And Now, the Dream of a Harris-Buttigieg Ticket

Two new Democratic stars outshone Biden and Sanders on the debate stage.

The big question going into Thursday night’s debate was whether Joe Biden, the clear front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, would stumble.

That turned out to be the wrong one. The right question was whether he had sufficient vigor in his stride.

And the answer came in watching Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg — two of the event’s standout performers — run articulate and impassioned circles around him.

Biden was O.K. Not bad, not good: O.K. He didn’t crumble under some tough interrogation from moderators — about his vote for the invasion of Iraq, for example — and occasional attacks from his rivals onstage.

But in his determination to prove how coolheaded he could be, he frequently turned his temperature down too low. In his insistence on not getting tangled in grand promises or lost in the weeds, he too often kept to the side of the field.

At one point, when candidates were asked to raise their hands if they believed that crossing the border without documentation should be a civil rather than criminal offense, his gesture was so tentative and ambiguous that one of the moderators, José Díaz-Balart, had to follow up: Was he indicating his assent or seeking permission to make a comment?

That was a metaphor for his whole night.

Other candidates demanded that America march forward. Biden kept looking backward. He repeatedly alluded to his decades of experience and even more pointedly reminded voters of his eight-year partnership with President Barack Obama, a towering and popular figure in the Democratic Party. While Bernie Sanders pledged a revolution, Biden promised a restoration.

Will that make voters feel tingly enough? It’s possible, given the ongoing trauma of the Trump years.

But the debate brought into vivid relief the shortcomings of his candidacy and the risks of graduating him to the general election.

When you’ve been in politics and in Washington as long as he has — 36 years in the Senate, plus eight as vice president — there are votes from eras much different from the current one, controversial positions galore and mistakes aplenty. All of these were ammunition used against him on Thursday night, most electrically when Harris pressed him to defend his opposition to busing to integrate schools.

Harris made it personal, telling him that she got the education she did because of busing. Biden said that he hadn’t been opposed to busing so much as in favor of local decision-making, and he thus left himself open to her righteous response: Did he not think that the federal government should swoop in to remedy obvious racial injustice?

“That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”

One of these two candidates was in much better sync with Democratic voters right now, and that candidate was Harris, a black woman who, at 54, is more than two decades younger than Biden, who is 76. The only candidate on the stage older than him: Bernie Sanders, 77.

And the sense of a generational divide was acute, partly because Buttigieg, 37, and Eric Swalwell, 38, made sure to highlight it. At the very start of the night, Swalwell noted mischievously that Biden had long ago stressed the importance of passing the torch, and Swalwell exhorted Democrats to do precisely that, saying “pass the torch” so many times that Díaz-Balart asked Biden, “Would you like to sing a torch song?” Biden then rattled off a few canned remarks about the importance of education.

Biden and Sanders stood at the lecterns in the center of the stage, their prize for having significantly higher poll numbers than the others. They were supposed to be the pace setters.

But they receded more than they popped. Maybe that was a function of familiarity. I couldn’t detect any difference between Sanders now and Sanders four years ago: The mad gleam, bad mood and hoarse-from-yelling voice were all the same. A screenwriter friend of mine emailed me midway through the event to say that Sanders resembled “a very angry chess player in Washington Square Park in an undershirt and madras shorts in the summer heat.” He did indeed look steamed.

Buttigieg didn’t. He has this way — it’s quite remarkable — of expressing outrage without being remotely disheveled by the emotion, of taking aim without seeming armed, of flagging grave danger without scaring the pants off you. He’s from some perfect-candidate laboratory, no?

And nobody onstage spoke with more precision and shrewdness, though Michael Bennet came close a few times. Buttigieg said that the God-garbed Republican Party, in its treatment of migrants, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.” It wasn’t just a dig; it was a deft reminder of his public fight with Mike Pence over Pence’s vilification of L.G.B.T. people like Buttigieg.

On the subject of health insurance, Buttigieg said that sick people “can’t be relying on the tender mercies of the corporate system.” He spoke of China “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.” Phrases like these came like candies from a Pez dispenser — colorful, sweet and one after the other.

And when Buttigieg was confronted with questions about the recent police shooting of a black man in South Bend, Ind., where he is mayor, and asked why the police force wasn’t better integrated, he admitted, bluntly: “Because I couldn’t get it done.He didn’t make excuses, instead recognizing that between African-Americans and white police officers, “There’s a wall of mistrust, put up one racist act at a time.”

Harris had a fire that Buttigieg lacked, and it was mesmerizing. She challenged Biden not just on busing but on sloppy recent comments of his that seemed affectionate toward segregationists. She picked apart Trump’s boasts of a spectacularly booming economy, telling the right number of right anecdotes at the right time.

