written by Valerie Morales
A few months ago, Kamala Harris was sacrosanct. After her immense I’m Running For President rollout in Oakland, California, she breathed elitist air. Positive and fawning press lingered for days as the media considered her a reasonable candidate for the Democratic nomination. Even Donald Trump paid attention to the mass of folk cheering her on, envious and neurotic. The visuals and analysis nudged Harris forward into a vacuum where she was trending. And then, after her closeup, nothing. Pete Buttigieg had an impressive media tour and Elizabeth Warren continued to malign Donald Trump. Kamala Harris fell backwards into the pack, treading water, seemingly unnoticed.
In the pre-debate dog days, Harris struggled with identity. A malaise infected the width of her candidacy, almost as if she was waiting for this moment, setting small little fires because she could. In her most important introduction, Kamala Harris was acerbic and scathing. It was expected, the hissing outcry in the debate aftermath. Women are often slandered for not playing nice.
About the debate. Everything Kamala Harris said on stage was true. Joe Biden opposed busing and little girl Kamala was bused. Biden paid reverence to segregationists and Senator Kamala Harris was offended. It was the tone of her Biden critique that caught everyone off guard. There was a piercing edge to it that felt personal. Blood spilled over a stitched wound. In 4 minutes, Kamala Harris forced Joe Biden to own up to his past. He couldn’t.
The following day Biden tried to regroup in front of an audience in Chicago and it was more of the same she misrepresented me. I don’t want to talk about the past. The media was indifferent to Biden, charmed by Harris’ all over again because of her political fearlessness.
No one dares bring up busing anymore, not even the political historians. It’s considered one of those American scars we don’t want to rip open again due to its complexity. But Harris wasn’t reluctant to throw in his face something Biden doesn’t want to talk about. She interjected race in the campaign in a way no one expected, and frankly, no one wanted. It was a boss move. It was bold.
It’s perfectly acceptable to talk about mass incarceration, or racial profiling, or the black unemployment rate, or why black women are dying faster than white women in childbirth. Those are current trends that have factual and social science histologies. White privilege is even acceptable as a debate topic, the how and why of unequal distribution of wealth. But Kamala went where none of the other candidates could put themselves as decent liberals. They don’t have currency in busing or segregation and frankly are too leery to give it a whirl for fear of how they will be perceived.
By virtue of her Biden critique, Kamala Harris put herself in a unique position to attack Biden and at the same time maintain her credibility as a black woman. Even if she lost at one, she would gain the other. It was a risk but also an inescapable calculus because before the debate she wasn’t polling well with black people. For whites who don’t understand black culture, it’s perplexing. She shouldn’t have to earn her own people’s vote. But Harris is a prosecutor who happily locked black men up, fetishizing mass incarceration as a career advancement. She has a white husband who she keeps out of sight. Anachronistic or not, some black women want to know why a black man like her father isn’t good enough for Kamala Harris to marry. Is it just political wile? Or perhaps, something more profound, a prosecutor who over-incarcerates black men and then re-rejects them?
The 50-ish black woman who is still lamenting the departure of Barack Obama and wants it to be 2008 all over again was Kamala Harris’ debate audience. She reminded them of a conflicted past, and not the Biden wistful past, but a time when black girls were bused to school to receive a better education. While Biden’s kids were in private school at the time, his rigid stand against busing, which he has talked about in detail, pivots him, at the very least, as paradoxical. He was pro-integration until it affected his constituents and their children, then it was “asinine”, which was how Biden referred to busing.
In Iowa polls, Kamala Harris is tied with Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden is on their heels. It’s a reversal of fortune for the former vice president. Last fall, he dominated poll numbers in Iowa but since then hasn’t put much forward as far as a ground game while the two Democratic senators have been very audacious. Former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge said of Biden “he has not been campaigning in Iowa. He has not had a presence here. Couple that with the debate in which Kamala Harris certainly took a piece of his hide. I think it has caught up to him.”
No one is voting for Kamala Harris or against her because she boarded a school bus and left her community as a second grader. But it was how she approached the busing of black girls on the debate stage that was stirring. She was authoritative and yet rejecting of Biden. She dared a 76 year old white man, a valued member of her party and national politics, a former senator and vice president, to be accountable for his past behavior. It’s one thing to be tough in a courtroom, shredding like paper an underrepresented black or brown defendant. But it’s altogether different to respectfully malign a past vice president on national television.
