The second night of the Democratic primary debates in Michigan paid off with a genuine fight night, featuring Joe Biden against all comers.
For more than three hours Wednesday night at the Fox Theater in Detroit, Democratic rivals took jabs at the former vice president, seeking to portray the the 2020 frontrunner as a relic of the party’s past who’s unfit to carry its banner today. Kamala Harris swung at him on health care. Julián Castro and Bill de Blasio hit him over Obama-era deportations. Cory Booker connected on criminal justice reform. And Jay Inslee hammered Biden over a climate plan the governor says would slow-cook the planet.
To his credit, Biden looked like he’d been in training. Appearing far less rusty than in his disastrous first debate, Biden parried many blows (even calling one attack “a bunch of malarkey”) and landed some punches of his own. Still the exchanges took their toll, and Uncle Joe emerged from the battles bloodied and so punch-drunk during his closing statement that he couldn’t remember his own website.
Kamala Harris, the clear winner of the Miami debates, didn’t hurt her cause in Detroit, but also had a target on her back, with her record as attorney general in California under fire not only from Biden but from third-tier candidates like Tulsi Gabbard.
Rising above the fray, several candidates made good impressions. Booker played peacemaker, even as he got his licks in at Biden. Inslee made another forceful appeal to center climate change in the national debate. Castro changed Michael Bennet’s mind on impeachment. And Andrew Yang skewered the reality show spectacle of it all, while making the case for his $1,000 a month freedom dividend.
As with the first night, the Michigan setting mattered, with candidates speaking to the challenges of industrial automation, the failure of public education and the school-to-prison pipeline, and the successes of the Obama/Biden administration in rescuing the auto industry.
Below, we judge the winners and losers of the second night of the debate. As with Tuesday’s contest, voters will have the ultimate say, but we looked for contenders who stood out on clarity of message, bold truth-telling, transcendent moments, and regrettable stumbles.
We also judged several candidates as treading water, which at this phase of the campaign is almost as bad as a loss. Candidates who failed to break out in Detroit risk getting shut out of the next DNC debate in September in Houston, where contenders will have to clear a higher bar to participate — including at least 2 percent support in four separate polls, as well as 130,000 donors.
Booker got his chance to go after frontrunner Joe Biden over criminal justice reform — and he seized it. “There’s a saying in my community,” Booker told Biden. “You’re dipping into the Kool-aid and you don’t even know the flavor.” He was responding to the former vice president’s criticisms of Booker’s record on crime when he was mayor of Newark, but Booker deftly turned those attacks into a chance to hammer Biden for crafting the infamous 1994 crime bill. “Sir, you are trying to shift the view from what you created,” Booker said. “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.”
There was a clarity and an urgency to Booker’s remarks all night. He steered the debate back to the essential question of how to beat Donald Trump. He rightly called out Biden for embracing Barack Obama’s record when it suited him and distancing himself when it didn’t, like on the issue of deportations. And when Biden mistakenly referred to Booker as “the future president here,” Booker didn’t miss a beat: “Well, first of all, I’m grateful that he endorsed my presidency already.” This was Booker at his best.
“So the first thing that I’m going to do when I’m going to do when I’m president is I’m going to Clorox the Oval Office,” Kirsten Gillibrand said, aiming perhaps the best line of the night at the debate’s biggest target, President Trump. The laugh line gave the junior senator from New York something she desperately needed as she seeks to qualify for the next round of debates: it made her memorable.
Not even Hillary Clinton ran as explicitly and openly feminist a campaign as Gillibrand has been running thus far. In a country this sexist, it is little surprise that it hasn’t been resonating. So, she went for broke during the second debate, playing up the importance of fighting even when it’s hard.
“When are civil rights ever convenient?” she asked during her opening statement, recounting how she triumphed over the doubters in pushing for a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in the U.S. armed forces. It was that kind of moral clarity with which she approached policies of all stripes, and she matched it with an ability to humanize the issues in question Rather than talking about purely about health care costs, she spoke about her son. Instead of discussing the border situation in abstract terms of legality and economics, she told the story of El Salvadoran women who fled threats of violence, including one who had been raped.
Not every exchange broke Gillibrand’s way. She sought a breakout moment at Joe Biden’s expense, citing his 1981 op-ed opposing the expansion of a child care tax credit, in which he wrote that “a recent act of Congress puts the federal government in the position, through the tax codes, of subsidizing the deterioration of the family.” She characterized his position as believing that “women working outside the home” is what would create that deterioration, which was simply not true. She kept trying to make the point, to which Biden responded by recounting their history of cooperation on various feminist policy priorities. “I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president,” he snapped.
