Smashmouth politics is Bernie Sanders’ rhetorical specialty. Nobody is going to out-anger him among the Democratic contenders in the 2020 race. But as pundits assign “lanes” to the candidates based on who can or might “own” the middle or the left wing of the party, and the African-American or Hispanic or women’s vote, they leave out another set of criteria: emotions. Last night, Kamala Harris took a “lane” rarely used on presidential debate stages—namely, sadness—and used it to devastating effect. It’s unlikely Joe Biden’s bid to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in his own right can survive.
With a frequent wince in her cheeks and her upper lip pulled simultaneously upward and slightly sideways, Harris demonstrated for all to see the pain of racial strife. In remembering in personal terms how slowly the integration of school districts came following the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court ruling, Harris led with just enough sadness combined with indignation (anger) to leave Biden like a boxer stunned into submission. With eyebrows knitted together and a mouth hanging slightly ajar, Biden couldn’t plausibly take the “lane” he preferred: happiness. To smile and, in effect, wave off such a transcendent matter as racial justice in favor of the “comfort” of local rule is no longer even a remotely viable position for a Democratic presidential candidate to take.
American Apartheid is how the authors Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton titled their book about de facto segregation north and south in America. Harris took that subject matter and put it into the context of her own life as a young girl weathering scorn. On a night when Pete Buttigieg mostly performed well on stage but was chastised by two rivals for failing to better integrate South Bend’s police force, W. E. B. Du Bois won again. “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” he intoned long ago and Donald Trump has ensured that Du Bois’s prophetic statement rings loudly well into the 21st century, too.
Sanders could and did scowl. Marianne Williamson could and did urge overcoming Trump’s rage and hatred with embracing love. Kirsten Gillibrand could smile and smirk (often simultaneously). Eric Swalwell could remind Biden that the former vice president had long ago suggested the need to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders. None of it mattered in comparison to Harris using sadness like none other than Jimmy Carter did in 1976 against Gerald Ford. Demonstrating empathy and compassion, Carter was discussing, at varying times, both racial inequality and the void felt by families of soldiers missing in action in Viet Nam when he winced on stage decades ago. A sense of loss carried Carter forward. It’s a long ways from last night’s debate stage to The White House. But now Harris is decidedly, plausibly, on that path, and the odds are Biden no longer is.