Race talk took over the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night, offering a dramatic twist to the campaign and injecting a sensitive topic that promises to resonate until voters cast ballots in the early state primaries and caucuses.
In what was the most emotionally charged moment of the debate, California Sen. Kamala Harris praised former Vice President Joe Biden and affirmed her belief that he’s not racist. But she pivoted to condemn his recent comments about working as a young senator with segregationists and his opposition to federal involvement in school busing during the 1970s.
“It’s personal and 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,” Harris said, her voice choking with rage and emotion. “It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Then, adding a personal story to her comments, Harris added: “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. That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
Biden listened, stone-faced, but then offered a spirited defense.
“It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” he said with equal amounts of passion and anger. “I do not praise racists. That is not true.”
Biden argued that his role in the Delaware busing debate early in his Senate career was to say that busing should be a local issue, not a federal one.
That didn’t sit well with Harris, who immediately — and accurately — noted that local governments opposed school integration, which was why federal government intervention was required.
“There was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris said, turning to face Biden directly. “There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.
The back-and-forth between Biden and Harris suggests the impending battle for black voter support in key, early primary states and, ultimately, the Democratic presidential nomination.
In the second night of back-to-back, cable-broadcast debates, the lineup in Miami’s Arsht Center for the Performing Arts featured a greater number of higher-profile candidates, including Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Harris, and Biden — all who have garnered extensive media attention and are among the leading candidates in several polls of voters in nearly primary and caucus states.
For the others — spiritualist author and lecturer Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California — sharing the stage with top-rung candidates offered an opportunity to introduce themselves and make a positive first impression with potential supporters.
On Wednesday, another set of candidates debated on the same stage, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.
Clearly, the Biden-Harris attack was the most impactful moment, given that Biden’s name never came up in the first debate. Harris’ confrontation with the front-running candidate was designed to portray Biden as a less appealing option to black voters who will play an outsize role in the critical South Carolina primary and on Super Tuesday.
Discussions of racial tensions rose again when Buttigieg was pointedly asked about charges of police abuse in South Bend, forcing the mayor to say he hadn’t made as much progress as he would have liked. “I couldn’t get it done,” he said. “My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting. Eric Logan killed by a white officer and I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. . . .It’s a mess. We are hurting.”
What’s more, talk about race refocused the dynamics of the debate, momentarily diluting the Democrats’ united attacks on Trump.
Indeed, for most of the first hour, the candidates aimed their most barbed comments — not at the competitors standing alongside them on the Miami auditorium stage — at the man the each of them wants to replace in the White House.
Responding to the first question posed to him on his views regarding income inequality, Biden reshaped the question with a blistering attack on the economic policies of President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America,” Biden said. “Ordinary middle class Americans built America.”
At another point early in the debate, Sanders argued his political ideology — Democratic socialism — would beat Trump.
“Well, I think the response is that the polls have us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump because the American people understand that trump is a phony,” he said. “Trump is a pathological liar and a racist and that he lied to the American people during his campaign. He said he was going to stand up for working families. Well, President Trump, you are not standing up for working families when you try to throw 32 million people off their health care that they have and that 83% of your tax benefits go to the top 1%. That’s how we beat Trump. We expose him for the fraud that he is.”
Seemingly speaking for all of the Democrats in the debate, Bennet took on Trump in response to a question from a viewer about repairing damage to America’s image abroad.
“We have a president who doesn’t believe in the rule of law and freedom of the press and doesn’t believe in independent judiciary and believes in the corruption he brought to Washington, D.C.,” Bennet said. “And that is what we have to change and why everybody is up here tonight. I appreciate the fact that they’re up here for that reason.”
Indeed, for many of the trailing candidates, who are hovering around 1% in the early polls, it is desperation time and the best survival strategy is: Attack! Attack! Attack!
“They’re going to have to bust a move,” Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a pre-debate interview with Fortune, noting that the trailing candidates see the former vice president as their target to rise in the polls and retain financial viability for the next round of debates in July. “Obviously, Biden wants to come out where he started and unscathed, and anybody with 3% or below, it’s a fight for survival for raising money.”