Day 2 of the Democratic presidential debates was a touch feistier than day 1, likely because the heavy hitters shared the same stage. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Kamala Harris, the four top contenders in the large field of 20-something candidates, were all front-and-centre hoping for a breakout moment. The rest of the candidates, including Eric ‘I’m a young guy’ Swalwell and Marianne ‘I have a screw loose’ Williamson, just took up air.
As the indisputable front-runner, Joe Biden knew he was going to be the punching bag for everybody else. Biden has been through these high-stakes debates many times in his 40-plus year political career, including two previous presidential runs where he had good performances but nonetheless dropped out of both races. As the experienced gentleman with the thinning, white hair and the long record, Biden also understood he would get pounded for his past votes on Iraq, his cooperation with segregationist senators from the deep South, and his relationship with reviled Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. The trick for Biden was to bring it back to Donald Trump, as if he was already the Democratic nominee, or gently fight back without appearing like an out-of-touch old man set in his ways.
The attacks were scathing. Harris, once California’s top law enforcement official, prosecuted Biden like she was in the courtroom grilling a defendant on the witness stand. She called his remarks about working with racist lawmakers ‘hurtful’ and went after him for opposing bus integration back in the 1970s. Swalwell attacked Biden for being an old pol who has run out of solutions and is standing in the way of a younger generation of progressive Democrats. Bernie Sanders knocked the VP for giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq, the worst mistake in US foreign policy since the Vietnam War. Biden tried to deflect and talk about his experience, reminding the audience that it’s actually a good thing to get something bipartisan done. But you couldn’t help but glance at ‘Uncle Joe’ and wonder whether he should have been back home in Delaware enjoying retirement.
Buttigieg and Harris stood out for different reasons. Mayor Pete was calm – maybe too calm – when answering questions, is clearly an intellectual, and an all-around gifted politician who can connect with people. The future for the South Bend, Indiana mayor is bright, even if he doesn’t win the nomination.
Harris, however, has fire in her belly. She’s basing her presidential candidacy on being a compassionate but tough, straight-talking, no-nonsense state prosecutor who will prosecute Trump just like she prosecuted criminals. As someone who got her start as an establishment Democrat, Harris is taking the time to build connections to the left in order to reassure the loud, liberal minority of her party that she isn’t an ordinary, left-of-centre Democrat like Hillary Clinton. Whether it works for her is an open question, but the senator from California had a strong performance on the national stage.
As for everybody else, who cares? John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang, Kirsten Gillibrand, Swalwell, Williamson… they are irrelevant. Why spend time talking about them? Each has about as much chance at winning a primary state as Congress does passing a law to get rid of gerrymandering.
The winner of the debate? Harris, with Buttigieg a close second. Biden started strong and fizzled out, preferring to actually follow the debate time limit rather than talk as politicians usually do. The polls will inch along, but the Democratic primary is still a race among the top four.