And she mixed strength with warmth and even humor. As candidates shouted over one another in a lunge for microphone time, she found a cranny of oratorical space in which to land a good line. “Hey, guys, you know what?” she said. “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” It neatly pegged men as compulsive interrupters — a leitmotif of the previous night’s debate — while flying a feminist flag less strenuously than Kirsten Gillibrand, at the lectern beside hers, did.

Imagine a Harris-Buttigieg ticket, and not only what a wealth of poise but what a double scoop of precedents that would be. Plenty of people on Twitter on Thursday night were doing precisely that.

Plenty more will do so in the coming days, and they should leaven that fantasy with a reality check about how far to the left Harris in particular has moved. She was one of just two candidates on Thursday night who said that she wanted to do away with private health insurance. Sanders was the other. And that could be a general-election problem for her, as it could for Elizabeth Warren, who took that same position the night before.

But I write now in praise of a commanding performance that easily overshadowed Biden’s, with his herky-jerky delivery and his reflexive glances in the rearview mirror. Elections, according to all the political sages, are about the future. Biden didn’t seem to be pointed in that direction, and he didn’t demonstrate any sense of hurry to get there.

Why is Kamala Harris running for president?

In a POLITICO interview, the Democratic hopeful says she wants quick action to put more money in people’s pocketbooks and suggests she’s not interested in big, systemic overhauls.

Joe Biden is offering a return to normalcy. Elizabeth Warren aims to bring big corporations to heel and prop up the working class. Bernie Sanders wants a political revolution.

Kamala Harris’ one-sentence rationale for wanting the presidency is less clear.

Harris, who has now begun fleshing out her policy agenda, told POLITICO in an interview that she’s looking to offer something tangible to voters. She’s pitching herself as the kitchen-table realist of the field, the candidate who eschews lofty speeches and understands the day-to-day financial struggles of regular Americans and, bottom line, wants to put more money in their pockets.

Harris’ plans include big raises for public school teachers, a proposal to pay women equally to men and a tax plan that calls for a $500 monthly credit for families earning less than $100,000 a year. Her paycheck agenda, which one adviser described as a platform of “big tangible solutions,” centers on how Americans are experiencing the economy and is aimed at people whose wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living. She’s trying to reach voters who are too often left out of the conversation, with an emphasis on women — and women of color.

Harris said she thinks about the issues she’s taking on in the context of “literally looking at people through the prism of their lives—not some plate glass windows.”

“It’s about solving the problems that keep people up at night,” she said.

“It’s about the value of work and dignity of work and paying people their value — understanding that people are working hard, but they still aren’t able to get through the month and make it with dignity,” Harris added. “And it’s about meeting people where they are.”

Another adviser compared her positioning with the other Democratic candidates more bluntly: Harris is calling for direct payments to families to ease their paycheck-to-paycheck burdens. It’s a simple message they hope will set her apart as a proactive “doer” focused more on delivering immediate results than waiting around for broad, systemic overhauls. “She’s not creating liberal trickle-down policy,” the adviser said. “She’s focused on bottom-line economics, not abstract economics.”

Harris’ big challenge will be breaking through on policy in a way that captivates voters and tells a broader story — about herself, but also what she’s trying to accomplish. Ben LaBolt, a veteran of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, credited Harris’ tough stance against Trump, calling it smart. “Democratic voters are looking for a candidate that can take the fight to Trump and win,” LaBolt said.

He noted that Harris had breakout moments during Judiciary Committee hearings when she grilled then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr to the point that they appeared to trip over their answers.

But LaBolt suggested it won’t be as easy for Harris to stand out on policy. “As the Clinton campaign learned, it is difficult for pragmatism to match or drown out Trump’s provocation in the headlines — and driving powerful and memorable moments to communicate our message will be more powerful than white papers this cycle,” he said.

Harris is betting that her focus on issues people worry about at “3 a.m.” — “when you wake up in a cold sweat”— will pierce the noise. Her next opportunity in front of a national TV audience comes Tuesday night in an MSNBC town hall in South Carolina. Her faith that the approach will catch on is based partly on her own experience and partly on what she’s heard over and over on the campaign trail.

The teacher pay idea, for example, wasn’t planned as a standalone proposal but turned into one because Harris heard from so many educators.

Harris’ platform has taken shape over several months. She laces her stump speech with statistics and anecdotes diagnosing economic disparities: Nearly half of American families are one unexpected $400 expense away from financial distress, she often says, and in 99 percent of the counties in America, a minimum-wage worker can’t afford market rate price of a one-bedroom apartment.

She describes how her late mother, a breast cancer researcher, sat at the kitchen table and shuffled through bills after Harris and her sister had gone to bed. “She was focused on the demands of what it means to keep all the trains moving on time,” Harris said of her mother, who split with her husband early in her daughters’ lives and took charge of raising the children.

