With a second round of Democratic presidential debates looming, back-of-the-pack candidates will be tempted to vault ahead the way Kamala Harris and Julian Castro did in the first round of debates, by taking bites out of the rivals running ahead of them. Measured by short-term political gains—their ability to survive until the next set of debates—the tactic worked for Harris and Castro. Measured by longer-term results, like positioning the eventual Democratic nominee to run a strong race through November, 2020 and to govern afterward? Not so much.

Castro went on the attack by breaking into Beto O’Rourke’s proposal for comprehensive immigration reform to demand that O’Rourke endorse Castro’s proposal for decriminalization of illegal immigration, talking over the moderator’s attempt to get Castro to wait his turn. “But you’re looking at just one small part of this,” O’Rourke protested. “I’m talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws.” But by that time Castro was in control, admonishing O’Rourke that he “should do your homework on this issue.” Political advantage: Castro.

But policy advantage: O’Rourke. While staging a pop quiz on a particular proposal makes for more dramatic political theatre, comprehensive immigration reform is exactly what the country needs and exactly what the Democratic candidates should be debating. While the Trump administration’s policy is futile in its ineffectiveness and monstrous in its cruelty, it is a policy: command the flow of migrants to cease (as King Canute legendarily commanded the tides to cease*), and punish them increasingly severely when they don’t. Decriminalizing illegal migration by itself would be a step in the right direction, but only a step, as if the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education had ordered only elementary schools to be desegregated.

Castro attacked the candidate just ahead of him in the pack; Harris went after the alpha male, Joe Biden, for having, forty years ago, enlisted the support of segregationist senators in an effort to spare Wilmington, Delaware from court-ordered busing. “[I]t 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,” Harris reproached the former vice president, seemingly more in sorrow than anger, invoking her standing as “a little girl in California” whose education was improved by being bused to school. Rocked back on his heels, Biden rambled through a defensive reply–he was a public defender not a prosecutor like Harris; the country’s first black president tapped him for vice president; he supported the ERA; he supported LGBT rights—before staggering, if not to a close, at least to an end: ” I agree that everybody, once they, in fact — anyway, my time is up. I’m sorry.” Post-debate polls showed Harris gaining altitude and Biden losing it. Tactical advantage: Harris.

But for the Democratic Party, and very likely for Harris herself, should she gain the Democratic nomination, her short-term victory may have been pyrrhic. Busing was a hot issue, one that would have had to be addressed in a presidential debate–forty years ago.  But although busing showed some promising results in the 1970s as part of plans for school desegregation, it was bitterly unpopular and aggressively evaded and fell into disuse. Does Harris now see busing as a winning pathway to victory in November? Does she see it as part of a 21st century plan for true school integration?  No? Then why disinter it for the sake of a bump in the polls?

None of which should disqualify either Harris or Castro from a place on the Democratic 2020 leaderboard.  There’s plenty of time to refocus.  But it would be too bad if the series of political skirmishes that stretches from now till next year’s convention were to degenerate into a Hobbesian struggle of all against all, which would benefit only Donald Trump. 

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