Give Kamala Harris credit for a keen sense of timing.
Within the first 20 minutes, night two of the first Democratic presidential-primary debates had descended into the circus that many in the party had feared: a cacophony of unintelligible noise, as 10 candidates crammed onto a single stage all tried to talk over one another, gesturing to the moderators, desperate for a chance to speak, to attack, to shine.
The moderator Jose Diaz-Balart made clear that it was Harris’s turn to speak. “Hey guys, you know what?” the senator from California said, as everyone onstage quieted down and turned to her. “America does not want to witness a food fight; they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
The audience erupted in cheers, and Harris quickly pivoted to a pointed criticism of President Donald Trump. She mocked his heralding of “my great economy,” arguing that the standards the president uses—the stock market, a low unemployment rate—do not apply to millions of struggling Americans. “He talks about the stock market. Well, that’s fine if you own stocks. So many families in America do not,” Harris said. “They point to the jobless numbers and the unemployment numbers. Well, yeah, people in America are working, but they’re working two and three jobs. Well, let’s be clear: In our America, no one should have to work more than one job to have a roof over their head and food on their table!”
It was, in the admittedly flawed parlance of modern presidential-debate analysis, a moment. Harris has already had a few as a candidate—in May, she shined at a Senate hearing by showing off her skills as a former prosecutor in questioning Attorney General William Barr. And she had a few more tonight. Harris spoke movingly about the financial fear parents face when they have to bring a sick child to the emergency room, knowing that even if they are insured, they might still wind up with a $5,000 out-of-pocket bill.
And Harris nailed a response to a question about the steps she would take on her first day as president to address the thousands of migrants seeking asylum at the southern border. “I will,” she said, “immediately put in place a meaningful process for reviewing the cases for asylum, and release children from cages, and get rid of the private detention centers, and ensure that this microphone that the president of the United States holds in her hand is used in a way that is about reflecting the values of our country and not about locking children up.” Again, the crowd erupted.
Her most memorable exchange will likely prove to be her decision to challenge former Vice President Joe Biden in strikingly personal terms on his recent praise for the “civility” of former Senate colleagues who were ardent segregationists. “As the only black person onstage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris began. “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country.”
Harris’s debate moments may not tell voters much about how she would assemble a government or make the crucial life-and-death decisions a president must make. They show that she is a commanding public speaker and quick on her feet. The “food fight” line in particular appeared to be planned in advance, even if Harris deployed it masterfully. The cattle-call style of an early presidential debate may be entirely performative, but that’s the game each of the candidates signed off on, and it’s one that Harris is clearly comfortable playing.