Though the first night of the second Democratic presidential debate in Detroit presented a cleaner ideological divide between progressive and moderate candidates on stage, the second debate on Wednesday was marked by an all-out siege on the front-runner: former Vice President Joe Biden.
The candidates, many of whom desperately needed a breakout moment in order to keep their campaigns aloft, delivered sharp blows against each other, with little sense of a clear winner by the end of the night.
Biden survived, but he did so by going down in the mud with the rest of the field ― something he vowed not to do upon entering the race. Here are some key takeaways from the debate.
Biden bounces back
Going into this week’s debate, the biggest question on everyone’s mind was whether Biden would recover from his shaky performance in last month’s debate in Miami, which cost him in the polls after he got caught flat-footed in an exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) over his record on race.
Wednesday night, sandwiched between Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), Biden seemed more sharp, energetic and prepared. He ably parried broadsides from both rivals and dished out fire of his own on other candidates on stage, who lobbed repeated attacks on the former vice president over his support for the 1994 crime bill, his health care plan, immigration and his record on women’s rights.
Overall, though, Biden delivered a solid performance to the relief of his supporters, who, coming into Wednesday’s event, said they wanted to see a more aggressive posture in order to demonstrate to voters that the 76-year-old has what it takes to challenge President Donald Trump.
Though his opponents landed solid blows, Biden left few of them unanswered. On health care, for example, the former vice president went on the offense early, aiming his fire at Harris and her “Medicare for All” plan that includes a 10-year transition period.
“The senator has had several plans so far, and any time someone tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” Biden said. “This is the single most important issue facing the public, and, to be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.”
On crime, one of the most anticipated moments of the night, Biden came prepared. He responded to attacks on his record by bringing up criticisms of Booker’s criminal justice record as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, as well as those of Harris’ tenure as attorney general of California.
One of his sharper put-downs came in an exchange with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), who tried to call out Biden over his past words against women working outside the home. He responded by citing Gillibrand’s past praise for him and said: “I don’t know what’s happened except you’re now running for president.”
But Biden still had moments in which he appeared uncertain and on the defensive. He often conceded his speaking time under pressure from moderators, unlike the other candidates, and flubbed his closing statement.
Booker came out swinging
Booker needed to have a good night. He had a great night. The senator from New Jersey hit all his marks, walloped Biden over his record on racial issues and deportations, and did it all disarmingly with his trademark sunny disposition. The big question for Booker, however, is whether his strong performance Wednesday will be enough to launch him into the top tier of candidates after struggling for months to gain traction in the polls.
In one of the hottest moments of the debate, Booker turned to face Biden and called him out for repeatedly name-dropping his service with President Barack Obama while failing to account for the Obama administration’s failures.
“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways,” Booker said, referring to Biden’s (and Obama’s) record on immigration (during their two terms, a record number of immigrants were deported). “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.”
Biden defended Obama while refusing to say whether he’d done anything to stop deportations. Still, going after Biden for Obama’s record could backfire on Booker among Democratic voters, especially African Americans, who still hold the former president in high regard.
Booker also won applause with other lines he deployed against Biden, particularly in their skirmish over the former vice president’s criminal justice record.
“There’s a saying in my community. You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” he said at one point to Biden, criticizing his criminal justice reform plan.
Harris feels the heat
Biden’s first words to Harris as she approached him on stage during the opening moments of the debate on Wednesday were: “Go easy on me, kid.” She didn’t.
However, the California senator failed to land another clean blow on Biden. She also seemed to struggle under fire from several other candidates, leading to a much more uneven performance than the fiery one she delivered in Miami, which had given her a polling bump.
Biden and Harris argued early on over their respective plans to overhaul health care, with Harris defending her more moderate version of Medicare fo -All and Biden arguing her plan was too disruptive and could alienate voters who would lose their private health insurance coverage.
“You can’t beat Trump with double talk on this plan,” Biden said during the exchange, looking over at Harris to his left. Harris responded by calling his criticism “inaccurate” but soon found herself the target of fire from Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.), who urged her to be “honest” about her proposal.
“We cannot keep with the Republican talking points on this,” Harris shot back, echoing a line from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a similar exchange on health care in Tuesday’s debate.
The most brutal part of the night for Harris, however, came at the hands of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The congresswoman from Hawaii blasted Harris over her record as attorney general of California, criticizing her for maintaining the cash bail system that, she argued, disproportionately hurt poor people.
“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard charged. “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.”
Harris responded: “I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done.”
Long-shot candidates had standout moments
While much of the debate centered on the skirmishes among the front-runners, lower-tiered candidates ― some of whom are in danger of failing to qualify for the third debate ― also made their presence felt.
Julián Castro’s attack on Biden over the Obama administration’s deportations of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, in particular, marked a new shift in the campaign. Biden suggested that the former housing secretary’s push to decriminalize border crossings ― which would remain a civil violation but would prevent a future administration from separating families at the border ― was unnecessary to fix the immigration system.
Castro retorted: “It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has focused his campaign on climate change, drew blood in an exchange with Biden over his unwillingness to phase out U.S. reliance on fossil fuels quickly enough.
“We have to talk and chew gum at the same time…. We can work it out,” Biden said.
Inslee shot back: “We can’t work it out. Our house is on fire.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) was one of the only candidates on stage to mention ongoing Republican efforts to strike down Obamacare and its preexisting condition protections in the courts ― a more immediate issue than the fight over Medicare for All among the presidential field.
“Their whole goal is to take away your health care,” she said.
The coming Biden clash with Warren and Sanders
Biden managed to fend off more moderate and center-left candidates on Wednesday, escaping mostly unscathed. The big question, however, is how he stands up to progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom he will face at the next debate, in September.
In Tuesday’s debate, Sanders and Warren stuck to their unwritten non-aggression pact and easily dispatched their moderate rivals on stage, who played poor stand-ins for the former vice president. They’ll likely do the same against the front-runner at the next debate in Houston, presenting Biden with his biggest test yet.