris seized on that last night, to make the case that Biden is old and out of touch with the sensibility of the 21st century Democratic party:
“So on the issue of race, I couldn’t agree more that this is an issue that is still not being talked about truthfully and honestly…Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because we were black. And I will say also that in this campaign, we have also heard — and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with 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 bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Harris had mapped this confrontation in advance. Within minutes of making those remarks, her campaign tweeted out a photo of Harris as a little girl. A perfect marriage of the political and the personal.
Frankly, I doubt there are many swing voters who want to hear about busing in the 1970s. But what mattered, at that key moment last night, was that Biden sputtered in response. We have to remember that the last time he won a highly-competitive race on his own, the year was 1972 and Americans were still using rotary phones.
“It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said. “…The fact is that, in terms of busing, the busing, I never — you would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should not be — we should be breaking down these lines.”
Harris, in prosecutorial mode: “But, Vice President Biden, 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.”
(In other words, he did oppose busing in America. He advocated for state’s rights; if a state didn’t want to send black kids to white schools for the purpose of integration, he didn’t believe that the federal government should step in to enforce integration. Harris’ point was that if she’d been a little girl in Delaware, Biden would have opposed her attending a better-quality white school.)
Harris persisted: “Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
Biden, apparently not getting her point: “Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.”
Harris, trying again: “So that’s where the federal government must step in. That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA, because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
Granted, Harris’ support for enforced federal busing would not be a winning issue in a general election. Nor would her renewed support for government health care and the phase out of private coverage necessarily wow swing voters. But those are potential concerns for another day. What mattered last night is that she began to cement her combative credentials. Ask yourself whether she’d be intimidated by an incumbent whose regime is suffused with criminality.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden sputtered to a close: “…I’ve also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box. I agree that everybody, once they, in fact — anyway, my time is up.”
Perhaps it is.