No debate here: This was Kamala Harris’s night, signed, sealed, and delivered.
Every presidential candidate wants a dramatic moment vis-à-vis the frontrunner. In Thursday’s Democratic debate, Harris made hers, challenging former vice president Joe Biden over his long ago history of working with Southern segregationist senators against busing.
The California senator did it with impressive skill, first saying that she didn’t think Biden was a racist, but then noting that his recent comments about working civilly with senators James Eastland and Herman Talmadge had been hurtful, the more so since she as a child had been bused to a different school in the name of racial integration.
Her carefully calibrated rebuke rattled Biden, who heatedly defended his long record on civil rights. Whether this issue from some 40 years ago will hurt him remains to be seen.
But it will surely elevate Harris, and it should. One threshold question for most everyone watching these debates is this: How would this candidate fare against incumbent Donald Trump? Harris’s Thursday performance provided a reassuring answer: Pretty damn well. She was tough, able, and cool on the attack.
The other standout was Pete Buttigieg, though for different reasons. The South Bend, Ind., mayor was thoughtful, measured, and detailed — and willing to say some things that cut against the popular Democratic grain. Buttigieg, for example, asserted that it really wasn’t fair for working-class taxpayers to be forced to pay for free college for wealthy kids. He spoke of the potential effectiveness of a carbon tax as a way to fight global warming. And he didn’t try to shirk, or shrink from, mayoral responsibility when it came to the recent shooting of an African American man by a white police officer in his city.
Biden himself was adequate, but hardly outstanding. He often seemed to be trying to remember a string of bullet points he was told to be sure to mention. Overall, the night wasn’t a disaster for him, but it surely won’t solidify his position as frontrunner.
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont came off as a grumpy uncle with no truck for pesky questions. Although his call for a single-payer health care system that would eliminate insurance companies and end employer-based health care plans came under considerable fire, he seemed more intent on sidestepping questions than answering them. Asked how single-payer would occur, Sanders resorted to an ideologue’s pat formulation: Single-payer would happen when people rose up and demanded it. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who also supports a sweeping single-payer system, had a better (though still ultimately unpersuasive) answer: Over a four-year transition period, allowing people to opt into Medicare for All would prove the superiority of a government-run plan.
Another prototypically brusque Bernie moment came when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow read him a previous statement he had made to the effect that gun control should be left to the states — only to have Sanders respond that she was mischaracterizing his position.
As both Wednesday’s and Thursday’s debates suggested, single-payer versus adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act is destined to become a continental divide in the Democratic primary. Some candidates may try to finesse the difference, but as we saw with the pointed anti-single-payer critique offered by Coloradans Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, others will push back hard against Sanders.
As for the other candidates, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California stood out for his proposal for a mandatory buy-back program for military-style assault weapons. And though his call for Biden and Sanders to “pass the torch” to a new generation was a blunt instrument, it gave debate-stage voice to a sentiment you hear regularly from everyday voters.
Basically a single-issue candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang got a chance to highlight his guaranteed minimum income plan, which, to quote that old sage Meat Loaf, is going nowhere fast. Kudos to him for his intrepid stand against the tyranny of the necktie, however.
And finally, what can one say about author Marianne Williamson’s performance? Except, perhaps, this: As, um, diverting as Williamson was in person, after seeing Kate McKinnon impersonate her on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” I share the comedian’s lament: If ony “Saturday Night Live” had a new show this week.