Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) were center stage in Detroit on the second night of the Democratic presidential primary debates — and it got ugly in a hurry.
Here are my takeaways from a brutal night of intraparty fighting among Democrats in the Motor City on Wednesday.
No clear winner emerges after an ugly night
This was not the debate that Democrats were hoping for.
"The person that's enjoying this debate most right now is Donald Trump, as we pit Democrats against each,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said amid an extended and nasty fight between the candidates over their health care plans.
“Fact check: True,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh responded over Twitter.
The attacks on Biden began during the opening remarks and escalated from there as he sustained shots on everything, including his record on civil rights, women’s rights, his health care and environmental plans and the Obama administration's record on deportations.
After catapulting into the top tier of candidates following the first debate, Harris was in everyone’s crosshairs over a health care plan that tries to find a middle ground on "Medicare for All."
And Harris’s record as attorney general of California become an issue for her after Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) unsparingly characterized the Harris state Justice Department as craven, racist and corrupt.
The split between the centrists and liberals on Tuesday night was back on full display once again on Wednesday, with moderates such as Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) pleading with Democrats to not run too far to the left.
There were times during the debate, such as during the Gabbard and Harris exchange, where the candidates genuinely seemed to not like each other.
That’s a sign that the Democratic primary is about to get a lot nastier with 10 more debates and months to go before votes are cast.
Candidates pile on Biden
Biden was everybody’s main target on Wednesday night, and each of his nine rivals onstage took a shot at him at some point with cutting lines they hoped would leave a mark, as Harris did at the first debate.
The first candidate to speak on Wednesday night was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who promptly ripped Biden for “telling wealthy donors nothing will fundamentally change if he were president.”
From there it was open season on the front-runner, who was squeezed by his two fiercest critics in the race, Harris and Booker.
Harris re-upped the federal busing attack that was so effective for her in the first Democratic debates in Miami, saying that if the segregationist senators Biden worked with decades ago had their way he never would have been the vice president for the nation’s first black president.
Booker hammered Biden for his record on civil rights, blaming him for being the architect of what he described as a racist criminal justice system that has incarcerated scores of young racial minorities.
Biden also absorbed attacks from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) for his climate plan.
And he took heat from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro for refusing to support the decriminalization of illegal border crossings.
Biden told Castro that he never brought up his concerns when they were in the Obama administration.
“One of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” Castro shot back.
Biden seemed tongue-tied at times but never completely off guard or slow to respond, as he seemed to be at the first debates.
There were a few instances where he was quick on his feet, as he memorably dismissed de Blasio’s influence over the future of the Democratic Party.
“We hope you’re a part of it,” Biden said.
And he shook away an attack from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who tried to portray him as an opponent of women’s rights.
“I don’t understand what’s happened other than now you’re running for president,” Biden said.
Rivals chip away at Harris
Harris was the unquestioned breakout candidate from the Miami debates last month after her brutal exchange with Biden on federal busing.
But her performance in Detroit was much more muddled and mixed, and she sustained cutting attacks over her record as attorney general in California and questions about whether she’s flip-flopped on key issues.
The first hour of the debate was centered almost exclusively on health care, with Harris’s proposed Medicare for All plan the centerpiece of conversation.
Harris has been under scrutiny for being unclear on whether her plan would result in a tax increase on the middle class and whether she would abolish private insurance. Critics say Harris’s plan is impossible to implement without doing both of those things, and the subject matter did not seem to be in her wheelhouse.
Harris fired back, accusing her rivals of using “Republican talking points,” but the sustained attacks from Biden and Bennet were effective and kept her on the defensive.
But perhaps the worst moment for Harris came during an exchange with Gabbard, who signaled that she’d go hard after Harris this week when she said the California Democrat should not be put in charge of the military.
Gabbard accused Harris of locking up scores of racial minorities for low-level drug offenses, accused her of hiding evidence that would free an innocent man on death row and said she kept people imprisoned for longer sentences to use them as cheap prison labor.
“The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology,” Gabbard said.
Harris had good moments as well. She repeatedly stood up to Biden and questioned his own decades long record, but she spent much of the night on the defensive and turned in a choppier performance.
Booker stands out with viral zingers
The debates have been a reminder for Democrats that the New Jersey senator can be a charismatic and effective communicator, even if he hasn’t had the breakout moment he craves.
It’s unclear whether Booker will get that coming out of Detroit, but he brought zingers that earned him internet fame, which is part of the equation for any candidate hoping to stand out.
Booker’s best line came at the expense of Biden, who had just criticized Booker’s civil rights record as mayor of Newark, N.J.
“There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker said.
That line was Kool-Aid approved, earning an “Oh yeah” from Kool-Aid’s fruit punch mascot on Twitter.
Later, Booker landed a punch, telling Biden “you can’t have it both ways” when it comes to Obama’s legacy.
“You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” he said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
Democrats were united on health care in 2018; now they’re terribly divided
Democrats regained the House in 2018 in part by running on a message that they would protect ObamaCare from the GOP’s repeal and replace efforts.
In 2020, the issue of health care is tearing the party apart and has emerged as the central animating issue dividing centrist Democrats from liberal progressives.
On both nights of the Detroit debates, health care dominated for at least the first half hour, with the candidates exchanging nasty jabs about the motives of their rivals.
The progressives, led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), say the party must fully embrace a Medicare for All plan that raises taxes and eliminates private insurers, but that would also eliminate deductibles and copays and would ensure everyone is covered.
Mainstream Democrats say the astronomical cost of Medicare for All would bankrupt the government and warn that taking away people’s current plans is a surefire election loser.
Those trying to stake out a middle ground, such as Harris, are getting hammered by both the centrists, for not being honest about the implications of a health care overhaul, and by the left, for not going far enough.
