The Inside Story of the Biden-Harris Debate Blowup

The Inside Story of the Biden-Harris Debate BlowupMay 19, 2021


As president, Joe Biden has made sure to elevate Vice President Kamala Harris, including her in nearly every aspect of his presidency and making her the point person on migration, a top issue. First lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff have hit it off. At least so far, there’s been little of the drama or staff fighting that have marked many relationships between president and vice president—including between Barack Obama and Biden in their first year in office together.

Even Biden wouldn’t have believed it a year ago, when he was trying to decide on a running mate. Neither he nor many on his campaign had gotten over his first big run-in with Harris during the Democratic primary, at the second night of the first debate. Biden arrived in Miami in late June 2019 as a teetering frontrunner, under fire for having just gotten nostalgic talking about the old days in the Senate working with segregationists. Harris arrived seemingly on the cusp of being a superstar, though her strength as a candidate was shakier under the surface than anyone outside the campaign sensed. Everyone who was paying attention remembers what happened next: Harris scored the most viral moment of the race by slamming Biden for his 1970s position on busing, linking the attack to the story of a girl who had needed to be bused herself, and punctuating it: “That little girl was me.”

But the never-before-told story of what happened behind the scenes as Harris prepared for that debate, and Biden and his team in turn responded, explains how close Harris came to not getting picked for the ticket—and why she and Biden both have worked so hard to build up their relationship in the months since.

The week before the first Democratic debate, Harris and her team had been holed up in the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach—Hillary Clinton’s favorite hotel in America, because she’d gotten a “perfect peach” while staying there during the 1972 convention that nominated George McGovern—up in a room around a conference table, running lines. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was shooting scenes for season three in the lobby, with extras all done up in bright ’50s costumes. That choreography was less scripted than what the Harris team was lining up. Ace Smith, one of Harris’ outside consultants, played Bernie Sanders in the mock debates, pulling out every annoying caricature of an old man he could come up with. Ian Sams, her press secretary, played Joe Biden.

The Harris campaign was staring down some hard fundraising math: They had bragged about how well she’d done in the first quarter of the year after her launch, but aides could see she was falling short ahead of the quarterly fundraising deadline on June 30, which would come three days after the debate. She had raised $12 million, and their plan had targeted that number to be at least $15 million. It was also the practical consideration of political math: There was no path to the nomination for Harris—or for pretty much anyone, except for Sanders, and maybe Elizabeth Warren—except through a Biden collapse. Harris had to make a splash to get her political donations up. She had to take Biden down for any of that money to matter.

Then, nine days before that first debate, at a pricey fundraiser at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, Biden had wandered off in his speech into reminiscing about his early days in Washington, working with the South’s last segregation holdouts in the Senate, when “at least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.” Like good old James O. Eastland, the rabid segregationist. “He never called me ‘boy,’” Biden said. “He always called me ‘son.’”

When an aide told Harris what Biden had said, she winced. “He did what?” she asked, with an oh no tone that captured the sense of the many people who cared for Biden but felt as if all he was doing was proving he should be out to pasture. When she spoke publicly about his remarks, she went at him with an ax. “If the people he was talking about with such affection had their way, I would never have been able to be a United States senator,” she said to reporters two days later in South Carolina.

Another candidate, Cory Booker, had really wanted to summon righteous, disappointed anger to destroy Biden. He could hear the lines in his head, thought maybe that a star moment at the debates could bounce him into the contention he wasn’t attracting on his own. But the Democratic National Committee had scheduled two nights of 10 candidates each in Miami, and Booker had been stuck on the first night, which had so few of the front-runners that it was treated like the JV stage.

That left Harris.

Her campaign was prepared. Smith, a wizard of the dark arts of opposition research, had already dug through Eastland’s archived papers at the University of Mississippi, and let the letters to him from Biden dribble out in the press. A month earlier, an aide had slipped the Washington Post the file on Biden’s record on busing. The Harris campaign was armed with video clips and related storylines, like Biden’s work with Strom Thurmond on tough-on-crime measures in the 1970s that just reinforced the bad look of the 1994 crime bill Biden had championed. Smith used to tell people he was like Baskin-Robbins, 31 flavors of Biden trouble. He hadn’t expected to be able to start with a sundae.

