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Biden vows to be less polite with Harris in Detroit debate. That won’t be enough

Ex-veep has to convince a changing party he’s the one to take them forward

Former Vice President Joe Biden needs to show the same fire and finesse onstage this week that California Sen. Kamala Harris did when she attacked him in their debate last month, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Former Vice President Joe Biden needs to show the same fire and finesse onstage this week that California Sen. Kamala Harris did when she attacked him in their debate last month, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photos)

OPINION — Before Kamala Harris and Joe Biden were bitter rivals, they were friends. That much was obvious in 2017 on the day Biden, then the outgoing vice president, swore in Harris as just the second African American woman ever elected to the Senate.

“Promise me, when I’m no longer vice president, you won’t say, ‘Joe who?’” he joked to a dozen of Harris’s closest friends and family who had come to see her get sworn in. With everyone in happy laughter, Harris gave Biden a pat on the back, the way you might a kindly grandfather. “Why don’t we have a standing get-together for coffee?” she said. “You can tell me some stories and give me some advice.”

What advice would Biden give Harris today if they were having that coffee, as the two brawl for the Democratic nomination for president and continue to battle over Biden’s record on race? Probably, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Because in presidential politics, it can be hard to tell the difference.

Before their debate in Miami last month, Biden described Harris as a friend, and she was. More importantly, she had been close friends with Beau Biden, his oldest son, who died from brain cancer four years ago. On the anniversary of Beau’s death, Harris tweeted a note of sympathy to the Biden family. “Thinking of @JoeBiden, @DrBiden and the entire Biden family today … Four years after his passing, I still miss him.”

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Early bonds

It was Beau’s friendship with Harris that the elder Biden pointed to in 2016 as the reason behind his decision to endorse Harris in the California Senate race against Democrat Loretta Sanchez, the California congresswoman who had worked with Biden in Washington for years.

Theirs was also the friendship that Harris had described as she introduced the vice president at the California Democratic Convention months earlier, which she had asked him to attend on her behalf. “California Democrats, I say from my personal experience that the Biden family truly represents our nation’s highest ideals,” she said as she introduced him to the assembled party loyalists in San Jose.

So you can forgive Biden when, three years later, he seemed unprepared for the moment at the debate when Harris took him to task for praising segregationist senators and ripped into him for his opposition to forced school busing decades ago. As Biden stood close by stone-faced, she told the story of a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate the Berkeley public schools. “That little girl was me,” Harris said.

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For Biden, who has preached the gospel of Sen. Mike Mansfield his entire career — “Joe, it’s OK to question a man’s judgment, but never his motivations” — the moment left him looking shocked and wounded, completely taken aback that Harris would impugn his motives on race in America. But it should also have been a wake-up call for Biden, a four-alarm siren telling him that the politics that he came up in are a thing of the past. If he wants to be a part of the politics of the future, he needs to change too.

Time is of the essence for Biden, who will face off against Harris again on Wednesday night, when they, along with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and seven other 2020 hopefuls, meet for the second night of the Democratic debates in Detroit this week. Unlike the last debate, when Biden mostly defended his own record without punching back at Harris or anyone else who attacked him onstage, he says he won’t be “as polite” this time around.

But the challenge ahead of Biden is about so much more than being polite. It’s about convincing a rapidly changing Democratic electorate that he’s the one to take them forward, even as he is surrounded — literally and figuratively — by rivals like Harris and Booker who truly are the faces of the future.

Turning the tables

The first order of business will be for Biden to leave the gauzy portrait of his old Senate days in the past. The truth is, the Senate of old may have been more outwardly polite, but it was no less ruthless in its politics than the tribal dynamics today. Threats were routinely issued by leaders. Revenge was extracted when members didn’t go along. Grudges over leadership races lasted entire careers. Flawed legislation, like the 1994 crime bill that Biden sponsored, made its way through the chamber more than a few times, with sometimes devastating consequences.

It wasn’t all handshakes and progress, and Biden has to acknowledge that.

He also needs to show the same fire and finesse that Harris did in her attack on him. Look for Biden to go more aggressively after her days as a prosecutor in California, in contrast to his time as a public defender, and to press her on the details of her positions on everything from “Medicare for All” to busing. The two, in fact, share a similar position on the latter. 

Most of all, look for him to toughen up, because even Uncle Joe wasn’t always the friendly grandpa he’s been portrayed as for so long in public, including at Harris’s 2017 swearing-in.

After the group had shared their laugh about “Joe who?” Biden took Harris to the side with a raised finger for emphasis. “You did get the committees?” he said of her plum assignments. “Because I made that as clear as I could.” It was Biden, he wanted her to remember, who had put her on her track for her own future.

With a smile, Biden added to her family, “I did it politely.”

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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