Critic's Notebook: Kamala Harris Prosecutes Joe Biden During the Democratic Debate

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The California senator was the most forceful presence on a night that included some fiery exchanges and illustrated that Biden has gotten rusty.

On the second night of the first Democratic debate, Kamala Harris came loaded for bear.

Nobody expected the California senator and ex-prosecutor to be a shrinking violet, but Harris took control of the stage in a way that's bound to give her candidacy a boost. And although several of her fellow contenders also took opportunities to take swipes at frontrunner Joe Biden, she did so with a ferocity that left the former vice president looking stunned. She went after Biden for his comments about working with segregationists and for his past opposition to busing. It didn't seem to matter that virtually no one, including the African American community, cares about the former issue, or that the latter is decades old. Biden eventually mustered up the energy for an angry response, but the damage was done.

Whether or not Harris eventually becomes the nominee, the Democrats should agree to make her the designated debater against Donald Trump. Forget televising those matchups. You could show them on PPV and erase the national debt in a few nights.

Biden looked like he'd rather have been anywhere else than in Miami this night. He's clearly not staking his campaign on overexposure, after all. He looked and sounded tentative, and the way he kept raising one finger up in the air to attract the moderators' attention made him seem like the shy kid sitting in the back of the classroom who would really prefer not to get called on. Several times, he cut his own answers short and said, "My time is up" before anyone asked him to. If he does get the nomination, he'd better learn to stop being so polite. He'd be running against a man who literally stalks his opponents onstage.

Biden demonstrates the pitfalls of running for office when you actually have — what do you call it? — a record. It's much easier to be elected these days when you have no experience that can actually be evaluated. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when having been a senator and vice president has become a political liability.

The debate provided ample demonstration that If the Democrats want to win the presidency, they better figure out what the hell kind of party they want to be, and fast. The more they battle over Medicare for all and how far to the left they should go, the easier it will be for Trump to tweet his way to victory. This evening, Bernie Sanders renewed his calls for a political revolution. That much of the early part of the debate revolved around issues he's championed made it clear how much influence he's had on the party. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, on the other hand, forcefully argued for their centrist positions. They made a lot sense. But neither of them is likely to still be on the debate stage next year.

The generation gap was also very much in evidence, and it wasn't just because Pete Buttigieg standing directly next to Biden looked like the cover art for a new edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The issue was dramatically raised not by Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the race, but rather Eric Swalwell, a California congressman best known for frequently showing up on political television shows. One of the many Democratic candidates who are essentially running for president as a career move, Swalwell argued that the political torch must be passed to a new generation. Meaning, of course, himself.

Biden would have none of it. "I'm still holding on to that torch!" he thundered, sounding like an elderly parent refusing to give up his car keys. Sanders immediately rose to Biden's defense, and for a moment the evening threatened to turn into a knock-down fight between the oldsters and the youngins. Until Harris, once more taking charge, brought it to a stop. "America does not want to witness a food fight," she forcefully chided her fellow contenders. "They want to know how we're going to put food on their table." It was a moment sure to go viral.

Buttigieg delivered one response during the evening that was simply stunning. Asked about the racial issues inflaming South Bend and why there were still so few people of color on the city's police force, Mayor Pete said, "Because I couldn't get it done." The answer was clearly pre-planned and thoughtfully strategized, but still. It was brilliant in a way, but it's probably not going to be the slogan on his bumper stickers.

Sanders had a good night. His energy seems inexhaustible. If his political career ever flames out, he'd make a killing endorsing vitamins. But he too has a record, as illustrated when Rachel Maddow asked him about one of his past statements on gun control, an issue he was much more lenient about when only representing all those hunters in Vermont and not running for national office. "That's a mischaracterization of my position, Rachel," Sanders chided. "That's a quote of you!" she rejoined.  

Once again, there were candidates onstage about whom you could only ask, "Why?" And I'm not talking about Kirsten Gillibrand. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang said this his presence was "proof that our democracy still works." Maybe. Or maybe it's proof that our major political parties have to do some serious rethinking about their qualifications. Steve Bullock got locked out of the debate, for instance, and he's the governor of a state that Trump won by 20 points. Yang wasn't questioned about his opposition to circumcisions, which seemed a shame since it's such a cutting-edge issue. But he was asked about his proposal to give every American over 18 a basic income of $1,000 a month.

(What, really? $1,000 a month? Is it too early for me to say he has my vote? As you may have heard, journalism doesn't pay particularly well.)

And then there was author and motivational speaker Marianne Williamson, whose books include Enchanted Love and A Return to Love. When asked what her first priority would be as president, Williamson said that she would call the leader of New Zealand. Uh, OK. She lived up to the theme of her books in her closing statement, when she addressed Trump directly. "Mr. President, I'm going to harness love for political purposes," she said, staring directly into the camera. "I will meet you on that field, and, sir, love will win."

So it's not like we have anything to worry about.