As the clear frontrunner since the beginning of the race, the second of the first two Democratic presidential debates was Joe Biden’s to lose. And while it’s still early, Biden may not recover from the drubbing he got from Senator Kamala Harris (D-California).
Winner: Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris managed to control the entire tempo of the evening, and seemed to have the right answer to every question. She surprised viewers when both she and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) were the only presidential candidates to raise their hand when asked if they would eliminate the private, for-profit health insurance industry, as her campaign walked back that previous stance following her CNN town hall in January.
However, by far the biggest moment of the night was Harris’ confrontation with Joe Biden about his admission to be proud of working with white supremacist and segregationist senators, and his own history of opposing the desegregation of public schools through busing. Harris made it clear that while she didn’t view the former vice president as a racist, she did find it unacceptable that he not only upheld his work with white supremacists as bipartisanship in action, but that he worked against a policy that Harris personally depended on in order to go to school as a child.
“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” Harris said, as Biden looked on silently. “So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.”
After Harris finished speaking, Biden stood at his lectern, rendered silent by his opponent. He seemed unable to recover the rest of the night.
Kamala Harris blasts Joe Biden for praising racist Democrat segregationist Senators
Biden looks like he is about to cry
The crowd erupts in cheers pic.twitter.com/Exhn4xciAD
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) June 28, 2019
Loser: Joe Biden
The other big story from night 2 of the first Democratic presidential debates was how unprepared Biden seemed to be. Following Harris’ initial jab about his record opposing busing, Biden took a tired swing back, saying that while Harris became a prosecutor, he became a public defender. He added that he worked with President Barack Obama (a line he used often) to address civil rights issues “in a major, major way,” without naming specific policies. He then added that he fought for LGBT rights.
But Harris wasn’t finished.
“Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said, even though he worked with Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) on anti-busing legislation that President Jimmy Carter later signed into law. “What I did was oppose busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
“Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America,” Harris shot back. “I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California public schools, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.”
“Because your city council made that decision,” Biden said.
“So that’s where the federal government must step in,” Harris countered, as the crowd started to applaud and cheer. “That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act, and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the [Equal Rights Amendment], because there are moments where states failed to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
Biden then tried to shout over the crowd about how he had supported the Equal Rights Amendment “from the very beginning,” and fought for voting rights, then he stopped mid-sentence and said, “anyway, my time is up.”
Harris hammers Biden on working with segregationists, Biden fires back with a tacit attack on her career as a prosecutor, checks off his civil rights record and then…fizzles. He ends with: “Anyway, my time is up." pic.twitter.com/7antxbd6Tu
— Alejandro Alvarez (@aletweetsnews) June 28, 2019
Aside from his exchange with Harris, Biden also seemed discombobulated when talking about his policies. He wouldn’t say specifically whether or not he would fight for a public option for health insurance, or simply direct more funding toward the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for private health insurance. He wasn’t specific on how he would address global warming, only that he would close some coal plants and invest in green energy. He didn’t fully flesh out his foreign policy stances, only that the U.S. would work more closely with NATO. In comparison to the other candidates, Biden seemed to be off of his game.
New York Magazine writer Olivia Nuzzi tweeted that a source within Biden’s campaign confided to her that Biden’s campaign staff was “freaking out” about his presidential debate performance, and that the former vice president wasn’t sticking to his debate prep because he was too “set in his ways.”
A source close to the Biden campaign tells me his staff is “freaking out” about his poor performance tonight.
— Olivia Nuzzi (@Olivianuzzi) June 28, 2019
According to Biden’s staff, he isn’t listening to his debate prep and he’s “set in his ways,” the source close to the campaign tells me.
— Olivia Nuzzi (@Olivianuzzi) June 28, 2019
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Just as was the case on Wednesday night, the vast bulk of the candidates onstage at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate spent the night trying to out-Bernie each other in terms of their support for the policies Sanders ran on in 2016.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) emphasized her commitment to getting corporate money out of politics. Kamala Harris echoed his views on healthcare. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) agreed with Sanders on the fact that the very rich controlled the systems of government in the United States. Even motivational speaker Marianne Williamson parroted Sanders’ foreign policy views, in terms of acknowledging the U.S. government’s role in destabilizing the very same Central American countries whose people are now coming to the U.S. to seek asylum and opportunity.
