Kamala Harris’s riveting viral moment

Joe Biden wasn’t slated to appear on the Democratic debate stage on Wednesday night; still, he was expected to loom large. Many commentators, guided by the polls, have called him the presidential candidate to beat. The 10 candidates who did appear Wednesday didn’t mention Biden once. But that didn’t stop pundits mentioning him afterward, despite the abundance of substantive issues that the debate offered up. Biden’s absence from the discussion was surprising, we were told. Some went so far as to call it a boon for him. “I think the winner tonight was probably Joe Biden, because to quote Sherlock Holmes, ‘The dog wasn’t barking tonight,’” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said late Wednesday. “No one took on the Democratic frontrunner the whole two hours and I think that’s a big surprise.”

Fast forward 24 hours—to the aftermath of Thursday’s second night of debates, in which Biden did participate—and Matthews, for one, had radically changed his tune. “I don’t know how Biden’s gonna survive this,” Matthews said, referring to a “mortal blow” to Biden’s candidacy.

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What had happened? During an exchange about race relations, Kamala Harris, one of nine candidates to join Biden on stage, pivoted to the former vice president and addressed his recent remarks hailing his “civil” past working relationships with segregationist senators. “I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris told Biden. However, she continued, “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 also mentioned Biden’s opposition to busing for school integration. “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.”

Biden tried to push back. Harris had mischaracterized his position “across the board,” he said, insisting that he only opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education. “There was a failure of states to integrate public schools,” Harris retorted. “There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.” Biden started to defend his record on civil rights, but petered out. “Anyway, my time is up,” he said. The metaphor wrote itself.

The exchange, pretty much everyone agreed, was the mythical “moment”—not just of the debates, The New York Times said, but of the entire primary campaign to date. Viewers tweeted about it, a lot. Afterward, on MSNBC, Matthews asked Harris, “Is Biden finished?” Others didn’t go quite so far, but Biden had certainly undergone a vicious narrative shift. Suddenly, the “clear frontrunner” of so much prior coverage looked highly vulnerable. The Times referred to his “tenuous perch atop the polls.” The Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote that Biden “is not the kind of dominating candidate that others who have enjoyed the label of front-runner have proved to be”; Balz’s colleague Aaron Blake put Biden atop his list of the night’s losers. CNN’s Chris Cillizza did likewise. “Some things age like fine wine. Other things start to stink,” Zachary B. Wolf wrote, also for CNN. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham predicted that if Biden fails to win the nomination, “Thursday night’s debate will be remembered as the moment the final countdown began.” Biden hasn’t had a great two weeks; nonetheless, this was a whipsaw narrative shift.

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Last Sunday, Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at the Post, predicted that something like this would happen. She wasn’t talking about Biden specifically—she had already punctured the deluded consensus around his supposed “electability” in a prior column. Rather, she wrote that, post-debates, “weird, unscripted moments” would “explode in all their viral splendor.” Harris’s words were not weird, nor were they necessarily unscripted, but they certainly exploded. So it’s worth remembering the skeptical question Sullivan subsequently posed: how, exactly, does coverage driven by a viral moment “serve all the undecided voters out there: swing voters and fence-sitters, genuinely interested citizens and casual bystanders?”

Often, the answer to this question is: it doesn’t. But it feels, this time, like we should make an exception. The Biden–Harris exchange was not a gaffe, or a stunt, or a corny zinger. It was a substantive argument that crystallized—in five riveting minutes—issues of historical and ongoing racial injustice, the nature of power in America, and the generational and ideological divisions shaping this Democratic primary and, by extension, the possible future direction of the country. As Eric Lach writes for The New Yorker, “There are moments in political debates that get overblown, spun, or misconstrued. Thursday’s exchange… on race won’t be one of them.”

Biden’s supposed frontrunner status was always premature; so, too, are the more exaggerated reports of his demise circulating this morning. There is still a very long way to go in this primary. But beyond the “Harris up; Biden down” punditry, last night’s exchange was a jolting reminder of something important. This primary is a contest of ideas. And debates, as noisy and superficial as they so often are, can sometimes—sometimes—help us to understand them.

Below, more from the debates:

  • “The senator took the lead”: On the whole, last night’s debate was feistier than Wednesday’s. The moderators tried in vain to keep the candidates to time and to prevent them from talking over each other. But during the crucial Harris–Biden exchange, Politico’s Michael Calderone writes, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow “stayed out of the way, letting the moment happen, to great effect.” That approach was intentional, NBC News boss Andy Lack told Calderone.
  • A SCOTUS-shaped hole: The Supreme Court handed down two key decisions yesterday: the justices struck down the Trump administration’s efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, at least for now, but ruled, in a 5-4 verdict, that the courts cannot prevent the partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts. The second ruling, in particular, could have grave consequences for the Democratic Party, yet the moderators did not ask about it.
  • Fatigue? What fatigue?: Wednesday’s debate attracted 15.3 million viewers, almost matching the record (for a Democratic debate) of 15.5 million, for a Hillary Clinton v. Bernie Sanders broadcast in 2015. Thursday’s event was expected to be an even bigger draw; we’ll know the numbers this afternoon. Wednesday’s figure “doesn’t include online and streaming viewers,” the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum tweeted. “There is intense interest in this election.”
  • Polling trolling: After Wednesday’s debate, news outlets including The Hill and The Daily Mail reported that Tulsi Gabbard, the low-polling Hawaii representative, was the “shock winner” of online debate polls. Such surveys, however, were likely manipulated by right-wing trolls, NBC News reports. Their efforts “mirror the notorious troll communities’ strategy from 2016, when they bombarded polls in an effort to drive more visibility and confidence to their candidate of choice, and hoped news websites and candidates lent credibility to the results later on,” Ben Collins and Ben Popken write.
  • The wrong climate: The Democratic National Committee recently rejected candidates’ request that it schedule a debate dedicated solely to climate change. Media Matters for America’s Lisa Hymas and Evlondo Cooper write that the last two nights show that decision to be a mistake: fewer than 6 percent of questions covered climate and half the candidates on stage never got a chance to address the topic at all. Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted that he has come around to the idea: “There is just nothing like the climate crisis and no way to wrestle with its scope in the context of a general debate,” he wrote. As Jason Plautz reported recently for CJR, environmental journalists agree.


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.