Jonathan Bernstein

It’s a fool’s game to predict how voters will react to nomination debate performances – or, for that matter, how the media will construct the story of any debate. So I won’t play that game.

What I will say is that Senator Kamala Harris of California put on a clinic last Thursday on how to do these events. From early on in the second Democratic presidential debate until her final statement, she earned her place in the upper tier of candidates who have ever participated in these events. Again, that doesn’t guarantee anything; Barack Obama won a nomination despite never really mastering that particular format, while several candidates who were good at debates never went anywhere. But yes, Harris is good at it.

The centerpiece was when Harris took on Joe Biden on the issue of, of all things, busing – a policy question that’s been out of the news for decades. It was in some ways a fascinating moment in U.S. political history, in which questions of race and ethnicity, generational change, education, political efficacy, and more all came together. But as to executing a plan, Harris pulled it off about as well as anyone could have. (And we know that it was a planned attack, because Harris’s media folks had material ready to go once it happened.)

The thing is that when Harris interrupted to gain control of the floor in order to launch her attack, it was already (at least) the second time that she had effectively shushed the other candidates. It was a messy night, with lots of cross-talk and interruptions, but Harris was repeatedly effective at seizing moments when she wanted to.

Of course, that wouldn’t help if she didn’t know what to do once people focused on her. But her answers were consistently solid. She’s excellent at shifting from anecdotes to policy, excellent at feeling her way to time limits – and excellent at exceeding the time limit without (in my view at least) seeming pushy or obnoxious. And her closing statement, in which she promised to prosecute the case against Donald Trump, was a strong way of labeling what she had been doing all night, and arguing that her particular skills are the right ones for the general election.

Again: All of this is essentially theater criticism. We’ll just have to wait and see whether it will play well with Democratic Party actors, with the media, and directly or indirectly with rank-and-file Democratic voters. What we do know is that Harris doesn’t need any immediate polling surge to at least stay in the conversation for the next few months, and she has quite a bit of support from party actors already – suggesting that if she does surge, she’ll be in good position to take advantage of it.

It’s worth mentioning that all Harris would have to do is win the support of some of the undecided members of the California U.S. House delegation to move into first place in the endorsement race, at least according to the FiveThirtyEight accounting.

I thought Pete Buttigieg probably did what his supporters were hoping for. Joe Biden had some solid moments, but all that’s going to matter for him is how people are going to read his exchange with Harris, so we’ll have to wait on that as well. I didn’t see anyone else who entered with a plausible chance and who really helped himself or herself. In particular, it’s hard to believe that anyone who wasn’t already in the Bernie Sanders camp was persuaded by his performance, which is the exact same thing he’s been doing since the 2016 primaries.

There’s going to be one more round very similar to these debates at the end of July. After that, there’s a two-month break, and then a September debate with a much more difficult threshold for earning an invitation. We’re about to go through a series of second-quarter fundraising disclosures, which not only count as evidence of how the candidates are doing but also generates helpful attention going forward from those who do well.

But for those of us who appreciate political skills, it was impressive to see Harris at work.

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Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.


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