Campaign

Biden was blindsided by Harris’s attack in 2019 debate: book

President Biden while running in the Democratic primary was reportedly blindsided by his then-political opponent Kamala Harris’s debate comment on Biden’s 1970s position on busing, which became one of the most viral moments on the campaign trail. 

Edward-Isaac Dovere, a staff writer at The Atlantic, details in his new book a behind-the-scenes look into the campaign strategies of the former 2020 Democratic candidates, including in the lead-up to the first debate between the White House hopefuls in June 2019 in Miami. Politico Magazine published a portion of “Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump” online on Wednesday.

Dovere wrote that in the days before the debate, Ace Smith, one of Harris’s outside consultants, dug through archived papers at the University of Mississippi and found letters from Biden to James O. Eastland, a staunch segregationist, and slipped them to The Washington Post, which wrote a piece detailing the former vice president’s record on busing. 

Harris’s campaign team reportedly told her that “she had to land hard on Biden” during the first debate, though she reportedly signaled at the time that she didn’t want to personally offend her opponent, as she had gotten close with his late son, Beau, while they worked as state attorneys general. 

“Harris’ communications director, and Jim Margolis, who’d come on a few months before to run debate prep, thought Harris needed to start with a big punch, to make sure everyone was paying attention,” Dovere wrote. 

“She’d wait until race inevitably came up in the debate, then claim the floor as the only Black candidate onstage,” he continued. “And then, they argued, go right in, starting the shredding with, ‘I do not believe you are a racist …’ Make Twitter explode. Become the story of the night.”

Harris during the debate at Miami’s Ziff Ballet Opera House went ahead with criticizing Biden’s previous opposition to using federally mandated busing to racially integrate schools in the 1970s

“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden: I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” she said. 

“But I also believe, and it’s personal — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” she continued. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Dovere noted that Biden was “taken aback” by Harris’s remarks, and after the moderators a few minutes later paused for a commercial break, Biden reportedly leaned over to Pete Buttigieg, now his Transportation secretary, and said, “Well, that was some f—— bullshit,” according to multiple people to whom the conversation was later shared. 

The account provides a rare inside look into the strategy behind one of the Democratic campaign’s most memorable moments, which appeared to show a rift between Biden and Harris, long before Biden eventually chose the then-California senator to be his running mate. 

The book, which details other inside stories of the Democratic Party efforts that led them to eventually defeat former President Trump in the 2020 election, is scheduled to be published May 25.

Tags 2020 Democratic presidential debate 2020 election Atlantic Biden Biden 2020 campaign busing Desegregation busing Donald Trump Joe Biden Pete Buttigieg

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