Early in Thursday’s debate, Harris broke through a shouting match between her rivals to say, “America does not want to witness a food fight.” About an hour later, she forced America to witness a premeditated murder.
The California senator had already put together a star turn in Miami before she left Joe Biden to bleed out in a pile of his own baggage. Harris’s canned zinger about the American people’s disinterest in food fights (“they want to know how we are going to put food on their table”) inspired raucous applause, even as other candidates’ one-liners drew respectful silence. When Kirsten Gillibrand or Eric Swalwell tried to steal airtime by speaking over the moderators, they sounded thirsty and rude. When Harris did it, she sounded like Lester Holt’s boss – and then promptly delivered a heartrending anecdote about an apocryphal parent who was, at that very moment, sitting in an Emergency Room parking lot somewhere in America “looking at those sliding glass doors while they have the hand on the forehead of their child, knowing that if they walk through those sliding glass doors, even though they have insurance, they will be out a 5,000 deductible, $5,000 deductible when they walk through those doors.”
The senator’s performance over the debate’s first 60 minutes was enough to clarify why, not too long ago, conventional wisdom held that this would be her race to lose. Harris started 2019 with an enviable donor network, a flood of high-profile endorsements, strong opening fundraising numbers, and a post-launch polling surge. But in the ensuing months, her campaign sank back to Earth and stayed there. Those bullish on her candidacy assumed she would claim the lion’s share of the African-American vote, and a large swathe of the white liberal one. Then Joe Biden got a hammer-grip on the former, and Mayor Pete, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders collectively commandeered the latter. Going into Miami, national polls showed Harris boasting a measly 7 percent support.
She will almost certainly leave Florida with more. After her notably strong showing in the debate’s opening half, Harris went in for the kill. Amidst a discussion of community-police relations in South Bend, Indiana, the senator asserted her prerogative as “the only black person on stage,” to weigh on this “issue of race.” The moderators gave her 30 seconds. She took as much time as she pleased; there are no rules on network news for those who deliver must-see T.V.
In recent weeks, liberal commentators and some Democratic candidates had tried to make Biden pay a price for his record of opposing busing to integrate America’s schools, and his not entirely unrelated record of fondly reminiscing about his working relationship with white supremacist senators (reminscences that he frames as edifying lessons in the virtues of political compromise). But no one could make the left’s charges stick. It’s too early to say for certain whether Harris did. But if her cross-examination of Biden Thursday night didn’t draw blood, nothing will…
The former vice president’s performance in Miami brimmed with a sense of cosmic cruelty. Biden was finally where he’d always wanted to be. At the dead center of the debate stage, and very top of the primary polls. The longtime Delaware senator might have lacked the gifts necessary to win a presidential run without a head start. But all he had to do now was play the generic Democrat; speechify in a folksy manner, say “Barack Obama” in a reverential tone, and “Donald Trump” in a contemptuous one. Name recognition, the primary electorate’s anxious nostalgia, and strong general election polling would do the rest. At any earlier point in his career, Biden could have won this thing without breaking a sweat.
But his moment came just a little too late. Even before Harris began bludgeoning him with the skeletons in his closet, it was clear that the man had lost a step. His voice sounded hoarse. He struggled to hear the moderators. The Democratic frontrunner started strong on every answer, then began stumbling halfway through, his canned lines falling out of his mouth in haphazard fashion. Biden promised that “we can deal with the insurance companies by, number one, putting insurance executives in jail for their misleading advertising, what they’re doing on opioids, what they’re doing paying doctors to prescribe,” things that insurance companies had never done. He said he was running for president to help America’s “poor and hardworking middle class people,” and “you can’t do that without replacing them with the dignity they once had.”
Shortly after Harris came after him, Biden launched into an indignant rant about his lifelong support for civil rights, saying, “I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I’ve also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box. I agree that everybody, once they, in fact,” – and then stopped speaking. On a night when every other candidate had shouted over the moderators to get one more word in, Biden cut himself off, and uttered what just might become the epitaph for his long-suffering presidential ambitions: “Anyway, my time is up, I’m sorry.”
My evaluation of the 2020 race has been a fundamental tension between the various reasons I think a Biden run for the presidency will end very badly for him and his poll numbers, with 2016 reminding us that the latter need to be taken seriously no matter how implausible a candidacy seems. But he emerges unscathed from that trainwreck I’m just going to throw up my hands and admit I know nothing.