• Ryan O'Connell

Bye-Bye Biden? Bye-Bye Moderates?

July 9, 2019

Can Joe Biden reinvigorate his campaign after Sen. Kamala Harris’ brilliant takedown of him in the Democratic debate?

Maybe, but he faces an uphill battle. Biden is still the “leading” candidate, but his support has dropped by about 10 points, to 20% from 30%, since the debate held on June 27. Meanwhile, Harris’ rankings have skyrocketed to about 20% from the mid-single digits.

Biden’s stumbling performance in the debate has reinforced concerns about his mental agility and his skills as a campaigner. A presidential campaign is grueling: can a 76-year-old meet the challenge? That is not “ageism”; it is a fundamental question for a candidate running for the most demanding job in the world.

The former Vice President should not have been caught off guard by Harris’ criticism of his fond words for racist colleagues in the Senate and his 40 year-old views on busing. A well-prepared candidate would have parried those questions and used them to showcase his proposals for helping Americans of color.

Biden’s recent praise for segregationist senators such as James Eastland reminded us of his gift for making gaffes, which hurt his two previous bids for the Presidency. This was a self-inflicted wound and a legitimate target for other candidates.

Kamala Harris Dominated The Stage...

Harris’ attack on Biden’s busing views was great political theatre, but it was not fair. Many Americans, certainly many white Americans, have shared Biden’s lack of enthusiasm for busing. The policy remains very controversial, since it triggered a massive backlash among white voters and in many cases did not advance integration. American schools are still highly segregated.

Still, politics is a blood sport, and Harris’ attack was a masterstroke. The senator raised her standing among voters as she gracefully but forcefully stood up to a former Vice President.

Harris showed that she is quick on her feet, unlike Biden, and that she can go for the jugular without appearing harsh. Harris also managed to dominate the stage without seeming too aggressive, which is a gift. The contrast with other candidates, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, was striking.

Sen. Kamala Harris Takes on Joe Biden

Gillibrand, who is floundering in the race, interrupted other candidates several times in the first few minutes of the debate. The senator was trying to raise her profile, in an effort to salvage her campaign, but she came across as whiny and rude. Gillibrand irritated the moderators, who gave her short shrift later in the evening.

Harris held her fire at first, but then she interrupted frequently—and got away with it. In fact, Harris launched her attack on Biden during one of those interruptions.

While Joe Biden Fumbled….

Biden, who has often avoided the press during the campaign, committed another blunder after the debate. A MSNBC reporter waited on the stage for several minutes to interview Biden, who was letting a group of supporters take selfies with him. One of Biden’s aides repeatedly blocked the reporter from approaching the candidate, and Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor, started making jokes about Biden’s “body man”. The visual was terrible.

Finally, Biden spoke with the reporter, who asked him to respond to Harris’ criticism on his civil rights record. This was a golden opportunity for Biden to state his case before millions of viewers. Instead, Biden said, “We should focus on the future rather than the past” and then quickly added, “Here’s my wife, I have to go”.

Not exactly media-savvy.

Black Voters are Key

Harris’ strategy behind her attack on Biden was brilliant. In one stroke, she managed to undermine Biden’s support among black voters, which has been one of his strengths, while boosting her appeal to that key constituency.

That’s critical in today’s Democratic party. Blacks constitute 12% of the overall population but 20% of Democratic voters. Furthermore, in the South Carolina primary, the third contest for Democratic presidential candidates, 60% of voters are black. So it is crucial for candidates to garner support from black voters. If they don’t do well in South Carolina, that can hurt their chances in the Super Tuesday primaries that follow shortly thereafter.

Up until now, a significant percentage of African-Americans have had reservations about Harris because she served as a tough-on-crime prosecutor for most of her career. The senator may have reduced some of those concerns with her debate performance; she has certainly left Sen. Cory Booker in the dust.

A Hurdle for Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the other top-tier moderate candidate in the race, performed well in the debate, and he raised $25 million in the second-quarter. A moderate politician, Buttigieg appeals to many establishment Democrats, as a young, dynamic alternative to Biden. Like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor, he is an intellectual, but Buttigieg doesn’t come across as preachy.

However, Buttigieg’s poll numbers have slid to 4% from 5-8% (depending on the poll) over the last four weeks, despite his solid debate performance. Buttigieg faces a major obstacle; he has not attracted support from black voters. There are probably several reasons for this.

Buttigieg fired an African-American police chief, the city’s first, early in his tenure as mayor of South Bend. That did not go over well with blacks, who are about 25% of the city’s residents. Buttigieg has presided over an impressive renewal of South Bend’s downtown, but there are grumblings that blacks have not benefited as much as whites have.

The recent fatal shooting of a black man by a white policeman has also created problems for Buttigieg. The police report states that the officer fired in self-defense because the man lunged at him with a knife. However, the police officer did not turn on his body camera, in defiance of regulations, which has outraged many blacks. The episode has further inflamed passions in South Bend and created a public-relations nightmare for Buttigieg.

To his credit, Buttigieg has worked hard to improve relations between the police and the African-American community. Still, as he admitted in the debate, “I could not get it done”.

Buttigieg’s sexuality also poses an obstacle for him with some black voters. Although African-Americans’ support for same-sex marriage has risen to 51%, according to Pew Research, that is considerably below that of whites (62%) and overall Democrats (75%). Furthermore, only 40% of black voters age 65 or older favor same-sex marriage. That’s a problem for Buttigieg, since older citizens vote more often than younger ones do.

So Kamala Harris is on a roll, while the two leading moderate Democratic candidates are slipping. Stay tuned for the next debates, which will be held on July 30-31.

The Wall Street Democrat

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