Biden Came to Teach School
Do not mess with Joe Biden. That was the unmistakable message from Night Two of the second round of Democratic primary debates.
Despite the ringing, naysaying, we’re-doomed-to-lose-to-Trump three-ring media analytical circus that ensued in the aftermath of the debate, let me first say that almost everyone on the stage last night, or on stage the night before, has the ability to take the cowardly bully in the White House to the woodsheds. There is no doubt that all of the top tier Democrats - Biden, Warren, Harris - have by now shown the vision and the discipline it will take in order, to borrow a phrase from Sen. Harris, prosecute a strong case against Donald Trump.
That having been said, if at the conclusion of the last round of debates hosted by NBC anyone thought that Joe Biden was just going to take things on the chin, play the nice guy to the end, and go away, they were in for a rude awakening last night. If the headlines from the first debate read Joe Biden, Unprepared, there was no one more prepared to field incoming fire than Biden on the stage last night.
The lesson Joe Biden taught, shall we say the less experienced players on the stage? Don’t come for me. Biden knew that Kamala Harris succeeded in the previous debate to knock him off his game, not by taking substantive issue with Biden’s actual record and position on busing but by creating a raw, emotional appeal that distorted both Biden’s position and hers, given they are essentially the same. But cherrypicking and re-contextualizing someone’s record to get a 30-60 second soundbite isn’t just for the Twitter generation, Uncle Joe demonstrated.
Before I go further, let me say that this is a political analysis of the debate. What Biden did was fight back. What Biden did was shove some of their own medicine down the throats of his rivals, who, after Harris’s initial success, obviously thought it was their turn at the lectern to take down the man who had, since that earlier debate, clawed his way back in polls to a commanding lead atop the primary field.
It did not work, and they should have known it wasn’t going to.
Biden signaled he was ready, from the start. He began his opening statement with, “Tonight, I think Democrats are expecting some engagement here. And I expect we'll get it.” (Translation: I got all y’all’s numbahs).
Still, the rivals had to try. Biden leads among critical Democratic constituencies, like African Americans, and leads nearly every head-to-head matchup with Trump with the widest margin of any Democrat running. So his rivals really have no choice but to try to cut him down to size in order to be seen. Kamala Harris had well proven this theorem, as her star rose quickly after the first debate.
That success, though, brought another lesson that was also indirectly taught by Joe Biden. When your star shoots because you were successful in hitting a bull’s eye, you get a whole lot painted on your own back. Biden and Harris was center stage, next to each other at this debate, and their rivals knew what that meant. If you can’t land one on Biden, go for the next big target: Kamala Harris herself.
Many, not least the moderators of the debate, were looking forward to reigniting those fireworks from the start. They asked Harris about her health care plan, and the specific fact that Biden had called her positions on health care ‘confusing.’
For her part, Harris did fine in defending and describing her plan, attributing its development to her capacity to listen and change. But therein was the rub. First, it was her turn to defend her position on substance, and she quickly found out how difficult that is to do in 30 and 60-second soundbites. Biden had the advantage this time, being the critic, which is much easier to do in soundbites: that Harris had had many plans - true, Harris’s current health care plan is a far cry from Bernie Sanders’s single-payer bill, which Harris is cosponsoring, that her 10-year transition timeline is possibly an attempt to escape responsibility for it as it couldn’t be implemented even in two presidential terms, which is the max Harris could get, that it would cost $3 trillion a year (sure we spend more than that on health care overall from all payers now, but it’s still an eye-popping and unsettling number to defend against in a debate) and raise taxes on the middle class, and that her plan would eventually deprive Americans of employer-based coverage.
Biden actually took a gamble on this last point, as Harris’s plan would actually allow for employers to provide commercial insurance to their employees as long as those plans are ‘Medicare certified’, but Biden was betting that part of the plan wasn’t something Harris wanted to beat her drums about for fear of losing support from single-payer die-hards. That bet paid off. Harris, in fact, did not address it directly, and Biden pounced on it a couple more times.
Joe Biden also masterfully presented his own health care plan, not as a middle ground but essentially as Obamacare Plus, and another bet he made - that given how beloved President Obama is among Democrats, no Democrat who wants to win Obama voters would directly speak ill of Obamacare - also paid off.
Harris suffered another unintended, self-inflicted wound soon after that initial exchange simply because she wouldn’t let Biden’s attacks go. She knew Biden scored a point with his defense of Obamacare, and she made a rookie mistake by trying to defeat him at his own game. Harris boasted that Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services and a key architect of implementing Obamacare, said good things about her plan. This time, Biden didn’t even have to respond, because another candidate appeared very ready and eager to. Tulsi Gabbard - who is no one’s favorite Democrat - cut Harris off at the knees by pointing out that Sebelius currently works for Medicare Advantage - the part of Medicare that provides private insurance - and Harris, unwilling to defend the role of private insurers in her plan, did not recover.