Biden is staking his claim on ObamaCare, betting that sticking close to the popular law and the popular former president will help him weather the debate.
Here’s the good news for Biden: If tonight doesn’t do any damage to his numbers, he will probably cruise to the nomination. This is life as the frontrunner – you get attacked by everybody, all the time, on any issue that they think will get them some traction. Biden got socked in the jaw in the first debate, lost some ground in the subsequent polls, but gradually floated back to a solid lead. With the vast majority of Democrats living today having voted for him twice as vice president, and generally liking him and not all that bothered by long-ago not-so-progressive positions, all Biden has to do is not fumble.
The weirdest aspect of the attacks on Biden was the suggestion that the Obama presidency was some sort of right-wing nightmare, full of draconian deportation enforcement, Americans desperately yearning for health care and having no way to get it, a Department of Justice that shrugged at police abuses . . . almost everyone assumes that Barack Obama will remain on the sidelines during this primary process. But if Biden is the lone defender of the Obama legacy, and every other upstart is painting the previous presidency as a failure, maybe Obama will come out and formally endorse his old wingman.
Biden may have done himself some good for the general election, if he gets there. At one point during the debate on immigration, Biden declared, “The fact of the matter is, you should be able to, if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.” In today’s Democratic party, that’s a wildly controversial, reactionary statement. Trump will paint Biden as soft on illegal immigration; Biden will be able to say he stood up for immigration law enforcement when those around him didn’t want to hear it.
Harris’s playbook was clear: attack Biden, attack Biden, attack Biden. But you wonder if the folks watching at home — to the extent they felt like watching three hours — started to tire of her relentless focus on Biden. Tonight, she let out all of her prosecutorial instincts. Every other answer was some version of, “you’re just wrong on this, Mr. Vice President. The reality is. . .” Harris is tough on offense but much shakier on defense. Some Democrats in this field appear to be having serious second thoughts about Medicare for All, and Harris looked incapable of defending her plan with any specificity.
One of the more dramatic moments in the second hour came when Gabbard went after Harris hard on the less flattering parts of her record as prosecutor: “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 . . . When you were in a position to impact these people’s lives you did not and worse yet in the case of those on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence that would have freed them, until you were forced to do that, and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.” Brutal. Those of us who studied her prosecutorial record early know there is more controversy, but all of this is probably news to a lot of the Democrats watching at home. Gabbard makes a much more effective attack dog against Harris than Biden did. You have to wonder if Biden gets the nomination whether Gabbard would be on the running mate list. (Then again, Gabbard looks so much younger than a traditional presidential candidate. She’s 38 but looks like she’s in her twenties.)
Towards the end, de Blasio started yelling out, “What about Iran! What about the march to war with Iran!” Don Lemon, with visible impatience and irritation, told him to respect the rules. It was reminiscent of the hecklers and protesters who interrupted earlier in the evening. The insufferably entitled attitude of protesters, who believe that they have a right to interrupt and disrupt an event like this, reflects the coarser and more self-absorbed state of our culture.
I have a feeling a lot of people will say they love, or are trying to convince themselves that they love, Booker’s response to Biden. But Biden had cited three parts of Booker’s record that aren’t so flattering by the woke standards of 2019: zero tolerance, stop and frisk, and hiring Garry McCarthy, who had previously served as deputy commissioner under Rudy Giulani from 2000 to 2006. (Crime declined in both cities while McCarthy was in those leadership positions in the city police forces.) Booker’s response was folksy, but he never really disputed the accusations — because they’re true. Until that exchange, Booker played the “why are we Democrats fighting among ourselves when that’s just what Republicans want?” card far too many times. It’s a presidential primary debate, Senator, not a group therapy session. Conflict comes with the territory.
Castro was aggressive. But he had a good debate last time around, and it didn’t seem to have much of an impact. But earlier this month, a poll in Texas showed Castro was at 4 percent — and this is Castro’s home state! We’ve heard his story, he’s delivered his well-crafted and well-rehearsed lines . . . and he’s usually one of the first guys you forget about.
When you’re Bennet, another one of those “oh yeah, that guy’s running” candidates, you don’t have much room for error. He sounded odd early on tonight — stuffy nose? Fighting a cold or something? — but he perked up as the evening wore on. He pointed out that Medicare for All means your private insurance plan gets taken away from you, even if you like it, and progressives will hate him for it. Not a bad night for him, but it’s hard to see how he hits that seemingly insurmountable threshold of 2 percent.
Jay Inslee tried to get into the attack-Biden game, with some ham-handed rehearsed lines like, “Mister Vice President, your argument is not with me, it’s with science.” Inslee was a nonentity in the first debate and it’s not likely he’s going to be discussed much after this one.
Andrew Yang got way more time than the last debate, but I’m not sure he broke through. He’s got a lot of ideas and proposals, and maybe 60-second increments are insufficient to explain them. His assessment of foreign policy didn’t get past the surface level, and he seemed relaxed to the point of under-caffeinated. His closing remarks expressed irritation that people commented on his lack of a tie after the last debate, and seemed to dismiss the debates as a “reality television show.” Maybe they are, but they’re the best opportunity to reach a massive and interested audience at once.
Tonight’s debate should end Gillibrand’s campaign. She seemed caught speechless at one moment. Then in the middle she boasted that she could go to white suburban women and explain the concept of white privilege to them. Towards the end, she tried to attack Biden and out of all of the potential vulnerabilities, she cited an old op-ed to argue Biden opposes women working outside the home. (Exhibit A of the counter-evidence would be Jill Biden, who stopped teaching for two years after having a child and then continued her teaching career.) When Gillibrand’s presidential campaign ends, it will be primarily remembered for, “I’m just here for some ranch.”