Making the click-through worthwhile: America’s debate watchers learn that Kamala Harris can’t really defend her record; most candidates’ debate playbooks are predictable; and Kirsten Gillibrand manages to pick the single least-effective and least-plausible line of attack against Joe Biden.
Kamala Harris, a Bit More Brittle Than Most Democrats Thought
On paper, Kamala Harris is a really strong contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. But last night, on the debate stage in Detroit, she demonstrated that as good as she is when she’s on the attack, she looks brittle, flustered, and flailing when other candidates attack her.
Harris’s first move when attacked is to simply deny the accusation. Five times last night, Harris began a sentence with “the reality is. . . ,” and what follows from Harris rarely directly refutes the accusation; she usually emphasizes a slightly different point.
Dana Bash asked Harris about the Biden campaign’s claim that her health care plan was “a have-it-every-which-way approach.” Harris’s responded, “the reality is that I have been spending time in this campaign listening to American families, listening to experts, listening to health care providers.” Listening to lots of people is nice, but that doesn’t really address whether the plan is an attempt to have it every which way.
Biden then said that her plan would cost $3 trillion. She responded, “the reality is that our plan will bring health care to all Americans under a Medicare for All system.” That doesn’t address the cost issue. Biden went after her on the cost again, and Harris’s best defense was “the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive. Second, we are now paying $3 trillion a year for health care in America. Over the next 10 years, it’s probably going to be $6 trillion.” Harris was left arguing that we need to spend more in order to ensure that we don’t spend more.
I don’t know if marijuana prosecutions and death row evidentiary decisions will be enough to derail Harris’s presidential campaign. But I do know that these sorts of examples are real complications to the image Harris wants to project, which is that of tough prosecutor who’s on the side of the typical Democratic presidential primary voter.
Tulsi Gabbard — who seems to have a genuine animosity towards Harris — ate her Wheaties before this debate and just ripped Harris’s record as a prosecutor: “There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.” That generated applause from the crowd in the Fox Theater in Detroit.
Gabbard continued: “She blocked evidence — she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep a bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
The Harris response was to ignore all of the specific accusations: “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work. And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
Except Gabbard wasn’t giving a “fancy speech,” she was making specific accusations, and Gabbard had the facts on her side: on the marijuana prosecutions, on the laughing, on the blocking of the evidence, on the prison labor, and on the bail system. Rather than defend any of the specific decisions, Harris preferred to simply assert she had reformed the criminal justice system. Maybe she had, but not on the policies Gabbard listed.
Gabbard smelled blood and repeated the accusation: “In the case of those who were on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so. (APPLAUSE) There is no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor owe — you owe them an apology.”
Harris responded, “My entire career I have been opposed — personally opposed to the death penalty and that has never changed.” Again, notice how Harris answers a question that wasn’t asked. Gabbard didn’t say she supported the death penalty, she said she blocked evidence that ultimately exonerated an innocent man.
But Harris then responded in the worst possible way: “I think you can judge people by when they are under fire and it’s not about some fancy opinion on a stage but when they’re in the position to actually make a decision, what do they do.”
Yes, Harris dismissed the only Iraq War veteran on the stage as not knowing what it’s like “under fire.”
Look, a lot of folks in the media world and high-level Democratic circles really like Kamala Harris. She presses a lot of their buttons: black, Indian, woman, daughter of immigrants, Howard University, powerful lawyer. She’s got the profile of the “good” politician that sinister powerful forces want to derail in an uncreative Hollywood thriller. And if Harris didn’t have a media protective bubble around her, she would be getting crucified for that you don’t know what it’s like under fire, you’re just making some fancy opinion on a stage counterattack.
Beto O’Rourke was always a privileged lightweight weirdo, but most of the media refused to see it in 2018. Harris has been willing to cut corners in her ambitions to climb the greasy pole of California politics; time will tell if anyone in the media is willing to see that.
A Three-Hour Slog
You can find my assessment of last night here. There’s no good format for handling ten candidates, and most of the lesser-known candidates don’t grasp the degree of difficulty in this setup. The threshold is not merely, “be good in the debate.” The threshold for the asterisk candidates is, “be one or two of the most memorable candidates in the debate, when everyone else is trying to be the most memorable, too.” In any debate, the discussion afterwards is going to focus upon no more than a half-dozen exchanges or lines. Everything else that is said is likely to be forgotten pretty quickly, particularly the more it resembles the rest of the political blather from everyone else. The first debate is just, “the one where Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden on busing.”
