In the span of a month, Harris has pivoted from attacker to attacked. In the first debate, Harris went on the offensive, using a personal appeal to assail former vice president Joe Biden’s opposition to busing. Harris told the audience of her own experience as a second-grader integrating a public school. Within a day, she saw polling and fundraising bumps as a photo of her as a child rocketed around the Internet.
As the two shook hands onstage Wednesday, Biden told Harris: “Go easy on me, kid.”
But during Wednesday’s debate, it was Harris who was clearly in the sights of almost everyone onstage. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called her out by name in the first opening statement, a prelude to a night Harris largely spent on her heels.
The moderators’ first question was on Harris’s recently released health-care plan, which several Democratic candidates have criticized.
“Well,” she told Dana Bash, “they’re probably confused because they’ve not read it.”
Biden and Harris tangled anew over federally mandated busing. Moderator Jake Tapper of CNN noted that Biden had said her current position — opposed to federally mandated busing — “is the same as his position. Is he right?”
“That is simply false,” Harris said, a statement that itself was false. She then explained that their positions would have been different had she been in the Senate in the 1970s, which was not the question Tapper had asked.
Minutes later, Biden accused her of overseeing, as a local prosecutor, a San Francisco police department that was violating people’s rights. It was one of many attacks that tried to paint Harris as a promoter of tough-on-crime policies that contribute to mass incarceration.
“That is — is simply not true,” she began. But again her reply referred to another topic: her later tenure as California’s attorney general. “I ran the second-largest Department of Justice in the United States, second only to the United States Department of Justice. I am proud of the work we did.”
Harris regained some of her footing when she was hammered for defending the death penalty as California attorney general.
But she was criticized by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) for a decision in which the attorney general’s office sought to use a technicality to keep in prison a man who had been found innocent of a crime that prompted a life sentence.
Gabbard also said she was “deeply concerned” that Harris had put 1,500 people in prison for marijuana offenses.
Harris turned the subject to her time as prosecutor, when she said she decided to not pursue the death penalty in the killing of a police officer.
“When I was in the position of having to decide whether or not to seek a death penalty on cases I prosecuted, I made a very difficult decision that was not popular to not seek the death penalty,” she said. “History shows that and I am proud of those decisions.”
Harris said she had worked to help reform California’s criminal justice system, which she said became a model “for the work that needs to be done.”
“And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
But more of the exchanges were similar to the one she had with Sen. Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), who told viewers her plan would make employment-based health insurance illegal and heap $30 trillion in new taxes on the middle class.
“Well, first of all, with all due respect to my friend Michael Bennet, my plan does not offer anything that is illegal,” she said before talking about meeting Americans who are struggling from a lack of health insurance.
Left unsaid: Her health-care plan would, in fact, take insurance out of the hands of employers, instead establishing a government-run system.