Debates don’t always matter or have clear effects, but the second night of the first round had one very likely effect: Kamala Harris is going to be propelled into the first tier of candidates.
Harris is known primarily for her prosecutorial skills in Senate hearings, which she has used to rattle and control Republican witnesses. The debate showed her displaying her abilities in a different, more freewheeling format.
The most eye-catching exchange came when she interrogated Joe Biden for his comments praising segregationist senators, and his opposition to federally directed school busing. But she also effectively communicated other issues, like climate change and health care, expressing her position in terms that related the experience of regular people with abstract-issue logic. Her command was so overwhelming that almost every unaligned journalist I saw on Twitter, ranging from left to right, agreed that she won.
There is a catch to her success, possibly an important one. Harris tied herself to two unpopular positions. She, along with Bernie Sanders, raised her hand in response to a poll as to which candidates would abolish private health insurance in favor of a government plan. This is an extremely unpopular stance that she supported in an interview earlier this year, and then backed away from. (“What I meant is, let’s get rid of the bureaucracy,” she later said.) Why she returned to a position she had abandoned is unclear. She could pay a high price in a general election.
After the debate, Harris explained that she misinterpreted the question to be whether she would give up her own personal insurance for a government plan. Lester Holt asked, “Many people watching at home have health insurance through their employer. Who here would abolish their health insurance in favor of a government-run plan?” The wording of the question was subject to misinterpretation, and turned on the ambiguity of “their.”
She probably should have anticipated what Holt was trying to ask, given that he posed the same question to candidates the previous night. But Harris is at least not trying to change her position on eliminating private health insurance again.
Second, she implied through her questioning of Biden that she favors school busing imposed by the federal government. She didn’t tie herself to the stance tightly, but she has at least opened herself to questions that may force her to take risky positions. School busing proved deeply unpopular in the 1970s, and most Democrats, like Biden, abandoned it.
Both positions may complicate Harris’s ascent, or might not matter until a general election. She has shown, though, the talent as a communicator that may make Democratic Party elites swallow their misgivings about her platform. It is easy to imagine her dismantling Trump in a debate.
Harris has settled in the high single digits, well behind Biden, Bernie Sanders, and a surging Elizabeth Warren. By this time next week, I would guess she will be in third place, or possibly second. And the more chances she has to perform in debates, the better she will do.