Read: Why Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris
Ultimately, Biden and his staff were able to look past that night. In late July, a photographer captured a shot of Biden’s personal notes at a campaign event in Delaware where, beneath Harris’s name, he had jotted “Do not hold grudges.” But whether the two—now historically joined as Democratic running mates—like it or not, their brief exchange last summer will loom over their ticket long after Election Day.
Whereas Trump supporters see this as a weakness, Biden supporters are spinning it as a strength. “I think that Joe Biden was a bit surprised by the question, but I do believe that Kamala Harris demonstrated that she is willing to take the fight to the opponent,” James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement boosted Biden’s candidacy across the South, told reporters on Tuesday. “That question is a furtherance of what makes Biden respect her so much.” Clyburn pointed to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings as another example of Harris showing her character. Harris’s camp might also point to the confirmation hearings for Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr as times when she has not shied away from confrontation but run toward it—a helpful skill as she prepares to debate Vice President Mike Pence this fall.
Biden’s selection of Harris may also signal that he is willing to be challenged himself, Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told me. “That he still chose the same woman who critiqued him as his closest partner to rebuild American democracy speaks very highly about how Joe Biden views female leadership and the ability for someone to call him to the mat,” she said. He will “get back up, shake hands, and be willing to listen and learn.”
Progressives hope that, just as Biden signaled he’s willing to be pushed by Harris on race, perhaps he will be willing to be pushed on other issues. They hope Biden will expand his narrow vision of police reform and embrace student-debt cancellation, or, as an easier issue, recant his aversion to legalizing marijuana.
Read: The new secession
Perhaps more than anything, Harris’s attack on the debate stage illuminated the ways well-meaning people can be complicit in systemic racism. The segregation in public schools across America, for example—seen in the micro-districts of Connecticut and school-district secessions in Louisiana, both of which isolate students of color from financial resources they need—is driven not only by racists, but also by white liberals who would prefer to send their kids to “good schools.” The people who believe that local areas where segregation is entrenched will integrate of their own free will, as was argued when busing was at its height, help prop up an unjust system. On knotty issues like school segregation, Greer told me, “having someone who understands the problems—who has been a part of this system—brings a special level of knowledge.”