California Sen. Kamala Harris captured the national spotlight on Thursday with a single sentence: "As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race."
On the second night of the Democratic presidential debates, Harris lit into former Vice President Joe Biden for his previous opposition to busing, the practice of integrating schools in segregated cities by sending black children to schools in white neighborhoods. Harris made the issue personal by explaining that she was bused as a child in San Francisco, a fact that has since turned into campaign merch.
“You also worked [to] oppose busing,” Harris said to Biden on stage Thursday. “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.”
But Democratic strategists and onlookers say it was easier for Harris to snag the spotlight when it wasn’t her record she had to defend — although maybe she should have to.
“She kind of lucked out that she didn’t get attacked” on her criminal justice record, said David Lublin, a political scientist and fellow of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “On a crowded stage after two nights, she is one of the people who will get looked at more.”
And there’s plenty of material that Biden could have chased: As a California prosecutor and later, attorney general, Harris fought to uphold wrongful convictions secured through departmental misconduct, endorsed efforts in California to criminalize truancy, and oversaw a department that argued the state of California couldn’t release some prisoners because it would reduce the number of prison laborers.
As prison data shows, those policies all disproportionately harm people of color.
Harris’ offensive struck at the heart of Biden’s platform, which he has anchored around morality and national character — both of which Biden says have suffered during the Trump presidency. (In response, Biden said that he didn’t oppose busing on its face but a federal mandate from the Department of Education, rather than allowing municipalities to decide.)
The exchange also came just days after Democrats slammed Biden for waxing nostalgic about the Senate of the 1970s and 1980s and the professional “civility” of two senators who were known segregationists. Harris referred to those remarks on Thursday as “hurtful” to her personally.
“In multi-candidate debates, you’ve got to practice for your offensive moment, and you also should be practicing, if you’ve got a long public record, to be able to play defense,” said William Sweeney, the former deputy chairman of the National Democratic Committee and former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Offense usually wins over defense in that format. She took the offensive. And Biden clearly was not repaired [to] take the offense by going after her record,” Sweeney added.
Harris didn’t just go after Biden’s record –– she touted her own. While attacking Biden’s record on race, she added that, while she was California’s attorney general, special agents working for the state Justice Department were required to wear body cameras. (To be clear, Harris said as recently as 2015 that she doesn’t believe states should adopt uniform requirements for the use of police-worn body cameras.)
Lublin thinks Harris had the best performance of any of the debate’s 20 candidates — and added that the more broad leftward shift of the Democratic field made her criticisms of Biden’s record all the stronger. “But I do wonder to what extent it will work or not,” he said.
“She took the issue of busing and merged it with the praise of segregationist senators and was able to make a point without talking about her record as attorney general or her prosecution style. She was able to crystallize the issue and make it personal, and she was obviously prepared for it,” he adds.
Noting the speed with which Harris’s campaign staff tweeted the photo of the candidate as a young girl, Sweeney said it’s clear that her attack on Biden was calculated. “They didn’t go running to the family scrapbook that night,” he said.
Cover image: Senator Kamala Harris in the spin room following the 2020 Democratic Party presidential debates held at The Adrienne Arsht Center on June 27, 2019 in Miami Florida. Credit: mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX