Kamala Harris just changed the direction of the presidential race

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<span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As the second round of Democratic presidential debates approached, one of the major questions on the minds of voters and political commentators was whether the candidates would focus on trying to differentiate themselves from each other, as was done the previous night, or whether they would focus on critiquing Donald Trump.

Senator Kamala Harris chose to do both, and she did so effectively, in what turned out to be the breakout performance of the evening.

Very early in the debate, when asked how the candidates planned to pay for their various proposals, Harris put the question back on the moderators. “Where was that question when the Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1% and the biggest corporations in this country?”

At another point, as the candidates seemed to be squabbling and talking over one another, Harris brought it to an end by stating: “America does not want to witness a food fight – they want to know how we’re going to put food on the table.”

Related: Five takeaways from the second Democratic presidential debate

But without a doubt, the debate’s most memorable moment was an exchange between Harris and the former vice-president Joe Biden on race. First, Harris shared how “hurtful” she found Biden’s warm remarks last week about working with the segregationist senator James Eastland. Then she proceeded to challenge Biden’s well-documented opposition to bussing – a policy of the 1960s and 70s designed to integrate schools still segregated more than 20 years after the historic Brown v Board of Education decision.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me,” Harris said.

The moment was powerful not only because of the imagery of the seasoned politician coming face-to-face with the adult version of a little girl directly affected by his policy positions. It was also powerful because of the brief debate which followed over the role of the federal government in intervening when states fail to protect civil rights. In that exchange, Biden demonstrated not only his age but his political inclinations by defending local authority over federal remedies such as bussing.

In doing so, Biden was essentially echoing the “states’ rights” arguments of the avowed segregationists whom he was accused of praising just one week earlier.

Harris was not the only one to challenge Biden, which was to be expected given Biden’s status as the clear frontrunner at this stage of the campaign. Representative Eric Swalwell reminded Biden of his own words from 32 years earlier as he challenged the former vice-president to “pass the torch” to younger generations. Senator Bernie Sanders criticized Biden for his 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq war, and Senator Michael Bennet undermined Biden’s 2012 example of his negotiation skills by raising the point that Biden helped Republicans to extend the controversial Bush tax cuts.

Biden had some self-inflicted wounds as well. On two occasions as the moderators asked direct yes or no questions to the candidates, Biden’s responses were confusing. One such question was on whether the candidates would decriminalize immigrants who crossed the US border, and the moderator José Díaz-Balart was forced to ask the question not once, not twice, but three times before getting an answer from Biden.

Michael Bennet, Colorado senator

Bennet raised his national profile earlier this year when the senator, typically known for his congeniality, delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor, accusing Republican senator Ted Cruz of shedding 'crocodile tears' over the government shutdown.

Joe Biden, former vice president

Biden unsuccessfully ran for the nomination in 1988 and 2008, and his campaign is likely to be dogged by controversy after allegations from several women they were left feeling uncomfortable by their physical interactions with him. If successful, Biden would become the oldest person to be elected president in US history.

Bill de Blasio, New York mayor

Now in his second term as mayor of New York City, De Blasio is a hometown foe of Donald Trump's running on the message that there's plenty of money in the country but it's in the wrong hands. With a progressive track record but a chorus of critics in New York, can this Democrat overcome his late start and win the chance to take on Trump?

Cory Booker, New Jersey senator

Booker first made a name as the hands-on mayor of Newark. Known for his focus on criminal justice reform and impassioned speeches on immigration, he has though been criticized for ties to Wall Street.

Pete Buttigieg, South Bend mayor

Buttigieg wants to be the first openly gay millennial president. A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, he became the youngest mayor of a mid-size US city at the age of 29. As a Navy Reserve lieutenant he deployed to Afghanistan.

Julián Castro, former housing and urban development secretary

Castro casts himself as an antidote to Trump and the adminstration's hardline immigration policies. The grandson of a Mexican immigrant and raised by single mother, the 44-year-old Democrat is one of the most prominent Latinos in Democratic politics.

John Delaney, former Maryland congressman

He has delivered his message of pragmatism to voters in all 99 of Iowa’s counties since he officially kicked off the race in July 2017. The multimillionaire banking entrepreneur wants to build a big-tent party that appeals to independents and moderate Republicans.

Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii congresswoman

An Iraq war veteran who has vowed to run a campaign focused on issues of 'war and peace'. Gabbard made history as the first Samoan American and the first Hindu elected to Congress. But progressives are wary of her past conservative views on on social issues.

Kirsten Gillibrand, New York senator

Years before the #MeToo movement, the New York senator was leading efforts in Congress to combat sexual assault in the military and on college campuses. The former corporate lawyer has embraced a slate of economic ideas supported by the party’s progressive wing.

Mike Gravel, former senator of Alaska

At 88, Gravel will be the oldest candidate to be run for the nomination. However, according to his campaign, the staunch non-interventionist is not running to win, but to challenge Democratic orthodoxy on foreign policy. Will this little-known quixotic figure succeed?