But Gillibrand did make an impression with the Democratic Party’s most loyal demographic: black voters. After New York City mayor Bill de Blasio gave a procedural response when asked why Eric Garner’s killer was still an NYPD officer, Gillibrand cut right to it. “No,” she said when asked whether his response was adequate. “He should be fired. He should be fired now,” adding that she spoke with Garner’s mother and would have ordered a full investigation as president. Gillibrand later spoke up as “a white woman of privilege,” urging others like her to understand their inherent societal advantages and lift up underrepresented voices.
It was what we need to be hearing from white people in her position. Will she hear from enough voters in order to keep debating in the next round? This performance should help.
Armed with a fresh pair of black horn rims, Inslee drove home the urgency of the climate crisis on Wednesday far more effectively than he was able to in his first debate. His opening and closing statements were devoted strictly to his signature issue, and he showed some impressive gusto while taking Joe Biden to task for saying the U.S. needs to be realistic about how it plans to deal with rising temperatures. ‘Survival is the plan we need,” countered Inslee, adding that the “time is up” to merely think about solutions or to slowly move away from fossil fuels. “The house is on fire,” he said.
At the same time, the Washington governor demonstrated he’s not just a one-issue candidate. He succeeded in laying out his bonafides on health care, criminal justice reform, and economic policy, explaining in concrete terms how he has tackled these and other issues while at the helm of his home state. Inslee also deserves plaudits for wasting no time in pointing out that a white nationalist is living in the White House when he was asked to weigh in on immigration, something the other candidates had failed to touch on. It remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to qualify for the September debates, but Inslee did more to help his cause this week than just about any other fringe candidate. The new specs didn’t hurt, either.
Yang was a winner in Detroit, in part because of how miserable he was at the first debate in Miami. Yang is something of a one trick pony — he’s offering Americans a monthly check of $1,000 as insurance against the job killing threats of artificial intelligence and automation, as well as a means to value work that’s not currently paid for in our economy, including creating art and raising children.
Standing apart from the mob pounding on Biden, Yang made his case clearly and energetically to a national TV audience and a devoted Yang Gang cheering section in the theater. Yang repeatedly yoked his warnings about automation and his push for basic income to the night’s other big issues. At times it worked. On immigration, Yang said: “If you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants; you will find wall-to-wall robots and machines. Immigrants are being scapegoated for issues they have nothing to do with in our economy.” But the tactic was cringe-worthy on climate change, when Yang said that flooding and rising sea levels will force Americans to move to “higher ground,” and “the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.”
Yang squeaked into the winner’s column with a smart closing statement, noting the pundit class’ obsession with his refusal to wear a tie rather than grappling with the challenge he’s identified in the economy. “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show,” he said, adding that what the country needs instead is to take time to do the math on what $1,000 a month would mean to them. “It’s not left; it’s not right. It’s forward,” Yang insisted. “And that is how we’re going to beat Donald Trump in 2020.”
Bennet — the Colorado senator — came across Wednesday like a less charismatic John Hickenlooper. In a labored speaking style, wringing his hands over the danger that embracing progressive ideas could hand Trump a second term, Bennet trashed the push for Medicare for All with a colossal misrepresentation.
He repeatedly insisted that the bill would “raise taxes on the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.” In truth, while the elimination of private insurance would force the government to cover the enormous costs of administering health care for all Americans, the proponents of Medicare for All have sought to tax the wealthiest to pay for the lion’s share, promising to save the middle class money on their net health spending.
Bennet also wound up on the losing end of an exchange with Julián Castro, where he was so clearly out-argued by the former HUD secretary that Bennet tipped his hat and took the “L.” Discussing impeachment, Bennet fretted that an acquittal by the Republican Senate would allow Trump to proclaim his innocence. Castro countered that failing to impeach Trump was the true danger: “He’s going to say, ‘You see? You see? The Democrats didn’t go after me on impeachment, and you know why? Because I didn’t do anything wrong,’” Casto said. “Conversely, if Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the hook,” he added, “we’re going to be able to say… his friend, Mitch McConnell — Moscow Mitch — let him off the hook.”
In the face of roaring applause for Castro, Bennet reversed course. “I don’t disagree with that,” he said. “That’s what we should do.”
Bill de Blasio
After two turns on the debate stage, Bill de Blasio’s presidential candidacy isn’t any less perplexing than it was when he announced his intention to run in May. The New York mayor spent a good deal of his time at the end of the stage on Wednesday ignoring questions the moderators asked of him, instead turning to grill Joe Biden on a related issue. By the end of the night, Biden could only laugh. “I love your affection for me,” the former vice president said after de Blasio finished asking him whether he would oppose a new NAFTA, to which Biden said yes.
De Blasio came with a mission: represent the left with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in absentia. And he staked a strong progressive stance at times, including during the garbled health care discussion that kicked off the debate. But he was also hectored by protestors calling for him to “FIRE PANTALEO,” the New York City cop accused of killing Eric Garner. De Blasio’s fellow Democrats soon went after his inaction on the issue, as well, to which he blamed the Justice Department while saying there would be action “in the next 30 days.” He wasn’t going to win anyone over with this response, nor should the mayor’s performance on Wednesday win him enough support to get him back on the debate stage in September.
