The Surprising Impact of the 2020 Democratic Debates: Down to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg attributes former Vice President Joe Biden's widening lead for both the Democratic presidential nomination and the 2020 presidential election to his electability, as this has become the major criterion for candidate selection among Democratic grassroots nationally.

I had thought that the two presidential Democratic debates this week would be relatively inconsequential.  Instead, their impact is huge. 

The Democrats are now down to only two possible prospective nominees, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.   The leading Progressive Democrat candidate will finish a distant third.  That candidate will probably be Elizabeth Warren, rather than Bernie Sanders.   

Bernie led the Progressive Democratic vanguard against Hillary Clinton in 2016, just as Eugene McCarthy initially led the anti-Vietnam War Democrat movement in 1968.  By 1972 when he ran again, McCarthy was finished, having been supplanted by George McGovern, – just as Bernie Sanders in 2020 is supplanted by Elizabeth Warren. 

A quick note on “Uncle Bernie “Sanders.  I could never support his far-Left agenda.  But I do have a residual affection for him.   

He reminds me of the Socialist uncle every Jewish family seemed to have in the 1950s!  That uncle would read I.F. Stone and insist on Passover Seder night on using the Socialist Haggadah, rather than the Maxwell House Haggadah.  In fact, Uncle Bernie would suggest that the family forego the Passover Seder and instead, go to the Paul Robeson concert at Carnegie Hall and hear him sing, “Go Down, Moses!” 

The Progressive Democrats, as shown in the polls, remain a minority in their party.  Kamala Harris, although not a progressive herself, is capable of attracting a major defection of progressives.  This would further doom the Progressive Democratic survivor, likely Warren, to no better than a third-place finish. 

In last night’s debate, Biden was the candidate of Presidential gravitas.  Kamala Harris was the candidate of overwhelming charisma.  More than any candidate I have seen over the past few decades, even more than Obama, the charisma of Harris enables her to mobilize the younger voting generation and particularly young African -Americans.  She is the 2020 version of Bobby Kennedy.  If you watched her campaign announcement in her home town of Oakland, the enthusiasm of the large crowd demonstrated how genuine the Kamala fervor is. 

By contrast, the presidential gravitas of Biden makes him the 2020 version of Hubert Humphrey, retaining the allegiance of senior citizens, the party faithful and older African-Americans. 

During the first half of the debate, the presidential gravitas of Biden dominated the proceedings.  He attacked Trump most effectively and displayed excellent issue command.  He looked and sounded most presidential. 

I was issuing social media, noticing the effective style of Harris and lauding her as an ideal running mate for Biden.  But then came that unforgettable moment in which Harris scored her breakthrough.  And the way she rocked Biden was reminiscent of the eleventh round of the first Ali-Frazier fight in which Joe scored a near knockout, pounding Muhammad from pillar to post.

The controversy about Biden’s reference to the segregationist senators Herman Talmadge and James Eastland is no longer a problem for him.  The spirited defense of Biden by African-American Congressmen James Clyburn, Elijah Cummings, and John Lewis took care if that. 

The Harris attack on Biden’s busing record, however, opened a wound on the Biden candidacy profile. There is a real vulnerability of Biden on the issue due to the REAL reason for his opposition to busing in the 1970s, a reason unspoken on the stage:  Biden opposed busing due to the fervent anti-busing mood then existing in Delaware.  Had he supported busing, he never would have been elected US Senator from Delaware in the first place. 

That will excuse Biden from the standpoint of history, but from a debate standpoint, if he acknowledges this as his defense, it would be a political catastrophe for him.  He will have to develop a palatable defense on this issue.  Harris has exposed on busing a genuine Biden vulnerability.  She did not score a knockout, but she definitely scored a major victory. 

Just as significantly, Harris now has a powerful personal narrative on the busing issue:   Busing gave the child Kamala the opportunity to receive the education that enabled her to succeed and rise from a child in Oakland to her credible candidacy as President of the United States.  In support of this narrative, the Harris campaign made a magnificently effective use of social media with this Tweet after the debate, with a powerful picture of the child Kamala that says it all: 

https://twitter.com/kamalaharris/status/1144427976609734658?s=21 

The debate exchange on busing also enabled Kamala to establish another theme:  Biden is a man of the past.  Kamala is the future.  

 The race is far from over.  The battle is now joined, however.  The 2020 race for the Democratic nomination is now a two-person contest between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.  And in last night’s debate, Kamala exhibited her supreme prowess as a prosecutor which would enable her to eviscerate Trump in debates. 

As long as we are playing futurology, there is an ideal running mate for Kamala Harris:  Ohio’s US Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat with a powerful appeal to white working-class voters and whose presence on the ticket would give a Harris-Brown ticket a real chance to carry Ohio.  There is no way that Trump could win reelection if he loses Ohio. 

There were also some definite knockout losers in the two Democratic debates: 

Kirsten Gillibrand and Bill DeBlasio.  They give rudeness a bad name. 

Beto O’Rourke:  Knocked out by Julian Castro.  Beto should consider running in 2020 against incumbent Texas Senator John Cornyn. 

Pete Buttigieg:  He cannot overcome the albatross of his highly problematic relationship with the African-American community of South Bend. 

And I have a point of personal privilege against Mayor Pete: 

I started off as an admirer of Mayor Pete, but he is now on my negative list.  The New York Times interviewed all the Democratic candidates regarding Israel’s human rights record.  His response was the worst.  I watched on the Israeli cable channel I24 the Tel Aviv gay pride celebration.  Now where in the Arab world could you see such a gay pride event?  As a gay American, Mayor Pete should be ashamed of himself.  By alienating African-American and Jewish voters, Mayor Pete is building against himself a Rainbow Coalition in reverse. 

Final loser:  Cory Booker.  The success of fellow presidential candidate newcomer Kamala Harris has eclipsed him.  Come home to New Jersey, Cory. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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