An awful lot of people anticipated a “rematch” between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden in Detroit’s second night of Democratic debates (Biden could be heard saying to Harris during the introductions: “Go easy on me, kid”). It was also obvious that Cory Booker might try to emulate Harris’s tough-talk challenge to Biden from the first round of debates in Miami.
The way it worked out, Biden benefited in multiple ways. He did well in his renewed duel with Harris, which for a long time dwelled on her revised health-care plan, a proposal virtually all of the candidates trashed and which she did a poor job of explaining. Booker did well, too, partially at Biden’s expense. But that which is good for Cory Booker is also good for Joe Biden, because Booker is the candidate best positioned to challenge what had begun to look like a serious Obama-esque Harris bid to surge among the African-American voters Biden depends on.
Harris has already lost some altitude as her first-debate “bounce” dissipated. This trend could well continue after this debate. Aside from Harris’s awkward handling of her health-care plan, Tulsi Gabbard hit her with the criticism of her record as California attorney general that many activists have been making for a good while. And if Booker gets some buzz going forward, that and his potentially strong Iowa organization could make him the “It Candidate” for a while. Among other things, he might cut into Harris’s African-American support, particularly in the crucial South Carolina primary, where both these candidates need to break through. And more generally, anything that prevents Harris from emerging as a clear party-unifying alternative to Sanders and Warren on the left and Biden on the right is great — perhaps crucial — for Biden. There’s a reason Harris was the early smart-money favorite among political insiders, long before her boffo first-debate performance in Miami. Her updated version of the 2008 Obama strategy, with a slow build toward a South Carolina breakthrough, and then a big win in her native California three days later, looked quite feasible. Cory Booker is among the obstacles in her path.
Late in the debate, Biden survived a potentially sticky development when Kirsten Gillibrand pulled out an ancient Biden quote suggesting that women who work outside the home undermine the family, and then Harris piled on by bringing up Biden’s recent flip-flop on the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding of abortion services. He fought off Gillibrand’s challenge by touting his own single-parenting years (after his first wife and a child were killed in an automobile crash) and his record on support for working mothers, and then blurred Harris’s attack by descending into legislative pettifoggery. He handled it all much better than he did Harris’s attacks in Miami.
Yes, of course, it’s still very early in the nomination contest. There will be two more rounds of debates in the fall, and lots of retail campaigning, paid ads, earned media opportunities, and twists and turns we cannot possibly anticipate — and that’s all before voters weigh in. But for the moment, it all worked out for the front-runner. In Detroit, Joe Biden needed a much stronger performance than he managed in Miami, and he delivered, looking much better prepared, more aggressive, and frankly, less tired and old. He got a relatively poor performance from Harris, which at least mitigates a clear threat to his electoral base and his path to the nomination. He can deal with Cory Booker, who is not yet a top-tier candidate, at his leisure. For now, Harris’s pain and Booker’s gain will help the former vice-president get through his rough patch and back into gear.