The second round of Democratic presidential primary debates this week offered several opportunities to reflect on candidates’ histories — unfortunately, the candidates themselves did not do so.
When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said she was “deeply concerned” about Sen. Kamala Harris’ record as attorney general of California — specifically in regard to marijuana convictions and the death penalty — Harris’ response was vague. At the end of her first response, she did say she now supports marijuana legalization, and she expressed opposition to the death penalty during her second time to speak, but her response was more ‘big picture’ when Gabbard made specific claims.
After the debate, when being interviewed by CNN, Harris had an opportunity to address the more specific claims without the time constraints she faced on stage. Unfortunately, rather than elaborating on her own history, she pivoted to attack Gabbard’s polling numbers, as well as her record on Syria.
The roles were reversed in the first Democratic debate in June, when Harris pressed former Vice President Joe Biden on his history of opposing busing and comments about working with white supremacist legislators.
Biden responded dismissively at the time but later — after significant backlash — apologized for his comments about working with segregationists, while once again using his role in the Obama administration as a defense of his personal record.
This editorial is not meant to serve as a commendation or condemnation of any specific candidate’s record.
Rather, its intention is to examine the rhetoric used in discussing those histories.
When candidates seek political points at the expense of honest examinations of their pasts, the electorate suffers. Quick-fix rhetoric is a public disservice.
In addition, it robs candidates of the opportunity to explain their pasts — to give voters an honest look into what choices they made and why.
Harris, in her CNN response, could have elaborated on her personal stance against the death penalty in contrast to her defense of capital punishment in California. Such a response would have educated voters and given Harris a second chance at answer Gabbard. The response she gave may have effectively rebuffed Gabbard in her supporters’ minds, but it almost certainly didn’t help anyone who shared in Gabbard’s concern about Harris’ record.
This problem is obviously not unique to the 2020 election, and cries for honesty are far from new. However, Democratic candidates face a historically expansive field and need to seek new ways to differentiate themselves from the crowd.