In his memoir Promises to Keep, Joe Biden wrote about his 1972 Senate debate in which he faced popular incumbent Cale Boggs, whom he would eventually defeat in a stunning upset. Boggs was asked for his opinion on the ratification of a treaty and stumbled, telling the questioner that he didn’t know the specifics of it. Biden, as he wrote later, said he knew the details “cold” but decided to tell the questioner that he didn’t know either.
“I knew enough in 1972,” he wrote, “to know that nobody in the audience wanted to see Boggs embarrassed—it would have been like clubbing the family’s favorite uncle.”
Sen. Kamala Harris clubbed Joe Biden midway through Thursday’s presidential debate. It was easily the headline moment of either of the back-to-back forums. If something is going to initiate the long-prophesied Biden Decline, it should be this moment, in all its gruesomeness. But I don’t know that it will. It seems just as likely that Biden’s core supporters—older, more-moderate Democrats who have lived in the same times as Biden—will see this supposed moment of peril for Biden like all the other supposed moments of peril for Biden: as not at all disqualifying.
This is an annoying pundit thing to say, but: The first hour of the debate was building up to the Harris-Biden encounter. Harris had been deemed the “winner” of the debate within the first 30 minutes with a sharp answer on taxes and a deft line about stopping a “food fight” to quiet arguments between the various long-shot candidates shouting past each other.
Biden, trying to protect an unfamiliar presidential primary lead, was holding it together, but wasn’t offering anything approaching the debate color he was known for in the 2008 cycle or his 2012 vice presidential debate. He was just listing policy talking points until his time ran out, at which point he would stop midsentence.
It was interesting, especially, that in a debate where we expected Sen. Bernie Sanders to wage a great ideological tussle against Biden, Sanders twice bailed Biden out early. When Rep. Eric Swalwell made a dig about Biden’s age—a bold move destined to fail—Sanders, for obvious purposes, was vociferous in defending Biden against ageist attacks. Sanders also picked up on one of Biden’s points about the conditions in Central America during a discussion about immigration, a discussion where Biden was challenged hard on his position on deportation policy. But Biden, whose lucidity seemed to wane as the night progressed, was capable of being torn apart with the right attack.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said to Biden, in an ominous concession. “And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.
“But,” 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. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And 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 everyday. And that little girl was me.”
The applause lingered for so long that it took a while for Biden to get in his retort. He fumbled in his defense of busing, somehow coming around to the talking point that his position in the ’70s was that it should have been a local issue, even though it’s not very Democratic Party 2019—or really very Democratic Party at any point since those segregationist Democratic senators whom Biden spoke about left the coalition—to argue a state’s rights position on a civil rights issue.
Harris will almost certainly get a major polling surge after the best night of her presidential campaign, which up until this moment had been treading water. She’ll get noticed both for the contents of her arguments and her dominance as a debater, something that those many Democrats concerned about “electability” care a lot about.
The question now is, how far—if at all—will Biden fall?
Consider the controversy Harris referenced, when Biden told donors that at least he could work with and enjoy “civility” with the worst of the worst segregationist senators. (This was, somehow, only last week.) Though it dominated news coverage for a couple of days, there’s no evidence it made any appreciable dent in Biden’s support, including among one of his strongest voting blocs: older black voters, who dominate the electorate of the South Carolina Democratic primary, and whom Harris needs to win over.
Biden weathered the initial story, and he weathered another crisis earlier this year about his inappropriate touching of women. The 1994 crime bill that he authored hasn’t scratched him. Many of his supporters feel that these past transgressions are overblown by the media, or that the times were different when he committed them, or that the Democratic Party has strayed too far to the left and that Biden is being unfairly attacked by a mob out to get him over any little thing. This is why, as sharp as Harris was on the attack, there can be risk in going after Biden, who maintains strong favorability within the party. That reality was built into Harris’ very approach, which opened with that reassurance that Biden isn’t racist and that she too believes in finding common ground with opponents.
It was a night that started shakily for Biden, built into a goring, and ended with maybe the most interesting questions of the primary season thus far: Is this the start of the slide? It has to be, right? If it isn’t, then what is?