Democrats debating tonight in the second installment of a two-night slugfest split on how far the United States should drift toward socialism and listened with unhinged jaws as the roster’s lone African American member ripped into former Vice President Joe Biden over his history on race.
The sharpest exchange happened when Sen. Kamala Harris called out Biden for his comments at a recent fundraiser where he bragged about his relationship with segregationist senators early in his career.
“It was hurtful,” Harris said, saying she didn’t think the former vice president was racist. Then she criticized him in personal terms for his opposition to busing, saying that as a little girl in California she was part of only the second class that was integrated due to a policy of transporting black students to mostly white schools.
“On this subject, it can not be an intellectual debate among Democrats,” Harris said.
Biden seemed prepared for the attack and struck back at Harris, saying that early in his career he became a public defender. “I didn’t become a prosecutor,” Biden said, a knock on Harris, whose past as the top prosecutor in California has stirred suspicion from some black voters.
Biden tried to argue that he opposed busing on only the federal level and didn’t want Washington to dictate policy to local governments.
But Harris called him out on that argument, saying that racist state-level policies have held back African Americans for years and that it’s the role of the federal government to intervene.
Biden ticked off legislation that he’s pushed to support African Americans, but then seemed to run out of steam.
“Anyway, my time is up,” he said.
Several of the Democratic candidates sparred over health care policy, eliminating student loan debt and generational change, with a debate marked by notably sharper disagreements between the top tier candidates, including Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
While Biden aimed his fire mostly at President Trump, the other more moderate candidates on stage took aim at Sanders and his brand of democratic socialism, in particular his support for Medicare-for-All.
Biden and Sanders disagreed over whether to scrape the health system established by the Affordable Care Act.
Biden, after speaking emotionally about losing his son to cancer and daughter and first wife in an automobile accident, suggested he was interested in a more incremental approach, by building on the Affordable Care Act that was passed when President Obama and Biden, the former vice president, were in office.
“I’m against any Democrat who opposes, takes down Obamacare — and then a Republican who wants to get rid of it,” Biden said.
Sanders, meanwhile, defended his Medicare-for-All plan without offering specifics on how such an expansive program would be implemented on a national level.
“We will have Medicare for All when tens of millions of people are tens of millions are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits on,” Sanders said.
The two men didn’t call each other out by name, but it was one of the clearest examples of their policy and ideological differences.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg got the question he had to be expecting: on the recent police shooting in South Bend and why the police department in a 26 percent black city has only a 6 percent black police force still.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said flatly.
He continued on the shooting where the officer did not have on his body camera and where black residents have been outraged.
“I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. He says he was attacked be knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on,” Buttigieg said. “And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I had to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”
“This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country,” Buttigieg said. “And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, the second youngest candidate in the race after Buttigieg, called for him to fire the police chief.
“You’re the mayor and you should fire the chief if that’s the policy,” he said, “And someone died.”
Buttigieg stared at him without comment.
Swalwell took a direct swipe at Biden’s age early in the debate, describing a moment years ago when he said Biden “said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.”
“If we’re going to solve the issues of the nation, pass the torch. If we’re going to solve the issue of climate chaos, pass the torch. If we are going to solve school violence, pass the torch,” he said.
Biden, 76, smiled.
“I’m still holding onto that torch,” he said before pivoting to discuss his education plans.
Biden and Harris spoke the most during tonight’s debate.
Other candidates included businessman Andrew Yang, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Michael Bennet, and author Marianne Williamson.