Harris grabbed control of the debate with a simple phrase: “I would like to speak on the issue of race.”
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said. She then laced into Biden over his nostalgic recollections of white supremacist senators, describing this as “hurtful” given her own personal experience of racial profiling and discrimination.
This created an interesting tension, as Harris seemed to expose personal vulnerability even while ferociously disemboweling a rival. Biden vigorously defended his longtime record on civil rights, but Harris prosecuted Biden over his past opposition to busing, which got him to falsely disavow that opposition and to stumble into a defense of local control on the issue.
As many have noted, Harris here displayed a raw ability to cross-examine an opponent that makes it easier to envision her taking on Trump. Some Trump allies are reportedly now wary of Harris.
But I’d like to argue that there are deeper layers to this exchange, ones involving what’s really going on in Democratic politics right now and the ways Harris and Biden are entangled in some of these complexities.
Race is central to a core Biden tension
The topic of race is absolutely central to Biden’s candidacy, but it’s also the source of a big and unresolved tension at its core.
Race is key to Biden’s suggestion that our central imperative is defeating Trump and to Biden’s claim that he’s the candidate to do that. This is true in two ways: an obvious way and a largely unmentioned way.
Biden’s discussion of race, then, is central to his aura as the candidate who will salvage our national character from Trump’s degradations of it and keep the arc of our history bending toward justice. He’s the American elder statesman who possesses the depth, experience and gravity to make this big argument.
On the other hand, Biden’s aura of electability turns in part on his alleged ability to appeal to the blue-collar, culturally conservative whites who turned out in huge numbers for Trump amid a candidacy of virulent bigotry that had its founding spark in the conspiracy theory that the first black presidency was illegitimate.
Where is the source of that appeal to those voters supposed to lie? Partly in Biden’s roots in Scranton, Pa., and in his image as an old-fashioned labor Democrat (never mind that he’s far less populist on policy than Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
But race is also key to that appeal. When we discuss Biden’s electability in the industrial Midwest, race is central to what we’re talking about, and we all know it.
The most charitable way to put this is that Biden comes from a Democratic Party that precedes its new “wokeness,” so those voters might be more comfortable with him. A less charitable way is that Biden’s past association with things like his opposition to busing — which meant capturing the political energy of white racial backlash — carries an implicit racial and cultural signaling that will reassure them.
One key reason that Biden’s nostalgia over white supremacist senators blew up on him is that it ripped the lid off of all this. Just as Harris does, I believe Biden when he insists he was, and is, horrified by their white supremacy.
But what still remains ambiguous is whether Biden does or does not conceive the source of his claimed appeal to conservative whites as rooted in subtle appeals to blue-collar white identity politics, as Jamelle Bouie has detailed.
This ambiguity was pushed forward when Biden adamantly refused to back off his praise for segregationist senators and, worse, when he dressed down African American Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) over the matter.
What Harris did last night
What Harris really did is to pin down this ambiguity and not allow it to remain hidden any longer. What she demonstrated is that, whatever Biden’s actual intentions, any whiff of such racial and cultural signaling no longer has any place in today’s Democratic Party.
Tellingly, this was precisely the point at which Biden was left befuddled. He simply didn’t know how to respond. He did forcefully denounce his old Senate colleagues. But he also defended his busing stance — which carried the aroma of that very same signaling. At the least, he just didn’t know how to clearly telegraph that he understands that this no longer can be left ambiguous.
It’s not yet clear how much this will damage Biden, and he still has time to find some way to convey clarity on this point.
But Harris’s precision in exposing this ambiguity was almost eerie. Biden may possess a well of knowledge and experience from having lived through civil rights tumult, but it didn’t serve him well at a crucial moment.
By contrast, Harris made a strong down payment on the idea that she’s the one to prosecute the case against Trump’s racism — a case that must be prosecuted with no such ambiguity or gray areas.