Her team told Harris she had to land hard on Biden. But Harris knew him personally. She had grown close to Biden’s late son Beau while working on the national mortgage settlement in 2011 and 2012, fighting back against an administration to which they both felt loyalty. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, still has the voicemail he saved of Joe Biden’s calling to congratulate them on their engagement. She didn’t like how personal this was getting. She wanted to beat Biden, but she was searching for some way to condemn him for what he had said and done without attacking the man she liked and respected.

Debate prep sessions are like writers’ rooms. Toss out ideas, work them out, shoot them down, build them back in. Lily Adams, 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. She’d wait until race inevitably came up in the debate, then claim the floor as the only Black candidate onstage. Certainly, the moderators from MSNBC, of all channels, wouldn’t stop her. 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.

When Harris asked, “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Sean Clegg, another outside consultant, backed her up. That was like saying a person wasn’t a child molester. No, Adams said, she was specifically saying Biden wasn’t a racist, because she had to get ahead of the possibility that he might respond with, “Are you calling me a racist?” Even if he didn’t, that’s certainly what the media narrative was going to be when a Black woman took a shot like this at a white man. Adams and Margolis argued their approach would blunt and depersonalize the attack, enable her to do what she needed to do, but allow her to insist that it was just a substantive difference.

They ran it through. Sams, as Biden, anticipated much of the actual response, including how surprised Biden would be, how emotional he’d get. Margolis stopped the discussion for a gut check. If Harris hit Biden like this, he said, and she didn’t win and he did, it would probably cost her the VP slot, which most already assumed would be hers in a Biden presidency, or even a Cabinet spot as attorney general, if that’s what she preferred.

She knew that, Harris said. She thought it was a fair hit. This is a debate, she said, and debates were supposed to be about differences. She wasn’t running for VP, despite what so many people—Biden included—assumed. She was running to be president, to beat Biden and everyone else. She wanted everyone to know that.

Onstage at Miami’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, she seized her moment.

“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, looking over at him. “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. 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.”

Biden, taken aback, plodded through a response. She was mischaracterizing his position, he said. That’s not what he stood for, and she knew that. He found his way to the end of the answer and stopped speaking.

A few minutes later, the moderators paused for a commercial break. Biden leaned over to Pete Buttigieg, at the podium to his right. They barely knew each other, but Biden was looking for someone to share the moment with.

“Well,” he said, according to multiple people to whom the conversation was relayed afterward. “That was some f—ing bullshit.”

Back in Biden headquarters in Philadelphia, Biden’s campaign manager and other aides were watching the debate while hand-stuffing bumper stickers into envelopes, as if he were running for state legislature in the 1970s, except they were trying to fulfill a hokey, low-tech promotion they’d done to try to build up their email lists. The Harris attack hit hard, but it didn’t seem fatal. “One night,” said Greg Schultz, then the campaign manager, in his way that was both fatalistic and resolute, “in a long campaign.”

But others thought Biden was doing only the bare minimum as a candidate, assuming he would get the nomination, and that it was starting to catch up with him. As one Democratic operative who wasn’t working with any of the campaigns would put it the next morning: “They’re trying to run out the clock, and the game hasn’t even started.”

Biden’s top press aides, too, were worried. After the debate, they began the march over to the spin room to try to put a good face on the night—T. J. Ducklo, his press secretary, and Kate Bedingfield, Anita Dunn, Symone Sanders and Congressman Cedric Richmond. They didn’t talk. They all had the same thought: This is going to be terrible. They knew that Harris’ attack would be all anyone would want to talk about, and they had worked out the basics of how they were going to respond. They got themselves ready, feeling that the campaign might already be over.

They walked into the middle of the black floor of the stage, steeling themselves as the reporters swarmed.

“I think he listened to her story. It was personal. It was heartfelt,” Bedingfield tried, taking the lead in responding. “He heard her story. I think she told it very powerfully. He listened. You heard him focus on his message for the American people and what he would do as president.”

Symone Sanders jumped in. “I think you guys are looking for Vice President Biden to comment on Senator Harris’ experience,” she tried. “It’s not for anyone to reject or validate what she was saying. Her experience is her experience, and I think we should leave it at that.” Dunn kept falling back on the words energetic and forceful to describe Biden.

They were asked to explain Biden’s position on busing. None could.

“He’s a front-runner,” was what Bedingfield came up with. “People were going to take swings at him, trying to take swings at him, trying to score points. It’s a debate. We understand that.”

After 11 minutes, they wrapped it up.

