6 Takeaways From the Democratic Debate, Night 2
DETROIT — Joe Biden entered the second Democratic debate here determined to dispel widespread fears that he had neither the steely resolve nor the stamina to survive a combative and crowded Democratic primary and bring the fight to Donald Trump.
With a far steadier performance and a couple of solid counter-punches, Biden exited the stage having survived an onslaught of attacks to fight another day. In fact, after Sen. Kamala Harris caught him flat-footed in the July debate, it was Harris who took some of the hardest blows of the second round.
Biden opened the night with a wink and a smile: “Go easy on me, kid.”
The remark, directed toward Sen. Harris, was picked up on a hot mic and, whether intentional or not, it put on display the friendly charm of the former vice president even as some on the left criticized it as patronizing.
The charm did not last. Biden proved on Wednesday night that he could still take a punch and give as good as he got.
When Harris scoffed that his campaign hadn’t read her proposed health care plan, Biden hit back hard. “The senator has had several plans so far” and her latest will take “10 years and cost $3 trillion”; what is worse, he told voters, “you will lose your employer-based insurance.”
Not only was Harris pushing bad policy, Biden argued, her plan would put the party on shaky ground if she were nominated. “This is the single most important issue facing the public,” he said, “and to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can't beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.”
Harris offered an able rebuttal and voters will determine who got the better of the exchange in the coming days. One thing is undeniable though: Biden showed a more aggressive edge than he displayed during the first debate in Miami.
It was also an example of the apparently refurbished debating abilities that had helped keep him in the Senate for more than three decades. The front-runner seemed to be saying that the rest of the field won’t have “Nice Guy Joe Biden” to kick around anymore.
In one of the fiercest face-offs of the night, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii appeared to knock Harris off her game with a direct attack on her criminal justice record.
“Sen. Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president,” said Gabbard, a long shot for the nomination. “But I’m deeply concerned about this record.”
Gabbard said Harris put more than 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, “then laughed when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
The four-term congresswoman then plainly cited several other parts of Harris’ record as California attorney general that caused her great concern:
“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 cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
Clearly irritated, Harris began shaking her head, but she never specifically corrected any of part of Gabbard’s attack lines.
Instead she tried to belittle her accuser, a combat veteran who served in Iraq, by casting her as a run-of-the-mill politician who gives “fancy speeches” and isn’t familiar with the rigors of serving as a state prosecutor and the heavy decision-making that entails.
“I am proud of that work,” Harris said. “I am proud of making a decision, not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on a floor but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
Gabbard made no apologies and quickly shot back.
“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard said. “And worse — in the case of those on death row — innocent people? You actually blocked evidence that would have freed them.”
The last progressive to win a national election, Barack Obama would normally be sacrosanct at a Democratic primary debate. That was not the case in Detroit, and as the candidate most closely associated with the former president, Biden found himself forced to defend his legacy.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to know if he had tried to slow the number of deportations during the Obama administration. Biden dodged. De Blasio dogged him.
“You want to be president of the United States -- you need to be able to answer the tough questions,” he said. “I guarantee you, if you’re debating Donald Trump, he’s not going to let you off the hook.”
“I was vice president. I am not the president. I keep my recommendation to him in private,” Biden shot back before adding that “unlike you, I can expect you would go ahead and say whatever was said privately with him.”
Obama “fundamentally changed the system,” Biden continued, crediting what his old boss did for the Dreamers. “But much more has to be done. Much more has to be done.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was unimpressed: “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
Biden didn’t get a chance to respond but, when attacked again, made sure to knock the former mayor of Newark over his municipal policing record. Biden asked why his police department engaged in stop-and-frisk tactics.
“Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community,” Booker responded, taking care to nail a clearly rehearsed line, “you're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor.”
Moderate Made Extreme
As the undisputed front-runner in the race, Biden was the clear target of the progressive upstarts on stage, many of whom haven’t broken single digits in the polls but all of whom have successfully helped push the party to the left.
Attacked by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for only offering “middle-ground solutions” to climate change, Biden responded by plugging his own environmental plan.
“Just to clarify,” CNN’s Danna Bash followed up, “would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?”
“No. We would work it out,” he responded. “We would make sure it’s eliminated, and no more subsidies for either one of those, any fossil fuel.”
It was an answer that will play well among the woke activists and organizers flexing their muscles in the early days of the primary race. It was also a departure from the brand that has put him ahead of the Democratic pack.
Biden has billed himself as the blue-collar anti-Trump, an image that plays well in the Rust Belt states that Trump carried to defeat Hillary Clinton. Those states — Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — are manufacturing-heavy and fossil fuels-dependent and likely to be less friendly to the environmentalism that plays well on the coasts.
On Wednesday night, though, the former veep swore off fossil fuels at a moment when the United States enjoys a surfeit of new oil drilling and natural gas fracking.
Health Care Flips and Flops
On health care, which had been the central issue of the first night’s debate, Harris took incoming fire on her plan from Biden as well as Gabbard and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet.
But it was Gabbard, once again, who seemed to irritate Harris the most.
After Harris said her plan was endorsed by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration, Gabbard pointedly noted that Sebelius works for Medicare Advantage, a private health care company that would benefit from Harris’ proposal.
“If we’re seeking to reform our health care system, we need to shut off big insurance and big Pharma,” Gabbard said.
Clearly annoyed, Harris retorted: “Unfortunately, Representative Gabbard got it wrong. Kathleen Sebelius did not write my plan; she endorsed it as being one of the plans that is the best to get us to a place where everyone is going to have access to health care in America.”
Harris was also asked about the Biden campaign’s criticism of the various positions she has taken in recent months on health care as the "every which way approach.”
“Well, they’re probably confused because they’ve not read it,” she tried to explain.
Not so, said Biden, who warned that he’s always skeptical of a plan that claims to take 10 years to implement and includes no sure way to pay its bills. He also said he doubted it would really prevent Americans from losing their employer-based private coverage.
“You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan,” he lectured Harris.
Bleaching the White House
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had a rough night, though she uttered one of its most memorable one-liners. She said her first duty as president would be to “Clorox the Oval Office,” an instant viral sensation on Twitter.
But the rest of the evening amounted to largely unsuccessful attempts to force a break-out moment that would help breathe life into her flagging campaign. In often long and discursive wind-ups, she aimed haymaker after haymaker at Joe Biden that never landed.
During one especially awkward exchange, she slammed him for once opposing a tax credit for working mothers and fathers. She argued that his decades-old opposition meant that Biden, a widower and single dad before remarrying, opposed women working outside the home.
After Gillibrand kept pressing, Biden reminded the audience that his deceased wife and his current wife both worked outside the home. He also said she had once joined him at an event promoting equal pay for women.
Then he got personal: “I don’t know what’s happening except that you’re now running for president.”