It took a while to get there, but as anticipated, former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on race led to one of the most heated moments of Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who demonstrated her fierce prosecutorial acumen throughout the night, came at Biden for his “hurtful” comments about his friendly relations with segregationist senators in the 1970s, and then deftly pivoted to Biden’s own opposition to busing during that era, revealing that she was one of the young African-Americans who benefited from that desegregation program.
True to form, Biden reasserted his personal history on civil rights — ignoring the fact that Harris opened her attack by conceding that he is not a racist — and refused to apologize for his remarks about how “we got things done” with segregationists Democrats in the 1970s
or renounce his now politically untenable old position on busing.
He condescendingly told Harris that it was her local City Council’s fault that she had to participate in busing in the first place, but his answer betrayed no empathy or compassion, just a stern defense of his own controversial record.
When it comes to Biden’s long record in the Senate, he has failed to acknowledge how the compromises he is so proud of having forged frequently resulted in bad policy — ones whose impact often disproportionately landed on the backs of African-Americans.
As Harris said of Biden’s old political allies in a post-debate interview, again stressing that she did not see Biden himself as a racist: “The consequences of their actions were very real, and on the shoulders of a history in our country of — really a very bad awful dark dangerous and lethal time.”
This is not a problem singularly for Biden. The Democratic Party has been disappointing black voters for decades—and they may not be able to afford to come up short for them again.
In a debate full of interruptions, forced talking points and uncomfortable exchanges, it may have been the discussion of racial matters that knocked a few of the top tier candidates off their game.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who was smoother than many of the more seasoned politicians on stage for the most part, didn’t navigate a question well about the racial tensions back home in South Bend, Indiana where a police shooting has resurrected past complaints about his sensitivity on race.
Buttigieg, who has struggled to connect with black voters, at first seemed to take total responsibility for his local department’s lack of diversity (just 6 percent black, even though South Bend is about 26 percent black), but he also absolved himself of making a judgment call, since an investigation was still ongoing.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, who spent most of the night trying to remind viewers how young he was, goaded the mayor by saying he should “fire the police chief,” by the end of the exchange Buttigieg could only shoot Swalwell an exasperated stare.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose own struggles with winning over African-Americans are well-documented, also failed to seriously address a question about a previous comment he’d made which seemed to dismiss the significance of representation of women and minorities in the race.
Meanwhile, Sen. Harris was able to steal focus repeatedly, and in this case she pulled rank on race as the often overpowered MSNBC moderators had to helplessly seed the floor to her.
These exchanges laid bare the challenge before the Democratic contenders, who fate in the primaries and eventually the general election will have a lot to do with how much they can inspire and appeal to voters of color.
There was plenty of talk about systematic racism, voting rights and even reparations, but there was only one person on stage who consistently was able to weave an accessible narrative around these issues.
Harris spoke about race in very personal terms — pointing out that there isn’t a single black man she knew who hadn’t experienced some form of racial profiling. And she talked about being told by a white neighbor as a child that they could no longer play together because she was black.
It was a different side of the senator than the no-nonsense Senate committee questioner that those who are casually familiar with her might have previously seen. And her performance tonight should earn her a second look or first look from Democratic voters.
Arguably the greatest hinderance to her candidacy to date, may be the perception that a black woman may be deemed less electable than established white politicians like Sanders or Biden, but the rapturous applause that greeted her reference to the president and “her hand,” suggests that previously held perceptions of electability can and should be thrown out the window.
Tonight, the most coherent compelling candidate onstage was a black woman and a distant second was a gay man. Electability is the eye of the beholder. And when Biden’s camp released a statement saying that the debate was “exactly what Trump wants,” it failed to see that this kind of reckoning on representation is actually exactly what Democratic voters want..