A month after Senator Kamala Harris caught former Vice President Joe Biden flat-flooted with her criticism of his record on racial issues, the two will share the stage again Wednesday night in Detroit. But the dynamic for the re-match may be very different.
At the first Democratic debate in Miami, Biden was leery of swiping back at Harris, lest he come off as condescending, sexist or racist, according to four advisers. This time, those advisers say, Biden has personally signed-off on a more aggressive posture.
Biden has has been studying dossiers about Harris’ record as a prosecutor and California Attorney General, an area that went largely untouched during their first debate, advisers tell TIME. “Then-Senator Biden passed the crime bill in 1994. Then-A.G. Harris used the crime bill as recently as two years ago,” one Biden adviser said, telegraphing a line of attack. Already, he has criticized Harris’ health care plan, as well as the criminal-justice record of Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, another African-American candidate who will be itching to land a punch at Biden Wednesday night in Detroit.
The setting raises the stakes. Detroit is a majority-black city, and the largest in a state President Trump won by a little over 10,000 votes, which helped him cinch the 2016 election. The debate comes as Trump continues his feuds with a clique of Congresswomen of color; the powerful point-man on oversight, Rep. Elijiah Cummings of Maryland; and Baltimore, another majority-black city. When Biden, Harris and Booker spar over issues like forced busing, sentencing policy and school integration, Trump’s racist tweets will be the backdrop.
Biden has appeared to find his footing after a rocky first debate. Heading into Miami, he was the top pick for 30% of likely Democratic voters, according to Quinnipiac University polling. Coming out he slipped to 22%, as Harris bounced from 7% to 20%. The Harris surge, though, seems to have slowed. Biden is up to 34% and Harris has settled back to 12%, clustered with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
The first debate set Biden’s campaign back on its heels, forcing him to fend off an onslaught of criticism over his policies on race and women. Harris’ attacks, in particular, left him personally wounded, advisers say. “She was friends with Beau,” Biden told friends, invoking his late son and former Delaware Attorney General to friends after Harris’ barbs. “She knows I’m not a racist.”
As Biden marshals his arguments, Harris is taking the stage in a defensive crouch. Earlier this week, she released a plan that attempts to address the liberal base’s clamor for Medicare for All without the vast restructuring of Sanders’ or Warren’s plans. Her “Medicare for All” plan would provide a 10-year phase-in period for Medicare and lets private insurers offer plans that follow certain requirements. The plan drew attacks from both moderates and progressives: Biden’s campaign pointed out Harris’ past support of Sanders’ original Medicare for All legislation and called it a “Bernie Sanders-lite Medicare for All” plan. Meanwhile, Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, argued that you can “call it anything you want, but you can’t call this plan Medicare for All.” Health care has been an issue Harris has stumbled over from the offset, after publicly announcing support for eliminating private insurance, then walking back from that position.
Meanwhile, Booker, who missed the Harris-Biden showdown in the last debate, has signaled that he’s prepared to fight too. First he called Biden out for comments about his past work with segregationist lawmakers and other language around race. Then, last week, he called Biden the “architect of mass incarceration” for supporting the 1994 crime bill that implemented mandatory minimums that disproportionally affected the black community. “You created this system,” he tweeted, in what was clearly a swipe at Biden. “We’ll dismantle it.”
Booker has made criminal-justice reform his signature issue: his bipartisan First Steps Act was signed into law in December, and his campaign’s criminal-justice platform is among the most far-reaching in the field, with plans to decriminalize marijuana, grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders and help people incarcerated in the war on drugs re-enter society.
The debate will unfold against a backdrop of a Democratic primary in which anti-racism has become a top-tier political issue. The Democratic candidates are jostling to position themselves as the antidote to Trump’s racist tweets.
Meanwhile, the party itself is working to address racial inclusion within its ranks. Criticism from some Democrats about insufficient diversity at House Democrats’ campaign arm forced a staff shake-up this week and its chief, Rep. Cheri Bustos, into sensitivity training. According to one aide, 48% of the committee’s senior staffers were racial minorities before this week, while 42% of all staffers were racial minorities and 55% of all staffers were female. Critics said those figures were insufficient.