Harris v. Biden: Kamala Won Round One, But No One Should Count Joe Out
Almost six months ago, when I was looking at the Democratic primary field shape up, I was hoping that either Kamala Harris or Joe Biden ran for president, but not both. I admit that was more of a selfish wish than anything else, as the I’d always believed I would personally have a rough time deciding between the two.
Kamala Harris is my senator, and before she replaced the legendary Barbara Boxer in the Senate, she served six years as California’s attorney general. Before shaping the most critical Department of Justice that is now standing up to the Trump DOJ, Harris was the District Attorney of San Francisco, and even though I do not live in the city of San Francisco, I do live in the Bay Area and got to watch her career closely. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Harris was perhaps the most effective advocate for the then-candidate Barack Obama among California Democrats.
The one thing all of us who have watched Sen. Harris for over a decade as well as those who have only got a taste of her as she embarrassed Trump appointee after Trump appointee in senate hearings know is that she is the consummate prosecutor. She prepares her case to be as airtight as can be, she makes her case as effectively as humanly possible, and she is a master at delivering the punchline for her theory of the case. That is what everyone watching in riveting silence saw on debate night last week.
While Kamala Harris’s star is on a fast rise, it would not at all be a exaggeration to say that Joe Biden is a towering figure of American politics in the league of Ted Kennedy, Paul Wellstone, and John McCain.
One of the youngest senators ever elected, Joe Biden is nearly omnipresent in every progressive advancement since his first election to the US Senate in 1972. Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, was instrumental in the reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act, and was a critical voice as the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in turning back the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Perhaps no one in present day American politics has done more than Joe Biden to shape the modern-day international order that Donald Trump is doing his best to destroy. Biden’s contributions to nuclear arms control, to transatlantic and transpacific alliances, and to pro-democracy global forces are undeniable.
Joe Biden was not merely a loyal Vice President to President Obama, but as one of the most active vice presidents in history, he was a force to be reckoned with on his own. He was instrumental in overseeing the Recovery Act that began to save America from the second most horrific economic catastrophe in history. He guided the Affordable Care Act through Congress along with Speaker Pelosi. He led his president - the first sitting president ever to do so - to support marriage equality, and he shaped cancer research moonshot with Congress even as a so-called “lame duck” vice president.
Throughout it all, Joe Biden has suffered unimaginable personal tragedies, and the grace with which he has faced them alone foretells temperament, compassion, and servitude America would be fortunate to have in our president.
Of course, Joe Biden has made mistakes over a career spanning a half a century, but there is not even a smidgen of a question that the United States, the Democratic party, and the civil and equal rights movements are better off because of Biden’s service to this country.
Unfortunately, it is that overarching theme the Vice President himself failed to respond with when confronted by Sen. Harris. Harris’ attack was masterful from a political aspect in that she at once positioned herself as the alternative to the frontrunner and made the issue of race and desegregation intensely personal with the powerful invocation of her own experience with busing as young girl as the city of Berkeley, California used it to desegregate their schools some 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
Harris’ attack was also effective because she avoided the actual and very complicated history of busing as a policy - Prof. Derrick Bell, the first tenured African American professor at Harvard described court-ordered busing as, depending on the circumstances, “educationally advantageous, irrelevant, or even disadvanitageous” [emphasis his] - but rather cast it as an example of the failure of the federal government to step in when states and localities deny civil rights to minorities.
By doing so, however, Harris left an opening for Biden to pick up the overarching issue of racial justice and civil rights. For a moment, it appeared that Biden even did so. He powerfully invoked his own history of supporting the cause of civil rights and of his service alongside Barack Obama. He drew contrast with Harris’ choice of career as a prosecutor to his early career as a public defender, and while the factual narration of Harris’ career as a prosecutor - much like Biden’s career as a senator and vice president - is one of advancing the rights of people of color, Biden’s theme connected Harris to the overarching distrust communities of color feel with respect to law enforcement. It even seemed to rattle Harris for a second.
But as a prosecutor, preparation is Kamala Harris’s strong suit, and she was prepared. Not to respond with the nuances of her record as a prosecutor, but to refocus the conversation on busing. She asked Biden if he thought he was wrong to oppose busing in the 70s.
Biden took the bait. He became defensive and proceeded to explain the nuances of his position, which was in support of busing enforced by local authorities but not by the federal government. Harris pounded, invoking the role and failure of the federal government to enforce civil rights, and in the estimation of many, won the exchange.
Kamala Harris is a powerful storyteller with a compelling story. So is Joe Biden. But only one of them got to tell their story on the debate stage. At the end of the day, Kamala Harris focused on her strength as a leader in the modern era who has been shaped through the injustices of the past and present.
And that should have been Joe Biden’s opening. A young man who grew up through segregation and a Democratic party that at his time included segregationists, Biden chose to work as a public defender. Biden chose to work on behalf of civil rights as a white man at a time perhaps a majority of his constituents would rather he didn’t. People like Joe Biden - and Biden himself - provided critical leadership in white communities to change their views. He did so well at it that the first black president in US history picked Biden, in Obama’s words, not because he’d make a great vice president but because he’d make a great president. That is Biden’s story - that perhaps not always perfectly, but always sincerely he helped change America’s racial trajectory for the better.
In other words, Joe Biden would have a legitimate claim to being one of the giants of the modern history on whose shoulders younger leaders of today stand. Biden should have been - and I am certain is - proud of being one of those giants, but he did not claim that ground in the debate.
In the alternative, though I believe less effectively, Biden may have also focused on what really causes a segregated education system: a bonkers, stupid, stunningly bad model of funding public education in the states that depends heavily on local property taxes. This results in high income, and generally white (and to some extent, now Asian) neighborhood schools having the best resources while schools with black and brown students, often from low income households, suffer. Biden could have easily raised a sharp attack on Harris that despite her service for more than a decade in local and state leadership positions, nothing changed and that in fact, in Harris’s home state of California, segregation in the education system is getting worse.
Biden did neither.
Joe Biden may have a special sensitivity to invoking history, given some in the media and some of his opponents counting his age as a disqualifying factor (I’m looking at you, Eric Swalwell), but he should not be afraid of history. The modern history of this country - and of the civil rights movement - is a story few can tell like Biden can, and he should own it. It is his strength - a vision of the future with the experience of shaping the past for the better.
This, however, is not the end. Frontrunners tend to lose their first debates. They are inclined to stay above the fray, while challengers are incentivized to create contrast.
What usually follows is that the frontrunner comes prepared the next time and delivers a few knockout punches.
No one should count Joe Biden out.
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