Gabbard delivered one of the signature moments of the first debates in June when she eviscerated Tim Ryan’s contention that the U.S. needs to keep troops in Afghanistan. On Wednesday night, she lit up Twitter by going after Kamala Harris’ criminal justice record, listing off aspects of her questionable record as a prosecutor in California, from jailing people for marijuana offenses, to blocking evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row. “The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology,” Gabbard said.
But that was a blip during a debate that was almost three hours long, and outside her time attacking Harris, Gabbard had plenty of questionable moments. She again came out strong on foreign policy — her bread-and-butter issue as a veteran and strident anti-interventionist — but she quickly drifted into conspiracy theory territory by accusing President Trump of supporting al-Qaeda without any further explanation (in fairness, she was cut off by the moderators, who really ought to have asked her for a bit of clarity). She capped off her night with a bizarrely grim closing statement, painting a vivid picture of how a nuclear attack would unfold. Gabbard does have a core of devoted fans, but she’s going to need to garner some mainstream support if she expects to last much longer. If anything, she alienated herself even further on Wednesday.
As a kid, Joe Biden had a terrible stutter. It was so bad he was mocked even by the students nerdy enough to derive his nickname from Latin — they called him ‘Joe Impedimenta.’ He got over it by practicing in front of a mirror, and one imagines that’s how he got over the humiliation of the last debate too. Biden stumbled over his words at points — almost appeared to stutter a couple of times — but he delivered a performance that was, at the very least, a vast improvement over his last showing.
He was ready for the attacks this time, and he had to be: They came from all sides, again and again and again. The rest of the primary field were like the Avengers, each going after Biden on their signature issue: Booker on criminal justice reform, Gillibrand on gender equality, Castro on immigration, Harris on busing (albeit less effectively than before). Even the Trump rapid response team trained its fire exclusively on the former vice president. Biden likes the cliche, “The measure of a man isn’t how often he is knocked down but how quickly he gets up,” and on Wednesday night in Detroit he was practically Cool Hand Luke. But Biden did an effective job ducking the jabs aimed at him and landing his own: chastising Booker for the Newark police department’s use of stop-and-frisk, reminding Gillibrand she’d praised his advocacy for women before they were rivals, the list goes on.
Biden’s enormous improvement over the last debate must have been a relief to his campaign staff, who were reportedly shaken after his previous poor showing, but… he didn’t do great. He spent a lot of time reminding people that he was Barack Obama’s vice president and taking credit for the administration’s accomplishments. (“Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made.”) But Biden struggled to answer the criticisms of Obama’s record, particularly when it came to the issue of deportations. Biden’s worst moment of the night, though, came at the very end. He garbled the standard visit-my-website sign-off, mixing it with the number to donate to his campaign. It wasn’t a stutter or a gaffe, but a signal to voters that he might not be in peak condition, mental acuity-wise.
The California senator’s mic was on the fritz during her opening statement, and perhaps that was a sign. Things got off to a funky start for the first debate’s returning champion as the CNN moderators strangely decided to focus the entire health care debate on her recently announced proposal. By the time she and Biden had muddled through the conversation, she won on the facts — Harris claimed that his plan “leaves out almost 10 million Americans,” and she was correct — but it almost didn’t matter. The format didn’t do them any favors, but Harris seemed unsteady as she increasingly came under fire from her rivals.
Harris picked up the pace in the second half, however, withstanding a pitiful attempt from Biden to attack her criminal justice record in California. A stronger combination punch from Tulsi Gabbard elicited applause from the crowd and plaudits from critics online, but Harris defended her lifelong opposition to the death penalty — which has sometimes come into contrast with her official duties as a prosecutor — and insisted that she now supports the legalization of marijuana. Only time will tell whether Gabbard’s “Kamala is a cop”-style attack sustained any lasting damage.
Using part of her stump speech, Harris had the most effective closing of any of the candidates, calling Trump a “predator” and insisting that she knows how to prosecute such people. She will have to go out and make the case. Debates, as we learned tonight, are not going to be a crutch for her.
After a breakout showing at the first debate, Castro put in a solid, if not understated, performance in round two. He spoke the third-fewest minutes of the 10 candidates, but he reminded voters he’s the lone candidate with a policing reform plan and earned applause for invoking the popular uprising in Puerto Rico that pushed out a corrupt governor and insisting that Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who choked Eric Garner to death, should be fired. Castro also made the strongest case of anyone onstage for why Democrats should impeach Trump and, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocks it, campaign against “Moscow Mitch,” as Castro put it, and the obstructionist Republicans in 2020. Castro didn’t bring down the house, but he kept up his momentum enough to stay on track for the fall debates.