Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and the freedom of having nothing to lose

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Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) have their backs against the wall in the 2020 polls — and it showed in the fifth Democratic debate Wednesday in Atlanta. While Harris is fighting to prove that she still belongs in the top tier of candidates, Booker is battling simply to stay in the race, as he hasn't yet qualified for the next month's debate in Los Angeles. But the pressure appeared to free the senators from the usual grips of political decorum — and made their voices among the strongest on the stage.

Harris delivered the first highlight of the night when she challenged Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on her past critiques of the Democratic Party and appearances on Fox News. The exchange came after moderator Ashley Parker — a reporter for The Washington Post and political analyst for MSNBC, both of which were jointly hosting the debate — asked Gabbard to expound on her opinion of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Gabbard had recently called the former secretary of state the “personification of the rot that has sickened the" Democrats.

After Gabbard outlined the problems she sees within the party — including something she called "the Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy doctrine" — Harris was asked to respond. She replied with an enthusiastic, “Oh, sure!”

She accused the Hawaii politician of “attempting to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States who, during the Obama administration, spent four years full time on Fox News criticizing President Obama,” adding that Gabbard's candidacy was "unfortunate." Gabbard attempted to cut Harris off and called her comment “ridiculous,” but the California senator was undeterred.

“When Donald Trump was elected — not even sworn in — [she] buddied up to Steve Bannon to get a meeting with Donald Trump in Trump Tower,” Harris continued. What the Democratic Party needs, Harris said, "is someone who has the ability to win, and by that, we need someone on that stage who has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Donald Trump, and someone who has the ability to rebuild the Obama coalition, and bring the party and the nation together.”

Gabbard didn't mention Harris in her initial answer to Parker, which is usually what triggers another candidate's response. But it's possible the moderators were setting up the moment given Gabbard and Harris's previous on-stage scuffles. A visibly shocked Gabbard claimed Harris would “traffic in lies and smear and innuendoes because she cannot challenge the substance of the argument that I am making.”

Harris's response to Gabbard was gratifying for supporters of the senator who wished she would have responded more forcefully over the summer, when Gabbard first attacked her. With her campaign now struggling to regain momentum, Harris seemed more comfortable going on the offense — and she did so again later in the night, against Vice President Joe Biden.

In discussing his support among Black voters, Biden erroneously claimed that “the only African-American woman that’s ever been elected to the U.S. Senate” was one of his supporters, referring to former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun. Harris, the second Black woman to be elected to the U.S Senate, aptly responded: "I'm right here!"

It underscored Harris's argument throughout the night that she could uniquely tap into the "Obama coalition," as she attempted to paint herself as someone with a lived experience that can resonate with a wide swath of voters. Harris's campaign has been knocked for lacking a coherent message, and she came closer to fixing that problem last night than she had in a long, long while.

As for Booker, his most poignant moment also came at Biden’s expense, calling out the former veep's statement this week that he would not legalize marijuana. "I thought you might have been high when you said it,” Booker quipped.

The former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, went on to explain how anti-drug legislation has adversely affected people of color. “Let me tell you," he said, "marijuana in our country is already legal for privileged people. And the war on drugs has been a war on Black and brown people."

Booker has been consistent in delivering debate zingers, but on Wednesday he also made sure to differentiate himself on policy. He shined when he spoke about building wealth and encouraging entrepreneurship in American society, pushing back against Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s 2 cent tax plan for citizens with more than $50 million.

“The tax the way you’re putting it forward, I’m sorry, it’s cumbersome," Booker told Warren. Instead, he suggested other ways to level the playing field. The Democratic Party must "start talking not just about how to tax wealth but how to give more people opportunities to create wealth, to grow businesses, to have their American dream,” Booker said. “Because yeah we need to raise the minimum wage, but the people in communities I frequent, their aspiration for their lives is not just to have those fair wages, they want to have an economy that provides not just equalities in wealth, but they want to have equalities in opportunity.”

Booker’s and Harris’s specific willingness to call out their fellow candidates is noteworthy considering their poll numbers. Biden and Warren are in first and second place, respectively, per RealClearPolitics. Harris is in fifth place, and has been declining for months, while Booker trails at 10th place. The Iowa caucuses are less than 100 days away, and each appeared to recognize that the stage in Atlanta provided a unique opportunity for them to make their case to the American voter.

Notably, both candidates have one tool in their arsenal that most others do not: race. Both Booker and Harris courted the Black vote during the debate, explicitly drawing on their lived experiences to set themselves apart from the other candidates.

“I have a lifetime of experience with black voters. I’ve been one since I was 18. Nobody on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African American voters,” Booker stated. “Black voters are pissed off, and they’re worried. They’re pissed off because the only time [their issues are paid any attention] by politicians is when people are looking for their vote."

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The focus on Black voters had begun with a discussion of South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's fraught outreach to the crucial voting bloc, and Booker drew a distinct line in the sand. "We don’t want to see people miss this opportunity and lose because we are nominating someone that isn’t trusted, doesn’t have authentic connection," Booker said. "That’s what’s on the ballot.”

Harris made a similar point when she urged candidates to show up for Black voters, specifically Black women, noting that in states like Georgia, Black women voters are often praised only after delivering the outcome national Democrats prefer — but are hardly specifically courted beforehand.

“There are plenty of people who applauded Black women for the success of the 2018 election, applauded Black women for the election of a senator from Alabama,” Harris said, referring to Democrat Doug Jones's win in 2017. “But you know, at some point, folks get tired of just saying, ‘Oh, thank me for showing up,’ and say, ‘Well, show up for me.’”

A bold Harris and Booker showed up for this debate. Booker, notably, met the next debate's fundraising threshold Thursday morning after his strong performance in Atlanta. It remains to be seen if voters will show up for them.