DETROIT — The Democratic Party brought its two night of debates in downtown Detroit to a close Wednesday, as frontrunner former Vice President Joe Biden fended off challengers trying to gain a foothold in what has so far been a mostly static primary since his entrance in April.
Tuesday’s debate with the 10 other qualifying candidates in the field provided a stark ideological contrast between U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a scrum of low-polling moderates. Wednesday’s forum, on the other hand, was less focused on the spectrum from left to right than — to hear many of Biden’s opponents tell it — past to future.
Candidates lined up behind their podiums at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, with Biden defending his long record in public office against a sprawling Democratic field.
Wednesday’s field also included U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, businessman Andrew Yang, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
The moderators of the CNN-sponsored debate frequently allowed the candidates to engage in sustained one-on-one dialogues, providing a break from the sometimes rapid-fire burst of policy soundbites at Tuesday night’s debate. On almost every topic, from criminal justice to foreign policy to equal pay for women, candidates argued that Biden’s platform is ill-suited for what they hope will be a post-President Donald Trump era.
“When Vice President Biden was in the United States Senate, working with segregationists to oppose busing, which was the vehicle by which we would integrate America’s public schools, had I been in the United States Senate at that time, I would have been completely on the other side of the aisle,” said Kamala Harris, referring to a high-profile exchange on busing during last month’s debates in Miami.
Harris boosted her profile with that attack, and Biden’s standing in the polls took a brief dip. Since then it’s stabilized, however, as Harris has remained in fourth place in most major polls after Biden, Sanders and Warren.
Choices on health care
Wednesday’s debate kicked off with another clash between the two — this time on an entirely different policy topic, as they continued their recent public debate over the relative merits of Harris’ recently proposed health care plan.
Harris has endorsed a version of “Medicare for All” that incorporates some form of private health insurance and would phase in over 10 years, provisions which Biden called inadequate compared to his plan to expand the Affordable Care Act with a public option.
“The senator has had several plans so far, and 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. “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 criticism “simply inaccurate,” saying “the cost of doing nothing is far too expensive … all people should have access to health care, and cost should not be their barrier.”
Biden attacked on immigration
On immigration, Biden’s fellow Democrats criticized his record, or perceived lack thereof, in the White House. De Blasio said the Delaware Democrat should have pushed harder to decrease the number of deportations carried out by former President Barack Obama.
“What we need is comprehensive immigration [reform], once and for all, de Blasio said. “Vice President Biden … you were vice president of the United States. I didn’t hear whether you tried to stop [the deportations] or not, using your power, your influence in the White House. Do you think it was a good idea, or do you think it was something that needed to be stopped?”
Biden responded by saying he had limited influence over executive immigration policy, but took the more moderate side of the Democratic debate over decriminalizing border crossings.
“If, in fact, you say you can just cross 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 don’t … that they have to wait in line,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is … if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”
Regarding deportations during the Obama administration, Biden said, “I was vice president. I [was] not the president. I keep my recommendation to him in private.”
Booker then chimed in with a quip about Biden’s semi-frequent invocation of his partnership with Obama.
“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” Booker said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
Biden, Harris attacked on justice reform
That foreshadowed his showdown with Biden over their respective records on criminal justice, with Booker asking Biden to account for the punitive legislation he’s supported at points in his career.
“Mr. Vice President has said that ‘since the 1970s, every major crime bill — every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it,” Booker said. “You can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”
Harris, Biden’s closest rival in the debate by using the national poll average, came under fire herself for her criminal justice record after a brief rehash of her busing dispute with the former vice president.
Gabbard said Harris’ track record as a prosecutor exacerbated “the broken criminal justice system that is disproportionately negatively impacting Black and Brown people all across this country today.”
Harris, who is African American, didn’t hesitate to defend a track record that has already been panned by some criminal justice reformers.
“As the elected attorney general of California, I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people,” Harris said. “I am proud of … actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”
Flint, trade and retaking the Rust Belt
Late in the two-plus hour debate, CNN moderators asked the candidates several Michigan-centric questions, including their asking candidates what they would do to prevent future public health problems like the Flint water crisis.
De Blasio touted his track record as a big-city mayor removing lead from New York’s infrastructure, and Castro, who visited Flint in May, also fielded the question, saying his experience in Obama’s cabinet gave him special insight into the issue.
“I was secretary of housing and urban development when Flint had its water crisis. I went to Flint. We did what we could to help folks get water filters,” Castro said, before noting his recently proposed national plan for lead removal.
Moderators prodded the candidates to make the case that Biden wasn’t necessarily the Democratic Party’s best hope to retake the Midwestern “blue wall” states that handed Trump the presidency in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — frequently cited as one of the former VP’s key strengths.
Gillibrand pointed to her recent bus trip through the state and Yang argued that his “coalition of disaffected Trump voters, independents, libertarians and conservatives” united with Democrats would be key to retaking the Rust Belt.
The topic of trade, discussed at length in Tuesday’s debate, cropped up again with Biden defending his record from fellow Democrats critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Obama administration’s proposed but now defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
De Blasio, pressing Biden from the left, asked him if he would support a more progressive trade agreement.
“Are you ready to say, here and now, that you will oppose a new NAFTA and that what you will believe in, which is what a lot of us hope for, is trade treaties that empower organized labor across the boundaries of the world and give working people power again, not just multinational corporations?” de Blasio asked.
“Yes,” Biden responded.
Biden played defense during a brief back-and-forth on foreign policy, as well, defending his vote for the Iraq war and saying he regretted it immediately after U.S. bombs began falling. He also had to fend off questions from Gillibrand, who criticized an op-ed he wrote in the early 1980s on the subject of child care.
“Am I serving in Congress resulting in the ‘deterioration of the family,’ because I had access to quality affordable day care?,” Gillibrand asked, referring to a specific phrase Biden used in the op-ed.
Biden responded by pointing to his work on, among other things, 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Harris spoke on equal pay for women earlier in the evening, saying she supported a plan that would “require corporations to post on their website whether they are paying women equally for equal work.” They would “be fined, for every 1% differential between what they’re paying men and women; they will be fined 1% of their previous year’s profit.”
Taking on Trump
Near the end of the debate, candidates unloaded on the elephant in the room, Trump, with Booker pointing out that both he and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) support his impeachment.
“We swore an oath to uphold the Constitution, the politics of this be damned,” Booker said. “When we look back in history at what happened when a president of the United States started acting more like an authoritarian leader than the leader of the free world, the question is: ‘What will we have done?’ ”
In their closing statements, most candidates focused their fire on Trump, as well, with Biden saying perhaps the one thing he and the rest of the field can unanimously agree on: Four more years of a Trump presidency would be unacceptable, bordering on catastrophic.
“Eight more years of Donald Trump will change America in a fundamental way,” Biden said. “The America we know will no longer exist. Everybody knows who Donald Trump is, we have to let him know who we are. … We choose the idea that we can, as Americans, when we act together, do anything.”
The third set of Democratic debates will take place on Sept. 12 and 13 in Houston. So far, the candidates who have qualified for that debate include: Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Yang, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).