Her blistering confrontation of the former VP showed voters she won't back down from a fight.

By Laura Bassett
Updated: Jun 28, 2019 @ 12:23 pm
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Somewhere in the middle of the second Democratic debate, it was time to address racial injustice. The moderators went to Mayor Pete Buttigieg first, on the shooting of a black man in his hometown, then to Congressman Eric Swalwell. Self-help guru Marianne Williamson added her two cents. Then Senator Kamala Harris spoke up, silencing the others and delivering a moment that will go down in presidential debate history. 

“As the only black person on this stage, I’d like to address the issue of race,” she said. 

Then she turned to the front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, who recently touted his record of working “across the aisle” with racist segregationists in the Senate. 

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris told Biden. “But I also believe, and it’s personal, and it was actually very hurtful, to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their careers and reputations on the segregation of race in this country.” 

A stunned Biden, who has thus far enjoyed strong support among black voters, curled his mouth into a frown and stared straight ahead. She wasn’t finished.  

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris continued. “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.”

As a freshman senator in the 1970s, Biden was a vocal opponent of school integration — in particular, governments requiring black children to be bused to majority-white schools and vice versa. He also fought to block the use of federal funds to help schools end segregation through busing. 

Harris calling him out on this was the most direct and personal confrontation on race in the two-night debate, made especially powerful coming from the only woman of color on a stage full of mostly white men. Biden appeared to be completely unprepared for it. He first tried to defend himself, saying Harris had mischaracterized his record. 

“I did not oppose busing in America,” he said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”

Harris disagreed with Biden that busing should have been a state issue, responding that the federal government needed to step in and handle the situation, “because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.” She wasn't just talking about her experience as a black child in America, she was using it to pivot to what she believes the role of government should be — in protecting the rights of people of color, and women as she called out the ERA — and to deftly point out how she thinks Biden would fall short. 

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Biden tried to shoot back at Harris by going after her record as a prosecutor in California, which some see as Harris’ Achilles heel in the fight to win over black and progressive voters. And some may interpret her blistering confrontation of him on the debate stage as more prosecutorial than presidential. She herself acknowledged earlier in the night that “America does not want to witness a food fight — they want to know how we’re going to put food on the table.” 

But she entered the night an underdog, and she needed to make the case for why Biden may not be the clear choice to lead the country after President Trump. She presented herself as a candidate of the future, and him as one of the past. 

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Seeming to sense that Harris had won that exchange, Biden meekly cut off his own response to her. “Anyway, my time is up,” he said. “I’m sorry.” 

Biden has spent much of his campaign coasting on a sense of nostalgia for his eight years with Barack Obama and touting Obama’s record as his own. He has held a lead in all the early polls, benefiting from strong name recognition and the idea that he, as a friendly white guy with working class roots, is the most electable candidate against President Trump.  

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It’s too early to say, but this moment may be remembered at the one in which Harris became a real contender for 2020. She seized the conversation about race and zeroed in on one of Biden’s political vulnerabilities without interrupting or shouting over anyone, instead handling a sensitive issue with emotion, relatability, and — importantly — extreme smarts about the game.

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