Former Vice President Joe Biden delivered a steadfast defense of his moderate policies in the Democratic primary debate tonight, striking back at a familiar adversary, Senator Kamala Harris, but facing intensifying attacks on his record from liberal rivals including Senator Cory Booker and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary.
Biden, the leading candidate in the Democratic presidential race, entered the debate under pressure to articulate a more forceful rationale for his campaign and turn back attacks from his fellow Democrats, after failing to do so in his clash with Harris in the first debate in June.
It was unclear by the end of the forum whether Biden was any closer to allaying liberals’ reservations about his candidacy, or inspiring a Democratic Party that is eager to defeat President Trump but has shifted to the left in the years since the former vice-president served under Barack Obama.
Though he may have won sympathy from Democratic voters for absorbing so many blows, he did not deliver a commanding performance to reclaim firm command of the race.
And in a sign of the party’s drift, Biden was repeatedly forced to defend not only his own record but also questioned sharply about policies of former President Barack Obama on issues such as immigration and trade.
Where ideology framed the conversation, the divisions resembled a mirror image of the dynamics that governed the first Democratic debate this week.
On Tuesday, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the populist liberals who have largely defined their party’s issue agenda, locked arms to deflect attacks from a gang of moderate underdogs, including Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and former Representative John Delaney of Maryland.
In the second debate, it was Biden and his relatively centrist values under collective assault.
Taken together, though, the back-to-back debates only threw the party’s factions into stark relief while delivering little clarity about the direction of a race that features well-funded candidates from its populist and moderate wings as well as a handful of contenders attempting to straddle the divide.
By the end of the debate, Biden was besieged, attacked from all sides on a plethora of subjects including health care, immigration, trade, criminal justice, climate change, women’s rights and the war in Iraq.
As he did at times in the first debate, he cut some of his answers short and stumbled over lines.
And he flashed his impatience with rivals who he said were harrying him over events that occurred “a long, long time ago.”
Elizabeth Warren (First night)
The best of the bunch.
Energetic and passionate about why she’s running.
If debate success is also determined by coolness under fire and the ability to stay on message and deliver memorable lines, she was the clear overall winner.
As former Congressman John Delaney and other of the lesser-known centrists continued to knock her big-ticket progressive plans, Warren was ready with the riposte.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes through all the trouble running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said, as the audience howled their approval.
Bernie Sanders also did well.
But if he and Warren are competing for the same progressive votes, she wins.
Joe Biden (Second night)
Is the best debater? Absolutely not.
Does he always seem sharp and concise about what he’s talking about?
No on that one too.
But for Biden, it’s being able to stand in the center and take all the heat and survive.
He did that.
And his mega fundraising and frontrunner status will likely continue.
“I think Democrats are expecting some engagement here,” Biden said to begin the debate. “And I expect we’ll get it.”
He got it, alright. And he’s still standing.
Andrew Yang (Second night)
Still a very impossible long shot for the nomination, but he keeps promising $1K a month to everybody, and as that message gets out voters will pay attention.
Yang did a very effective job distilling his big issue – a universal basic income to address sweeping automation – into a digestible form.
In his closing, he took a shot at the way these debates have been packaged and presented.
“We’re up here with makeup on our faces, and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show,” he said. “It’s one reason we elected a reality TV star as our president.”
Yang spoke in clear, simple terms as a political outsider.
My guess is he’ll make the next debate with fewer candidates and a chance to further explain his dramatic proposal.
Kamala Harris (Second night)
Tonight the prosecutor got taken to school by the soldier.
Tulsi Gabbard, who also had a solid debate performance, unloaded on Harris’s record as attorney general of California, with a particularly stinging observation that the California senator put people in prison for marijuana-related offenses, then recently joked about her own marijuana use.
The healthcare portion of the debate quickly became mired in the details, and Harris didn’t do a great job explaining in an understandable way why her plan should be viewed as the best way forward.
That allowed candidates like Cory Booker – who was sharp throughout the night – and Kristen Gillibrand – who was also on message – to paint in broader strokes and make a more compelling appeal for a more expansive healthcare approach.
If Biden had a lower bar after his poor first debate performance, Harris – who has joined the ranks of the top-tier of candidates – had a much higher one because of her strong debate in June.
It was a bar she didn’t always reach.
Beto O’Rourke (First night)
He looks and sounds the part, but he just isn’t connecting somehow in this field.
After a June debate performance that was poorly reviewed, O’Rourke’s team has telegraphed that they relish the opportunity for voters to contrast him with Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The two men are, in some ways, competing to be a younger, more moderate alternative to Biden.
But O’Rourke’s performances are truly forgettable.
Beto’s performance was so underwhelming that the Late Show’s Steven Colbert couldn’t find one memorable thing he said for a 10 minute debate review.
The Moderates (First and second nights)
The handful of bottom-tier moderates were just awful.
Passionless and rolled over by the more progressive candidates.
Especially disappointing (all from the first debate) were Amy Klobuchar, John Delaney, Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, and at times Pete Buttigieg.
Sen Michael Bennet did better in the second debate, but still got rolled over by more energetic opponents.
The “Republican talking point” talking point (First and second nights)
This is the new progressive alternative to “fake news.”
It’s a way to avoid facts and replace it with a zippy catch phrase.
“We cannot keep with the Republican talking points on this,” Harris said amid attacks on her Medicare-for-all proposal, echoing Sanders and Warren from the night before.
Castro at one point hit back at those criticizing the proposed decriminalization of illegal border crossings.
“Open borders is a right-wing talking point,” Castro said, “and frankly I’m disappointed that some folks — including some folks on this stage — have taken the bait.”
Just because Democrats don’t believe in more progressive policies doesn’t mean they are doing the GOP’s bidding.
In fact, they are often espousing positions that used to be their own party’s default not that long ago. or-all plan.