Kamala Harris’ great debate performance redefines the campaign, triggers racist campaign
BY DEDE YI-FEE
One of several explanations floated around in 2016 about Hillary Clinton losing the U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump, the worst candidate in decades to aspire for the job, was that the country was not ready for a female president, despite the former first lady, a two-term senator and former secretary of state, being one of the best presidential contenders in history. Though it is very early to make any reasonable prediction at this stage in the long campaign for the U.S. presidency, the brilliant performance of Senator Kamala Harris in last Thursday night’s debate raises new hopes a woman—a black woman, for that matter—may have a better chance now.
Senator Kamala Harris’ commanding debate performance Thursday night proved a defining moment at this early stage in the campaign, just 24 hours after another female candidate, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, had scored big in the previous debate. Suddenly, it became crystal-clear in the mind of many Democratic voters that the charismatic senator from California could en up being the best match for Donald Trump on 4 November 2020.
Harris marveled the audience with her cool precision, her substantive answers on major policy issues including the economy, immigration, and civil rights. The irresistible presence shown by the sharp former prosecutor and former Attorney General of the large state of California when looking straight into the camera was part of her courtroom-sharpened skills that did a lot to carry her messages across to millions watching on television.
It all started at the 20-minute mark of the two-hour-long debate when Harris cut off an indecipherable shouting match when several of the candidates were talking at the same time, and said, with the authority of a mother bringing quiet in a room full of children: “Guys, you know what? America does not want a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Not only did the other candidates fall silent, the audience cheered Harris.
But the turning point in the debate, and one that has given Harris’ campaign a new impetus, came half-way during the debate when she capitalized on the question put to Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of the small town of South Bend, Indiana about the recent police shooting of a black man in his city. Harris wanted to weigh in, but the moderators wanted her to wait for another chance to speak. She would not buy that. “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” she pleaded. She was then given 30 seconds that turned into 70 seconds which she used to change, not only her own campaign, but that of the Democratic candidate that so far leads the pack in all the polls, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Harris challenged the former vice president by denouncing statements he recently made about working with two former controversial U.S. senators who are known to be segregationists: “I do not believe you are a racist, but it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Apparently caught off guard, the vice president did not give much of a strong defense. Then Harris charged again by asking: “But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today — do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?” To this the vice president answered: “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
A new dynamics was thus instilled in the campaign. Several polls taken immediately after the debate had Harris as the winner. She thus emerged as a potential powerful challenge to Trump in November, if she can build on the moment.
Even spin doctors from the Republican side hailed Harris’ debate performance.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted: “Kamala Harris is capturing the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. In just about every way imaginable, Kamala Harris dominated. She had the guts to take on and embarrass Joe Biden—not only did she have the best language, she was the most memorable.”
But former vice president Joe Biden commands such a wide reservoir of favorabilities among Democratic voters, and is so popular even among black voters that he remained the front-runner he has been since launching his campaign less than two months ago. But Harris’ campaign, which was lagging behind several others, has moved into third position.
As a result of her big debate performance, Harris will likely now be the subject of scrutiny, which will present some challenges she is probably prepared for.
But what she is facing now is not the scrutiny one expects. Rather a racist campaign like the one led by one Donald Trump against President Obama by doubting that the 44th president was an American citizen. The day following the debate, a flood of tweets inundated the social media questioning Harris’ race and her U.S. citizenship emerged. The claims, which had been simmering in neo-Nazi circles for some time, reached national prominence when they were retweeted by Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr., who later deleted it.
These neo-Nazis activists claim the senator does not qualify to run for president of the United States. “Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican,” writes one of the authors who identified as African American. He added: “I’m so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It’s disgusting. Now using it for debate time at #DemDebate2? These are my people not her people. Freaking disgusting.”
The fact is Sen. Harris is as American as apple pie. She was born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, a state she has served brilliantly locally all the way to the top position of Attorney General, and now in the U.S. senate. She is therefore eligible to run for president.
The racist campaign was widely condemned, not only by Harris’ campaign, but also by a dozen of the candidate’s rivals in the race. Former Vice President Joe Biden writes in a tweet: “The same forces of hatred rooted in ‘birtherism’ that questioned @BarackObama’s American citizenship, and even his racial identity, are now being used against Senator @KamalaHarris. It’s disgusting and we have to call it out when we see it. Racism has no place in America.”