WASHINGTON, D.C. — The biggest impact of last week's two-night, 20-candidate Democratic extravaganza is that a new star has emerged: Sen. Kamala Harris of California turned in one of the best debate performances I've ever seen. She earned herself a place in the upper tier of the crowded field. Now we'll see if she has what it takes to climb all the way to the top – and stay there.
Harris' ascent came at the expense of front-runner Joe Biden, who had such a disappointing outing that all he can do is make sure he does better next time. He still leads all comers, and one debate didn't change that. But he showed vulnerabilities that have to make Democratic voters nervous about his prospects in a general election race against President Trump.
That, after all, is by far the biggest question for many Democrats: Who is the surest bet to beat Trump? The answer, according to polls thus far, is Biden. But his performance Thursday night has to make never-Trump voters nervous.
With what was clearly a pre-planned assault on Biden – on his fond reminiscences of white-supremacist Senate colleagues and his late-1970s stance against federally mandated school busing to achieve racial integration – Harris accomplished three important things. The former California attorney general displayed her world-class skills as a prosecutor, treating Biden like a defendant on the witness stand. She made Biden look defensive and flustered and, frankly, old. And she introduced her personal history as a young black girl in Berkeley who rode a bus to school.
Her attack on Biden wasn't nice, but it wasn't unfair – his stance on busing is a matter of public record. She was careful to begin by making clear she was not accusing Biden of being a racist. But what she did imply was that he was a man of yesterday, not tomorrow.
It was easy to imagine her utterly demolishing Trump on a debate stage. It was possible to imagine Biden doing the same thing, but you had to wonder.
So Harris got everybody's attention. Now begins the serious vetting – of her record, her background, her temperament, her positions on the issues. She indicated during the debate that her Medicare-for-all health care plan involves eliminating private health insurance, but her campaign said Friday that she misunderstood the question. So which is it? Biden has vast experience in foreign affairs; Harris doesn't. Is she the one to repair the damage Trump is doing to the nation's standing in the world? She denounces and rejects Trump's immigration policy. What's hers?
If Harris' debate triumph was a revelation, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' performance was familiar. Nobody stays on-message better than Bernie. But unlike four years ago, when he had the progressive wing of the party to himself, this year he has to share it with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who dominated Wednesday night's first half of the debate. We'll have to wait until next time, perhaps, to see how her detailed plans for addressing problems and issues compete on a debate stage with Sanders' general call for a political "revolution."
Pete Buttigieg created a moment when he forthrightly took responsibility for not doing more to diversify the police department of South Bend, Indiana, during his time as mayor. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and former housing secretary Julian Castro really helped themselves this week; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York showed that breaking the debate rules and interrupting constantly gets you noticed, not punished. And God bless Marianne Williamson, because yes, we do need love.
Bottom line: Harris won the two-night debate by a wide margin. And Biden needs to do better next time if he wants to keep his lead.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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