The first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s presidential debate resembled a rerun of the previous night’s. Ten Democratic candidates argued about the health care industry’s profits, exorbitant consumer costs, and “Medicare for All.” In Tuesday’s debate, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren offered strident defenses of their signature health care proposals, which were criticized by former Maryland representative John Delaney. On Wednesday, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet echoed Delaney’s remarks, pointing to the plan California Senator Kamala Harris published on Monday. “We need to be honest about what’s in the plan,” Bennet told Harris. “It bans employer-based insurance and taxes the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.” Once again, the debate pitted centrist Democrats, who defended private health insurance, against liberal Democrats, who described the current system as a ruinous racket. The topic offered an opportunity for Harris and presidential front-runner Joe Biden to renew their rivalry from the debate in June. Biden called out Harris for her ambivalence in explaining her Medicare for All plan, including the 10-year cost projections in her proposal.
The second debate was less a referendum on Medicare for All as much as it was a referendum on Biden, who spent much of the night on the defensive. Harris, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee relished their opportunity to criticize Biden’s record. Harris and Biden revisited their argument from the first debate in June concerning Biden’s opposition to busing in the 1970s to desegregate public schools. Inslee panned the climate change proposal Biden released last month as “middle ground.” Castro confronted Biden over the Obama administration’s role in the current immigration crisis. “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t,” Castro said. “What we need are politicians that actually have some guts on this issue.” For much of Wednesday night, Biden was the debate stage’s punching bag.
Biden reasserted himself in an exchange with Booker after the New Jersey senator challenged Biden’s record on criminal justice reform. For the past week, Booker described Biden as “the proud architect of a failed system.” On Wednesday, Biden criticized Booker for implementing stop-and-frisk policing in Newark, New Jersey, when Booker served as the city’s mayor. Booker proved more hostile—and quotable—during the confrontation. He cited the 1994 crime bill, which haunts Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign much as the legislation haunted Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “If you want to compare records—and frankly, I’m shocked that you do,” Booker said to Biden, “you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don’t even know the flavor.” Biden survived these confrontations in decent shape and a decent mood, but he has yet to acquit himself in a debate as decisively as a front-runner should. Worse yet, Biden grows only more alienated from a younger generation of Democratic partisans.
The criticism from his opponents on Wednesday isolated Biden within a party that, paradoxically, he has represented more authoritatively than anyone else running for the nomination. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden helped usher the Democratic Party’s wave of optimism in the 2010s, but voters in 2020 might strain to imagine Biden representing the party with similar, definitive force in the coming decade. There were protesters in the audience for the first time in any of the debates. The pro-immigration group Movimiento Cosecha interrupted Biden during the immigration segment with chants of “3 million deportations.” Unidentified activists interrupted Booker’s opening statement with chants directed at de Blasio calling on him to fire Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold five years ago. The “Yang Gang” didn’t protest, but made their presence known by punctuating their candidate Andrew Yang’s snappy pronouncements about health care reform, economic opportunity, and climate change with raucous applause. Biden didn’t seek applause, nor did he seek consensus with his fellow candidates on stage. Biden simply distinguished himself, for better or worse, as very much your grandfather’s Democratic Party.