Anti-Harris Backlash After Debate Attacks on Biden?

POLITICO reports that some Democratic activists think she went too far.

Senator Kamala Harris garnered the lion’s share of attention after the second night of Democratic debates by going after the clear front-runner. Some aren’t happy with her.

Kamala Harris might be reveling in her sudden burst of attention after roasting Joe Biden over racial issues on the debate stage last week, but a backlash is already brewing.

Biden supporters and Democrats who have attended the former vice president’s events in the days after the first nationally televised debate, are describing Harris’ assault on Biden as an all-too-calculated overreach after she knocked him on his heels in a grilling over busing and his remarks on segregationist senators.

“She played low ball, which was out of character. And he didn’t expect it, nor did I,” said Lee White, a Biden supporter who attended his remarks at the Jesse Jackson Rainbow PUSH Coalition. “She should not have gone that route. She’s much too intelligent, she’s been able to be successful thus far, why do you have to do that.”

One major Biden supporter from California who declined to be named for publication said Harris’ direct attack on Biden was a mistake that would haunt her.

“It’s going to bite her in the ass,” the supporter noted. “Very early on there was buzz … Biden-Kamala is the dream ticket, the best of both worlds.”

After this week, “That shit ain’t happening.”

The criticism of Harris over her rough treatment of Biden is among the first signs of backlash — including in her home state — against the California Democrat who had a breakout moment in the first presidential debate. It’s also a sign of the goodwill and loyalty that many still feel toward that the vice president, who has managed to keep many of his backers in his camp, even amid criticism of what was roundly viewed as a subpar debate performance. Indeed, sources say Biden walked away with a $1 million haul after two fundraisers in San Francisco alone this weekend.

“We can be proud of her nonetheless, but her ambition got it wrong about Joe,” said former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman to serve in the Senate who has endorsed Biden in the 2020 primary. “He is about the best there is; for her to take that tack is sad.”

Harris stunned Biden in the debate, knocking him back on his heels by noting his past “hurtful” efforts to work with segregationists and what she defined as his opposition to school busing. Harris’ emotional recounting of her own experience in the Berkeley school district as a child who was bused to more segregated schools — “that girl was me,” she said — became a defining debate moment, and bruised Biden’s status as the Democratic front-runner.

But one of Biden’s supporters called the attack by Harris “too cute by half” after her campaign tweeted out — and quickly began merchandising — a photo of Harris as a young girl. “Couldn’t they at least pretend that it was semi-organic?” the Biden supporter asked, referring to the planned nature of Harris’ debate night ambush.

Some Biden loyalists said they thought it was misleading of Harris to attack Biden on civil rights, given what they said was his lifelong advocacy on that front.

White, who is African American, said of the underlying segregationist issues Harris attacked: “I thought it was old news.”

Sam Johnson, a Columbia, S.C.-based public affairs consultant who represents many minority clients, accused Harris of “desperately overreaching.”

“I don’t think a lot of folks are saying, ‘well, there’s a lot of credibility of her going after Biden,'” said Johnson, who has not backed a 2020 candidate. “I don’t think it was received by the majority of folks as an attack that is going to move the needle. Most folks aren’t looking at that as something where, hey, ‘Biden was against civil rights carte blanche.'”

“It was planned, and it was staged and it was rehearsed — and they were ready to raise money on it,” another Bay Area Biden supporter said of Harris’ roundhouse punch.

-POLITICO, “‘Her ambition got it wrong about Joe’: Harris faces debate backlash

This is a rather silly story. It’s beyond anecdotal. We have three people (Carol Moseley Braun and two random folks who attended an event), all of whom are Biden supporters, who think Harris’ attack on Biden was too mean.

As a person who likes Biden but think he’s too old to be President and has no strong opinion on Harris, I found the exchange to be juvenile grandstanding of the sort trailing candidates routinely use against frontrunners in order to gain traction. It’s the essence of what passes for “debate” in American primaries.

