Four days after their prime-time showdown, the tit-for-tat between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden is still going strong.
Some Harris allies said Monday they saw sexism and desperation in the backlash from the former vice president’s camp. They were outraged after an ally of Biden suggested she had allowed her ambition to get the best of her when she challenged the former vice president’s long opposition to busing for school desegregation. And at least one black leader aligned with a rival campaign rose to Harris’ defense, too.
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“Why couldn’t she be ambitious? She’s running for president of the United States,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, said in an interview. Watson Coleman is backing Cory Booker but said she felt compelled to speak out. “That, however, does not diminish the significance of her speaking out [about] her experiences as a young black girl, and the significance of the civil rights movement and how it provided an opportunity for her.”
Harris has surged in polls since she called out Biden during last week’s debate over his associations with segregationist senators and his opposition to busing. But Biden’s surrogates questioned her motives while emphasizing — albeit presumptively — that she blew up her chances of being selected as the early frontrunner’s running mate.
Among the Biden endorsers to blast Harris was former Carol Moseley Braun, the first black woman to serve in the Senate. “Her ambition got it wrong about Joe,” she said.
The hostilities carried into Monday, when a top Biden supporter suggested Harris’ knockdown would help Donald Trump in a general election by creating a “TV-ready moment that they could use in ads in cities like Philadelphia.” The person close to the Biden campaign also suggested Harris would get her comeuppance in a future exchange.
But Watson Coleman and others took aim at what they considered to be a tone-deaf critique of Harris. She said the dismissal of Harris’ argument stems in large part from a focus on her gender and race: Though the Democratic primary features a record number of women, they noted that two white men in their 70s are leading so far.
“It’s disingenuous for people to say she doesn’t have a right to speak to those experiences,” added Watson Coleman. “And it’s very interesting that as a black woman, how she speaking out on these issues becomes a louder issue for response than if a white man or someone else had spoken about their particular experiences and what impassions and motivates them to run.”
Biden’s decades-long stance on busing — he once called the entire concept of busing for school desegregation a “bankrupt concept” — raises questions about whether he’s equipped to handle the modern racial environment where segregated schools remain an issue, nearly a dozen Harris allies and advisers argued to POLITICO in recent days. They also rejected the idea that it reflected poorly on Harris, whose detractors said was being too-cute-by-half in leveling the critique and then advertising it on social media and on t-shirts to drive home her message.
While Harris was prepared to address Biden’s record, Biden also appeared at first ready to counter her claims. During the debate, Biden contrasted her decision to become a prosecutor with his choice to take a job early in his career as a public defender. He also was briefed enough to know that busing at Harris’ school in Berkeley was voluntary.
Still, he did himself no favors by essentially giving up on the argument before his time was up, giving Harris even more of the upper-hand in the post-debate analysis.
Harris has raised more than $3.6 million online and at events after the hit on Biden. On Monday, one of her advisors told POLITICO that their perception is Biden was rattled in the debate and instead of dealing with the merits of the issue, his supporters took out their frustrations on Harris, including the idea that she’s harmed her own career by calling him out.
So far, Harris’ move is paying big dividends for her campaign.
Biden’s frontronner status appears to be crumbling: He dropped 10 points in the latest CNN/SSRS poll released Monday, to 22 percent. Harris gained 9 points, vaulting into second place at 17 percent.
Biden’s support from non-white voters fell to 25 from 30 percent, while Harris’ backing with the group surged to 19 from just 4 percent.
“I think they believe that their victory hinges upon the establishment believing he’s the only candidate that can beat Trump,” a Harris adviser said of Biden’s camp. “If that starts to unravel then the game is up.”
Harris allies, meanwhile, defended her tack in the debate as in keeping with her profile as a prosecutor willing to speak truth to power.
J.A. Moore, a state representative in South Carolina, said the busing issue hit close to home. Moore’s aunt, Loretta, was part of an early group of black students to integrate a high school named after the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, who was nominated for a presidential run as a Dixiecrat.
Biden helped lead the charge against busing, a position fact-checkers of his debate remarks determined went beyond the federal government’s role. He strongly opposed Delaware’s court-ordered busing program, characterizing it as “a rejection of the whole movement of black pride.”
Moore said Biden’s 40-plus-year record is fair game, for Harris and other Democratic rivals.
“Here in this country we don’t coronate anybody. No one is just magically bestowed our party’s nomination. You have to earn it,” Moore said. “And one of the big things we will look at here in South Carolina — especially with the African-American community being the majority of voters in the primary — we will examine his entire record. He doesn’t get a pass because he was Barack Obama’s vice president.”
While Biden’s supporters tried to turn the tables on Harris, Marguerite Willis, a recent Democratic candidate for governor in South Carolina, said she was stung by the way his camp has handled the fallout. Willis sees it as a cry for help from a campaign that’s slowly coming apart in an era it simply wasn’t built for.
“As a woman,” she said, “I hear that as ‘who do you think you are? You need to wait your turn.’ As a politician, I hear that as ‘Houston, we have a problem.’”