John Zogby, Senior Partner
California Senator Kamala Harris showed why she is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States during the second debate on Thursday night. She was forceful, knowledgeable, and personal. She used her very limited time better than anyone else to make her policy points, define her strengths, and tell her story. For this, the early polls reveal that she helped herself among Democratic voters. Perhaps above all, she answered any questions that many would have about her readiness to take on President Donald Trump in the general election. She is tough, articulate, armed, and ready.
What was also in evidence was how young women and African American women flocked to her in the post-debate afterglow chatting and taking selfies. Ms. Harris is a star and a hero and seemed to handle the adulation graciously and naturally.
But she also opened the door at one and the same time to both a formidable and dangerous strategy that could backfire on her sooner than later. More than any other of the top contenders she was willing to take out the knives and begin cutting (even slashing) the front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden. She went back to 47 years ago to charge him with being anti-busing and to disassemble
On the issue of Mr. Biden’s awkward citation of working with avowed racists like Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland and Georgia’s Henry Talmadge, his only point was that sometimes you don’t get to choose with whom you are forced to work out deals. If those deals involved nasty business, Ms. Harris is on to something. If that were the end of Mr. Biden’s career and he had not gone on to become a leading champion of civil rights, then that may have been an unfair point.
But what is potentially threatening here is Ms. Harris has opened the door wide to challenges about her own history as a prosecutor, an attorney general, and a recipient (and willing sponsor) of the agendas of lobbyists. And now she will be less able to say that it was ancient history (1990s) and a different context (she was a prosecutor not running for President). Thus, for example, as State Attorney General she opposed a bill requiring her office to investigate shootings by police; she threatened to imprison parents of truant children (many of whom are poor); she fought a program that would parole prisoners if they served half their sentence charging that it would limit the prisoner labor pool; and fought to uphold numerous wrongful convictions.
During the debate she deftly in one paragraph was capable of slashing Mr. Biden with knives then backing off to display a more personal and vulnerable side — “I was that little girl”. It was tough to issue a rejoinder to both the hard punch and soft weakness. Mohammed Ali called that strategy his “rope-a-dope” and it always worked so well for him.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling for Democrats, is that one of the litmus tests they will try to impose on each other is togetherness and unity. While they will all claim to draw out the better angels of our nature, some of the candidates, it appears, will also make lists (for themselves and the others) of who Democrats should work with and who they should not. Sadly, that is not change and that does not promise anything other than more of the same. Ms. Harris needs to be reminded that someone is watching all of this and will be ready to pounce. To Senator Harris: you won on points the other night. But put your sword back in the sheath for now.