Har­ris made Bi­den ap­pear like a man of yesterday, not to­mor­row

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - OPINION -

The big­gest im­pact of this week’s two-night, 20-can­di­date Demo­cratic ex­trav­a­ganza is that a new star has emerged: Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris of Cal­i­for­nia turned in one of the best de­bate per­for­mances I’ve ever seen. She earned her­self a place in the up­per tier of the crowded field. Now we’ll see if she has what it takes to climb all the way to the top — and stay there.

Har­ris’ as­cent came at the expense of front-runner Joe Bi­den, who had such a dis­ap­point­ing out­ing that all he can do is make sure he does bet­ter next time. He still leads all com­ers, and one de­bate didn’t change that. But he showed vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that have to make Demo­cratic vot­ers nervous about his prospects in a gen­eral elec­tion race against Pres­i­dent Trump.

That, af­ter all, is by far the big­gest ques­tion for many Democrats: Who is the surest bet to beat Trump? The an­swer, ac­cord­ing to polls thus far, is Bi­den. But his per­for­mance Thurs­day night has to make never-Trump vot­ers nervous.

With what was clearly a pre-planned as­sault on Bi­den — on his fond rem­i­nis­cences of white-su­prem­a­cist Se­nate col­leagues and his late-1970s stance against fed­er­ally man­dated school bus­ing to achieve racial in­te­gra­tion — Har­ris ac­com­plished three im­por­tant things. The for­mer Cal­i­for­nia at­tor­ney gen­eral dis­played her world-class skills as a pros­e­cu­tor, treat­ing Bi­den like a de­fen­dant on the wit­ness stand. She made Bi­den look de­fen­sive and flus­tered and, frankly, old. And she in­tro­duced her per­sonal his­tory as a young black girl in Berke­ley who rode a bus to school.

Her at­tack on Bi­den wasn’t nice, but it wasn’t un­fair — his stance on bus­ing is a mat­ter of pub­lic record. She was care­ful to be­gin by mak­ing clear she was not ac­cus­ing Bi­den of be­ing a racist. But what she did im­ply was that he was a man of yesterday, not to­mor­row.

It was easy to imag­ine her ut­terly de­mol­ish­ing Trump on a de­bate stage. It was pos­si­ble to imag­ine Bi­den do­ing the same thing, but you had to won­der.

So Har­ris got every­body’s at­ten­tion. Now be­gins the se­ri­ous vetting — of her record, her back­ground, her tem­per­a­ment, her po­si­tions on the is­sues. She in­di­cated dur­ing the de­bate that her Medi­care-forall health care plan in­volves elim­i­nat­ing pri­vate health in­sur­ance, but her cam­paign said Fri­day that she mis­un­der­stood the ques­tion. So which is it? Bi­den has vast ex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign af­fairs; Har­ris doesn’t. Is she the one to repair the dam­age Trump is do­ing to the na­tion’s stand­ing in the world? She de­nounces and re­jects Trump’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy. What’s hers?

If Har­ris’ de­bate tri­umph was a rev­e­la­tion, Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders’ per­for­mance was fa­mil­iar. No­body stays on-mes­sage bet­ter than Bernie. But unlike four years ago, when he had the pro­gres­sive wing of the party to him­self, this year he has to share it with Sen. El­iz­a­beth Warren of Mas­sachusetts, who dom­i­nated Wednesday night’s first half of the de­bate. We’ll have to wait un­til next time, per­haps, to see how her de­tailed plans for ad­dress­ing problems and is­sues com­pete on a de­bate stage with San­ders’ gen­eral call for a po­lit­i­cal “rev­o­lu­tion.”

Pete But­tigieg cre­ated a mo­ment when he forthright­ly took re­spon­si­bil­ity for not do­ing more to di­ver­sify the po­lice depart­ment of South Bend, In­di­ana, dur­ing his time as mayor. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Michael Ben­net of Colorado and for­mer hous­ing sec­re­tary Ju­lian Cas­tro re­ally helped them­selves this week; New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio and Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand of New York showed that break­ing the de­bate rules and in­ter­rupt­ing con­stantly gets you no­ticed, not pun­ished. And God bless Mar­i­anne Wil­liamson, be­cause yes, we do need love.

Bot­tom line: Har­ris won the two-night de­bate by a wide mar­gin. And Bi­den needs to do bet­ter next time if he wants to keep his lead.

Eugene Robinson’s email ad­dress is eu­gen­er­obin­[email protected]­post.com.

Eugene Robinson Colum­nist

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