Sen. Kamala Harris was on the campaign trail in South Carolina this weekend when a reporter asked her a question: What did she think of former Vice President Joe Biden‘s apology for comments he made about being civil and working with segregationist senators?
Harris, who at the first Democratic debate confronted Biden over those comments and his opposition to federally mandated desegregation busing, responded that Biden was “right to recognize the impact of his words” and said she applauded him for doing so.
But then she added: “There is still a point of disagreement between he and I, and that remains … which is the issue of busing.”
“We cannot rewrite history about what segregationists were doing at that time on a number of issues, including opposing busing,” she added.
The exchange highlights how Harris and her campaign are eager to keep pressing the issue of busing as a point of distinction between her and Biden as they try to sustain a wave of momentum out of the first debate and the clash with the former vice president.
In the days after that debate moment, Harris vaulted into the top tier of Democratic candidates in polls while Biden, once the overwhelming frontrunner in the race, has fallen to a much tighter lead over the rest of the primary field. Harris’s campaign raised $2 million in the 24 hours following the televised conflict, and her operation has begun to expand its operation in Iowa, home to the critical first-in-the nation caucuses.
But those days also saw moments that raised questions about Harris’ ability to fully capitalize on that momentum.
The California senator again had to clarify her position on whether private insurance would exist under her health care plan after raising her hand when asked if she would support a plan that abolished private insurance. And Harris struggled to articulate her own position of desegregation busing, which the Biden campaign seized on to try to undercut her attack on the Democratic frontrunner.
And despite the $2 million cash infusion to the campaign after the debate, Harris’ campaign announced that it had raised less than $12 million in the first quarter, a number that puts her campaign far behind Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Confrontation with Biden
The highlight of Harris’ month came when, before more than 18 million Americans watching the primary debates, the California senator unloaded on Biden, lambasting the race’s frontrunner for his decades-old fight against busing to desegregate schools and comments about his ability to be civil and work with segregationist senators.
Biden later told CNN he wasn’t prepared for Harris to attack him the way she did, and it showed, much to Harris’ benefit.
But it was clear coming out of the debate that Harris had planned to attack Biden. Harris had signaled going into the event knowing that Biden was vulnerable on issues of race, and knew that she could bring her personal story — she was part of the second class at her public school to integrate — to attack Biden.
“That little girl was me,” Harris said.
Her campaign quickly seized on the quote. Nearly every Harris aide looked to elevate the topic online and Harris tweeted it with a photo of herself as a young child preparing to go to school.
In the clearest sign that the moment was in the works prior to the debate night, Harris campaign quickly began selling “That Little Girl Was Me” T-shirts featuring the photo.
The role of private insurance
But if that confrontation with Biden was the highpoint of her month, one of the low points also came at the debate: When Harris raised her hand when asked if she would support a health care plan that abolished private insurance.
The next morning, as the moment with Biden dominated the news, Harris admitted that she misunderstood the question and raised her hand in error, a mistake that further complicates the senator’s position on health care and could provide voters with lingering questions about her position on “Medicare for All.”
“So, the question was would you be willing to give up your private insurance,” Harris said on “CBS This Morning.” When a host pointed out that is not how it was asked, Harris said, “That is certainly what I heard.”
“I am supportive of a Medicare for All policy, and under a Medicare for All policy, private insurance would certainly exist for supplemental coverage,” she added on CBS.
Questions about Harris’ actual position on health care have been lingering for months, especially after she appeared to tell CNN in January she would eliminate private insurers as a necessary part of implementing Medicare for All.
“The idea is that everyone gets access to medical care, and you don’t have to go through the process of going through an insurance company, having them give you approval, going through the paperwork, all of the delay that may require. Who of us has not had that situation, where you’ve got to wait for approval, and the doctor says, ‘Well, I don’t know if your insurance company is going to cover this?’ Let’s eliminate all of that. Let’s move on,” she said at a town hall with CNN in January.
Later, Harris and her aide said her “let’s eliminate all of that” comment was aimed at the bureaucracy around health care, not private insurance.
The question is an important one because it could be a distinction between Sanders, the author of the Medicare for All bill, and the host of other Democrats who claim to support some version of it.
Her position on busing
The days following the debate also saw the validity of Harris’ attack on Biden face questions.
Where Biden appeared to be caught flatfooted on Harris’ attack during the debate, his team quickly sprang into action to defend him and raise questions about Harris’ own position on busing.
Harris and her campaign struggled in the days that followed to explain her own position on busing to desegregate schools today, as hostility between the Biden and Harris campaigns played out publicly on Twitter and TV.
Nearly a week after the debate, when Harris was asked to clarify her position on busing, she said, “Let me just be really clear: Busing is a tool among many that should be considered when we address the issue, which is a very current issue, as well as a past issue, of desegregation in America’s schools.”
Asked more specifically whether she supported federally mandated busing to desegregate schools in areas where segregation was not the result of discriminatory laws, Harris responded, “I believe that any tool that is in the toolbox should be considered by a school district.”
Her answer — that busing should be considered but not mandated — appeared to be at odds with the position she took on the debate stage, especially because she expressly said the “federal government must step in” when Biden said he opposed federally mandated busing.
Ian Sams, a national spokesman for Harris, maintained in a statement that Harris’ answer on Wednesday did not conflict with her comments on the debate stage, arguing that the fight over busing to desegregate schools in the ’60s and ’70s and the conversation about busing in the modern era cannot be compared. Harris, Sams said, supports a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and Rep. Marcia Fudge that devotes federal resources to desegregate schools.
“Federally mandated busing was essential in the 60s/70s to force the integration of schools,” Sams said. “Today, decades later, we need a comprehensive approach which is why she supports Murphy/Fudge, which is federal resources to diversify schools, including busing, rezoning, and magnets.”
Still, Biden’s campaign pounced on Harris’ comments.
Biden, in an interview with CNN, said Harris’ position after the debate does not appear that different to his.
Even if Harris’ debate performance looks different weeks after the contest, it hasn’t stopped her supporters — especially those in Iowa, where Harris traveled days after the debate — from touting the contest as an unadulterated success.
“Man, you killed him, you killed him,” one supporter said in a brief interaction with Harris.
Another added: “I loved your fight in the debate, you’re the one we need.”
Others flatly said the debate cemented them as Harris supporters.
“After the debates, I really confirmed my support for her,” said Sue Amosson, an Iowa Democrat from West Des Moines. “I love Joe Biden. I think he’s a wonderful guy. But I think we need new ideas. We need younger people.”
That was echoed by Dennis Rhodes, a 77-year old Iowan who was “very much a supporter” of Biden when he ran for President in 2008.
Over a decade later, Rhodes said, he thinks Biden had his time.
“It’s time to pass the torch to somebody younger,” he said. “That’s where I’m at.”