Lower-polling candidates played a major role in Wednesday night’s debate, as the Fix’s Aaron Blake noted in his Winners and Losers post following it. Need further proof? See the post-debate interview Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) gave that went viral for her knock on Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii).
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Harris to respond further to Gabbard’s attack on Harris’s record as a prosecutor, Harris asserted her position in the race and tried to remind Gabbard of hers.
“This is going to sound immodest, but I’m obviously a top-tier candidate,” she said. “And so I did expect that I would be on the stage and take hits tonight, because there are a lot of people who trying to make the stage for the next debate.”
"For a lot of them, it's do or die,” Cooper interjected.
"Well, yeah, and especially when people are at zero or 1 percent, or whatever she might be at, and so I did expect I might take hits tonight,” Harris added before hitting Gabbard for her record on Syria. “I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously,” Harris said after calling Gabbard an “apologist” for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Gabbard’s performance will best be remembered for that attack. Other candidates took shots at that record, but Gabbard’s was most resounding.
“The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology,” she told Harris.
The Washington Post’s Meagan Flynn wrote:
Gabbard singled out Harris’s stance on the death penalty, accusing her of keeping ‘innocent people’ on death row and saying she 'blocked evidence’ that could have helped them. The tense exchange illuminated a complicated piece of Harris’s record as a prosecutor that has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle, with some targeting her refusal to seek the death penalty in the killing of a police officer, and others attacking her decision to defend California’s death penalty from a statewide legal challenge.
Harris didn’t give the apology Gabbard sought, saying she is “proud of” her work, insisting she pushed for reform and somewhat denigrating legislators who aren’t in the position to make such prosecution decisions.
“I think you can judge people by when they are under fire and it’s not about some fancy opinion on a stage but when they’re in the position to actually make a decision, what do they do.”
Harris’s record as a prosecutor has hovered over her efforts to try to convince the Democratic base that she should be their standard-bearer. Days before Harris launched her presidential campaign, Lara Bazelon, former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, wrote a New York Times opinion piece dismissing the idea that Harris was a “progressive prosecutor.”
“A good first step would be to apologize to the wrongfully convicted people she has fought to keep in prison and to do what she can to make sure they get justice,” Bazelon wrote.
That theme has carried over, and Harris’s response to attacks on her record revealed a recognition that her decisions as prosecutor will continue to be an issue as she seeks to translate her résumé into something that’s palatable for the Democrats she needs to convince to become the party’s nominee.
Shermichael Singleton, a Republican strategist who briefly served in the Trump administration, said voters concerned about criminal justice reform will want more from Harris.
“Gabbard is a nonissue because she won’t make it to the final debates, but Harris showed that when cornered, she doesn’t perform very well,” he told the Fix. “She wasn’t horrible last night, but she also wasn’t impressive.”
“It’s early, and she has a lot of room to improve,” he added.
Harris has been able to dodge the amount of criticism that former vice president Joe Biden has received about record on criminal justice, but the gap narrowed on that Wednesday night.