Was Harris really “hurt” that Biden said that he pined for the days when rabid segregationists in Congress were at least civil with junior Senators? Of course not. But it was based on an error on Biden’s part that points to both his tendency for own-goals and how goddamned old he is. And it allowed Harris to gain some traction with African-American voters who are heavily favoring Biden because of his association with Barack Obama. Politics ain’t beanbag and this was well within the pale.

And, while I’m no Lee White as a political prognosticator, it strikes me that Biden is a seasoned pro. If he gets the nomination, this would be no means rule out his running with Harris if he thinks she gives him the best shot at beating President Trump in November. Running mates have certainly said worse things about the winner and still wound up on the ticket.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. If he gets the nomination, this would be no means rule out his running with Harris if he thinks she gives him the best shot at beating President Trump in November.

    Reagan and Bush buried the hatchet. As did Kennedy and Johnson. I think Biden and Harris could do the same.

    14
  2. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Agreed. Reagan-Bush was what I had in mind but, yes, there have been plenty of other examples.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Harris needs to show that she can take it to Dennison on the debate stage.
    She did that. Politics ain’t bean bag.

    19
  4. Moosebreath says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    This. Fair or not, female candidates need to show they are “tough enough” before they can be taken seriously. Harris saw an opportunity to do so and took it.

    12
  5. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: in fact a couple friends on Facebook after the debate predicted that if Harris gets the nomination Trump will come up with some kind of bullshit weaseling to get out of the debates.

    ETA: me, I’d like to see her become the leading candidate just to hear what Trump’s inevitable racist nickname would be.

    8
  6. SKI says:

    Completely agree James.

    The interesting aspect, to me at least, is that Harris gave Biden an out. All he had to do was pivot.
    Acknowledge her experience, remind everyone that the 1970’s was a long time ago, that there were many Senators he had to work with who were segregationists, recite his long record supporting civil rights and that he wouldn’t support prohibiting the federal government from protecting civil rights now and move on. He made it a much bigger deal by getting angry at her and using state’s rights as a defense to his then-support for anti-bussing. It wasn’t a good look – both morally and from a debate performance by a front-runner aspect.

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  7. KM says:

    It wasn’t a personal attack – she deliberately started out by saying she didn’t think he was personally racist. Anyone who’s getting up in arms over how “mean” or “low ball” this was is deliberately ignoring that part and focusing on how we shouldn’t ask someone about their support for iffy ideas in the past. Even something that was “fair for it’s day” was damaging for the people it hurt – go ask someone who got screwed by DADT how they feel about the fairness of politicians being questioned over supporting it back in the day. Your best intentions can still &%#& up someone’s day and it’s good to remind people in power about that. Biden’s on record for having sponsored a bill to ban the use of federal funds for bussing so it’s entirely fair game to ask him WTF he was thinking by someone who, you know, was directly affected by this issue.

    Biden’s a big boy and he’s gonna suffer a hell of lot worse from Trump if he gets the nomination. Thick skin’s a must in this game. This whole snowflake song and dance right now makes him look weak to basic criticism. Answer the question and be honest. Use this as a practice round against someone who will definitely hit below the belt with glee.

    18
  8. James Joyner says:

    @SKI:

    All he had to do was pivot. Acknowledge her experience, remind everyone that the 1970’s was a long time ago, that there were many Senators he had to work with who were segregationists, recite his long record supporting civil rights and that he wouldn’t support prohibiting the federal government from protecting civil rights now and move on.

    Agreed. Biden’s age is his chief vulnerability and there’s lots of embarrassing stuff from the 1970s out there. He just needs to acknowledge that there was a different political reality then, that he’s grown, me-and-Barack, etc.

    9
  9. SKI says:

    @James Joyner: If he was actually (still?) talented at this type of thing, he could even play it to his advantage with respect to his experience.

    3
  10. MarkedMan says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Fair or not, female candidates need to show they are “tough enough”

    Not just female. All candidates need to show they are tough enough. For example, I don’t think Buttigieg has demonstrated that toughness yet. In fact, I think Trump’s lack of toughness is one of the greatest dangers to our country. People make a mistake when they equate bullying or general obnoxiousness with toughness. Trump is actually a very weak person who doesn’t have the mental toughness to focus on a problem, the personal toughness to stick to a plan or the moral toughness to… oh heck, Trump has no morals, yet alone moral toughness.