Kamala Harris, California senator

Harris is one of Trump’s fiercest critics, and has built a national reputation grilling administration officials during their confirmation hearings. A former state attorney general and the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, Harris believes she has the unique profile to take on Trump.

John Hickenlooper, former Governor of Colorado

Before he served two terms as governor of Colorado, the 67-year-old Democrat worked as a geologist for a petroleum company. After a lay off, he switched careers and opened a successful brewpub in Denver that helped to revitalize the city’s downtown.

Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington

Inslee is running as the “only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s number one priority”. As the country experiences more powerful hurricanes, scorching wildfires and submerged coastlines, polls show public concern is growing.

Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota senator

On Election Night 2018, Klobuchar coasted to a third term as senator in a state Trump almost won. Next morning she was on every short list of potential presidential candidates. Supporters say her success with rural voters makes her a formidable candidate in the Rust Belt, while her calm demeanour provides a clear contrast with Trump.

Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Florida

Facing long odds, Messam, the son of Jamaican immigrants to the US and a former receiver for the Florida State Seminoles football team, is tossing his hat in the ring anyway. The 44-year-old businessman became Miramar’s first black mayor when he was elected in 2015. 

Seth Moulton, Massachusetts congressman

The Harvard educated Marine veteran arrived in Congress with a bang, after unseating a nine-term Democratic incumbent in a Massachusetts primary in 2014. Moulton has continued to make waves by calling for 'generational change' in Democratic leadership and supported an effort to block Nancy Pelosi from becoming House Speaker in 2018.

Beto O'Rourke, former Texas congressman

A one-time guitarist for an El Paso punk band called Foss, O’Rourke had kept a relatively low profile as a three-term congressman with little name recognition. He rose to national prominence during the 2018 midterms, when his bid to unseat Senator Ted Cruz garnered unprecedented grassroots support and a historic fundraising haul.

Tim Ryan, Ohio congressman

Elected to Congress in 2003 at just 29, Ryan represents the blue-collar voters Democrats hope to win back in 2020. He won national attention when he challenged Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leadership in 2016. He has continued to push for a generational change in leadership. 

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator

Sanders turned a long-shot, anti-establishment bid for the presidency into a “political revolution” that energized the party’s progressive base. His political career began nearly 40 years ago, but it wasn’t until his 2016 run that Sanders became a national figure as a new generation of Democrats – and 2020 contenders – embraced his populist economic policies.

Eric Swalwell, California congressman

Raised in Iowa and California, the 38-year-old Democrat would be among the youngest candidates in the race. Swalwell serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence investigating Russian collusion, a position that has earned him frequent appearances on cable news shows.

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator

Her sharp criticism of Wall Street and big corporations has made Warren a favorite among progressive activists, and she will campaign on a message of a rigged economic system and income inequality.

Marianne Williamson, author

This is not the spiritual guru and a new age author’s first foray into politics: in 2014, she mounted an unsuccessful congressional bid in California. Her entry adds some star-power to the race that may attract more celebrities.

Andrew Yang, businessman

A former tech executive and entrepreneur running the longest of long shot campaigns centered on the perils of automation. His central plank is a plan to give every American adult a salary of $1,000 per month, paid for by a tax on companies that benefit the most from automation.

Lauren Gambino, Sam Morris and Martin Belam

His response – that immigrants who had not committed any other crimes “should not be the focus of deportation” – never truly answered the question, as Biden left open the possibility that although such immigrants might not be the focus of deportation, they could still be thrown out of the country.

Sanders, who among those on the stage Thursday night was trailing only Biden in most polling data, was well situated to take advantage of Biden’s missteps. However, Sanders often seemed to give the same answer regardless of the question. From healthcare to climate change, Sanders provided his trademark responses about the need to take on Wall Street, the insurance companies and billionaires. In fact, in his closing remarks he reminded the audience that “nothing will ever change” unless we have the guts to take on big business.

It is not likely that Sanders lost ground during the debate, but neither did he do much to strengthen his case. Given the recent surge of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is largely assumed to be picking off some of Sanders’ support, this means that his performance was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, South Bend’s mayor, Pete Buttigieg, had a steady night as he gave clear and thoughtful answers to most questions. When asked a tough question regarding the recent shooting of a black man by a member of Buttigieg’s police force, Buttigieg admitted that he had failed to get the job done in his response. It could have been one of the more memorable moments from the debate, but the moment was lost when Swalwell asked the question that is on the mind of many black residents in the city of South Bend: “Why didn’t you fire the police chief?”

Buttigieg did not have a persuasive answer, and what had been a moment of sincerity became a painful reminder that too often those who have the power to address the ills of structural racism simply fail to use all of the tools at their disposal.

It was that question to Buttigieg which led to the exchange between Harris and Biden, as Harris reminded the moderators that as the only black person on the stage she certainly had something to say. And what she went on to say could very well change the direction of the campaign.

  • Cliff Albright is the cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund

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