Democratic presidential candidates wave as they enter the stage for the second night of the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami.
Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

Twenty candidates, two debates, four hours, and a few happy campaigns

If you’ve seen any coverage of last night’s debate, you’ve probably heard that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) walked away the big winner, while former Vice President Joe Biden fell far short. From where I sat, that assessment sounds about right.

It was the 10-word interjection that upended the trajectory of the night, if not the 2020 campaign so far. “I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Ms. Harris declared. The room soon went silent.

Ms. Harris turned to address Mr. Biden, directly and personally, marrying her own identity as an African-American woman with a pointed critique of not just his recent rhetoric about working with segregationists but what they worked on together. “You also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said. “And you know, there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” […]

She pressed on, framing her follow-ups as the prosecutor she once was. “Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”

No one should be surprised that the California senator excelled. To know anything about Kamala Harris is to recognize the kind of skills she brings to the table: watch her in any Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and it’s obvious the former prosecutor and state attorney general is always prepared and sharp.

Transferring those skills to the debate stage obviously wasn’t difficult.

As she dominated, I started thinking about the occasional political value of the luck of the draw. Ahead of the back-to-back debates, the DNC randomly assigned the contenders, and the campaigns had literally no control over which night they’d compete and against whom.

We’ll never know, of course, but what would the conversation look like if Harris and Biden didn’t share a stage? She would’ve excelled anyway – Harris bested her rivals because of her talent, not because of luck – but would a different lineup have left the former vice president less bruised?

Indeed, it’s a fun counterfactual to consider as a thought experiment. What if Julian Castro hadn’t competed against Beto O’Rourke? What if Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had shared a stage? If Warren had gone up against Biden, would the former vice president have struggled just as much?

Speaking of Biden, Olivia Nuzzi published an interesting tweet last night, noting the Delaware Democrat’s campaign staff has quietly complained that he doesn’t listen to his debate-prep team. Biden is “set in his ways,” one source close to the campaign told Nuzzi.

In theory, that can change. I can think of examples of candidates – including giants like Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan – who’ve struggled in a debate, regrouped, adopted a fresh posture, and bounced back. It’s still June 2019; a single ballot won’t be cast for many months; and there are plenty of Democratic primary debates to go.

But as the candidates depart Miami, Biden probably needs to realize that he leaves weaker than when he arrived.