    8
  11. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “Agreed. Biden’s age is his chief vulnerability and there’s lots of embarrassing stuff from the 1970s out there. He just needs to acknowledge that there was a different political reality then, that he’s grown, me-and-Barack, etc.”

    Biden has shown a very consistent inability to learn. Note that he’s tried twice before, and failed; also that his vaunted ability to work with Republicans in Congress wasn’t on display when he was the VP.

    3
  12. Joe says:

    He just needs to acknowledge that there was a different political reality then, that he’s grown, me-and-Barack, etc.

    I generally agree with this line of argument, SKI and James Joyner, but it would also be nice if everyone else would also acknowledge that was a different political reality and stop asserting or feigning outrage that those who brought the conversation two rungs up the ladder didn’t jump all the way to the top.

    3
  13. MarkedMan says:

    Today, Harris has just changed the equation on this, substantially. By calling for forced busing in the present day she has turned it from a debate about what Biden did in the past to what might happen to your kids tomorrow. FWIW, I think moves this from her “win” column to her “problematic” one.

    2
  14. Tyrell says:

    @SKI: Working with someone you don’t like or agree with or might be somewhat crazy goes with the territory in Congress, work, recreational sports, and the like. While we are into the “busing” thing *: Try driving a school bus. Some of your passengers make you feel like putting their book bags over their heads. But overall they are nice and will give you a hug and some candy on the last day of school. School buses here are not air-conditioned. Try riding one down some hot, dusty roads for an hour in late May.
    “No one is forced to ride the school bus”
    “Riding the school bus is a privilege, not a right”
    Strange that after all these years that would be an issue. Most school systems did away from that long ago through the use of “magnet” schools. And most parents were against the busing.

    2
  15. bookdragon says:

    @KM: Exactly. If he’d played it right, her question could have been a gift – a chance to answer the negative stuff that had been floating around, dredged up from his past. The chance to put that to bed with a good answer would’ve helped stave off the sort of suppress-the-POC-vote campaign that was waged against HRC w/ the ‘super predator’ quote from the 90s.

    Instead, he went with one of the worst defenses possible by using state’s rights and local control.

    Sigh.

    I like Joe, but to me this shows his head isn’t in the game.

    5
  16. KM says:

    @Barry:

    Biden has shown a very consistent inability to learn. Note that he’s tried twice before, and failed; also that his vaunted ability to work with Republicans in Congress wasn’t on display when he was the VP.

    Indeed. I’d go so far as to say at this point it’s not the inability to learn but rather a refusal to accept the need to learn. He’s not recognizing that people think he’s in the wrong because *he* doesn’t think what he’s doing could be wrong. To be blunt, he’s an old man set in his ways and now he sees some youngins’ are getting cranky with what he’s thought is perfectly acceptable behavior his whole life. The sexist little sister joke made repeatedly, the looming and finger-wagging in someone’s face, the “can’t we all get along like we used to” with folks who clearly hate his guts, the go-to old school answers that are 20yrs out of date, citing things like states right without understanding the huge baggage attached…. he doesn’t understand why it’s not enough anymore. He’s liberal, he’s on their side, he’s not being offensive as far as he can tell, why are they getting so upset?

    Think of it this way: he’s the old guy at the concert. Let’s say he went to Lollapalooza back in the day and still goes every year if he can. When he gets there, he’s doesn’t understand why he gets side-eye for complaining Smashing Pumpkins isn’t in the lineup and how expensive everything gotten. Man might be OG but it’s pretty clear he’s not with the times. He goes to Lollapalooza because he’s likes that kind of music – it’s his scene. He fits right in and is welcome for the most part. But…. he’s still the old guy at the concert telling everyone today’s music is crap and we should go back to Beastie Boys because who doesn’t love them?

