Joe Biden was better but still battered
“Go easy on me, kid.”
That is not how things worked out.
Those were the first words that former vice president Joe Biden uttered on stage at the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit Wednesday, a greeting for California Sen. Kamala Harris. She had been his most devastating challenger in the first debate last month, where his performance was widely panned.
Instead, for the next 2½ hours Biden found himself attacked not only by Harris (who took hits herself for changing policy on health care and her record as California attorney general) but also by just about everybody else on the crowded debate stage. He was forced to defend his record on health care, criminal justice, immigration, working mothers, the war in Iraq and even his service in the Obama White House — a badge he has brandished as his biggest asset.
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The common and critical thread was the portrayal of the Democratic frontrunner as a candidate from another era, beloved but outdated, and with a decidedly mixed record that gave him both experience and baggage.
Fortified by opposition research, Biden arrived at the ornate Fox Theater better prepared for battle than he had been at the first debate, in Miami. When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker blamed the 1994 crime bill he helped pass for contributing to mass incarceration, Biden replied that Booker as mayor of Newark had failed to clean up a corrupt police department. When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said he faulted mothers who worked outside the home in a 1981 op-ed, he talked emotionally about his own record as a single father after his first wife died in a tragic car crash.
Then he scoffed at Gillibrand as a political opportunist, noting she had praised him in the past: “I don’t know what’s happened, except that you’re now running for president.”
That said, Biden was the victim of a thousand cuts, reminded of a hard truth. He argues that he is the candidate best able to defeat President Trump in 2020, a Democrat who can appeal to working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan. The problem is that nomination is not yet his to claim. First he has to defeat a crowded field of challengers, some of them a generation or two younger than he is and all of them willing to take him on.
At Tuesday night’s debate, Night One of Round Two, hosted by CNN, the first set of 10 candidates had waged a fierce discussion about whether Democrats should embrace a transformative liberal agenda that includes Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal.
On stage then were the field’s two most passionate progressives, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; they faced a half-dozen more moderate contenders who warned the party risked losing swing voters and with them the election.
But Night Two was in large part a referendum not on policy but on Biden.
He spoke by far more than anyone else, in large part because he so frequently was given time to respond to attacks by others. He spoke for more than 21 minutes in all, more than double the amount of time used by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and businessman Andrew Yang, who spoke the least.
Some of the criticism Biden weathered was searing and personal.
“It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t,” said former Housing secretary Julian Castro, who served with Biden in the Obama administration. Castro now proposes to make illegally crossing the border a civil rather than criminal offense, an idea Biden opposes. When de Blasio demanded to know whether Biden had argued against mass deportations during the Obama era, Biden demurred, “I was vice president; I am not the president.”
That brought a rebuke from Booker.
“First of all, Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways,” the New Jersey senator said. “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.”
Booker and Castro both did well in the debate, castigating Biden but conveying a tone that suggested they spoke more in sorrow than in anger. Harris, whose campaign was boosted by her success in the first debate, sometimes seemed rattled by the reality that it also made her a more frequent target, particularly of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
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If no rival emerged Wednesday as his clear top challenger, Biden also wasn’t commanding enough to settle all the questions about his campaign. He put in a stronger performance than he did at the first debate but he never articulated an inspirational vision of why he was running for president, or what he would do in the job. His answers repeatedly trailed off and ended with an inconclusive, “Anyway. . . . “
To Gillibrand’s attack, he protested, “That was a long time ago.”
And his final words on stage were a fumble. While most of the other candidates in their closing statements urged viewers to go to their websites, Biden told them to “go to Joe30330 and help me win this fight.” That sent potential supporters to a nonexistent website; what he meant, aides explained afterwards, was that they should text the number 30330.
For the other candidates, the incentives were to attack him, to create a viral moment, to get attention. That was especially true for the six candidates on the stage who haven’t yet qualified for the next set of debates, in September and October. Failing to reach the threshold — receiving at least 2% support in four authorized polls and receiving contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors — will make it hard for a candidate to be taken seriously as a prospective nominee.
A total of eight candidates have announced that they have qualified for the fall debates, but perhaps half of the field probably won’t. Those who expect to participate include Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and businessman Andrew Yang. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Castro are close.
Even with a much smaller field, though, Biden will still have challengers, eager to target him on the next time they stand together on stage.
Go easy on him?
Not anytime soon.