It wasn’t a glass ceiling, but something big shattered this week in Miami: every single stupid idea we have about what it means to be “electable,” to look “presidential,” to command a room.
At the first Democratic presidential debates of the 2020 presidential season, the women won. Yes, all of them. On the first night, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dominated the stage. On the second, Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) electrified the audience, instantly conjuring the image of her up against Donald Trump in the general election. In a debate match-up between them, as one person on Twitter noted, she would mop the floor with him.
And Warren, the New York Times’ Frank Bruni observed, “aced the first democratic debate,” with a presence and affect that “was crisper than most of her peers.”
The second debate threw the same dynamic into even sharper relief. It wasn’t just that Harris ran circles around the competition; it was that she did what a man couldn’t. Earlier in the night, Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) tried to launch an attack on supposed front runner former Vice President Joe Biden with a quote from a speech Biden delivered in 1984. “I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said, ‘It’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,’” Swalwell said, referring, of course, to Biden. The quip was meant to show Biden as out of touch and too old for the Oval Office. But the move backfired. Later Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) complained that Swalwell’s comments were “ageist.” And within a matter of minutes, the internet was flooded with memes of Swalwell…depicted as a torch. Pro Tip: you haven’t won when you’ve become a meme. With Swalwell floundering, Harris picked up the slack. She took Biden on not with forced humor or “cleverness,” but with simple, straightforward candor.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris said, addressing comments Biden made about his work with segregationist senators. “But it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing, and there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.”