Harris was not asked a question when race came up. But the California Democrat — the only African American on the stage — inserted herself into the discussion and delivered the moment of the night — a direct attack on Biden.
“I will direct this at Vice President Biden,” Harris opened with, signaling her target. “I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.”
“But,” she added, “I also believe and it’s personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senator who is built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Biden didn’t interject, and Harris moved on to the former vice president’s opposition to the federal government mandating busing to integrate schools.
“It was not only that… 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,” Harris said. “That little girl was me. So, I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
The comment was a direct hit and Biden, who was in a split screen for much of the back and forth, was left on the defensive.
“It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said.
Biden then opened up on Harris, taking on her record as a prosecutor, something that those on the left on the party see as a liability.
“If we want to have this litigated on who supports civil rights, I’m happy to do that,” Biden said. “I was a public defender. I was not a prosecutor. I left a good firm to become a public defender.”
But Biden spent the bulk of his answer looking to explains the details of his busing position.
“You would have been able to go to school the same way because it was a local decision made by your city council,” Biden said.
Harris jumped in: “But do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
“I did not oppose busing in America, what I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” Biden said, making an argument for state’s rights. “That’s what I opposed.”
Harris pounced: “That’s where the federal government must step in. That is why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That is why we need to pass the Equality Act and that is why we need the pass the (Equal Rights Amendment). Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
After a brief defense of his own record, Biden recognized his time was running out on stage and said, “My time is up. I’m sorry.”
The moment was the highlight of Harris’ months-long campaign, one that has yet to find a consistent message despite a splashy launch, professional staff and sizable bankroll.
But Harris aides, clearly recognizing the significance of the moment, were elated after Thursday’s debate and quickly tweeted a photo of Harris as a child.
“There was a little girl in California who was bussed to school,” they wrote. “That little girl was me.”
And the moment resonated. According to Google, Harris became the top trending topic in the entire United States 90 minutes into the debate.
For Biden, the result was the opposite, and dredged up some of the most complicated aspects of his history.
Biden, the longest tenured Democratic leader in the 2020 field, has used his lengthy record as President Barack Obama’s vice president and a senator for four decades as a strength in the 2020 race. But that record comes with a litany of complicated past positions, including his opposition to busing being ordered on the federal level.
“I believe there is a growing sentiment in the Congress to curb unnecessary busing,” Biden wrote to fellow senators on March 25, 1977, according to letter reviewed by CNN.
Biden, who at the time was 34, was serving his first term in the Senate and looking to pass legislation that prevented the federal government from busing students.
In a 1977 letter to Sen. James Eastland, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee who once referred to blacks as “an inferior race,” Biden wrote, “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s committee meeting in attempting to bring my anti-busing legislation to a vote.”
Biden’s team has dismissed the stories about his anti-busing history, and, on Friday, they pivoted towards the former senator’s time as vice president under Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, as a response to the fiery debate moment.
“I think what Vice President Biden did in the White House as vice president to President Obama is more indicative of what he believes now, the kind of president he will be, how he will govern, than something he said or did 40 years ago,” Biden spokeswoman Symone Sanders told reporters after the debate.
But stories about race and politics have hampered Biden’s campaign, including earlier this month at a fundraiser when Biden recalled working in the 1970s with Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights and desegregation, particularly Eastland and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. In an effort to burnish his ability to work with anyone, though, Biden lamented the loss of “civility” that existed between he and the senators he disagreed with.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ ” Biden told donors.
“Well, guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished,” Biden added. “But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The comment lit up the Democratic field and Harris slammed Biden for suggesting “that individuals who literally made it their life’s work to take America back on the issue of race is a real problem for me.”
Despite a somewhat friendly relationship, a Biden and Harris clash has seemed inevitable since the former vice president got into the race and created significant inroads into South Carolina, an early nomination state that both candidates see as central to their candidacies.
And Harris clearly entered the Thursday night contest ready to pounce on the story in a personal way.
Harris was bombarded with cameras when she entered the spin room early Friday morning, a clear sign that she carried that night on the back of the vice president.
When asked if she spoke to the man she slammed after the debate, Harris shrugged, “No, I didn’t see him after the debate.”