Joe Biden and Kamala Harris play defense: 5 takeaways from Night 2 of the Democratic debate
At first, it looked like the rematch was on.
Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden, standing at center stage at the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, were clearly ready to reprise their prior debate face-off, training their focus on each other as the debate began. But the others on stage weren’t ready to cede the evening to the two top candidates.
Instead, both Harris and Biden found themselves playing defense not just against each other, but also against their other rivals: Sen. Michael Bennet, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
It was a vivid illustration of the perils of being a front-runner.
Here are the main takeaways from Wednesday’s debate:
BOOKER STEPS INTO THE RING: Political watchers were abuzz with the prospect of a Harris-Biden showdown, after her searing rebuke of his civil rights record in the June debate. But while the California senator was clearly aiming her focus on Biden — particularly when arguing about health care — it was Booker who landed the most memorable scorchers against the former vice president.
The first blow came during the immigration debate, when Biden was attacked for the high number of immigrant deportations during the Obama administration. Biden demurred on whether he, as vice president, disagreed with President Barack Obama’s actions.
“You invoke Obama more than anyone in this campaign,” Booker said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then avoid it when it’s not.”
Later, Biden criticized Booker for troubles at the Newark police department while he was mayor. Booker responded that he’d be happy to compare his record on criminal justice against Biden, adding with raised eyebrows “Quite frankly, I’m shocked that you do.”
He repeatedly hammered Biden for his role in the sweeping 1994 anti-crime bill, which Booker said has led to a crisis of mass incarceration
When Biden was undeterred on slamming Booker on civil rights abuses by Newark police, Booker had an easy quip in return: “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
MIXED BAG FOR BIDEN: In the June debate, Biden seemed a half-step behind, making people wonder if Uncle Joe still had the vigor to withstand a tough campaign. On Wednesday, he half-jogged onto the stage and showed much more pep, particularly in the first half of the debate.
Biden knew he was in for a pile-on and he parried critiques of his record with more confidence than in the Miami debate. When Gillibrand laced into Biden for an old op-ed questioning the value of women working outside the home, he was prepared with a counter-punch, noting that the New York senator embraced his work on women’s rights in the past.
“I don’t know what’s happened except now you’re running for president,” he said.
But the barrage of attacks was not easily withstood, and Biden was at times muddled in his responses. When Harris slammed Biden for voting for the Hyde amendment — which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions — he struggled to explain why he now opposes the amendment after reversing his position earlier this year.
HARRIS ON DEFENSE: Harris entered the first debate in June with stagnant poll numbers and a sense her campaign was treading water. Her sterling debate performance quieted those murmurs, vaulting her into the top tier of the field.
With that leap came a target on her back. Her health care plan was a major target Wednesday night. Biden, her main foe, criticized Harris for not doing anything as attorney general to address racial segregation in California schools.
Gabbard homed in on Harris’ criminal justice record, a source of lingering friction between the California senator and her party’s left flank. Gabbard rattled off a pointed list of Harris’ past positions that would conflict with the Democratic base, such as imprisoning people for marijuana violations and laughing about cannabis legalization, and opposing cash bail.
Harris defended herself forcefully, saying she was proud of the work she had done as prosecutor and dismissing Gabbard’s attack as a “fancy opinion on a stage.”
But she was clearly on the defensive, instead of being entirely on offense as she was in the first debate.
HEALTH CARE IS HARD: Like in the first night of the second set of debates, the moderators spent a hefty chunk of time focusing on health care policy. But Wednesday’s candidates were clumsier in discussing the intricacies of health care, contrasting with the mostly policy-fluent discussion the previous night.
Biden went after the cost of Harris’ health care plan, but several times dramatically understated the estimated cost of “Medicare for All” as $3 trillion. (He ultimately corrected himself to $30 trillion.)
Harris, who released her own version of Medicare for All on Monday, drew flak from both the left — those who objected to her including a limited role for private insurers — and the right, who said her plan was too expensive.
The sharpest critique came from Bennet, who said Harris’ plan would essentially ban employer-based health care, which is how most working Americans get their insurance today. Harris countered, saying her plan would decouple employers from health care — which she touted as making benefits more flexible for workers — but her answer lacked the crispness that characterized her June debate performance.
HECKLING SHAPES THE DEBATE: The first shouts from the audience came at the very start, during De Blasio’s opening remarks. As Booker made his initial statement, they continued: “Fire Pantaleo!”
The hecklers were protesting against New York City Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island five years ago after putting him in a prohibited chokehold. The federal government announced earlier in July it would not file charges against the officer.
The interruptions briefly threw the candidates off their game, but led to a substantive exchange about policing and Garner’s death. Both Gillibrand and Castro said Pantaleo should not be on the street. Through his Twitter account, de Blasio acknowledged the disruption and thanked the protestors.