Democrats had a historic debate in Miami on Thursday

Democrats had a historic debate in Miami on Thursday
Screencap courtesy of NBC

In the coming days, we will see if Kamala Harris’s well planned and perfectly executed attack on Joe Biden’s past opposition to school busing will have a significant impact on the Democratic primary race. Most people don’t watch these affairs themselves, and the day-after media narrative is that she dominated the event.

Harris demonstrated that she’s a bulldog with the prosecutorial chops to eviscerate Trump on live TV and, more importantly, that Biden may not be as electable as many people think, undermining his central pitch to Democratic base voters. Biden has so far enjoyed broad support among African American voters, and if they sense that she's better able to take on Trump, they may shift to Harris. African-Americans are projected to cast about one in four primary ballots next year, according to NBC's Steve Kornacki. (She is, however, a woman and some outlets are echoing the Biden campaign’s claims that it was a “low blow.” At least one prominent pundit tweeted that she may have been “too aggressive”--perhaps she should have smiled more.)

In case you missed it, here’s the exchange (via CNBC):

The line that will be long remembered was, “there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.” Moments later, the Harris campaign tweeted out a photo of that little girl; by Friday they were selling “that little girl was me” t-shirts at her website.

While time will tell whether the exchange shifts the trajectory of the race, we can say right now that it was one of the very rare moments in the history of televised debates that not only overshadowed the rest of the discussion, but will also be remembered long after the nitty-gritty details of the 2020 primaries are forgotten.

Political junkies, at least, should appreciate that they saw a bit of debate history being made on Thursday night.

In the first presidential debate broadcast to America 60 years ago, voters were able to see a young, vital-looking John F. Kennedy staring straight into the camera while he tangled with Richard Nixon, who came to the venue with five o’clock shadow, declined to be prettied up by CBS’s makeup artist and addressed many of his answers to reporters off camera. That made him look shifty and evasive, which played into his “tricky Dick” persona. Most political historians say the debate played a major role in the election. Polls found that while radio listeners scored it a draw, 70 percent of those who watched the men duke it out on TV thought JFK was the clear victor.

But Nixon was the last candidate to come into a debate unprepared for the demands of television. Since then, most presidential debates have been carefully scripted and rehearsed, and by and large provided only a few days of punditry before being forgotten by the public. Only a handful of exchanges have really stood out, and fewer still were seen as having moved the needle in a race.

There was Gerald Ford saying, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter. Given the chance, he refused to back down from the claim and it dogged him for the rest of the race.

Ronald Reagan famously responded to Jimmy Carter’s (accurate) charge that he had opposed Medicare years earlier by saying, “there you go again,” as if Carter had lost his marbles – a catchphrase that he’d use repeatedly during the 1980 election.

Reagan had another moment during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale. After an earlier contest in which the incumbent, who suffered from dementia through much of his second term, lost track of his thoughts and drew a painfully long blank searching for words, the moderator of the next debate asked him whether his age might render him unfit for office. Reagan quipped to the audience, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." It got a laugh and reassured voters that he wasn’t completely out of it.

During a vice presidential debate the next cycle, Sen. Dan Quayle, beloved by late-night comedians for his goofiness and endless gaffes, argued that despite his youth he had as much experience in government as JFK had when he was first elected, at which point his Democratic opponent, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, cut him to ribbons by telling him, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot warned that NAFTA would create a “giant sucking sound” as jobs headed south of the border. Perot ended up taking significantly more votes from George H. Bush, who had overseen negotiations of the trade deal, than from Bill Clinton, ultimately delivering the latter to the White House.

In 2012, Rick Perry had his infamous “oops” moment when he forgot the last of three federal agencies he was promising to eliminate. That effectively ended his campaign before the first primary vote was cast.

Many remember Barack Obama telling Hillary Clinton that she was “likeable enough” in 2008, and Bernie Sanders saying that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails” eight years later.

And of course there was Trump's memorably unhinged, "No puppet! No puppet! You're the puppet!" That may not have impacted the race but it will long be remembered.

Then on Thursday night, “that little girl is me” joined this rarified group of famous and infamous debate lines.

And however it plays out in the longer term, it is the story of the first Democratic primary debate, eclipsing the first night almost entirely and depriving the 18 candidates other than Biden and Harris of any significant amount of media coverage.

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