During the immigration portion of the debate, Biden was shrewd and calculating when he carefully parsed the difference between asylum-seeking, which is a human right, and illegally crossing the border, which he is against decriminalizing, in response to Julian Castro and Kirsten Gillibrand. Biden seemed to signal that illegally crossing the border into the US should remain a criminal offense because it allows those who crossed to be sent back, as opposed to a civil violation, which, presumably, would allow a fine but not a forced removal. In response to Julian Castro, who raised a legitimate issue about the criminal code being abused by Donald Trump to separate families, Biden focused on the abuse and Trump, rather than the code. Smart move, even if one is more sympathetic to Castro on policy.
In fact, the only candidate who seemed to be able to make an attack stick against Joe Biden all night was Cory Booker, though it only lasted a split second. Biden advocated for anyone graduating with a Ph.D. from an American university to be given a green card, and Booker quipped that green cards shouldn’t just be reserved for Ph.D.s.
The moderators and DeBlasio tried to bait Biden on deportation under the Obama administration - which focused on removing people who had recently crossed the border and those convicted of a crime - and Biden effectively turned it on its head, counting the Obama-Biden administration’s executive action on Dreamers and their families. Biden then turned the attack back on Castro, accusing him of comparing President Obama to Donald Trump. Once again, his bet - that Democrats who want to win were not going to attack President Obama - paid off.
Things turned next to criminal justice, and Booker wanted this to be his strong suit. He went after Biden hard on laws that helped facilitate drug sentences, including and especially the 1994 crime bill that a majority of Congressional Black Caucus members then voted for. He knew that Biden’s defense, which was that it was a long time ago and the landscape and understanding was different, would play into his hands and serve to further portray Biden as a relic of a bygone era in Democratic politics.
What Booker wasn’t prepared for is what came next. Biden turned the tables on Booker, pointing out racial tensions and stop-and-frisk policies Booker employed as mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Booker’s attempt to minimize that record by accusing Biden of drinking cool-aid, though, was much less effective than Biden re-emphasizing Booker’s support for zero tolerance, stop-and-frisk at the behest of none other than Rudy Giuliani’s former police chief.
What’s more, because of other candidates going after Biden on race and criminal justice, he got to brag about President Obama picking Biden to be his partner after all of the things the other candidates were talking about happened. Biden’s basic argument was, “Obama > all y’all” and it worked.
In the same segment, Harris once again tried to pick a brawl with the veep and lost. In response to Harris trying to reignite the ‘busing’ moment that got her so much attention from the first set of debates, Biden unleashed a set of talking points against Harris that simply couldn’t be defended against in a 30-second response. Biden pointed out that two of the nation’s most segregated school districts existed in California when Harris was Attorney General, and she did not bring a case against either district. Biden also criticized Harris on her relationship with police during her terms as DA and AG, bringing up the fact that a federal judge had to force California - under Harris’s rein as AG - to release 1,000 people from prisons in California over a crime lab scandal under Harris. Gabbard then picked up and pounded away some more. Harris was left with a much less effective generalized defense of her time as a prosecutor.
Biden held his own even on areas where he wasn’t directly a subject of attack, and in areas where the attacks were much less sharp. On climate change, he tactfully cited global leadership and on bold leadership, Biden counted the ways he was involved in the bold actions it took from the Obama administration to prevent a second Great Depression.
In the late hour of the debate, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) went after Biden over women working outside the home over his opposition to a 1981 bill about childcare, seeking to portray the Vice President as a misogynist. Gillibrand’s habit of playing fast and loose with the facts backfired, as Biden not only pointed out he opposed giving child tax credits to high-income people, but also rattled off his long history of supporting women legislatively, from writing the Violence Against Women Act to passing Lilly Ledbetter as part of the Obama administration. Biden drew on having been a single parent himself, as well as the fact that both of his wives have been working professionals. He finished it off by quipping that Gillibrand had only discovered all these things she disagrees with Biden about since she started running for president.
BIden’s only wobble came over the discussion about the Hyde amendment. While he correctly pointed out that most people on stage who are members of Congress have at one point or another voted for the Hyde Amendment (the federal rider on nearly every funding bill that bans federal funding from being used for elective abortions), he could have been more practical and candid about this. As I said on Twitter,
In my commentary on the last debate, I said that Harris won the exchange with Biden not because of substance, but because Harris played to her strength while Biden failed to play to his. This debate saw Biden in form. He relied on his strength - his experience. Sure, that means he’s got a long legislative history, but it also means he’s been around a while and he’s seen a few things. He’s seen and been part of more than his share of presidential debates. He knows many of the things most of the field is still learning. He used that know-how, that experience, and shed his nice-guy persona and proved that he could deliver a punch as well as take one, and that he could do it with multiple opponents throwing punches his way. He ended the myth that he was the frontrunner simply because of name recognition, and he ended the myth that he would go down easy because he’s the smiling, laughing, jovial, nice, ‘Uncle Joe.’
I’m glad to see Biden fight back. NOW this is a race!
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