In night two of the Democratic debate, candidates bore down into issues, and each other. Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden for his past on busing. USA TODAY
The problem for Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden at Thursday’s debate wasn’t that he was so bad. It was that California Sen. Kamala Harris was so good.
Harris and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg were crisp and commanding in Round Two of the opening Democratic debates in Miami, more dominant in driving the conversation than either Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has generally ranked second in national and state polls.
The impact of the back-to-back debates was to expand the possibilities of the Democratic contest. Biden leads the field, but he wasn’t the only contender who came across as a credible president. That undercuts the image he has tried to project as the all-but-inevitable nominee, especially if Democrats really wanted to deny President Donald Trump a second term.
Consider one emotional exchange.
“I do not believe that you are a racist,” Harris said, turning to look at Biden as she spoke. But she said it was “personal” and “hurtful” when he recently cited with pride the compromises he had struck in the Senate with two avowed segregationists. He had supported legislation against school busing, Harris added, noting that she herself had been bused as a child.
“Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America?” Harris, whose father is African American, asked.
Biden, bristling, accused her of mischaracterizing his comments on the segregationists — “I did not praise racists,” he said — and his position on busing.
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She spoke emotionally; he responded defensively.
While all the candidates focused most of their fire on Trump — and he returned the favor, commenting derisively on the debate even as he met with foreign leaders at the G-20 summit in Japan — the evening was threaded with attacks on Biden. The suggestion, implicitly and explicitly, was that it was time for the Democratic Party to move beyond Biden and Sanders, the two septuagenarians who were standing at center stage.
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One debate won’t determine the trajectory of this long race, of course. There are 11 more debates scheduled, including a second next month in Detroit. The opening Iowa caucuses are still more than seven months away.
That said, Biden’s performance, in his first campaign debate in seven years, left some of his supporters concerned, and Harris’ performance made her the top trending topic on Google for a time.
Biden was folksy, part of his engaging political persona, but he failed to articulate a clear visionabout what, exactly, he would do as president.
Harris was forceful, displaying the prosecutor’s skills she honed as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general. But her decision to raise her hand when the NBC moderator asked which candidates would eliminate private health insurance as part of Medicare-for-All could complicate her appeal to more moderate Democrats in the primaries. It surely would open her to fierce political attack from Republicans in the general election, if she won the nomination.
Louder, faster, more emotional night
Buttigieg also had a good night. He came across as low-key and thoughtful when he was asked about a fatal police shooting in South Bend last week, sparking a furor that forced him to curtail campaigning for several days to deal with tensions there. “It’s a mess, and we’re hurting,” Buttigieg said, saying he had taken some steps but not enough to deal with the issue before the tragedy happened.
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At another point, Buttigieg seemed to strike a chord when he cast his criticism of the Trump administration’s controversial policy of forcibly separating migrant children from their parents in religious terms. “For a party that associates with Christianity, to say it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religion language again,” he said.
Thursday’s debate was louder and faster than the one on Wednesday. That may have been the result of having the field’s top candidates on stage and it may have reflected lessons learned – that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for one, managed to get more air time on Wednesday by just jumping in.
For most of the candidates, the debates gave them the biggest audiences of their lives, a chance to break through with voters across the country who had never seen them before. More than 15 million people watched on Wednesday, NBC said.
After that opening night, former Housing secretary Julian Castro and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker got an immediate boost from what were seen as strong appearances.
“We already hit our $5k goal!” Booker bragged in a tweet an hour before the second debate began, including a link to a fundraising page. “Think we can raise $15K before the end of tonight’s debate?”
Unprecedented diversity of candidates
The debates spotlighted the unprecedented diversity of the Democratic field in demography and generation. The participants included six women, two African Americans, a Latino and an openly gay man. The contrast in age was striking. Buttigieg, 37, stood to Biden’s right; Biden, now 76, already had served in the U.S. Senate for nine years by the time Buttigieg was born.
California Rep. Eric Swalwell argued, and not subtly, that it was time for a new generation to take over.
He was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to California 32 years ago and said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. “That candidate was then-senator Joe Biden,” Swalwell said, then declared at the top of his voice, “Pass the torch! Pass the torch!”
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden fired back. “I want to make that clear.”
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