Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
For Kamala Harris, this second Democratic debate was a vital opportunity to put her campaign back on course. Instead, she ran aground on questions about the very role she sought to put in the spotlight: Her six-year stint as California’s Attorney General.
Harris saw a major spike in the polls after she went on the offensive in the first debate, attacking former Vice President Joe Biden over his ‘70s-era opposition to federally mandated busing as a means to fight segregation. The energetic takedown briefly sent Harris soaring past rivals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the polls, putting her within two points of frontrunner Biden in a July 2 Quinnipiac Poll. But the bump didn’t last, and her numbers fell back to Earth during the month between the first and second debates.
On Wednesday night, she unveiled a fresh strategy to recover her mojo: Leaning into her prosecutorial past. After all, she’d earned viral attention for her ability to shrewdly interrogate and cross-examine Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings and US Attorney General William Barr during his testimony on the Mueller Report. It seems clear that her team advised her to play to those strengths, beginning with her opening statement, in which she promised to “successfully prosecute the case of four more years of Donald Trump.”
The new positioning may have addressed criticisms that Harris hasn’t been able to broadcast a core message that sums up her unique identity as a candidate, akin to Warren’s “I Have a Plan For That,” Sanders’ “We Need a Revolution” and Buttigieg’s “New Generation of Leadership.” But dubbing herself the “Prosecutor-In-Chief” was a risky, go-for-broke choice: It jostled with Biden’s central argument (“I’m the Fighter Who Can Take on Trump.”) More importantly, it made her vulnerable to long-simmering criticisms of her criminal justice record as AG, which may explain why support among black voters and millennials – who frequently deride her as a “cop” – stands at just 7% and 5%, respectively.
So it was likely that someone on stage would be prepared to take advantage of that vulnerability. What was surprising was the direction from which it came: Tulsi Gabbard, whom Harris had dismissed earlier that night in an exchange over healthcare.
Gabbard was an odd bearer of the “Kamala’s a cop” message, given that she’s the only candidate who’s actually been a cop herself, serving as military police platoon leader during her time in the Hawaii Army National Guard. But maybe that was just one more reason why Harris seemed blindsided when Gabbard went on the attack.
“Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. But I’m deeply concerned about this record,” said Gabbard. She went on to accuse Harris of coming down hard on marijuana violations during her tenure, fighting to preserve a cash bail system that disproportionately burdens the poor, keeping an innocent man on death row and, most grotesquely, holding people in prison in order to use them as cheap labor to help fight wildfires in California.
Harris’s response was to reiterate that she was proud of her work as a reformist California Attorney General, but Gabbard continued to press, ultimately saying that Harris owed “the people who suffered under your reign” an apology. Their back and forth ended up being one of the most discussed moments of the debate, and contributed to Gabbard being the night’s “most Googled candidate.”
There’s an uncomfortable case to be made that this could be a knockout punch for Harris’s candidacy. Not because Gabbard’s allegations were entirely true; indeed, fact-checkers torpedoed some of the charges she made as misleading. Harris did not personally prosecute marijuana cases as attorney general, and while she did support higher bail amounts on gun-related charges as district attorney of San Francisco, she later introduced legislation in 2017 to reform the cash bail system. In addition, while attorneys from her office did push to deny early release for some prisoners who’d been assigned to help fight wildfires, Harris’ spokesperson said she was “shocked” by their argument, and her office later negotiated an agreement that led to an expansion of the parole program for early release.
But the dustup put Harris back at square one, searching for a clear positioning for her campaign. Meanwhile, her post-debate response, in which she referred to herself a “top-tier candidate” and Gabbard a “zero or 1 percent” longshot, made her look petulant and entitled.
On the other hand, the exchange isn’t likely to help Gabbard’s campaign much either. While the Hawaii congressmember met the 130,000 unique donor threshold on Friday night to qualify for the next round of debates in September, she has yet to win the 2% minimum in four or more approved polls as required by the Democratic National Committee.
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Of course, there’s another question to be asked here, for those of us hoping to see the presidency bend in the direction of inclusion and reflect the full spectrum of our American identity: Why did a key focal point of a two-hour-long, 10-person debate end up being a confrontation between the only two women of color, despite frontrunner Joe Biden standing at center stage, and a cackling Trump watching the sparks fly from the White House?
As Amy Klobuchar aptly noted in the first night of debates, Democrats need to be less focused on winning the arguments — and more focused on winning the election.
This article has been updated to reflect the news that Gabbard’s campaign has met the DNC’s donor threshold to qualify for the next round of debates.