The second night of the 2020 Democratic primary debates gave American voters a glimpse into the policies, platforms, histories, and personalities of 10 more candidates, all vying to stand out in a crowded 25-person race to challenge Donald Trump in the next presidential election. Following up a spirited debate the night before, during which Elizabeth Warren ran much of the show, the second showdown featured the party's two frontrunners, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Biden and Sanders, however, were not the brightest shining stars on the stage by the end of the night. For many Americans, Thursday's debate served as a formal introduction to many of the other candidates in the race, some of whom made quite a name for themselves.
The general consensus, at least according to liberal-leaning media outlets, is that California Senator Kamala Harris won the debate. Harris was exceptionally poised and confident throughout the entire night, answering questions directly and succinctly—a refreshing break from the single-note catchphrasing, discursive meandering, and sometimes chaotic squabbling of many of her opponents.
At one point of heightened bickering (of which there were several), while nearly every other candidate was trying to yell over one another, Harris addressed her colleagues and competitors, reminding them that "Americans don't want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we're going to put food on their tables." She then seamlessly shifted the discussion back to the matter at hand: jobs. Although quick-witted and clever, sure, I would posit that this was not merely a quippy soundbite. It demonstrates a seemingly natural proclivity for leadership, as well as an ability to behave with cool diplomacy in the face of contentious disarray—all of which are traits one might call "presidential."
That, however, was not even the most defining moment of the night for Harris. About halfway through the debate, she aired her grievances with Joe Biden's sordid political relationship with civil rights. Harris addressed Biden directly and with candor. Instead of trying to smear the former vice president, she simply informed him that she was personally hurt by recent comments he made regarding his positive working relationships with now-deceased segregationists in the Senate.
"It was hurtful," Harris said to Biden, "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—you also worked with them to oppose busing."
She then went on to relay the story of a young girl in California being bused in order to integrate into public schools. "And that little girl was me," Harris concluded, "So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly,"
Even though he probably should have seen this coming, given the public outcry and a call from fellow Democratic primary hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, for an apology, Biden was clearly rattled by Harris' statements.
In short, he fumbled it. Instead of wielding an opportunity to mirror Harris' sincerity and take her concerns seriously, using the debate platform to finally make an apology, he doubled-down and condescendingly lectured (actually, his tone seemed, at least to this writer, to be teetering on the brink of scolding) Harris, stating that his stance on Civil Rights-era busing was about states' rights, not a tepid attitude towards racial equality.
"I did not praise racists," Biden retorted, "That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I'm happy to do that." The former vice president, however, still refuses to issue an apology.
In fact, upon hearing Cory Booker's initial call for an apology, he issued a statement outside of a fundraising event in Washington on June 19th, saying, "Apologize for what? Cory should apologize [...] He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period."
Joe Biden, who has been the primary frontrunner for the Democratic primary nomination thus far, appears to be largely impenetrable in the face of criticism and scandal, despite being comparatively conservative among a pool of majority-progressive candidates. Only time will tell whether or not Harris has, indeed, finally found Biden's political Achilles Heel.
Either way, though, the first Democratic debate was all about Kamala Harris and the underdogs. In addition to Harris' impressive performance, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana also stood out as intelligent, composed, and unflinching. And Andrew Yang, best known for his somewhat controversial platform of Universal Basic Income (giving every American citizen a monthly stipend of $1,000), also held his own—offering straightforward, no-nonsense, and logically sound answers, even if seldom few questions were directed at him.
A lot can happen between now and February 3rd when the first Democratic primary caucus is scheduled to take place in Iowa. And there will be plenty of chances for candidates to rise and fall in the meantime. If Thursday's debate is any indication of what's to come, however, it appears as if a paradigm shift may be on the horizon, with Senator Kamala Harris leading the charge.