by German Lopez, Zack Beauchamp, Dylan Matthews and Andrew Prokop, Vox
Round two, night two of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates featured a matchup between two candidates who openly clashed in June’s debate: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris. Before the proceedings even began, Biden leaned over to Harris and requested, “Go easy on me, kid.”
Harris did not. And neither did Sen. Cory Booker. Harris continued her attacks on Biden’s records on desegregation busing, and Booker brought a brutal attack on Biden’s “tough on crime” record in the Senate, to the point of directly assigning Biden blame for nonviolent drug criminals who remain behind bars. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro brought the fight to Biden on immigration, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee did the same on climate change.
But Harris herself also was the focus of attacks, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio faced a surprising number of tough questions about his record on lead poisoning in public housing and police brutality.
Here’s who ended the night better than they started it — and who fell behind.
Winner: Joe Biden
Well, this one’s complicated. Biden took a lot of hits tonight, some of which were pretty rough. But at the same time, he did just enough to not lose, which, given his frontrunner status, counts as a win.
In June’s debate, Biden came across as unsteady and unprepared to deal with the attacks from lower-polling rivals. Harris absolutely crushed him on busing and race, one of the most electrifying moments in recent presidential debate history. Biden’s poll numbers took an almost immediate nosedive, while Harris’s shot up.
But a funny thing happened in early July: Biden’s numbers started to creep back up. By the day of the debate, his numbers were pretty much where they were on the day of the June debate, and roughly double those of his second-closest rival, Bernie Sanders.
So back in the pole position, Biden just needed to come across better than he did last time. That’s more or less what he did.
Biden wasn’t excellent Wednesday night. But his performance was a far cry from his awkward, halting display in June. In his exchanges with Harris this time around — particularly a lengthy and confusing open argument about her health care plan — he held his ground. He managed to do okay when they debated criminal justice, successfully shifting the debate from his dodgy record as a legislator to her dodgy record as a prosecutor. And framing himself as the heir to Barack Obama’s legacy was a smart approach for the vast majority of Democratic voters who still love the 44th president.
But as much as Biden improved, he also once again exposed his weaknesses.
He didn’t seem sharp rhetorically in the way that, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren did in July’s first debate — even butchering his sign-off line by telling people to “go to Joe 3-0-3-3-0” (which is a phone number, I think). He had no real answer to Booker’s assault on his support for punitive federal crime bills — he tried to launch into an attack on Booker’s tenure as mayor of Newark, but it was basically impossible to follow. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought up an old op-ed where Biden seemed to say women shouldn’t work outside the home, and Biden either could not or would not answer her point-blank to clarify what he meant by that.
When the stage is smaller in future debates, these weaknesses will be more glaring: His competition will be stronger, and it’ll be harder for Biden to wriggle out of traps like Gillibrand’s when there aren’t eleventy-billion candidates demanding time and attention. But for now, he managed to do just enough not to lose — and that, for the obvious frontrunner, counts as a win.
Winner: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders
Warren and Sanders weren’t there on the second night of the debates, but they loomed large anyway.
The first night had a strange feeling of absence: The real debate was between the policy maximalists on stage — Sanders and Warren — and Joe Biden. But Biden was not there the first night, so Sanders and Warren were forced to beat up on former Rep. John Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock as the closest Biden substitutes available.
Night two seemed like it might be a bit more productive: Biden and Harris have had very public disagreements, and Harris enjoyed a significant poll rise after the last debate at Biden’s expense, suggesting another standoff between the two of them could actually affect the race.
But Harris faded in polling before the debates, and her performance on Wednesday night was a letdown. And while Biden took some hits from his leftier rivals — Booker comes to mind — he generally managed to fend them off.
What stood out in Wednesday night’s debate was how much more commanding Tuesday night’s frontrunners, Sanders and Warren, were when talking about their policy ideas. They did a better job than Biden — or anyone, for that matter — of keeping the night focused on their ideas, in the frames they preferred. Biden, by contrast, was more consistently on defense.
The race, at least at this specific moment, is between Biden and Warren/Sanders (and, given Sanders’s recent slump in the polls, possibly between Biden and Warren). The danger to Warren and Sanders was that Wednesday night would allow Harris to solidify her place as a major challenger to Biden, or enable a wild card like Booker or Castro to do so. None of that happened, and Warren and Sanders’s position as the clear alternatives to Biden remained unchallenged.
Winner: Cory Booker
For the first time in the Democratic primary, criminal justice reform had a real moment on the debate stage. That gave Cory Booker, who’s focused his time in the Senate largely on criminal justice issues, a chance to draw a sharp contrast between himself and Biden, the top-polling Democrat in the race.
Biden has a long, punitive record on criminal justice issues. As Booker noted, Biden has boasted that “since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor, has had [Biden’s] name on it” — and these policies escalated mass incarceration and the war on drugs. As recently as 2016, Biden bragged about the 1994 crime law, which activists have blamed for helping fuel incarceration.
Biden knew what he was doing back then. Right after the 1994 crime law passed, he boasted that “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party” was now for “60 new death penalties,” “70 enhanced penalties,” “100,000 cops,” and “125,000 new state prison cells.”
Booker hit him for that record, arguing, “There are people right now in prison for life, for drug offenses, because you stood up and used that ‘tough on crime’ phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine. This isn’t about the past. This is about the present right now.”
Biden tried to hit back at Booker, pointing to Booker’s record overseeing a deeply flawed police department as the mayor of Newark. But this by and large fell flat, doing nothing to contradict the criticisms against Biden.
As someone still polling in the single digits, Booker needed this kind of moment. And he got it.
Winner: single-payer activists
This has always been a good election for single-payer. Before Bernie Sanders in 2016, the last major candidate to endorse Medicare-for-all or something like it was Sen. Bob Kerrey all the way back in 1992.
