The Tuesday night Democratic presidential debate had some genuinely good moments, with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in particular taking opportunities to actually get across portions of their plans and the importance of the coming election. A quick search of major media sites indicates that the Wednesday night Democratic presidential debate also had some supposed bright spots—and then they go on to describe a series of attacks and gotcha moments. Unfortunately, that’s an all-too-accurate description of the evening.
Giving advice to presidential candidates is not my job … so here’s my advice to presidential candidates: When CNN sets you up to go at each other with rusty butter knives, you don’t have to take it up on it. The debaters on stage Tuesday night generally kept that in mind. It’s why Jake Tapper kept on tapping such noncandidates as John Delaney and Steve Bullock over and over: because they were the only ones who would leap at the bait, so desperate to make at least a ripple that being a designated a-hole was okay with them.
But on Wednesday night, there were way, way too many candidates—serious candidates—who came prepared not with how they could get their immigration plan into a spare 30 seconds, but with how they could land a punch on one of the other candidates. The result was a debate memorable mostly for exchanges that are definitely going on notecards at Trump HQ.
Joe Biden was on the receiving end of most of the slings and arrows. Biden got heat over his role in the 1994 crime bill. He got heat over his position on immigration. He took more punches over his all-too-recent statements on working with segregationists. And all of those shots were well deserved.
But Biden was also a source of shots. In fact, he started firing at Sen. Kamala Harris before she had even pointed a finger in his direction, an action that seemed to throw Harris off balance for the evening after what had appeared to be a rather friendly exchange between the pair before the debate began.
It was a debate with much more heat than light, and the fact that so many people went for Joe Biden helped make Biden the winner.
There were two candidates from the edges of the stage who did well in the debate. One was businessman Andrew Yang, who simply ignored every invitation to join in taking a swing at other people on stage by sticking to talking about the topics at the heart of his campaign: the effects of automation and the benefits of universal basic income. Yang got a couple of questions not related to those topics, and he definitely showed he was awake and paying attention, but he decidedly stayed away from the ever widening mud puddle at center stage. It wasn’t the kind of performance that is going to vault Yang to the top of the heap, though it was probably enough to get some people googling.
The other candidate who did well was Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand has done a better job than any candidate in defining and expressing the meaning of white privilege, and she deployed that sound bite again to good effect. For ninety percent of the evening, she also managed to avoid stepping into the middle of the fray. But then she did. Gillibrand took after Biden for a genuinely bone-headed op-ed on the role of working women.
The moment was illustrative, because while Gillibrand seemed utterly in the right, and the language she quoted from Biden’s op-ed appeared absolutely indefensible, Biden pushed back with one part being shocked, shocked, that his friend Kirsten, who had had traveled with while doing vice-presidential things, would say anything bad about him, and two parts “my mom also worked.” Did Biden’s statements explain what he had written? Nope. Did they mostly keep him from taking any harm from the encounter? Yep.
It was a snapshot of the whole evening. Those coming at Biden on every point were parried back with an admix of “it was a long time ago” and Biden’s go-to all-purpose get out of anything card: Barack Obama. Throughout the evening, several candidates made the mistake of attacking Biden over something that was basically an Obama policy.
And Biden loved it. Honestly people, Joe Biden would love, love, love a repeat of that. He will fight on the ground of defending Barack Obama at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and he will send a Christmas Card of thanks to anyone who comes at him in that way.
Just about the only person to land solid blows against Biden was Cory Booker, who clearly made the veep backpeddle, particularly on the issue of immigration. Booker clearly came into the evening with his set piece attacks in hand, but unlike Harris, he seemed to get them off cleanly and gave Biden what was likely his only real rough moments of the night.
Biden had some fire ready for Booker, as well, calling him out over his time as mayor and his management of a police department that had a far from sterling reputation. But Booker took that riposte well and got in the “Kool-Aid” line, which generated chuckles and diffused Biden’s pushback.
On the other hand, Harris wasn’t just rattled by Biden, but by what were apparently an unexpected wave of attacks on her role as California’s attorney general. These came from several quarters, but Tulsi Gabbard in particular stepped up to act as a designated hitter, going after Harris in ways that not only cherry-picked, but distorted Harris’ record. That left Harris not just playing defense, but responding to questions that were coming from somewhere over the rightfield wall. Between what looked very much like a sucker-punch delivered by Biden, and the pile on her AG record, Harris did not have a good evening — though she gathered herself late in the game and had both some strong responses and an excellent closing statement.
Of the other candidates, Jay Inslee spent his opening statement telling us that climate change was at the center of his campaign, and repeated that statement in his closing, but in between he seemed all to willing to step into every other issue without tying them back to his signature issue. As with Inslee’s first performance, it wasn’t bad … it just wasn’t good or memorable.
Julian Castro, who deserved more attention after a top-notch performance in the first debate, was on his game again. He spoke with precision and force, but he seemed to bring a bit less energy in this round after that first debate failed to significantly boost his polling. He did bump heads with Biden, and came away from it well enough, but he was not given—and didn’t take—as many opportunities to shine in this second appearance.
At the bottom of the bucket, Bill de Blasio practically bobbed up and down on stage with his willingness to play ball in going after Biden, while Michael Bennet had some genuinely good moments later in the debate (including, on race related issues) but spent the first half of the debate being the designated moderate spoiler.
Overall, Biden weathered the storm. He looked alert — though he flubbed his way through a very abbreviated closing — and he had a few “Uncle Joe” moments that probably irritated the other candidates far more than his attack. He stretched his Obama-brella way too wide at one point in his conflict with Booker, when he claimed that because he was vetted by Obama, all of his past had to be acceptable. That is not going to play. But mostly he made it through upright.
Booker up. Harris down. Gillibrand and Yang … uppish, though it’s unclear that either really have room to move. Castro no change. Bennet and de Blasio, thanks for playing and so long. And Gabbard … I’ll get to her in a moment.