Two senators, a governor, the mayor of the nation’s largest city and even a member of the same presidential administration Biden served in took turns squabbling and sparring with Biden, the leading candidate in the polls. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro both landed solid hits against the onetime Delaware senator on issues like criminal justice reform and immigration, but it was unclear if the damage to Biden was severe enough to knock him from his front-runner perch.
The presence of Biden on the stage alongside a diverse group of challengers ― for the first time in the history of the republic, there were more candidates on the stage who weren’t white men than candidates who were ― led to a debate that focused on whether the Democratic Party needed to abandon and apologize for positions that were mainstream throughout Biden’s career. Biden repeatedly invoked former President Barack Obama’s decision to select him as vice president as a shield and argued that the party did not need to dramatically divert from its long-standing positions.
“Everybody’s talking about how bad I was on these issues,” Biden said at one point while defending his criminal justice reform record. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was.”
Many of the candidates on stage had telegraphed potential attacks in the days leading up to the debates, and those theoretical attacks quickly came to life, with Biden prepared to parry many of them. Even before the debating began, he greeted Sen. Kamala Harris of California with “Go easy on me, kid.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York questioned Biden over his vote against a child care tax credit in the 1980s. Biden and Harris argued over their respective plans to overhaul health care, with Harris defending her more moderate version of “Medicare for All” and Biden arguing her plan was too disruptive and could alienate voters who would lose their health insurance. Booker attacked Biden over his role in crafting a punitive crime law in the 1990s, and Biden responded by attacking Booker’s record on policing while mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
“If you want to compare records ― and frankly, I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that,” Booker said. “There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
But Castro’s decision to attack Biden over the Obama administration’s deportations of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants was a new stage in the Democratic Party’s reconsideration of the record of the former president, who remains the most popular figure in the party. Biden suggested Castro’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.
“The secretary, we sat together in many meetings. I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary,” Biden said of Castro.
Castro retorted: “It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”
Harris, who solidified her position in the top tier of candidates after her attacks on Biden during the first round of debates last month in Miami, found herself under siege. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio slammed her as unambitious in his opening statement, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii attacked her record as a prosecutor.
“Kamala Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and she’ll be a prosecutor president, but I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said, noting Harris had long opposed marijuana legalization and said Harris “blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so.”
Harris jumped to her own defense on stage. “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,” she retorted, as her staffers took to Twitter to criticize Gabbard for her ties to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Many of the candidates ― including de Blasio, Gillibrand, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ― are not currently on track to qualify for the third set of Democratic presidential debates in September, and they failed to achieve a clear breakout moment.
De Blasio, in particular, seemed to be looking for every chance he could to challenge Biden, often posing questions directly to the former Delaware senator. Biden seemed mostly amused by de Blasio’s sharp questions to him on the North American Free Trade Agreement and other issues.
“I love your affection for me,” Biden said with a smile. “You spend a lot of time with me.”