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Keller @ Large: Biden Harris Democratic Debate Clash Could Have Lasting Impact

BOSTON (CBS) - Whose brilliant idea was it to have the Democrats – a full 17 months before election day – begin their campaign to unseat one of the least-popular incumbent presidents of all time with a massive gift of attack material to the Republicans?

I thought the Democratic National Committee's scheme of ultra-early debates with low entry thresholds guaranteeing a cattle-call spectacle was a terrible idea when they announced it back in February, and I'm totally convinced of it now.

The Trump campaign now has high-resolution video of Sen. Elizabeth Warren endorsing a single-payer health plan that most of her fellow candidates say will cost millions their private health coverage; Sen. Kamala Harris angrily denouncing former Vice President Joe Biden for his long-ago opposition to federally-mandated school busing; and Biden fumbling his way through an unpersuasive response, terminated by a GIF for the ages: "my time is up."

Nice self-own, Democrats.

Perhaps it will all be long forgotten by the time actual caucuses and voting begin.

Don't forget how so many observers (including yours truly) thought Donald Trump had immolated his nascent candidacy in mid-July of 2015 when he declared that war hero John McCain was "not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured."

Rumor has it Trump went on to become president.

The Biden/Harris clash may have lasting impact because of the centrality of African-American voters to the Democratic nomination.

Black voters have been among Biden's most avid early supporters because of fond memories of his partnership with President Obama. Even though Harris did say Thursday night she doesn't consider Biden a racist, that may now change.

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Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden speak as Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on during the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Watch the polls in South Carolina, where black voters dominate, to see if Biden bought himself some real trouble.

But while context often matters little to partisans and the Twitter mob, the implication of Harris's criticisms – that the Biden of the mid-1970s was less than emphatic about his opposition to segregation – call for a quick look back at history.

The segregationists who made sure children of color were kept in all-black, inferior schools were, by definition, racists. Some of the loudest critics of federally-mandated busing were also.

But not all. Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who led an unprecedented effort to desegregate Boston public housing in the 1980s, comes to mind.

Flynn and others were legitimately angered by the behavior of a federal judge who lived in Wellesley and exempted all-white suburbs from his Boston school desegregation order, expressing contempt for the working-class whites who balked at his plan.

Sen. Harris Thursday night poignantly recalled her pain as a young girl joining one of the early integrated classrooms in her hometown of Berkeley, California. "On this subject it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats," she said.

If that means we aren't allowed to recall the complex reactions of the time to the way school desegregation was handled – or note that even today, people of color and other non-racists see long-resegregated urban schools where black children continue to receive substandard services and wonder what the busing policies of the 1970s really achieved – then Democrats are really in trouble, with precisely the older, white voter demographic that gravitated to Trump in 2016.

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