2020 Vision: Harris won't let Biden off the hook on busing

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the 25th Essence Festival in New Orleans. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race. Reminder: There are 206 days until the Iowa caucuses and 479 days until the 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Kamala Harris is not letting former Vice President Joe Biden off the hook.

In an interview with “The Breakfast Club” syndicated radio show that aired Friday morning, Harris revisited her debate attack on Biden’s record on race issues.

The California senator said she was “not going to let us engage on a debate stage for who’s going to be the next president of the United States” without bringing up Biden’s history of working with segregationist senators — which he apologized for this week — or his opposition to federally mandated busing in the 1970s.

“We cannot rewrite history on this,” Harris said. “That was part of the reason I raised it on that stage. America’s history on [busing] is that there had to be busing because there were people like those segregationists who served in the United States Senate, who served in Congress, who served in state houses, who were using every breath they had to fight against integration of the public schools. Before that, they were using every power they had to segregate those schools. So busing had to happen.”

Biden told CNN he was surprised that Harris went after him. But the strategy seems to have paid off. Harris has risen in the polls and raised more than $2 million since their showdown. Expect to see other candidates emulate that aggressive approach later this month at the second Democratic debate in Detroit.

Pete Buttigieg, right, with the Rev. Al Sharpton at the Essence Festival. (Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP)

The battle for black voters is on

During the 2008 presidential primary, Barack Obama’s advisers urged him not to talk explicitly about race; they worried the young senator with the Kenyan father and Muslim-sounding name might alienate moderate white voters. It wasn’t until Obama's association with the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright threatened to sink his campaign in March of that year that he finally, begrudgingly, tackled the issue head on.

A lot has changed since then.

This time around race is a playing a bigger, more open role in the Democratic primary than ever before — a fact that became strikingly apparent this week when Pete Buttigieg, the very young, very white mayor of South Bend, Ind., released a multi-pronged plan to combat systemic racism in America by doing everything from "promoting black history and culture and ensuring Washington, D.C., statehood to tackling the racial wealth gap," as Yahoo News’ Brittany Shepherd reported Thursday.

Buttigieg even wrapped his proposal in a neat rhetorical bow, naming it after abolitionist Frederick Douglass and likening it to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

“We have lived in the shadow of systemic racism for too long,” Buttigieg said in a statement. “The Douglass Plan will help heal our deep racial divides with bold policies that match the scale of the crisis we face today.”

There's no reason to doubt that Buttigieg's commitment to racial healing is sincere. But the interesting thing — the shift it signals — is how politically necessary it now is as well. For a number of reasons, race has become something that Democratic presidential wannabes run toward in 2020, rather than away from. Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and President Trump’s racialized reactions to it, the Democratic Party seems to have decided to stop treating black voters as a loyal constituency whose votes they can simply take for granted — a mistake that may have cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election.) Factor in the most diverse field ever, with two prominent black candidates, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, competing with Joe Biden, the first vice president to serve alongside a black commander in chief — and you wind up with the most heated battle for black voters in presidential primary history.

It’s the reason why Buttigieg is responding to his near-nonexistent support among African-Americans and police controversies back home in South Bend with a sweeping plan meant to help him “deserve to win” over black Americans, as he recently put it. It’s why Elizabeth Warren is explicitly emphasizing the “racial dimensions” of her many policy proposals, from housing to health care to higher education. It’s why Julián Castro wants to attack “over-aggressive” policing, and why Cory Booker is pushing “baby bonds.”

It also why Harris, this year’s leading black candidate, did a very un-Obama-like thing in the first round of Democratic debates, kneecapping Biden on busing and his nostalgia for a time when liberals could compromise with segregationists in the Senate. The move immediately demonstrated the power of the black vote. According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, Biden’s backing among black voters fell by half after the debate, leading to an overall decline in support of 8 percentage points from a similar poll taken in early June. Harris, meanwhile, gained ground with black voters and moved into third place.

Black voters have long told pollsters they are concerned about racism and discrimination — and are looking for candidates with real plans to address those issues. They still say that today. But while in the past Democrats may have addressed their concerns superficially, by appearing alongside Al Sharpton or chowing down on soul food, today’s candidates are relying more than ever before on substance. That’s progress.

Joe Biden at City University New York City on Thursday. (Photo: Johannes Eislele/AFP/Getty Images)

Plans, plans and more plans

Following the lead of Sen. Elizabeth “I Have a Plan for That” Warren, there were a flurry of policy proposals unveiled by Democratic hopefuls this week. Among them:

• Buttigieg’s aforementioned plan to help black Americans

• Beto O’Rourke’s plan to forgive 100 percent of student loan debt for all public school teachers

• Warren’s own plan for immigration reform

• And Joe Biden’s foreign policy plan to end family separation at the U.S. southern border, Trump’s travel ban and “forever wars” in the Middle East.