Harris’ policy remedies take a page from Democrats who ran during the 2018 midterm election cylce, when pocketbook issues such as jobs, health care, prescription drug costs and infrastructure resonated with voters in swing districts. Her pitch aims to strike at primary voters who want direct action more than changes that could take generations to bear fruit. She’s keeping it simple and avoiding talk of radical change even when the plans include significant changes to government.

In the interview, Harris sought to ground her policies in a broader governing philosophy. She stressed that Americans’ hardships are largely the result of policies written over many decades and designed to favor the wealthy at the expense of working people. She blamed those in power for the lack of meaningful commitments on more affordable childcare, universal pre-K and paid family leave. Even the tax overhaul Trump signed, Harris said, was pushed by Republican lawmakers and interest groups that long pre-dated Trump.

The spirit behind the tax bill—that is not new. It’s not an aberration,” Harris said.

“A large part of what I do, and I try to do, is to actually see people,” she added, turning her attention to Trump. “And that requires having some curiosity and concern about the condition of the lives of people other than one’s self. And then when you ask the questions and you hear the stories, seeing what the opportunities are to actually bring solutions.”

Who Cares about National Unity?

Here’s my succinct request to Donald Trump and all the Democrats and Republicans trying to unseat him.

The founders wanted to create a new kind of country where individuals — and individual communities — could pursue happiness as they saw fit. They didn’t achieve that instantaneously, and we still don’t have it in meaningful respects, but they set up the machinery to make it achievable. This doesn’t mean the founders were against unity in all circumstances. Their attitude could be described as in necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. In essential things unity, in non-essential things liberty, and in all things charity. In other words, they understood that unity was a powerful tool, best used sparingly and only when truly needed. Odds are good that this was — or is — the basic, unstated rule in your own family. Good parents don’t demand total unity from their children, dictating what hobbies and interests they can have. We might force our kids to finish their broccoli, but even then we don’t demand they “celebrate broccoli!” I wish my daughter shared my interest in certain things, but I have no interest in forcing her too, in part because I know that’s futile. Spouses reserve unity as an imperative for the truly important things. My wife hates my cigars and has a? fondness for “wizard shows.” But we tend to agree on the big things. That seems right to me.

What is fascinating to me is that in the centuries since the Enlightenment, unbridled unity, enforced and encouraged from above, has been the single greatest source of evil, misery, and oppression on a mass scale, and yet we still treat unity like some unalloyed good.

Just Drop It

Okay enough of all that. Let’s get to the here and now. Joe Biden promised this week that if he’s president, he will unite the country. Newsflash: He won’t. Nor will any of the other Democrats. Donald Trump won’t do it either — and certainly hasn’t so far. George W. Bush wasn’t a uniter. Barack Obama promised unity more than any politician in modern memory — how did he do?

For the reasons spelled out above, our system isn’t designed to be unified by a president — or anybody else. The Era of Good Feelings when we only had one party and a supposed sense of nationality was a hot mess. It’s kind of hilarious to hear Democrats talk endlessly about the need to return to “constitutional norms” in one moment and then talk about the need to unify the whole country towards a singular agenda in the next. Our constitutional norms enforce an adversarial system of separated powers where we hash out our disagreements and protect our interests in political combat. Democracy itself is not about agreement but disagreement. And yet Kamala Harris recently said that as president, she’d give Congress 100 days to do exactly what she wants, and if they don’t she’ll do it herself. You know why Congress might not do what she wants it to do? Because we’re not unified on the issue of guns. In a democracy, when you don’t have unity, it means you don’t get the votes you need. And when you don’t get the votes you need, you don’t get to have your way. Constitutional norms, my ass.

So here’s my explanation for why I don’t want politicians to promise national unity. First, they can’t and shouldn’t try. Tom Sowell was on the 100th episode of my podcast this week, and one of the main takeaways was that we shouldn’t talk about doing things we cannot do. Joe Biden has been on the political scene since the Pleistocene Era. What evidence is there that he has the chops to convince Republicans to stop being Republicans? When President Bernie Sanders gives the vote to rapists and terrorists still in jail, will we be edging closer to national unity? When President Warren makes good on her bribe of college kids with unpaid student loans, what makes you think this will usher in an era of comity and national purpose?

But more importantly, when you promise people something you can’t deliver you make them mad when you don’t deliver it. I’m convinced that one of the reasons the Democrats spend their time calling every inconvenient institution and voter racist is that they are embittered by Barack Obama’s spectacular failure to deliver on the promises he made and the even grander promises his biggest fans projected upon him. When you convince people they’re about to get everything they want and then you don’t follow through, two reactions are common. The first is a bitter and cynical nihilism that says nothing good can be accomplished. The second is an unconquerable conviction that evil people or forces thwarted the righteous from achieving something that was almost in their grasp. The globalists don’t want us to have nice things! The corporations keep the electric car down! The Jooooooooz bought off Congress! The Establishment pulled the plug! The Revolution was hijacked! The system was rigged! The founders were Stonecutters!