Harris spent a few hours alone in her hotel room, uncoiling. Biden got on a plane for home. Harris’ aides spent the night drinking. Biden’s aides spent the night in meaningless Twitter fights, projecting and only making the situation worse.

Two days after the debate, Biden’s campaign reached out to an opposition researcher and bought all the files on Harris. Back in Philadelphia, his top advisers rented a conference room at an office space a few blocks from headquarters for an emergency meeting. Everyone felt that they were teetering. No one knew what to do. He was coming off as old, angry, spiteful. His supporters were attacking Harris, saying she just wanted to be president, as if they were not backing a guy who clearly wanted to be president himself.


Realistically, few people understood busing policy, because it was 2019 already, and the days of forced integration were 50 years in the past, before most of the operatives on the campaigns and most of the reporters covering the campaigns were born. Biden’s argument was that he had just been opposed to federally mandated busing, not voluntary busing, but that’s not the way politics works. Suddenly he was made out as a segregationist himself, the Orval Faubus of Wilmington.

But, if Biden’s campaign spiraled at first, it quickly moved into offensive mode. When both candidates headed to Iowa for Fourth of July weekend, reporters following Harris received phone calls from Biden’s press aides with more of a history lesson on busing than they ever could have wanted. The team suggested questions. They suggested wording of the questions. They pushed and pushed until finally a television reporter asked Harris the question they were confident would trip her up: What exactly was her own position on busing? How was it different from Biden’s?

First, Harris said she did not support federally mandated busing except as an option when local governments opposed it. Then, Biden said that was also his position. So, they agreed. Then the next day she said that they didn’t agree; she didn’t understand why Biden had been so unprepared for her attack, and tried to link it back to the segregationist comments. By then, she was the one in a tailspin. A moral challenge became a technical parse. Her team had spent so much time working on the strategy of the attack and the That Little Girl Was Me T-shirts that they never worked out an answer for what she believed herself. And they were bewildered by how the Biden team was turning this around on her, falling into screaming matches with reporters they thought weren’t getting it.

Now Harris was trying to figure out what her own policy actually was, in between stops on the trail, and whether it would now be what it would have been in the 1970s—and how it differed from her parsing of Biden’s policy. She had built up no goodwill. Polls were showing that voters weren’t getting behind her. She had spiked in the week after the debate—one poll from CNN had him down 10 points and her up 9 points from the previous set of numbers. After that week, the spike started disappearing. It never came back.

This was the rare moment in the Biden campaign when there was a plan, and a plan that worked. “We had an attitude throughout the primary,” said Bedingfield, “that because we came into the race in this weird place as the underdog front-runner—always leading in the polls, always discounted by the press—that we were always going to have to do some disruption to get the kind of coverage that we needed.”

The debate was just one night in the campaign, but what it revealed about Biden and about Harris—and about how issues of race and identity factored in for Democratic primary voters—had implications that stretched into the running mate selection process, and beyond.

Biden’s fundamental liability remained that he was an old white man running in a party increasingly defined by young people, Black and Latino voters, and women. That boosted Harris. Primary voters liked the idea of a vibrant Black woman, even if they didn’t connect with what she was saying. A poll from CBS a few weeks later, in the run-up to the second debate, captured that dynamic. Biden was still ahead, but Warren and Harris were given much higher numbers on being stronger and readier to fight.

“My guess,” Biden said at a campaign stop in Dearborn, Michigan, when asked about the poll, “is that to the extent that it occurs, I was probably overly polite in the way I didn’t respond to an attack, ‘You’re not a racist’—which is a nice thing to say, really reassuring.”

Jill Biden didn’t have to worry about being so politic, and never had. She had watched the debate from her seat in the opera house, about ready to jump out of it. She’s small and a community college professor. Most people forget that she’s proudly still the Philly girl who likes to tell the story of when she showed up at the door of a boy named Drew who’d been throwing worms at her 9-year-old sister, and, in Jill’s telling, “pulled back and punched him in the face.”

The aides could do the political maneuvering after Harris’ attack. Jill was and is the guardian of the Biden honor, the Biden id. She couldn’t bear to watch a woman who called herself a friend of her son’s—although Beau was not her biological child, she’d raised him his entire life as if he were—try to tear her husband down, to score a point at a debate.

“With what he cares about, what he fights for, what he’s committed to, you get up there and call him a racist without basis?” she said on a phone call with close supporters a week later, according to multiple people on the call. “Go f— yourself.”

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