    To quote Grandpa Simpson: I used to be with ‘it’, but then they changed what ‘it’ was. Now what I’m with isn’t ‘it’ anymore and what’s ‘it’ seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!

    6
  17. Jen says:

    This is garbage, and not remotely helpful to the primary process.

    Again we have this annoying double standard where when a woman does what any smart male politician would do to the front runner–that is, poke a sharp stick at a vulnerability that frankly he should have been prepared for–it’s considered mean or unladylike or a “low blow” etc.

    Had he been more nimble, as others have noted, he could have turned this entire line of attack into an asset. He didn’t. My hunch is that his supporters didn’t like seeing the front runner caught off-guard because they’d really rather Biden be quickly ushered into the top spot and start the general election now.

    1) That ain’t gonna happen
    2) Attempting to put the front-runner in a glass bubble and protect them didn’t work out so well in 2016.

    Let the process work.

    9
  18. charon says:

    @James Joyner:

    He just needs to acknowledge that there was a different political reality then, that he’s grown, me-and-Barack, etc.

    It seems to me a problem is that he has not grown enough. Also, it seems he has lost a few steps in the mental agility department.

    @bookdragon:

    I like Joe, but to me this shows his head isn’t in the game.

    Yes.

  19. Anonne says:

    Let’s remind everyone that Donald Trump ran to Hillary’s LEFT on a number of issues, particularly health care and the TPP (until her public position pivoted). Do you think Trump is not going to use this against Biden and run to his left? If Biden cannot handle being checked on his record, he needs to go home.

    2
  20. EddieInCA says:

    Harris came out for busing today.

    That is a mistake. The Dems should be focused on the issues that people care about: Health Care, Income Inequality, Climate Change, Etc.

    Starting a debate on busing is a sure fire way to lose. Harris is/was my favorite candidate, and I’m just this side of being a socialist at this point in my life. BUT….. I had a viscerally negative reaction to her calling for renewed busing. It’s a mistake. A HUGE self-inflicted mistake.

    If you want to lose PA, WI, MI, FL, NC, AZ, NV, and CO, start focusing on busing.

    11
  21. SKI says:

    @Tyrell: My eldest rides the bus more than an hour each way every day – 11 months out of the year.

    Bussing sucks. It is far from ideal but neither is segregation and disparate learning environments.

    2
  22. Terrye Cravens says:

    I think it says a lot about Harris that she has never managed to inconvenience Mitch McConnell, but she was fine with sticking a knife in Biden’s back. Where is all her fierce determination when it comes to her own record in the Senate?

    People can blame Biden, for his record, for his attempts to compromise. They can say he did not learn…meaning, he should have anticipated the knife in the back and been prepared to respond. If Biden had treated Kamala Harris with the kind disrespect she showed him, it would have hurt him more. He could not even defend himself without her supporters whining.

    She planned it. Embellished the story for dramatic effect. Probably got in front of the mirror and rehearsed for hours. It was demagoguery. Plain and simple. And I doubt very much if most Americans are impressed with a return to compulsory bussing. That is not something they tend to spend their time worrying about. It is silly. And sad.

    Trump must be pleased.

    6
  23. KM says:

    @Terrye Cravens :
    Oh, knock it off. You know how people were bitching Hillary expected a coronation? That’s how you guys are sounding right now with all this “OMG she stabbed him the back” crap. Like somebody took a swipe at your king on the way to his ascension. It’s not a good look for you.

    Biden is gonna take hits – that’s what comes from being the front-runner. This is a competition. He needs to prove himself and if necessary, defend himself. If in the first friggin’ debate, he’s truly this vulnerable from a single issue from a politely phrased jab from his own side…. well, he’s not ready for prime time and neither are his supporters. It’s silly and sad how much y’all are taking this to heart and for what reasons. Not because Biden flubbed it, not because he’s not ready for a debate he should have crushed, not for defending his views the same way a Republican would but because she. made. him. look. bad. to. you. Not his actions past or present, you’re mad Harris made him look bad and by extension, you.

