Unlike last month’s debate in Miami, however, where Biden visibly struggled to defend his decades-old record, this time Biden was ready for the fight.
Biden, 76, was flanked by a crop of younger and more diverse candidates intent on casting him as a relic in their fight to be the party’s nominee to take on Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
They included California senator Kamala Harris, who in the last debate skilfully attacked Biden’s past positions on ordered busing and segregation; New Jersey senator Cory Booker, with whom Biden has sparred over criminal justice; and other contenders who have so far failed to make a splash in the race, such as New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado senator Michael Bennet, former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, and Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard.
The debate opened with what appeared to be a redux of last month’s searing confrontation between Biden and Harris, this time over healthcare. As Harris sought to defend a Medicare-for-All plan she unveiled this week, which would maintain a role for private insurance and be implemented over 10 years, Biden sensed an opportunity.
“Anytime someone tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it’s going to take 10 years,” he said.
“To be very blunt, and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan.
“You’re just simply inaccurate in what you’re describing,” Harris shot back.
Countering that Biden’s own healthcare plan would leave out roughly 10 million Americans, Harris added: “In 2019 in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone, I think is without excuse.”
But Harris, whose breakout moment in last month’s debate prompted a brief surge in the polls, was forced to weather other criticisms of her healthcare proposal.
What followed was an unruly and often deeply personal debate over issues that included immigration, climate change and race relations.
At nearly every turn, Biden and his past were brought squarely into focus.
On immigration, it was Castro’s turn to land a punch when the topic turned whether or not illegal border crossings should be decriminalized. The issue, which has been elevated amid Trump’s policy of separating parents and children at the US-Mexico border, has divided Democrats.
“Open borders is a right-wing talking point,” Castro, who served as Barack Obama’s housing secretary, said. “And, frankly, I’m disappointed that some folks, including some folks on this stage, have taken [the] bait.”
Biden dismissed the critique, pointing out he had never heard Castro level such criticisms of immigration policy while serving in the Obama administration.
“It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t,” Castro retorted.
The tenor was not unlike Tuesday’s debate, which exposed the sharp dividing lines between the progressive and moderate wings of the party.
But whereas the previous night saw progressive stars Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defending the Democratic Party’s leftward turn, Wednesday was dominated by a clash of personalities and tactics. At times, it devolved into allegations of cynicism and whose framing was most disingenuous.
When Gillibrand resurrected a 1981 op-ed in which Biden argued against expanding a child tax credit for high-income earners – suggesting his views had undercut women in the workplace – Biden asked why she had previously praised his work on gender equality.
“I don’t know what happened except you’re now running for president,” Biden said.
A similarly personal back-and-forth transpired when Booker accused Biden of constantly linking himself to Obama, only to dodge scrutiny over the more controversial aspects of the former president’s tenure.
“You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not,” said Booker, who also went after Biden’s role in authoring a tough-on-crime bill in 1994 now seen as the cause of mass incarceration.
“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,” Booker said.
Despite the onslaught, Biden largely managed to stand his ground.
In many ways, the evening was a testament to the Democratic Party’s most pressing debate: whether to campaign on sweeping, progressive reforms or frame the election around the urgency of limiting Trump’s presidency to a single term.
Biden has built his candidacy on the latter, telling voters the choice before America was to determine whether Trump would forever reshape the nation’s identity or simply go down as “an aberration”.
But Warren, who has yet to share the debate stage with Biden, warned Democrats on Tuesday that the White House would not be reclaimed through “small ideas and spinelessness”.
For many candidates, the Detroit debates may have been their last chance to leave a national impression. The threshold to qualify for the third round of debates in September is expected to grow tighter, requiring candidates to achieve 2% support from at least four polls and contributions from 130,000 donors.
Trump dismissed his potential opponents on Wednesday.
“The people on the stage tonight, and last, were not those that will either Make America Great Again or Keep America Great!” the president tweeted.
In an impassioned plea to his colleagues, Booker warned Democrats that picking one another apart only worked to Trump’s benefit.
“This pitting against progressives against moderates, saying one is unrealistic and the other doesn’t care enough – that to me is dividing our party and demoralizing us in the face of the real enemy here,” he said.
“The person who is enjoying this debate the most right now is Donald Trump.”
Source: The Guardian