Cory Booker and Joe Biden’s public spat over criminal justice spilled over to the debate stage in Detroit on Wednesday night as the New Jersey senator and former vice president repeatedly questioned and took shots at each other’s pasts.
“If you want to compare records ― and frankly, I’m shocked that you do ― I am happy to do that,” Booker said at one point.
The two have publicly sparred repeatedly during the campaign, most recently on the topic of criminal justice, with Booker calling Biden’s new criminal justice proposal “an inadequate solution to what is a raging crisis in our country” and Biden’s team responding by saying “the absurdity of this attack” was “obvious.”
After CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked why Booker’s criticism was ill-founded, Biden argued that his new proposal was not so dissimilar from Booker’s, noting that he wanted to send those convicted of drug crimes to rehabilitation instead of prison.
But Booker turned the conversation back to Biden’s hand in past crime bills, most notably the 1994 crime law. Once considered one of Biden’s signature achievements, it has become more closely associated with mass incarceration.
“You claimed responsibility for those laws, and you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire,” Booker said. “We have got to have far more bold action on criminal justice reform, like having true marijuana justice, which means that we legalize it on a federal level and reinvest the profits in communities that have been disproportionately targeted by marijuana enforcement.”
Biden noted that by 2007 he was pushing to treat crack and powder cocaine equally, then he turned around and criticized Booker’s record, noting the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, had once pledged a “zero tolerance” policy on crime, oversaw a police department that employed “stop-and-frisk” tactics and hired “Rudy Giuliani’s guy,” Garry McCarthy, as police director.
The criticism led Booker to deliver a line that shocked and delighted the crowd.
“There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker said. “You need to come to the city of Newark and see the reforms that we put in place.”
After the debate, the Booker campaign released a list of the senator’s criminal reform accomplishments, including creating Newark’s first Office of Reentry, introducing legislation to end federal prohibition of marijuana and helping to pass the First Step Act, “which is helping to turn the tide against mass incarceration,” the campaign said.
Democratic strategists had predicted ahead of the debate that Booker would try to go at Biden, especially after Sen. Kamala Harris of California drew attention to herself when she attacked Biden’s record on school busing at the first set of Democratic debates last month in Miami.
“If you’re Booker, why wouldn’t you do the same thing?” asked one of the strategists. “It seems like an easy, natural playbook for you politically to try to draw yourself into that stratosphere, to draw him down, draw some clear contrasts.”
Early in his campaign, Biden had said he would not attack his opponents, but he has shown more willingness to defend his record since the standoff with Harris.
“If they want to argue about the past, I can do that,” Biden said at a Detroit fundraiser last week. “I got a past I’m proud of. They got a past that’s not quite so good.”
John Anzalone, a Biden pollster, said the rhetorical shift was a necessary one born of the numerous attacks on the former vice president’s decades-long record.
“It’s just about protecting yourself and setting the record straight and making sure that your message is getting out there, not theirs,” said Anzalone.
Earlier Wednesday night, Biden and Booker also sparred on the issue of immigration, when Booker accused Biden of selectively hiding behind Barack Obama’s presidential legacy after he sidestepped a question about deportations during the Obama administration.
Wednesday night, Booker made it clear that he believed debates over their records were critical in deciding who should lead the party.
“Sir, you are trying to shift the view from what you created. There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.
“This isn’t about the past, sir,” Booker added. “This is about the present ― right now.”
This article has been updated with comments made after the debate.