    At this point it’s not even really about bussing anymore. It’s about old Joe getting called out for supporting something iffy and *still* using that iffy logic to defend it. How hard is it to say, “My younger self did his best with what he had but my older self now knows it wasn’t the best choice. I’m sorry”? Acknowledge the point she made, acknowledge history isn’t looking at his actions as shiny and heroic and let it go. The more you guys get bitchy about this, the more you prove Harris’ point and make him look out-of-touch. He may not have been fully wrong but he sure as hell wasn’t fully right.

    12
  24. Robert in SF says:

    @MarkedMan:

    Trump is actually a very weak person who doesn’t have the mental toughness to focus on a problem, the personal toughness to stick to a plan or the moral toughness to… oh heck, Trump has no morals, yet alone moral toughness.

    I think this is an interesting tack to take for the debates. President Trump may veer off topic and jump around during the debates – bringing up side topics, or go way off topic when wings his answers.

    I think if his opponent simply reiterates that the President doesn’t answer the questions, doesn’t finish what he starts, doesn’t maintain a (logically) consistent message or tone…President Trump can be painted (accurately) as a meandering, distracted, unfocused, feeble, scattered brain, who cannot be understood or trusted at all to say what he really thinks, or keep his word.

    I wonder if the Democratic party could come up with a standard message and set of talking points with that approach for pre-, during, and post-debate use.

    2
  25. R.Dave says:

    I don’t personally like cheap shots, but I can accept they’re part of politics generally. However, I find cheap shots that are designed to exploit racial or other identity-politics tensions particularly reprehensible, so I’m more inclined to hold this one against Harris than if it were just about some bread and butter issue. Still, though, a politician at Biden’s level should be able to handle even those kinds of attacks. The biggest problem with Harris’s move here isn’t that it was unfair to Biden, it’s that it is legitimately damaging to the Democrats’ ability to beat Trump in the general because it has needlessly resurrected a deeply divisive and unpopular policy from the 70s, created a news cycle around it, forced the current Democratic field and various liberal commentators to weigh in on it, and thereby played right into the Republican caricature of Dems as SJW extremists looking to cram “diversity” down everyone’s throats.

    In short, hitting your opponents in a primary is generally considered inbounds, but you’re supposed to keep the long game in mind and refrain from hitting them in ways that will weaken the entire field against the other side in the general.

    4
  26. charon says:

    @R.Dave:

    In short, hitting your opponents in a primary is generally considered inbounds, but you’re supposed to keep the long game in mind and refrain from hitting them in ways that will weaken the entire field against the other side in the general.

    This is such an obvious clear Biden vulnerability the likelihood the GOP does not exploit it relentlessly in the general is nil, might as well put it on display from the gitco, start dealing with it.

    The other team has agency too, best to bear that in mind.

    3
  27. KM says:

    @charon :

    The other team has agency too, best to bear that in mind.

    Not only that, but they’re vicious AF and have no shame. They can and will talk every piece of sh^t they can think of about everybody. It wouldn’t surprise me at all for Trump to openly mock Biden for being a senile old man out of touch with everybody in one of the biggest cases of projection the world has yet to see. We already know they’re running one of Biden’s more popular sites – how do you know some of the commentators there aren’t GOP trolls pushing out “how dare you” mentality to people so they get unreasonably angry of what would have been a normal shot in previous elections? This is a live wire because Biden supporters are supposedly all butthurt over it… but are they really? How many are mad because they read a post or were informed about how “unfair” it all is without stopping to think it’s really not that big a deal compared to other things?

    Biden’s got weak spots all over simply by virtue of where and when he was in politics. It’s the nature of being a seasoned politician – you have a history. It’s on him to shore them up, not on his opponents to ignore them. Trump won’t and it’s better to do this now then later. If Biden can’t survive us, he’s not going to survive Trump. I don’t get the panic over this kind of thing other then it’s on folks recognizing Biden’s not in for the easy win and it scares them. If they’re thinking a sane, moderate, middle-class and Boomer approved Dem can cruise to victory simply because he’s not Trump…. well, this is the time to get over the shock when he starts stalling out. Better now then when it counts.

