In arguably the most contentious Democratic 2020 primary debate to date, the most memorable moment may have come before the candidates took their positions on stage, as former Vice President Joe Biden greeted his chief rival from the previous debate, Sen. Kamala Harris. A hot mic caught the 76-year-old telling the 54-year-old lawmaker: “Go easy on me, kid”
It was a case study in Biden’s deficiencies as a candidate. It demonstrated the kind of dated jocularity that has long been a part of Biden’s old-school politicking, but while some viewers might have been charmed, it reminded others of his perceived indelicacy when it comes to issues of race and gender.
And it spoke to the space between weeks of breathless cable news hype and the wonky and largely civil debates between the Democrats so far—not one argument over penis size!—that Harris’ tough but fair critique of Biden’s past record on busing in the first debate had been retroactively branded as an Ali-Frazier 1-level Fight of the Century.
Those two boxing icons would have three classic fights in total—and their third, The Thrilla in Manila will be remembered as one of the most brutal battles in the history of the sport. But the second is largely forgotten. It just didn’t have the pizzazz of the first and the third.
This debate was like that second Ali-Frazier fight: Entertaining at times in the moment, but likely to be a footnote in a larger narrative.
For much of Wednesday night, Biden and Harris absorbed fire from the also-rans on stage, many of whom will not get a bite at this kind of national audience ever again thanks to stricter rules imposed by the Democratic Party on who can make the debate stage next time.
And some of the attacks drew blood. Biden really struggled to defend the Obama administration’s mixed record on immigration, while Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, of all people, managed to effectively introduce Harris’ controversial record on criminal justice into the debates for the first time.
But the format CNN has embraced—with long segments on a single subject grounded in policy squabbles between the many candidates on stage—made it difficult for anyone to shift the dynamics of the race in a fundamental way.
It may have been hard for viewers just starting to engage with this race to differentiate between aging Clark Kent (Jay Inslee), the wholesome guy who always sounded like he was on the brink of tears (Michael Bennet), and the red-faced slender man off to the side (Bill de Blasio), but they all were sharper than they were the first go-round, even the still tieless Andrew Yang, who managed a few big applause lines by calling out the vastly overlooked issue of automation and even breaking the fourth wall at debate’s end, with a well-rehearsed bit: “We're up here with makeup on our faces and rehearsed attack lines playing roles on this reality TV show. It's one reason we elected a reality-TV star as our president.”
But if the goal of this debate for Harris was to knock Biden out of his perch atop the polls or for other candidates to slow Harris’ ascent, it didn’t really happen.
Certainly, Cory Booker (who was the sassiest) and Julian Castro landed enough zingers to earn a second look from voters, but there really was no moment that felt more general election-y than Biden’s opening statement when he looked direct to camera addressed and Donald Trump telling him, “We are stronger and greater because of this diversity Mr. President.”
Of course, Biden also had his share of uncomfortable moments, he seemed particularly feeble in the face of personalized attacks from Senators Gillibrand, Booker and Harris, which laid bare the consequences of his votes in the past, particularly on women and communities of color.
He also tripped over his words at a few points where he appeared to be all of his 76 years, though that’s yet to eat into his stubborn status as frontrunner and he remains incredibly popular among Democrats.
His fate seems to hang not only on whether or not primary voters care more about what he said and where he stood decades ago than where he is now; but also how they feel about the Obama years, which are being rapidly reassessed critically in much the same way Bill Clinton’s presidency was just three years ago.
Meanwhile, Harris’ tough prosecutorial acumen was also on display—she frequently was able to disarm the moderators and make the most of her limited allotted time. Her fierce closing statement reminded voters of why she would be an undeniably compelling contrast opposite President Trump in a general election debate.
But many Democrats just getting to know her will be googling her record as attorney general in California, and the accusation that she concealed evidence that could have exonerated people her office prosecuted.
Issues of race and criminal justice clearly drew the most visceral reaction from the Detroit crowd—demonstrators repeatedly interrupted not only de Blasio but also Cory Booker’s opening statements with chants of “Fire Pantaleo”—the police officer directly involved with the choke-holding death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man.
The fact that Garner’s family’s quest for some measure of justice, more than five years after his killing, resonated in Detroit suggests that Harris will face an uphill climb in the polls defending her own prosecutorial record.
Looming like a shadow over the whole debate of course was Trump—who for what it’s worth, has no coherent policy for any of the big issues discussed over the course of the night, but who’s nevertheless dominated the news cycle for the better part of a week by issuing racist tweets directed at a respected veteran black congressman and a major American city.
Not a single candidate directly addressed what the president has been doing—a huge missed opportunity for Democrats for the second straight night—although Castro did unequivocally say the president is a racist. Harris, however, perhaps looking to avoid being pigeonholed, had a larger target in sight—Biden.
The former vice president so far had a strong lead with black voters. Going forward, Harris will have to make inroads with this vital Democratic constituency if she hopes to be able to be a credible nominee next year.
We’ll see in the next bout—in a ring with fewer contenders—if Harris can go 15 rounds with Biden, and ultimately beat him. And if Biden can stand his own against Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.