The most memorable moment of Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate was a shocking memory lapse.
Joe Biden appeared to forget that Kamala Harris — a couple of spots down from him on stage — existed. During a discussion of the criminalization of marijuana, and the disproportionate impact of the war on drugs on black Americans, Biden claimed to have the support of the only black woman ever elected to the Senate. Though Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992, has endorsed the former VP, Harris became the second black woman in the senate after her election in 2016. Biden quickly corrected himself (he meant the “first” black woman), but the gaffe reminded us that Biden is still living in a 1990s political world.
Harris gracefully basked in the humor the moment — a feather Biden handed to her as she capped off her best debate performance since June. Much like her viral “that little girl was me” declaration back in that first debate, also at Biden’s expense, Harris’s best answers Wednesday night hinged on the identity the Vice President forgot: the senator’s strongest appeals have been tied to her unique vantage point as a black woman.
Before the Biden gaffe, Harris declined to attack Pete Buttigieg for his misuse of a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to illustrate his plan for revitalizing black America. Instead, she pivoted to a broader discussion of what it takes to activate the Obama coalition. Democrats like to praise black women, she said, for their activism and mobilization in support of blue candidates in election years:
But you know, at some point, folks get tired of just saying, “Oh, thank me for showing up” and say, “Well, show up for me.”
Because when black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America, when the sons of black women will die because of gun violence more than any other cause of death, when black women make 61 cents on the dollar as compared to all women, who tragically make 80 cents on the dollar, the question has to be: “Where you been and what are you going to do? And do you understand what the people want?”
Harris shines most when she speaks about the specific barriers to flourishing that various groups of Americans face. This intersectional awareness has, of course, been honed by her experience being the first black woman to serve as San Francisco District Attorney and California Attorney General.
At the debate, Harris brought this perspective to bear across the contours of the American experience: black women suffer heightened maternal mortality rates; Latina women are victim to the biggest pay discrepancies; and communities of color are hit hardest by gun violence, the war on drugs, and voting restrictions.
Crucially, Harris finds her voice not only talking about the discrete challenges faced by racial minorities. For example, Harris has campaigned on her plans to combat chronic underpayment of public school teachers and public defenders, noting the singular challenges of working in those professions. No two Americans’ experiences — or obstacles — are alike.
Her energetic defense of an ambitious six-month paid family leave plan hinged on an understanding of how women are asymmetrically burdened by childcare and eldercare, in addition to an intersectional awareness of how different communities experience job insecurity around parenthood:
[I]t is no longer the case in America that people are having children in their 20s. People are having children in their 30s, often in their 40s, which means that these families and parents are often raising young children and taking care of their parents, which requires a lot of work. …
And what we are seeing in America today is the burden principally falls on women to do that work. And many women are having to make a very difficult choice, whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they’re going to give up a paycheck that is part of what that family relies on.
So six months paid family leave is meant to, and is designed to, adjust to the reality of women’s lives today. The reality also is that women are not paid equal for equal work in America. We passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, but fast forward to the year of our Lord 2019, and women are paid 80 cents on the dollar, black women 61 cents, Native American women 58 cents, Latinas 53 cents. So my policy is about, there’s a whole collection of work that I’m doing that is focused on women and working women in America.
The common thread of Harris’s best answers is a bogeyman for many Democratic strategists in search of the white working class: identity.
Perhaps the rash of screeds against “identity politics” that came in the wake of Trump’s victory elucidate why Harris (and other candidates) haven’t more explicitly pursued it as a strategy for the primary. Still, when she chooses to occupy it, this is the lane where Harris finds her stride.
An American’s identity as a white male public school teacher with elderly parents presents specific barriers to flourishing, as he’s torn between spending extra for a home health aide or supplies for his classroom. So, too, does the identity of an upper-middle-class pregnant black woman, for whom having great health insurance is not a guarantee of receiving quality care. These are areas where Bernie Sanders’s colorblind railing against billionaires does not shine light into the oblong crevices of American life, and where Elizabeth Warren’s cohesive vision of the corrupting power of money centers the flaws of our overall system rather than its vastly disparate consequences.
Senator Harris thrives when she centers her intersectional point of view because the alternative for candidates like her — trying to stay to the left of Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, but to the right of Warren and Sanders — is an ideological no-man’s land. Failing to argue for a positive ideological vision is to simply argue against the ambition of the leftists and the pragmatism of the centrists. It is to say no without a clear picture of what you want to say yes to.
This was the problem Harris faced during her summer polling slump. As David Leonhardt wrote in September, echoing widespread sentiment, Harris’s drop in the polls spotlighted her need to “develop a clearer theory of her campaign’s case”:
Obama’s was about hope and change. Warren wants to fight for the middle class. Harris stands for…what, exactly?
…When asked about this problem in a recent interview, Harris rejected the poetry of campaigns and said, “I come at issues through the lens of how it actually impacts people.” That’s not good enough. It doesn’t help voters understand her values and priorities.
But identity politics does. An intersectional approach to progressive policy-making offers a coherent framework that transcends the left-right spectrum. Emphasis on reproductive rights, free and fair elections, supporting parents and teachers, combatting racism in schooling and healthcare — these are policy areas where Harris can take a strong, ideologically consistent stand for systematically identifying and removing Americans’ unique barriers to flourishing.
As Wednesday night’s performance proved, Harris can be visionary and aggressive without being the furthest left person on the stage, and she can be charismatic without simply unleashing the saltiest, “small dude” zingers.
Harris can ride the momentum of the last debate if she embraces identity politics as a unifying ideology, telling an ever-clearer story of what motivates her campaign.
Then, perhaps—as she calls on voters to show up for Black women—she can finally get the Democratic primary electorate to show up for her.