The second of the first two Democratic Presidential debates was held last night, and viewers were treated to — primary front-runner Joe Biden facing significant challenges from Senator Kamala Harris, who tapped into her prosecutor toolbox to put his race record on trial following controversy over his comments on segregationist senators.
While the other top-polling candidate on stage in Miami — Bernie Sanders — avoided any direct clash with the former vice president, the California senator made a point of confronting Biden on the issue that has rattled his otherwise high-flying campaign.
In what was perhaps the most heated moment of the night, Harris told Biden she doesn’t believe he is a “racist” but considers his recent comments about being able to work with segregationist senators early in his career “hurtful.”
“You worked with them to oppose busing,” Harris then said, referring to efforts to limit orders for school desegregation by busing. In an emotional moment, she told her own story of being bussed as a little girl in California.
Since those comments were made, Biden has said he disagreed with the senators on segregation, but was still able to work with them in the Senate, and that was his point – that if he could work with men like that then, Democrats and Republicans could all do a better job of working together today.
During the actual debate last night, he fired back to Harris, saying her comments were a “mischaracterization of my position across the board,” saying he never praised racists, while denying that he opposed busing. He insisted he opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education, as opposed to localities making their own decisions.
After adamantly defending his record on civil rights, he also swiped at Harris by noting he became a public defender – and not a prosecutor, as she was.
Harris Grabbed Much of the Spotlight In the Second Debate
The clash amounted to one of several moments where Harris grabbed attention, including when she scolded her rivals after they were shouting over one another in an earlier skirmish. “America does not want to witness a food fight,” Harris said. “They want to know how they’re going to put food on their table.”
With 10 candidates on stage, just like the previous night’s showdown in Miami, the moderators frequently had to step in as well to stop them from talking over one another.
Unlike in the first debate where mentions of the President were notably absent, this time around, front-runner Joe Biden, for the most part kept his focus on the candidate he really wants to face — President Trump — while repeatedly invoking the name and record of his popular running-mate Barack Obama and brushing back swipes at his age from long-shot candidate Rep. Eric Swalwell, who repeatedly called on him to “pass the torch.”
“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden said with a grin.
It’s unclear whether the clash with Harris might damage Biden, considering most prior controversies have not dinged his poll numbers — or simply give her some needed momentum in a race where fellow Sen. Elizabeth Warren, on stage the night before, has been climbing.
What About Bernie Sanders?
Sanders, for his part, typically spent much of the NBC-hosted debate defending his big-government agenda against questions from moderators and criticism from more centrist – and lower-polling – candidates.
Early in the debate, Sanders dismissed a moderator’s contention that nominating a “democratic socialist” could re-elect Trump, pointing to polls showing him ahead of the President in head-to-head matchups.
“The American people understand that Trump is a phony,” Sanders said. “Trump is a pathological liar and a racist and that he lied to the American people during his campaign. He said he was going to stand up for working families.”
But, not everyone on stage was on-board with Sanders’ socialist agenda.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado took issue with Sanders and many of his other rivals embracing socialism, saying it’s simply “not good politics.”
“I think that the bottom line is if we don’t clearly define we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way we can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet challenged Sanders’ “Medicare-for-all” plan, saying the public should be able to have a choice on health care, public option or otherwise.
And South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg broke with Sanders in saying while he supports free college for children of low and middle income, “I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires.”