On Wednesday, Night Two of the second round of the Democratic primary debates kicked off, this time shining the spotlight on former vice president Joe Biden, who came into the night’s debate riding a wave of consistent support as the race’s front-runner since launching his campaign.
After walking out to the stage as the first of the ten candidates introduced, Biden was soon accompanied by California Sen. Kamala Harris, to whom he greeted with a handshake and a smile as he said “Go easy on me, kid,” a reference to a tense moment between the two in last month’s debate. As the race’s most popular candidate, the target was on his back as he was placed center-stage between both Harris and Sen. Cory Booker, who was next to appear.
Once the audience was greeted by the rest of the night’s candidates, which included entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-NY), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), the returning moderating trio of CNN’s Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and Dana Bash were set to begin.
In similar fashion to the previous night’s debate, the candidates began by laying out their purpose in running for president and why the American public should entrust them with leading the country should they win the nomination and the election. However, once de Blasio began making his case, a brief disturbance occurred.
As the mayor spoke, a chorus of loud, inaudible chants were shouted from several members of the crowd, chants that have now been determined to be “Fire Pantaleo,” a reference to Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who earlier this month had federal civil rights charges against him dropped pertaining to the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
The chants weren’t limited to de Blasio, however, as Booker — a fellow New York politician — earned the same chants during his opening remarks as well.
After background CNN staff got things back on track, the moderators then turned their focus to healthcare. Biden and Harris went back and forth over whose proposal was best for Americans, with Biden promising to build onto the Affordable Care Act and Harris pushing her proposal of a Medicare-for-All plan that she claims would still give citizens an option to enroll into a private insurance plan and wouldn’t cause an increase in taxes on the middle class.
Biden took Harris to task, saying that her plan would in fact increase taxes and would cost the country $3 trillion.
“The plan, no matter how you cut it, cost $3 trillion…Secondly, it would require middle class taxes to go up, not down. Thirdly, it would eliminate employer-based insurance.”
Harris’ comeback was that Biden’s plan was insufficient, saying “Your plan does not cover everyone in America by your staff’s—and by your own—definition. Ten million people will not have access to healthcare and in 2019, in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone—I think it’s without excuse.”
Next came the topic of immigration. From CNN anchor Don Lemon, Castro was asked to defend his stance on the border crossing of undocumented migrants to no longer be considered illegal.
“The only that we’re going to guarantee that we don’t have family separations in this country again is to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act,” said Castro. “That is the law that this president is using to incarcerate migrant parents and then physically separate them from their children.”
Lemon then called on the former vice president to say whether the high immigrant deportation rates under the Obama administration (the administration in which Castro also served) would continue under a Biden presidency.
“Absolutely not,” Biden answered. “The secretary (gesturing towards Castro) and I sat together in many meetings [under the Obama administration]. I never heard him talk about this once when he was a secretary…We’re in a circumstance where if in fact you say you can just across the border, what do you say to all those people around the world who in fact want the same thing—to come to the United States and make their case—that they have to wait in line? The fact of the matter is: if you cross the border illegally, you should be sent back. It’s a crime.”
Not to be outdone, Castro fired back, responding with “Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t. My immigration plan would also fix the broken legal immigration system…there’s still going to be consequences if someone crosses the border…what we need are politicians that actually have some guts on this issue.”
Later on, as he was again thrust into the role of the night’s political piñata, Biden was once again attacked, this time by Sen. Gillibrand for a statement in an op-ed that he penned in 1981 regarding a child care tax credit expansion, in which he wrote that women working outside of the home would eventually lead to the “deterioration of the family.”
That was a long time ago, and here’s what it was about,” replied Biden. “It would have given people today—making over $100,000 a year—a tax break for child care. I did not want that. I wanted the child care to go to people making less than $100,000 a year…”
Perhaps the biggest haymaker of the night happened between Gabbard and Harris, in which the Hawaii representative called attention to Harris’ controversial past during her tenure as a prosecutor, noting that while she may now be supportive of marijuana legalization, between 2011 and 2016 she sent roughly 1,560 people to prison on marijuana-related charges in California while serving as the state’s attorney general.
“Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor…she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
After some applause for the call-out, Gabbard continued.
“She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California.”
Harris, appearing somewhat off-put, responded.
“As the elected attorney general of the state of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people…I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body…but actually doing the work…my entire career, I have been personally opposed to the death penalty and that has never changed and I dare anybody who is in a position to make that decision to face the people I have faced, to say ‘I will not seek the death penalty.’”
Compared to the prior debate, this one appeared to have no clear standouts, with Booker and Castro appearing the most poised and measured (despite a cringy Kool-Aid reference from the former).
On the other end of the spectrum, Biden stuttered and stumbled over his words at certain moments while Harris, currently polling within the race’s top five candidates, looked noticeably lackluster in comparison to her performance in last month’s outing.