Tuesday night, Tim Ryan had a perfectly fine debate. But a perfectly fine debate probably doesn’t get him past one percent. Last night, Michael Bennet had a good night. You’ll probably forget who is again by the weekend.
Debate organizers face a catch-22: Three hours is way too long, but if you limit it to two hours, then most candidates only get a few minutes each.
If you’re reading this newsletter, you’re probably pretty interested and knowledgeable about politics. (And you’re smarter than average, and have great taste, and are more attractive. . . .) If you follow politics long enough, you start to recognize what maneuver a politician is making as they’re making it — it’s like watching sports when you’ve read the team’s playbook. As seen above, Harris’ go-to move when attacked is to vehemently deny a slightly different accusation than the one actually made against her.
Last night when candidates got asked about health care, they often pivoted to a personal story about a time when they or someone they loved was sick. The maneuver was meant to say to everyone in the audience, “I’ve been through this sort of bad experience, too.” But your experience with a health emergency does not automatically mean your health care policy proposal will be a good one.
When you really get nailed, as Biden did with the issue with Newark policing when Cory Booker was mayor, sometimes the only countermove is to suggest your critic doesn’t know what he’s talking about in a folksy way: “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” (I guess that’s Newarkian for “that dog won’t hunt.”) Notice the opening, “there’s a saying in my community,” where Booker is not-so-subtly reminding everyone that he’s black and Biden is not. It’s a cheap shot, but apparently it worked, because everyone loves feisty colloquialisms so much that they forget what was being discussed in the first place.
And sometimes you can see the desperation. . .
Kirsten Gillibrand Is Something of an Idiot, Isn’t She?
After writing an ode to the importance of math yesterday, let’s sing the praises of judgment. On paper, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is not an idiot. She graduated from Dartmouth and UCLA Law School, and was hired by one of the top law firms in Manhattan.
But last night, she seemed to think a 1981 op-ed by Biden would convince everyone watching that Biden was some sort of anti-feminist who opposed women working outside of the home. “Am I serving in Congress resulting in the deterioration of the family, because I had access to quality affordable day care? I just want to know what he meant when he said that.”
In her judgment on using that particular attack, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is indeed an idiot.
The first piece of evidence that Biden has no problem with women working outside of the home is his first late wife Neilia; the second piece of evidence that Biden has no problem with women working outside of the home is Jill Biden, who worked as a teacher throughout their marriage, although she took two years off when their daughter Ashley was born.
Of all the potential attacks on Biden, Gillibrand went with this?
(Biden’s op-ed was pretty clear: he didn’t want a day care tax credit being used by families with incomes of $100,000 or more. This was in 1981; the equivalent income would be roughly $282,000 today. We all know the op-ed was probably ghostwritten anyway.)
The other great irony is that in that op-ed, there’s a fairer hit in there that Gillibrand ignored.
Biden laments “the day care centers and nursing homes blossoming across the American landscape are monuments to our growing unwillingness to accept personal responsibility for those whom we owe the most — our children, our parents and our grandparents.” Anyone who’s ever had to put their grandparent or parent in a nursing home would probably be furious at the accusation that the decision was driven by an unwillingness to accept responsibility for their loved ones. For many people, it’s one of the hardest things they’ll ever do. People who go into nursing homes rarely come out and live unassisted lives. Those decisions are usually made with the recognition that Grandma or Grandpa or Mom or Dad can’t safely live on their own any longer. Their memory is going, they keep falling and breaking their hip, they get confused — the whole process is heartbreaking, and putting someone in home usually means they’ve stopped being that strong, clear-headed, independent person the family loves.
Biden wouldn’t write the same words today. [Insert the predictable joke about the 74-year-old Biden being worried about being sent to a nursing home himself here.] Gillibrand could have gone with a more accurate slam, “Thirty-eight years ago, Biden contended it was irresponsible to put elderly parents into nursing homes, and I just can’t believe he wrote something so callous.” But Gillibrand’s brand is that she’s a working mom, and so she went with the other attack.
And for once, Biden was completely prepared to nuke her: “You came to Syracuse University with me and said it was wonderful. I’m passionate about the concern making sure women are treated equally. I don’t know what’s happened, except that you’re now running for president.”
That’s a fair counterattack on just about everybody in the field: You loved this guy being a heartbeat away from the presidency for eight years. Now you’re telling us he’s some sort of racially insensitive, sexist fool who can’t be trusted with the presidency?
ADDENDA: Last night, Harris declared, “There are 10 clear incidents of obstruction of justice by this president and he needs to be held accountable. I’ve seen people go to prison for far less.”
Seen? Heck, Harris has sent people to prison for far less.