Now Sanders is joined by Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, and, with some differences, Kamala Harris. Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker co-sponsored Sanders’s bill for good measure, though they’ve made their positions murkier since they began running. The odds of a single-payer supporter winning the whole shebang are shockingly high.
But even if Joe Biden, the frontrunner and leading anti-single-payer candidate, wins, the single-payer movement will have done its job. Biden has embraced a kind of aggressive public option that was not at all the Democratic consensus before this cycle. In the health care fight of 2009-’10, a “public option” meant a government plan accessible to the 3.6 percent of non-elderly Americans buying insurance on the exchanges, not the overwhelming majority getting insurance through their employers.
But Biden’s version goes far beyond the plan he and Obama pushed a decade ago, and enables people to leave their employer coverage and join Medicare if they want to. As my colleague Matt Yglesias has said, “This public option, in short, would not just ‘build on’ Obamacare but potentially transcend it over time.” It would create a pathway toward the government being the default insurer of most Americans. And to sweeten the deal, Biden would dramatically increase federal tax credits above Obamacare levels.
That’s a big deal — and I don’t think Biden, honestly, deserves most of the credit for the move. The single-payer movement has been outrageously successful at pushing the party left on the issue, to the point where the “moderate” squishy position is to merely gradually transition America to Medicare-for-all through a buy-in program, rather than moving it all at once. That was not at all the case in 2007, when Biden ran on a modest Medicare buy-in only for 55- to 64-year-olds, and an expanded State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Something happened that shifted Biden from that plan to the one he’s hawking now, and that something is the rise of Sanders and single-payer as a base issue. It’s one of the most successful efforts to move the Overton window I’ve ever seen.
Loser: Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris had a very good first debate, landing a sharp blow against Biden over his record on busing, literally making the other candidates look like squabbling children, and seeing a solid bounce in the national polls after the debate. Wednesday’s debate was Harris’s chance to keep that momentum going.
But she mostly failed.
For much of the first half of the debate, Harris got bogged down in a hard-to-follow debate over the finer details of her Medicare-for-all plan versus Biden’s health care plan. This is Vox, and we’re big fans of wonky policy debates. But the fight between Harris and Biden felt small: Rather than laying out a vision for the future of the health care system in America, the candidates traded barbs over technicalities of plans that are, given the structure of the federal government, unlikely to pass.
The second half of the debate wasn’t much better. When busing came up again, Harris failed to land the kinds of punches on Biden that she got in the first debate. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) hit Harris for her controversial record on criminal justice issues — including her attempts to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent (such as Daniel Larsen, who was proven innocent by the Innocence Project).
Instead of commanding the stage as she did in the first debate, Harris was constantly on the defensive, trying to parry attacks on her health care plan, her comments on busing, and her record on criminal justice issues.
In the runup to Wednesday’s debate, Harris had already seen some of her post-debate poll bounce fade, from a peak of 15.2 percent support to 10.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average. She needed something to stop that bleeding tonight — and she didn’t really get it.
Loser: CNN, again
Poor CNN: They can’t catch a break.
I called CNN a loser last night in large part due to the moderation: Hosts Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon kept interrupting substantive debates in a vain effort to enforce the ludicrously short one-minute time limit. To their credit, this trio significantly improved on this score, getting out of the way a bit more and letting the candidates engage.
But the debate was still not great. The nightstarted with some audio problems during opening statements, particularly noticeable during Harris’s address. Two candidates were interrupted by shouting protesters, who ground the debate to a halt before CNN could restore order. It all just felt sloppy.
Beyond those issues, the problem was that the format was just terrible in a way that better moderation couldn’t save. The policy debates were too truncated to amount to much — health care, I’m looking at you — without being all that exciting.
And that might be showing up in the ratings, the final indignity for the network. The first night of the July debates got around half of the viewership of the June debates, hosted by MSNBC, and there’s little reason to think this night will be all that much better.
Loser: the DNC
Wednesday night’s debate was primarily aired and run by CNN, but the Democratic National Committee was a partner and is charged with managing the nomination contest’s debates overall. And let’s be blunt: This wasn’t a good debate, and it probably wasn’t good for the Democratic Party.
The first problem was simply that the debate was unsatisfying. And the reason for that is clear enough: The DNC decided back in February that, for its first two debates, there would be no “undercard” event in which the bottom-polling candidates would be separated from the top tier. Instead, it would hold two-night debates, and the 20 qualifying candidates would be assigned nights randomly.
The consequence was that in addition to ensuring poorly polling candidates would get a lot of airtime, it meant many of the top contenders wouldn’t even get to debate each other. Indeed, CNN deliberately ensured the top four candidates would be split, two on each night — and that choice made for a much less satisfying event overall.
On Wednesday night, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had a lengthy, desultory back-and-forth on health care that could have greatly benefited from the presence of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Warren and Sanders had to argue with various no-name moderates rather than the person they were really disagreeing with: Biden. (Warren has yet to share the debate stage with Biden or Harris, two of her most important rivals.)
The second problem for the DNC is how the questioning from its media partners has shaped up. As with nearly every debate night so far, many of the CNN moderators’ questions on Wednesday focused on controversial issues spotlighting conflict between the left of the party and the moderates: abolishing private health insurance, making unauthorized border crossing a civil rather than criminal offense, free college for unauthorized immigrants, and so on.
Now, that part isn’t the DNC’s fault; the party can’t control what CNN’s moderators choose to ask about, and in any case, the questions were about positions some of the candidates have taken. They were legitimate to ask about. But part of the DNC’s job is to help make sure the Democratic nominee wins the general election, and it seems like the debates so far may have made that more difficult.