Late Thursday evening, the official Twitter account of Google Trends delivered an update on the trop trending candidates during night number two of the first Democratic presidential debates.
After reporting some statistics, Google replied to itself. “@KamalaHarris is actually the top trending topic in search on all of Google in the US right now”, the reply read.
That was the kind of night Kamala Harris had.
Harris, thanks in no small part to an extremely risky gamble, delivered a masterclass, roundly besting rival Democrats and accomplishing what no other candidate in the absurdly crowded field managed to do over two nights: Make a splash.
Joe Biden – who appeared ill at ease throughout – was the target of one of the more pointed and deftly orchestrated political attacks in recent memory.
When the debate turned to the issue of race, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked to address the recent shooting death of an African American by a white police officer whose body camera was turned off. As moderators turned to Biden and the candidates jostled to get a word in, Harris stopped the show.
“As the only black person on this stage I would like to speak”, she said. The stage fell silent.
“I will say that – that, in this campaign, we have also heard – and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground”, Harris began.
“But I also believe, and it’s personal – and I was actually very – it was hurtful 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”, she continued, referencing Biden’s ill-fated remarks about “civility” between himself and James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge. (Earlier this month, Biden attempted to make a point about overcoming political differences in the interest of “getting things done”, but his choice of two segregationists to illustrate was, for many, an unforgivable gaffe.)
Having set Joe up, Harris delivered a haymaker.
“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing”, Harris said. “And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
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Waylaid, and seemingly on the verge of tears, Biden tried to fight back. “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one”, he said, clearly floundering. “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.”
But he wasn’t happy. Nor was he prepared. It was the closest thing to a knockout blow that Harris could have delivered so early in the campaign and she landed it on the frontrunner.
Bloomberg described the exchange as “deeply personal”, and it was. But it was the contrast on display at a time of racial division in the country that will be seared into voters’ minds. It was, as Bloomberg goes on to flatly note, “a confrontation [that] pitted a 54-year-old daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants against a 76-year-old white man [who] fondly recall[ed] his civil relationships with segregationist senators in the 1970s and 1980s”.
At 10:11 PM, Harris’s Twitter account sent this tweet:
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
The image is already emblazoned on t-shirts and is sure to feature heavily for the remainder of the 2020 campaign.
“I think the moment will resonate with voters not only because of how powerful and deft Harris was but equally also because how ill-equipped Biden was in his response”, political operative Patti Solis Doyle told the Daily Beast.
In her only public TV appearance following what was almost universally recognized as an indelible performance, Harris did not back down. “It was about just speaking truth and as I’ve said many times, I have a great deal of respect for Joe Biden… but he and I disagree on that”, she told “CBS This Morning” on Friday.
Since the beginning, Harris has polled well, all things considered. It’s true the Senator has had the same problem as every other candidate not named “Biden”, “Warren” or “Sanders” when it comes to distinguishing herself in a crowded field. But she’s never been relegated to true “long-shot” status and her candidacy has never been derided as an exercise in futility like so many of the other would-be contenders. Now, Harris is gunning for the lead.
In FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker, she trails only Biden. RCP’s average of national polls has Harris fourth (behind Biden, Sanders and Warren), but one imagines that might change. At the least, the gap will likely close.
“Harris showed a sharp intellect, charisma and a talent for prosecuting a case. She dominated the debate with smart policy takes, memorable one-liners and a deft ability to confront her opponents”, Solis Doyle said Thursday. “I think voters will say to themselves, if she can do that to Biden, imagine what she can do to Trump”, she later told the media.
To be clear, Harris still faces an uphill battle to cement herself as the nominee. One debate is just one debate, and even if Biden stumbles, she’ll still need to knock off Warren (who relishes a fight) and the irascible Bernie, who escaped from Thursday night’s proceedings largely unscathed by simply playing what, in his mind anyway, are his greatest socialist hits.
The exchange with Biden wasn’t the only standout moment for Harris. At one juncture, she quite literally stepped in to silence her Democratic rivals when they took to talking over one another. “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table”, she said.
Trump noticed, although he avoided mentioning Harris by name, presumably in an effort to avoid giving her even more momentum. “I heard it was not a good day for Sleepy Joe or Crazy Bernie”, the president said. “One is exhausted, the other is nuts – so what’s the big deal?”
The “big deal” is “that little girl” who won her Senate seat the same night Trump was elected.
Full transcript of the Harris-Biden exchange
HARRIS: Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because she – because we were black. And I will say also that – that, in this campaign, we have also heard – and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden, I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.
But I also believe, and it’s personal – and I was actually very – it was hurtful 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, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.
And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.
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. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.
RACHEL MADDOW (Moderator): Senator Harris, thank you. Vice President Biden, you have been invoked. We’re going to give you a chance to respond.
BIDEN: It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. 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.
I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender, when, in fact – when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.
Number two, as the U.S. – excuse me, as the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who, in fact, we worked very hard to see to it we dealt with these issues in a major, major way.
The fact is that, in terms of busing, the busing, I never – you would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should not be – we should be breaking down these lines.
But so the bottom line here is, look, everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights, and those civil rights, by the way, include not just only African-Americans, but the L.G.B.T. community.
HARRIS: But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today – do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?
BIDEN: I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed. I did not oppose ––
HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.
HARRIS: So that’s where the federal government must step in.
BIDEN: The federal government ––
HARRIS: That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the E.R.A., because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.
BIDEN: I’ve supported the E.R.A. from the very beginning when I ran for ––
CHUCK TODD (Moderator): Vice President Biden, 30 seconds, because I want to bring other people into this.
BIDEN: I supported the E.R.A. from the very beginning. I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I’ve also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box. I agree that everybody, once they, in fact – anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.