In the viral moment of the first Democratic presidential debates, Sen. Kamala Harris attacked former vice president Joe Biden over his opposition to forced busing to integrate public schools. The Harris campaign is now waffling on the issue. Over time, we may look back on that as a moment revealing Harris’s underlying weakness as a candidate.
Immediately after the debate, while clips rolled of Harris touting how she personally benefited from busing, Harris surged in the polls and Biden sagged a bit. It is less clear that Harris successfully cracked Biden’s appeal with black voters, which is likely key to the success of both candidates.
In live dial-tests during the debate, Stanley Greenberg found Biden’s favorability with black voters increased 18 percent as a result of perceived attacks on the Obama-Biden legacy. The ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates Biden scoring with 41 percent of black voters and Harris only 11 percent.
In the latest YouGov poll, black voters are split 36-13 between Biden and Harris. On the other hand, the Quinnipiac poll has Biden narrowly leading Harris 31 to 27 percent with black voters, while CNN found a 25 to 19 percent split with nonwhite respondents. Reuters/Ispos found Biden’s black support was cut in half. The question will take time to settle.
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Harris is having trouble with her position on busing. At first, Harris leaned into her debate position: “Listen, the schools of America are as segregated if not more segregated today than they were when I was in elementary school. And we need to put every effort including busing into play to desegregate the schools.”
By last Wednesday, Harris reversed her emphasis. When asked whether she supports federally mandated busing, she replied: “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.” The Biden campaign wasted no time pouncing on the shift, with Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield tweeting: “It’s disappointing that Senator Harris chose to distort Vice President Biden’s position on busing — particularly now that she is tying herself in knots trying not to answer the very question she posed to him!”
Why the waffle? Perhaps Harris looked at historical polling indicating just how unpopular busing was. Famously, in a 1973 Gallup poll, only 9 percent of blacks and 4 percent of whites chose busing as the preferred solution for integrating public schools. In fairness, when polling busing alone, the National Opinion Research Center found consistently stronger support for the idea among blacks and whites, though the trend tended to improve as busing died as a live political issue.
Ian Sams, Harris’s national press secretary, has made two attempts to clean up for the senator. Sams argued “Harris absolutely believes the federal government was right to step in in the 60s/70s. But surely we can all agree 2019 is not 1975.” This line does not square with Harris asserting that schools are more segregated today than in the 1970s.
Sams also pointed to Biden’s claims that busing is racist. The problem with this line is that racial quotas are not popular and implying Biden is himself a racist is a problem, given that Harris denied it in post-debate interviews. To be sure, Harris probably enjoyed denying it in the sense of not asking people to not think of an elephant. The former prosecutor knows the value of making objectionable statements when the bell cannot be unrung.
But the approach has its limits. Harris correctly understood that you have to beat the front-runner if you want to be the front-runner. Yet if you come at the front-runner, you had best not miss.
Harris benefited from her attack because Biden was not sharp enough to press her on the issue (or believed he would suffer from appearing too aggressive himself). That lack of sharpness—real or perceived—may ultimately help Harris or hurt Biden more than the substance of the issue.
Harris was also aided by debate moderators caught off-guard, or too inclined to see Biden hurt, to follow up on the issue. She is further helped by the belated follow-up occurring during the Independence Day holiday weekend, when few casual viewers will notice. In sum, it was a successful attack, but one that could have backfired in a highly damaging way in the moment. Am element of luck was involved.
Harris climbing out on limbs is part of an underlying pattern of high-risk publicity-seeking. For example, during the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she raised her profile by asking the nominee: “Have you discussed the Mueller investigation with anyone at Kasowitz Benson Torres, the law firm founded by Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s personal lawyer? Be sure about your answer, sir.”
Harris grilled Kavanaugh about this for at least five minutes. It was as dramatic and as empty as Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault; if Harris had any evidence of Kavanaugh talking to Trump’s lawyers, she never produced it.
Similarly, Harris garnered headlines during a CNN town hall for declaring she would abolish private health insurance as part of her support for the Medicare-for-all plan proposed by socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders. She backtracked the next day.
During the first round of debates, she raised her hand to a question asking whether her health care policy would “abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan.” She later claimed she misinterpreted the question, claiming the Sanders plan allows for supplemental insurance. Such insurance does not exist, as even The New York Times reports.
The holiday weekend is providing cover to Harris’s latest waffle, but her rivals are beginning to notice. Lis Smith, the communications advisor to Pete Buttigieg, tweeted: “The story of the 2020 Democratic primary shouldn’t be how individual candidates used debates to deep-six rivals and push litmus test policies they’re gonna disavow once they get a poll back.”
If the debate exchange on busing damaged Biden more from creating the perception he has lost a step, it may damage Harris by highlighting that she tends to bluff and folds when called. She has not been called often, but if she were the nominee, you could bet on President Trump doing so. That is a bigger problem for Harris (and Democratic voters) than her position on busing.