    9
  28. Monala says:

    @charon: As one person put it, “no one went digging in Biden’s backyard to find out about his relationship with segregationists. No, he dug that one up himself and shone a flashlight on it.”

    3
  29. Gustopher says:

    @charon:

    It seems to me a problem is that he has not grown enough. Also, it seems he has lost a few steps in the mental agility department.

    No, there’s no obvious loss of mental agility, this is just classic Biden. He has two left feet and sticks both of them in his mouth. He’s always fumbled for words, and chosen the wrong ones.

    Biden as VP had a certain “doesn’t give a fvck” quality that meant his stumbles were usually what was on his mind, for better or worse, and it was endearing. Biden as a candidate has always worried about the right thing to say, and that just makes it worse.

    1
  30. Gustopher says:

    @R.Dave: I don’t strongly disagree with your first paragraph, but Harris did this with kid gloves — just fierce enough to establish herself, while leaving him plenty of space to explain.

    And it’s not something that he shouldn’t have been prepared for. If he, or his team, thought about these things ahead of time, they would have had a better answer. Or, more frighteningly, maybe they did prepare.

    3
  31. Tyrell says:

    @Monala: Something from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s? That’s my province.
    This busing issue really caught everyone off guard. Most school systems either dropped it after the Judge Potter decision, or had moved to the magnet school choice plan. “Forced” busing was not popular, and not effective. The busing part fell heavily on the minority children; sending them across the town or county to the white schools. The only people who seemed to like it were lawyers, some university professors, and maybe the bus drivers.
    Joe is making a mistake with all this apologizing. He needs to show strength. And Harris went easy on him, bringing up long forgotten issues that no one cares about now. Biden could not do anything about some of the people in Congress back then. A lot were Southern Democrats.
    Most of them were okay; centrist moderates.

    3
  32. Jen says:

    In short, hitting your opponents in a primary is generally considered inbounds, but you’re supposed to keep the long game in mind and refrain from hitting them in ways that will weaken the entire field against the other side in the general.

    These are, or were, “gentlemen’s rules” and they are long gone.

    Not only that, but they’re vicious AF and have no shame. They can and will talk every piece of sh^t they can think of about everybody.

    Including their own. I’ve referenced it here in other threads, but Missouri’s Governor race 1992, Republican primary *still* affects politics in that state today. The Republican–Bill Webster, of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services fame–was the presumptive front-runner as a hugely popular Attorney General. Roy Blunt–who is now a US Senator–went after him HARD.

    Webster barely limped out of the primary and was defeated by Mel Carnahan. He (Webster) then got indicted and went to jail for a few years.

    Bruising primaries drain money and end in defeat. But they happen, because if you’ve thrown your hat in the ring and have a snowball’s chance, you fight, you fight hard, and you don’t lose with money in the bank.

    1
  33. An Interested Party says:

    I think it says a lot about Harris that she has never managed to inconvenience Mitch McConnell, but she was fine with sticking a knife in Biden’s back.

    And how, exactly, would she do that? By the way, she did her party a favor by “sticking a knife in Biden’s back”…if he couldn’t adequately respond to her he has no business being in the general election where he would get annihilated…

    2
  34. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Reagan and Bush did not “bury the hatchet”. Bush grovelled for the job like a lobotomized golden retriever drooling for a doggie treat. It was well recorded at the time and when he became president in turn, a number of commentators, even conservatives, speculated on whether the real Bush would emerge again. False memories, guys?

    2
  35. wr says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: In fact, Doonesbury ran a long series on Bush’s manhood being placed in a blind trust…

    1
  36. John Patrick says:

    @KM: So Madame Torquemada can dish it out ,that’s the easy part .Good enough for the cheap seats,but you have not broached whether or not-she can take a right cross herself.And that is what separates the winners from the also rans.If you want to leave for all time identity politics ,and concentrate on experience,and steadiness, Biden Klobuchar will beat Trump