For the first 65 minutes of Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Miami, Joe Biden was standing at the catbird dais. The former vice president was enjoying his status as the front-runner. When he spoke, he speechified as though the others were just onstage coincidentally, not rivals for the nomination. And when Representative Eric Swalwell called on him to “pass the torch,” Biden just grinned and replied, “I’m still holding onto that torch.”
Senator Kamala Harris had other ideas. As the white men onstage around her sparred over police violence—with Swalwell making a daring attack on Mayor Pete Buttigieg—Harris broke in, as she had several times earlier in the night, and asserted her right to be heard.
“As the only black person onstage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” she said to applause. Then she turned and took a dagger to Biden, invoking his recent baffling anecdote about working with the segregationist Senator James Eastland:
I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground, but I also believe—and it’s personal, and I was actually very—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 you know, 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 every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.
This was no spontaneous attack—Harris had clearly planned the ambush, and it worked. Biden was defensive. “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I do not praise racists. That is not true,” he said, rebutting an attack that Harris had not made. What was to come was even shakier. Biden meandered through a confusing response, invoking his career as a public defender in Wilmington, Delaware; riots in that city after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination; and his work as Barack Obama’s vice president, without spelling out what this added up to. Harris was unimpressed. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” she asked.