All night long, almost every candidate on stage aimed their attacks at Joe Biden. Early on, Kamala Harris referred to him as “Senator Biden,” a perhaps not-so-accidental demotion. Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, and Cory Booker all went after him in rapid succession. Even Kirsten Gillibrand claimed that Biden opposed women working outside the home, a particularly implausible accusation.
Here’s the good news for Biden: If tonight doesn’t do any damage to his numbers, he will probably cruise to the nomination. This is life as the frontrunner – you get attacked by everybody, all the time, on any issue that they think will get them some traction. Biden got socked in the jaw in the first debate, lost some ground in the subsequent polls, but gradually floated back to a solid lead. With the vast majority of Democrats living today having voted for him twice as vice president, and generally liking him and not all that bothered by long-ago not-so-progressive positions, all Biden has to do is not fumble.
The weirdest aspect of the attacks on Biden was the suggestion that the Obama presidency was some sort of right-wing nightmare, full of draconian deportation enforcement, Americans desperately yearning for health care and having no way to get it, a Department of Justice that shrugged at police abuses . . . almost everyone assumes that Barack Obama will remain on the sidelines during this primary process. But if Biden is the lone defender of the Obama legacy, and every other upstart is painting the previous presidency as a failure, maybe Obama will come out and formally endorse his old wingman.
Biden may have done himself some good for the general election, if he gets there. At one point during the debate on immigration, Biden declared, “The fact of the matter is, you should be able to, if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.” In today’s Democratic party, that’s a wildly controversial, reactionary statement. Trump will paint Biden as soft on illegal immigration; Biden will be able to say he stood up for immigration law enforcement when those around him didn’t want to hear it.
Kamala Harris’s playbook was clear: attack Biden, attack Biden, attack Biden. But you wonder if the folks watching at home — to the extent they felt like watching three hours — started to tire of her relentless focus on Biden. Tonight, she let out all of her prosecutorial instincts. Every other answer was some version of, “you’re just wrong on this, Mr. Vice President. The reality is. . .” Harris is tough on offense but much shakier on defense. Some Democrats in this field appear to be having serious second thoughts about Medicare for All, and Harris looked incapable of defending her plan with any specificity.
One of the more dramatic moments in the second hour came when Tulsi Gabbard went after Harris hard on the less flattering parts of her record as prosecutor: “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 . . . When you were in a position to impact these people’s lives you did not and worse yet in the case of those on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence that would have freed them, until you were forced to do that, and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.” Brutal. Those of us who studied her prosecutorial record early know there is more controversy, but all of this is probably news to a lot of the Democrats watching at home. Gabbard makes a much more effective attack dog against Harris than Biden did. You have to wonder if Biden gets the nomination whether Gabbard would be on the running mate list. (Then again, Gabbard looks so much younger than a traditional presidential candidate. She’s 38 but looks like she’s in her twenties.)
Towards the end, Bill de Blasio started yelling out, “What about Iran! What about the march to war with Iran!” Don Lemon, with visible impatience and irritation, told him to respect the rules. It was reminiscent of the hecklers and protesters who interrupted earlier in the evening. The insufferably entitled attitude of protesters, who believe that they have a right to interrupt and disrupt an event like this, reflects the coarser and more self-absorbed state of our culture.
I have a feeling a lot of people will say they love, or are trying to convince themselves that they love, Cory Booker’s response to Biden, “There’s a saying in my community. You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” But Biden had cited three parts of Booker’s record that aren’t so flattering by the woke standards of 2019: zero tolerance, stop and frisk, and hiring Garry McCarthy, who had previously served as deputy commissioner under Rudy Giulani from 2000 to 2006. (Crime declined in both cities while McCarthy was in those leadership positions in the city police forces.) Booker’s response was folksy, but he never really disputed the accusations — because they’re true. Until that exchange, Booker played the “why are we Democrats fighting among ourselves when that’s just what Republicans want?” card far too many times. It’s a presidential primary debate, Senator, not a group therapy session. Conflict comes with the territory.
Julian Castro was aggressive. But he had a good debate last time around, and it didn’t seem to have much of an impact. But earlier this month, a poll in Texas showed Castro was at 4 percent — and this is Castro’s home state! We’ve heard his story, he’s delivered his well-crafted and well-rehearsed lines . . . and he’s usually one of the first guys you forget about.
When you’re Colorado senator Michael Bennet, another one of those “oh yeah, that guy’s running” candidates, you don’t have much room for error. He sounded odd early on tonight — stuffy nose? Fighting a cold or something? — but he perked up as the evening wore on. He pointed out that Medicare for All means your private insurance plan gets taken away from you, even if you like it, and progressives will hate him for it. Not a bad night for him, but it’s hard to see how he hits that seemingly insurmountable threshold of 2 percent.
Jay Inslee tried to get into the attack-Biden game, with some ham-handed rehearsed lines like, “Mister Vice President, your argument is not with me, it’s with science.” Inslee was a nonentity in the first debate and it’s not likely he’s going to be discussed much after this one.
Andrew Yang got way more time than the last debate, but I’m not sure he broke through. He’s got a lot of ideas and proposals, and maybe 60-second increments are insufficient to explain them. His assessment of foreign policy didn’t get past the surface level, and he seemed relaxed to the point of under-caffeinated. His closing remarks expressed irritation that people commented on his lack of a tie after the last debate, and seemed to dismiss the debates as a “reality television show.” Maybe they are, but they’re the best opportunity to reach a massive and interested audience at once.
Tonight’s debate should end Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign. She seemed caught speechless at one moment. Then in the middle she boasted that she could go to white suburban women and explain the concept of white privilege to them. Towards the end, she tried to attack Biden and out of all of the potential vulnerabilities, she cited an old op-ed to argue Biden opposes women working outside the home. (Exhibit A of the counter-evidence would be Jill Biden, who stopped teaching for two years after having a child and then continued her teaching career.) When Gillibrand’s presidential campaign ends, it will be primarily remembered for, “I’m just here for some ranch.”