- Former Vice President Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner, took a stunning beating on the debate stage Thursday night at the hands of Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
- Biden has avoided high-profile interviews, speaking only on times and topics of his choosing.
- One of those topics was his past working relationship with segregationists, which gave Harris an opening to confront him.
- After two debates, the leading Democratic contenders have failed to establish their dominance, while lesser-known candidates have had breakout moments.
- As of Friday morning, the Democratic primary seems wide open and the least predictable it has been this cycle.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the race to be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, took a stunning beating on the debate stage Thursday night, making the historically large primary seem wide open.
Biden, who has largely avoided high-profile interviews, stood center stage at second Democratic debate, which afforded him opening and closing statements but also made him a target.
From there, Biden endured jabs about his support for the Iraq War, President Barack Obama’s legacy as a “deporter-in-chief,” and some of his own, more recent statements.
Particularly, Biden came under fire for his recent comments meant to highlight his ability to reach across the aisle with civility.
Harris destroyed Biden
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” a famous segregationist, Biden said at a recent fundraiser. “Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished.”
But Biden in 1972 voted with Eastland and other senators who didn’t wish to see white and black schools integrated. The vote was to oppose busing, the practice of achieving diversity in schools by busing children from majority-black neighborhoods to majority-white schools, and sometimes vice versa.
Harris, who has African American and Indian American heritage and was herself bused to school in a similar program, said she was “hurt” by Biden’s comments.
“It’s personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” Harris said on Thursday night. “You worked with them to oppose busing.”
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused to school every day,” she added. “That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats.”
After thunderous applause for Harris’ critique, Biden responded that Harris had mischaracterized his vote on busing.
Biden said that he had opposed a federal mandate for schools to integrate via busing and that the local decision allowing Harris to be bused to a different school would not have been affected.
But Harris continued to press Biden, asking him to acknowledge he was wrong on the busing issue.
Biden responded that he “did not oppose busing in America” and instead “opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
Harris then said segregation demanded a federal intervention because some states resisted integration. She then said the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had been federal initiatives, suggesting that desegregation issues should have fallen under the same purview.
Historically, states like Georgia had to have martial law declared multiple times before they integrated.
“There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people,” Harris said in an emphatic end to her line of questioning, which brought on extended applause.
Biden, allowed to respond, said he had supported civil rights his whole career. But then, breaking with the trend of candidates pushing for as much speaking time as possible, Biden abruptly stopped talking.
Perhaps prophetically, once the moderators indicated to Biden that it was time to move on to the next question, he said, “Anyway, my time is up – I’m sorry.”
Sanders, Warren hold on
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the consistent No. 2 behind Biden in early polling, spent much of Thursday night duking it out with more moderate candidates over his identity as a democratic socialist.
Sanders also faced direct questions about taxation and after some probing acknowledged his vision for universal healthcare would require raising taxes on the middle class, something he says would save Americans money overall.
On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the third-best-polling candidate and the frontrunner in the first Democratic debate, held her own and rattled off concise policy positions one after another. But neither Sanders nor Warren remained the sole focus of the debates.
Sen. Cory Booker, polling at just about 3%, dominated in terms of speaking time on Wednesday night and made an impression on voters, as judged by Google searches. Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, also made himself known and garnered positive press attention following the debate.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, whose polling has tracked closely with Harris’, appeared to have a moment of candor rare for primary debates, acknowledging failure in his city’s police force after the recent fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer in his city.
It’s unclear so far whether Buttigieg’s contrite response won him any fans.
What is clear so far is that the frontrunner, Biden, suffered stunningly effective blows on an issue his campaign surely would have seen coming ahead of the debates. Additionally, the fact it was Biden’s choice to highlight his working relationship with avowed segregationists made it a self-inflicted wound.
Biden holds a whopping 30% plurality support in polls of more than 25 candidates, so it’s his election to lose.
The debates Wednesday and Thursday night, however, showed that anything can happen, with lesser-known candidates like Harris putting on strong showings and putting Biden on the defensive.