However, Sanders set himself apart as the leading anti-war voice, and took jabs at his rival, Joe Biden, over his support for the 2003 Iraq invasion. The Vermont senator told viewers that he aimed to divert money for weapons spending toward building green infrastructure, and pointed out that despite being in the minority in a Republican-controlled Senate, he managed to successfully get Congress to invoke the War Powers Act in order to stop U.S. support of the Saudi war in Yemen.
Sanders’ shining moment happened during his 60-second closing statement. Most candidates’ statements came off as contrived, or even forgettable, as lesser-known presidential candidates used their closing statement to remind viewers of who they were and their own personal story. Sanders used his statement to instead make the case that he was the only candidate with the “guts” to take on the power brokers in Washington, like the big banks, the health insurance lobby, pharmaceutical companies, the fossil fuel lobby, and the military-industrial complex.
We must have the guts to take on:
-The insurance industry
-The pharmaceutical industry
-The military-industrial complex
-The fossil fuel industry
If we can take them on, we will finally be able to create real change. #DemDebate2
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) June 28, 2019
Loser: Pete Buttigieg
Corporate media pundits labeled South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg a winner of Thursday night’s debate, though many were missing the forest for the trees. Thursday night was Buttigieg’s chance to re-define his presidential campaign and his theory of change in the wake of the deadly police shooting in South Bend, Indiana, in which a police officer shot and killed 54-year-old Eric Logan and had his body camera turned off (the family has since filed a lawsuit against the City of South Bend).
Buttigieg looked well-rehearsed when moderators asked him about Logan, and he appeared to have things under control when taking ownership of what happened, and acknowledging there was a failure on his part to bridge the gap between the city and local law enforcement. However, Buttigieg had no answer when Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-California) asked him point-blank about whether or not he was going to fire the city’s police chief who let the shooting happen on his watch.
“You should fire the chief,” Swalwell said, interrupting Buttigieg.
“So under Indiana law, this will be investigated, and there will be accountability for the officer involved.” Buttigieg said.
“But you’re the mayor. You should fire the chief, if that’s the policy when someone died.” Swalwell persisted. Buttigieg stared silently, and was eventually bailed out by Marianne Williamson.
Hour two opened with Rachel Maddow asking Pete Buttigieg about a police officer who killed a black man in his town.
Eric Swalwell said Pete should fire the chief of police. pic.twitter.com/f6ZFEEbWpL
— jordan (@JordanUhl) June 28, 2019
Ultimately, Buttigieg lost his chance to re-focus his presidential campaign after the Eric Logan shooting. And until he fires the police chief, the issue of police accountability in South Bend will continue to haunt his campaign, with the implicit question being, if Mayor Pete can’t control things in the small town of South Bend, Indiana, how can he run the country?
Winner: Racial justice
While police reform was completely absent from the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night, it was a chief focus during Thursday’s debate. But aside from the discussion about policing, Thursday night marked the first time that both white and black presidential candidates talked in depth about systemic racism.
In addition to Kamala Harris bringing up her history as one of the first students in her town to go to an integrated school, Marianne Williamson encouraged the need for Americans to educate themselves about the root causes of racism in the United States. She also encouraged candidates and the American electorate to think of race beyond issues of just policing and criminal justice.
“All of these issues [of police brutality] are extremely important, but they are specifics. They are symptoms,” Williamson said after the exchange between Swalwell and Buttigieg. “And the underlying cause has to do with deep, deep realms of racial injustice, both in our criminal justice system and in our economic system. And the Democratic Party should be on the side of reparations for slavery for this very reason.”
“I do not believe that the average American is a racist,” she continued. “But the average American is woefully uneducated about the history of race in the United States.”
— Antigone (@SoulForce6) June 28, 2019
Loser: Basic Income
Venture capitalist Andrew Yang seemed happy to be onstage at the Thursday night debate. But he failed to break through the rest of the pack as a one-trick pony, continuously referring back to his plan to initiate a basic income of $1,000/month for every American as his panacea for the country’s problems.
To his credit, Yang was the only candidate to talk about the very real threat of automation replacing millions of jobs in the coming decades, which Grit Post has covered in extensive detail. But if Yang is the only candidate to champion the cause of basic income as a solution to machines replacing human workers, the topic seems doomed until the next big political moment, which may not come for another two, four, or even eight years, given Yang’s forgettable performance.