In a speech laying out his plan in New York City on Thursday, Biden said the United States only has “one opportunity to reset this democracy after Trump.”

“If we give Donald Trump four more years, we’ll have a great deal of difficulty if ever being able to recover America’s standing in the world and our capacity to bring nations together,” Biden said. “It’d be catastrophic to our national security and to our future. We can’t let it happen.”

Yet Biden failed to mention his own support for the Iraq War. (Years later, Biden said it was a mistake to give then-President George W. Bush the authority to wage war.)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was campaigning in New York City on the morning of Biden's speech, said the former vice president should've used the opportunity to apologize for his vote.

“Judgement is important,” Inslee said. “And a misjudgment could be fatal in this regard.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, right, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez celebrate the selection of Milwaukee as the 2020 Democratic National Convention host city. (Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images)

How to win Wisconsin

Here’s something that should keep Democrats up at night. In 2020, the party’s presidential nominee could recapture the big, historically blue states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, but still lose the Electoral College by two votes, 270-268, if Donald Trump holds all the states he won in 2016, including Wisconsin — another state Democrats usually carry but where Trump eked out a victory by less than 1 percent.

This isn’t some far-fetched scenario. For Democrats, Pennsylvania and Michigan are riper demographic targets than the Badger State, where the electorate is heavier on (Trump-friendly) non-college-educated whites and lighter on (largely anti-Trump) African-Americans. In the “blue wave” midterm elections of 2018, Dems swept the governorships of Pennsylvania and Michigan by double-digit margins, and they flipped Wisconsin by a single percentage point. In Wisconsin’s only statewide contest since then, a conservative state Supreme Court candidate upset his liberal opponent. And when Priorities USA, America’s largest Democratic super-PAC, recently projected the 2020 results, it said that “if the election were held today,” only one state was too close to call: Wisconsin.

“This state is fundamental to any prospect we have of electing a Democrat to the presidency in 2020,” Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke told reporters during a trip to Madison in March. “We’ve got to show up.”

The other campaigns seem to be coming to the same conclusion — and they've been showing their cards this week. On Friday, the president — who rallied in Green Bay in late April — returns for a Republican National Committee fundraiser in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, last Thursday, four Democratic candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro) came to the Cream City (nicknamed for the color of the bricks on many downtown buildings) for a League of United Latin American Citizens event, after which Warren held a public town hall — likely the largest Democratic gathering so far this year.

“For us to win in 2020, Wisconsin is a big part of it,” Warren told reporters after the event. “And because Wisconsin is a place where hard-working people understand that there was a time that America was working for them. ... But today we’ve got a government that works for the rich and powerful."

So how do Democrats plan to win Wisconsin back? Earlier this week, Yahoo News West Coast Correspondent Andrew Romano spoke to new Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler and got an exclusive preview. The full story is here, but the short version of the strategy is:

1) Out-organize the opposition and “double down on organizing in communities of color and rural communities — including where they overlap.” The model is Obama 2008, with its infrastructure of paid field organizers, neighborhood teams and local volunteers.

2) “[F]ight the election on [issues like Medicaid expansion, health care, public education and infrastructure] where Democrats have tremendous strength and public support” — and to start early by “not just showing up three months before the election, but partnering with community leaders and other organizations to build relationships and shape the terrain a year and a half out, between elections.”

3) Upgrade the technological capacity of a state party that still uses paper packets when knocking on doors to include cutting-edge mass texting services and mobile organizing apps.

“This is it,” Wikler says. “This is why I ran for chair. Wisconsin is ground zero for 2020.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with Sen. Bernie Sanders last month. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)


“I certainly don’t want to endorse anyone this year. You know, I think we need to have debates. I think we need to have a national conversation. And also, I need to do my job.”

— Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the pressure for her to endorse a 2020 candidate

“I see what I’m running against. You got Sleepy Joe Biden. He doesn’t have the energy to be president. And the people that are nipping on his heels — they don’t have what it takes.”

— President Trump surveys the 2020 Democratic field

“Trump’s entire presidency has been something of a social media summit.”

— The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker on the president's social media summit on Thursday

“Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I’ll be Texas dead. Ha!”

— Billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, who died at 89 this week, in his final interview with the Dallas Morning News

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