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Joe Biden Put on the Defensive at Second Democratic Debate

The former vice president was challenged early and often during Thursday’s debate, including a withering rebuke delivered by California Senator Kamala Harris about his record as a senator

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The second debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race took place in Miami on Thursday night. The two front-runners, former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, stood next to each other at center stage and opened the debate with optimistic pronouncements about their respective political outlooks. Sanders declared health care to be a human right. Biden located human dignity in employment. California Senator Kamala Harris followed the two front-runners with a grand denunciation of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts. Harris’s remarks came in response to a question from NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie about how congressional Democrats intend to finance the party’s bold left-wing agenda, which includes the night’s most contentious proposal, “Medicare for All.” Briefly, the second debate seemed perfectly continuous with the previous night’s debate.

After the opening minutes, however, the intellectual pretensions collapsed, and the decorum rapidly disintegrated. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand interrupted other candidates’ opening remarks to extract speaking time before the moderators had even managed to introduce her; Colorado Senator Michael Bennet defied the speaking order to pick odd fights with Sanders. The candidates didn’t argue over socialism as frequently as they argued over the clock. Wednesday’s debate made way for optimistic indignation and intellectual review. Thursday’s debate devolved into raw and pointless rage. It was a clash of personalities who, at best, didn’t excel so much as they survived. At worst, they unraveled: Gillibrand bombed, businessman Andrew Yang blanked, and author Marianne Williamson bewildered.

Harris did her best to salvage the chaotic dynamic with passionate monologues about common purpose. Her humanitarian pleas about Trump’s policies, the immigration crisis, and the health care industry proved more pointed and captivating than Sanders’s classic refrains about billionaires and corporations. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg surpassed former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke’s example from the previous night by sheer force of composure and compassion in a debate otherwise defined by high-stakes callouts. Defensively, Sanders fared well despite standing alongside a less sympathetic group of candidates than that of the previous evening, which included Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. On Thursday, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Bennet challenged the appeal, as well as the wisdom, of socialism; Hickenlooper defiantly defended private insurance, as well as the oil and gas industry. Still, the centrist candidates didn’t decisively undermine Sanders, who receded in the debate’s second half, largely due to the moderators’ questions and the mayhem surrounding Biden.

In one of her few productive exchanges, Gillibrand challenged Biden’s inglorious support for the Hyde Amendment. Harris, drawing on her childhood experience attending California public schools, challenged Biden’s opposition to busing in the 1970s. Biden once again defended his early Senate record and his overall support for civil rights; he stressed his opposition to federal busing policy, not localized school integration efforts. Startlingly, Biden struck back at Harris—the only black candidate on stage—by contrasting his own experience as a public defender with Harris’s decision to become a prosecutor. “I left a good law firm to become a public defender when in fact my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King,” Biden said. Biden also underscored his support for LGBTQ rights in the Obama administration and hinted at legal briefs written by Harris when she served as California attorney general that denied gender-reassignment surgery to transgender inmates. It was an ugly exchange that didn’t wound Biden so much as distract him from his earlier attempts to focus on Trump, who loomed much larger on Thursday night than he did in the previous debate. Biden’s defensiveness and Sanders’s monotony ensured that neither front-runner would lead in the debate as decisively as they lead in the polls.

There were no decisive winners on Thursday, though Harris, on the balance, made the most of a messy evening. It was a night of worsts, not personal bests. If anyone tuned in to see Biden or Sanders confirm their dominant stature in the Democratic Party, they were likely disappointed. Biden and Sanders clashed with each other only in the final minutes once Sanders cited Biden’s vote to authorize the 2003 Iraq invasion, but a commercial break truncated the exchange. There was no great Biden vs. Sanders showdown. The front-runners lived to clash another day, ideally, on a single, consolidated stage.