Winner: Eric Swalwell
Eric Swalwell got less than five minutes of total speaking time at the debate (4:35, to be exact), but he made every second of his 4:35 count. In addition to spoiling what could have been Buttigieg’s big night, the California Congressman also managed to coin the phrase “pass the torch” in his criticism of Joe Biden. Swalwell — who had clearly done his homework — attributed the quote to Biden himself, when the then-young Biden told the California Democratic Convention during his 1987 presidential run that “the torch has been passed” to younger Americans to lead the country into the future.
Swalwell cited Biden saying pass the torch at a California Democratic convention.
Here's the clip, from Feb. 3, 1987, California Democratic Convention: "Remember how you felt when you heard ….that the torch has been passed, passed to a new generation of Americans"#DemDebate2 pic.twitter.com/qe26VgehSn
— Howard Mortman (@HowardMortman) June 28, 2019
Swalwell also made sure his chief campaign platform of banning assault weapons was discussed in detail. Rep. Swalwell made it clear that he’s the only candidate who is proposing a mandatory assault weapons buyback as a means of decreasing gun violence in the United States. In addition to coming after Biden and Buttigieg, Swalwell also took a jab at Sanders, pointing out that while Sanders may be in favor of gun reform measures like closing the gun show loophole, he stopped short of an assault weapons buyback. For someone who had such little time during the two-hour event, Swalwell almost certainly left an impression on millions of Americans.
Loser: Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) came off as stiff and rehearsed in her answers. Her views themselves were in line with the rest of the party — Gillibrand called for full reproductive rights for women, an end to corruption in Washington through corporate political donations, and an end to federal support of private prisons — though she still failed to stand out. Gillibrand had no memorable exchanges or battles with any other candidates, and failed to utter any catchy one-liners like Swalwell’s “pass the torch” comment. CNN’s Van Jones said Gillibrand “does not yet tell her story right and she doesn’t tell the American people’s story right.”
CNN contributor Van Jones on Kirsten Gillibrand’s performance during #DemDebate2: “She does not yet tell her story right and she doesn't tell the American people’s story right, so it doesn’t land … I don’t think she left an impression” https://t.co/6cBDiBSluc pic.twitter.com/dmgCl3qUSV
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) June 28, 2019
Winner: Economic populism
The gap between the rich and poor was the very first comment uttered in the debate, as Bernie Sanders answered the first question of the night by mentioning that three billionaires (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans combined. CNN fact-checked that statement and found it to be true.
Conversely, moderators took Joe Biden to task for his comment at a recent fundraiser in which he told a roomful of wealthy donors that if he was president, “nothing will fundamentally change” for them, and that he would not “demonize” the rich and powerful. Biden never answered the question about what he meant when he said “nothing will fundamentally change,” and moderators didn’t press him.
Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand weren’t the only presidential candidates talking about the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Michael Bennet took Biden to task over his handling of the so-called “fiscal cliff” debate in late 2012, when he was vice president. As Vox reported, Biden helped broker a deal with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to permanently extend the Bush tax cuts (which primarily benefited the wealthy) in exchange for an indefinite extension of unemployment benefits. Bennet was one of the only two Democrats to vote against the deal.
“The deal with Mitch McConnell was a complete victory for the Tea Party,” Bennet said. “We had been running against this for 10 years. We lost that economic argument because that deal extended almost all those Bush tax cuts permanently and put in place the mindless cuts we still are dealing with today that are called the sequester. That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell and a terrible deal for America.”
The only two people onstage who seemed to be actively running from Sanders-style left economic populism were Biden and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, both of whom had lackluster performances. While Biden got repeatedly challenged by multiple candidates and failed to stake out a winning position in any particular discussion, Hickenlooper entered as a relative unknown and left without amplifying his profile in any meaningful way. In fact, Hickenlooper was such an unknown that Democratic presidential debate security staff didn’t even think he was a candidate when he tried to enter the backstage area.
As Hickenlooper, who is participating in Thursday night’s debate, attempted to go inside the hall to take questions from reporters, a security guard stopped him after mistaking him for a member of the press.
“Are you here to pick up press credentials?” the security guard asked, according to NPR’s Scott Detrow.
“I’m a candidate,” Hickenlooper replied.
It appears as though the former Colorado governor took the moment in stride, tweeting back at Detrow, “Last time, we elected the most famous candidate. Let’s try something new.”
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.