The polling analytics site Five Thirty Eight discovered that Biden supporters who switched to Harris did so after the debate. Harris has opened her arms to the Biden converted but the question that looms large: is that support soft? Are they for Kamala Harris now only to reject her later? Are Biden and Sanders and Buttigieg voters on a first date with Kamala Harris? In this early stage, and with a crowded field, voters are flexible and fickle.
Some national polls have Kamala Harris surging, others don’t. The discrepancies are more evidence that her success (because of one debate) has abruptly changed her fortune. But while a good soundbite is necessary, there is the policy part of the Kamala Harris for president equation that is often elusive, if not shaky.
How many more people have to die before she steps in? We don’t even know that you care. You have turned your back on the people who got you to where you are. (Activist Phelicia Jones)
Voter rich California moved their primary date to February’s Super Tuesday and it will be a big Kamala Harris get. But the demographics of California, a hyper liberal state with a meager African American population, is an illusion. Kamala Harris cannot expect to win the Democratic nomination if she cannot win the south. And winning the south means winning over black women. It vexed Bernie Sanders who performed well in the west and northeast but couldn’t crack the southern middle aged black woman. They just didn’t trust him.
They trust Joe Biden because he has been given the okay by Barack Obama. If Obama trusted him why shouldn’t they? That’s what the Harris campaign has to overcome. The debate helped. Biden’s black voter approval was cut in half. The debate reminded black voters that they can’t argue for reparations and then say the past doesn’t matter. The past is a link to a bunch of skeletons in the closet you can’t shut the door on.
Harris has her own problematic past. It’s not segregation or busing but it is just as dramatic. Kamala Harris was directly and indirectly responsible for incarceration, particularly she turned a blind eye when the state of California had evidence of unlawful prosecutions. More or less, she just shrugged.
Shortly after the debate, Harris brought in $2 million in just 24 hours. Most were first time contributors. Harris has to follow up her performance with policy initiatives. She hasn’t clarified her Medicare for All position. She has said yes and raised her hand but has all kind of buts about erasing all private insurance. She’s reactive to children in cages but hasn’t been progressive in discussing the amnesty overhaul and how exactly do we incorporate such a large amount of humanity. Speaking of which. California leads the nation in homelessness. How can she argue against what Trump is doing to homeless immigrants when she didn’t address the homeless problem in her own state? She’ll claim homelessness wasn’t under the purview of the Attorney General. But a leader shepherds the isolated and ignored when no one is paying attention.
In debate number two, people will be paying attention. You can expect Joe Biden to come after Kamala Harris. She has a controversial criminal justice past, not to mention this whole farce of an idea that Harris is a reformer. The reforms she fought for like “Back on Track”, which allowed first time offenders to get their high school diploma instead of prison time, were like throwing pebbles in the ocean.
Kamala Harris was complicit in the incarceration of the innocent and the over incarceration of the guilty. She supported the prosecution of parents whose children were consistently truant. She fought releasing prisoners because of overcrowding after it was mandated by the Supreme Court as cruel and unusual punishment. It was pointed out by Buzzfeed writer Molly Hensley-Clancy that Harris’ 2009 book Smart On Crime only mentioned police bias twice. It was that same book that called out liberals and said they were biased against law enforcement.
Harris frequently distances herself from the prosecutorial misconduct in her own office (attorney general and district attorney) but she’s not exempt from the moral and legal obligation to effectuate and uphold fairness. By nature of her election, she was required to preserve and sustain a public trust. Whether she admits to it or not, the behavior of those beneath her was directly affected by her willingness, as a leader, to over-incarcerate.
Those aware of the Kamala Harris landmines, like when she called herself California’s top cop, were shocked that Joe Biden didn’t jam her racial soliloquy back in her face. I may have supported busing but you supported locking up black men. One of your prosecutors falsified a confession. You don’t have the right to lecture me. But only Biden silence.
Joe Biden- and who can blame him- is going to go for the Kamala Harris jugular and will attack her vulnerabilities. How she responds- house money is that she is better prepared than Biden was- will keep her momentum going. Or, it will be Kamala Harris regression to the mean.