Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is having a “moment.” She dominated the presidential debate and, more important, the post-debate spin. As a result, she got a substantial bump in campaign donations and polling. But she might need to deal with two lines of pushback.
The first avenue of criticism is: “Joe Biden was right! You have to work with people.” Ross K. Baker of Rutgers University takes to lecturing Harris in an op-ed in USA Today. “He had to find a way around these autocrats — by sweet-talking them or even accommodating some of their last-ditch obstacles — simply to get the opportunity to achieve the most limited civil rights gains,” he writes. “These accommodations, Sen. Harris, were not evidence of collaboration with the enemies of civil rights or an abandonment of principle. They were, with no small amount of resignation, laying the groundwork for the landmark civil rights advances of the future.”
That effort, like others circulating, should be easily dismissed for deliberately (or cluelessly) disregarding the entire point Harris raised. In fact, as women often do so as to not appear “aggressive” (can’t have that!), she softened her criticism by beginning this way: “I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden. I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.” She made quite clear she was objecting to the nostalgic tone or to any notion we should reminisce about the good old days, which weren’t good. She wasn’t criticizing him for working with those senators.
The next line of criticism concerns whether she wants to bring back mandatory busing, a highly controversial effort that, by the results we now see, didn’t achieve school integration. She actually didn’t say that. Rather, Harris said, “Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you ... might [have been] wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
She seemed to say that back then opposition to busing was racist and wrong. That, however, indicts a great number of Democrats and both black and white Americans who objected to busing as a means of integration. Yes, there were mean-spirited whites who didn’t want their kids to go to school with blacks at all but that was not by a long shot the totality of opposition to busing.
The Post reports: “In the 1970s, Biden’s views on mandatory busing brought him in line with arch-conservatives, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). But those views also placed Biden decidedly in the mainstream of public opinion.” If so, Biden blew it by being unnecessarily defensive and could have, if he were nimble enough, have turned the tables on her. (“It worked in some places, Sen. Harris, but huge numbers of Americans, including Democrats, thought federal, mandatory busing was not the way to achieve integration. It’s why no one is pushing it today.”)
So what about now? The campaign initially clarified that she does support busing. “A spokesman for the senator suggested on Thursday night that this may change, replying simply ‘yes’ on Twitter to a question about whether Harris supports busing as a strategy for contemporary school desegregation. Her campaign didn’t return a request for comment about whether she would be rolling out plans on the issue.” That’s not a very good answer if she does not want to set off a firestorm.
Sure enough, on the second try, the campaign explained that she merely supports the Strength in Diversity Act, proposed by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), which would allow funds for voluntary busing — which was Biden’s position in the 1970s. (The legislation “authorizes $120 million to provide planning and implementation grants to support voluntary local efforts to increase socioeconomic diversity in schools. . . . [including] public school choice zones, revising school boundaries, or expanding busing service.”)
So Biden was in the mainstream in the 1970s, and when you dig down, Harris isn’t presently in favor of mandatory busing either. Biden might want to move on to other topics, because, as they say, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Nevertheless, this is the world of presidential politics, and if Biden chokes the way he did last week on the stage under pressure from Trump, it could be disastrous.
Harris set the trap; Biden fell in. And now she’s on the rise, and he’s losing ground. Harris showed she can play the 21st-century political game, maybe the best qualification for taking on Trump. Nevertheless, she might want to be more precise with her policy positions so as to avoid bouts of confusion — unless the tactic is deliberate, allowing everyone to interpret her for themselves. Barack Obama used that very strategy in 2008. Welcome to media-driven, viral-moment-driven politics. The “electable” candidate is the one who can excel at it.