Kamala Harris wrote the script to the second Democratic debate, and everyone else was an actor in her show. They just didn’t know it — not at first.
Frontrunner Joe Biden, whose vulnerabilities on race have long been apparent, stumbled up for business as usual to find Harris had something else in mind. The Californian Senator proved nearly impossible to talk over Thursday night, and when at one point early on in the debate NBC host Chuck Todd tried to move the conversation along, she stopped him dead with one line.
“As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said. She had the floor — and moved fast.
“I’m going to now direct this at [former] Vice President Biden,” she said, turning to the Democratic frontrunner of the 2020 presidential race, whose habit of boasting about how he’d effectively struck comprise with segregationists as a young senator recently inspired a rash of unflattering coverage.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said — a comment that, as the camera panned over to Biden, immediately connected him with the term, as surely as being told not to think of an elephant.
But Harris was just warming up.
She assailed Biden’s apparent nostalgia for a time when he cut deals with segregationists. Harris detailed specifics: how Biden had opposed federal funding for integrated bussing between schools in the 1970s in the wake of Brown vs Board, the landmark case that ruled racial segregation in the public school system to be unconstitutional.
Then she dialed the dialogue up a notch — or ten.
“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,” Harris said. Her campaign quickly tweeted out a photo of a young Harris, her hair in pigtails, apparently on her way to school.
And though the debate was far from over, the New York Times called it right there, declaring it “the most searing moment of the night,” with plenty of time still left to go.
Harris is competing with Biden for the black voters with whom he’s continued to poll well, his record on Anita Hill and recent comments about segregation and compromise notwithstanding.
Whether Harris succeeds in winning over those voters, or winning the primary more generally, a possibility that looked decidedly remote going into Thursday night, she’s cracked the field open.
Wednesday’s debate showcased candidates of a decidedly sunnier trail disposition – Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are not known chiefly for their teeth-bearing smiles. Thursday’s debate was dominated by talk of race, immigration and health care — with climate, a top issue for voters, once again relegated to the back bench.
A defining moment came after Democrats asked if their health care plans would include undocumented immigrants and every candidate on stage raised their hands in an affirming yes. But such subsidies, which were excluded from Obamacare, have proved to be politically fraught.
So much so that Donald Trump, who had mostly abstained from involving himself in the Twitter debate conversation on Wednesday, smelled opportunity — even from overseas. “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!” he tweeted between meetings with world leaders at the G20.
Never mind the obvious inhumanity of the notion of sick children being denied care over citizenship status. In Friday cover stories, conservative outlets like the New York Post are already making hay.
Meanwhile Bernie Sanders, who has been polling more or less in second place since Biden entered the race, behaved very much as if he’d been asked to do a Saturday Night Live impression of himself. When asked to name his top issue, for instance, he renewed the call for revolution and systemic overhaul.
And Pete Buttigieg, expected to face a tough night given grim news that a white police officer shot and killed a black man in the city where he’s mayor, performed competitively, while the little-known Marianne Williamson provided comic relief.
When at one point the debate seemed to descend into a veritable shouting match it was Harris who got to play adult, silencing the room with stunning composure and, as ever, a line. “America does not want … a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table,” she said.
It was soundbite so perfect that it was impossible not to wonder if she went to the debate armed with it, walking up as ready as Biden seemed unprepared — at least for the debate Harris handed him.
It seemed that Biden had prepared for a very different debate — one where he lambasted Trump as the field’s uncontested first pick.
It’s certainly an understandable strategy for a frontrunner. What’s less understandable is why he didn’t have a plan B, or even a second gear.
He opened the debate strong with a joust at President Trump, who went virtually unmentioned last night, promising to eliminate his tax cuts for the rich.
The trouble was that everyone else started talking and campaigning against the president, too. Then they came for Biden, who also came for himself a few times, spouting a curious answer on gun control about how “the enemy is the gun manufacturers, not the NRA.”
The subtler point that he was making, that the National Rifle Association is the public relations arm of the gun industry rather than its beating heart, is unlikely to reach many listeners.
Biden knows better, and certainly can use words more effectively, but on Thursday night he wasn’t marshalling them well.
Lucia Graves is a columnist and feature writer for the Guardian US. She tweets @lucia_graves