Because primary debates are packaged by cable networks as a pay-per-view brawl, the very normal back and forth between Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Senator Kamala Harris at Wednesday night’s debate—about Harris’s record as a prosecutor—has been covered according to the same script. And while it’s embarrassing to have our elections covered like a wrestling match, the kinds of debate stage arguments that get packaged and fed through the news cycle as drama or the big moment are actually just the whole point of a debate. You’re supposed to leave knowing more about where people stand and what they’ve done with the power they’ve been given.
Gabbard, speaking about Harris’s tenure as California attorney general, shone a spotlight on her record on issues ranging from marijuana offenses to bail:
Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president.
But I’m deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.
She blocked evidence—she blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep [the] bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.
After the debate stage exchange, Harris told CNN’s Anderson Cooper—at the risk of sounding “immodest”—that as a “top-tier candidate” she expects to take some hits from people who are trying to make it to the next debate, “especially when people are at 0 or 1 percent or whatever [Gabbard] might be at.”
She then went on to say, pointing back to Gabbard’s own record:
I think that this, coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual—[Bashar al-]Assad—who has murdered the people of [Syria] like cockroaches. She, who has embraced and has been an apologist for him in a way that she refuses to call him a war criminal. I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously.
On Thursday, Gabbard then appeared on TMZ Live (???) and called Harris’s response “pathetic.”
“Instead of dealing with and answering and countering the points that I was making—the facts about her record—in whatever way she would choose to, she’s instead resorted to pithy comments and cheap smears,” Gabbard said, notably sidestepping the whole thing about Assad. “I think that’s a disservice to voters and they deserve better.”
She has yet to catch heat for her record on the debate stage, probably because she is such a marginal candidate, but Gabbard’s hodgepodge politics—most egregiously her apparent inability to properly condemn Assad—are not only confusing, but shameful. They’re every bit as deserving of scrutiny as Harris’s tenure as a prosecutor.
But because everything is bad all the time, the narrative that emerges after these exchanges—Tulsi and Harris this week, Joe Biden and Harris at the last round of debates—get packaged as largely interpersonal fights. About personality not policy. Despite the pettier jabs, let’s not reduce this into some kind of political catfight. I want better for all of us!
Update: Gabbard also spoke with Cooper after the debate and addressed Harris’s comments about Assad. This was her response: