“Go easy on me, kid,” former Vice President Joe Biden told Sen. Kamala Harris as they met onstage on Wednesday evening.
She didn’t. And neither did anyone else. On either of them.
The debate began with a rematch of Harris and Biden, whose clash at the last debate changed the dynamic of the primary race. But soon, each candidate on the stage took turns landing blows on one or the other frontrunner. Biden was repeatedly put on the defensive for his record and that of the administration in which he served.
Harris did not escape her own onslaught, specifically on her changing plans on Medicare for All as well as the policies she implemented as the attorney general in California.
It was the type of night to give Democratic voters heartburn. The candidates seemed to spend as much time going after President Obama as they did President Trump. The underdogs spent much of their limited time either demanding that their fellow candidates embrace far-reaching liberal positions or chastising them for doing so. But most significantly, the two main frontrunners took it on the chin and proved a bit shaky in their ability to take it.
Unlike last month’s debate, Biden appeared prepared to square off with Harris, kicking off the first exchange of the night with a withering assessment of the health-care plan she unveiled last week by arguing that it was prohibitively expensive, programatically unworkable, and structurally disruptive.
“Any time someone tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” Biden said of Harris’ plan, which involves a decade-long phase-in of ending private insurance in favor of universal government-provided health-care coverage. “This is the single most important issue facing the public. To be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan.”
Harris called Biden’s characterization of her plan “simply inaccurate” and pointed out that her plan was praised by an architect of Obamacare: former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But that just invited more incoming: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) pointed out that Sebelius now works on the board of a private insurer that sells plans on Medicare Advantage, which would be expanded under Harris’ plan.
“If we’re seeking to really reform our health-care system, we’ve got to shut big insurance and big pharma out of the drafting process so they cannot continue to profit off the backs of the sick people in this country who are searching and in desperate need of care,” Gabbard said.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) also weighed in, telling Harris her plan “bans employer-based insurance and taxes the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.”
“Do you know how much that is?” he asked. “That is 70 percent of what the government will collect in taxes over the next 10 years.”
When the conversation turned to immigration, it was Biden’s turn in the barrel, and in a way he hasn’t often been attacked before: over the record he accrued while serving under Obama. The former VP was pressed repeatedly about the record number of deportations that took place under his administration.
He responded by noting that he “never heard” from one of his detractors—former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julían Castro—when Castro was in the Cabinet. Castro did speak out against Obama’s deportation record while Obama was still in office, however. And on Wednesday night, he retorted that “it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.”
Moments later, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pressed Biden on whether he would implement a similar deportation policy if elected president—prompting the rare case of Biden not embracing Obama with the fullest of bear hugs.
“I was vice president—I was not the president,” Biden said, adding that while Obama “moved to fundamentally change” the immigration system, “much more has to be done.”
“Still don’t hear an answer,” de Blasio responded snarkily.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) reached further into Biden’s past, noting that when Biden was in the Senate, he had proudly attached his support to crime bills that—Booker noted—resulted in the mass incarceration of black Americans.
“Since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it. Sir, those are your words, not mine,” Booker said. “You claimed responsibility for those laws.”
Biden didn’t deny that he was a strong supporter of “tough-on-crime” legislation. But at this point, a switch seemed to have been flipped, and he responded forcefully with an attack of his own, noting that the bills in question “passed overwhelmingly” and that Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, was studded with instances of police abuse of “stop-and-frisk” measures.
“There was nothing done for the entire eight years he was mayor—there was nothing done to deal with the police department that was corrupt,” Biden said.
Booker then accused Biden of not knowing what he was talking about or, as he put it: “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
While Biden was taking jabs to the gut, Harris wasn’t faring much better.
A former prosecutor and state attorney general, she faced a blistering attack on criminal justice issues from Gabbard, who said Harris owed an apology to “the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor.”
“I’m concerned about this record of Senator Harris,” Gabbard said, accusing the former attorney general of putting “over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations” and of overstating her record as a “progressive prosecutor.”
“She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row, she kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way,” Gabbard said.
Harris defended her record, saying repeatedly that she was proud of what she had achieved—although she did not directly counter many of Gabbard’s claims.
Gabbard, for her part, was unsatisfied.
“When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard said. “Worse yet, in the case of those who are on death row, you blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so.”
“There’s no excuse for that, and the people who suffered under your reign as a prosecutor, you owe them an apology.”
By the end of the evening, both Harris and Biden had found more of a comfortable stride, parrying the attacks directed their way with a bit more confidence and deftness.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) went after Biden for an op-ed he’d written in the early ’80s, in which he talked about his concerns that two-income families would have weaker family structures. But she’d previewed the line last week, and Biden seemed prepared, noting that he personally knew the difficulties of raising a family on a single income when his first wife tragically died.
Following the debate, Gillibrand told The Daily Beast that although Biden eventually said he didn’t believe that women leaving the home leads to “the deterioration of families,” she felt unsatisfied with his answer.
“Ultimately, he didn’t explain what he meant,” Gillibrand said. “If you still believe that a woman working outside the home is somehow harming the family, quote ‘deterioration of family,’ or that women are avoiding responsibilities, that’s really problematic for me, and it should be for America’s women.”
The moment marked a stabilization of sorts for a frontrunner candidate who took most of the incoming on Wednesday night. But whether merely staying stable is good enough isn’t entirely clear to Democrats, who went into the evening hoping to see a more confident showing from Biden after a lackluster first debate. And those fears were only underscored when Biden, during his closing statement, garbled an appeal for supporters to text him.
"If you agree with me,” Biden concluded, “go to Joe 30330 and help me in this fight. Thank you very much.”