Grace Segers, Camilo Montoya-Galvez and Stefan Becket contributed to this report
“Go easy on me, kid”
Those were the first words heard from Democratic front runner Joe Biden on the Detroit debate stage — addressed to Kamala Harris as they were introduced Wednesday night.
But few of his competitors went easy on Biden — not Harris, not Cory Booker, not Bill de Blasio, not Julian Castro. The former vice president faced a barrage of criticism for being too moderate — or simply wrong — on health care, civil rights, immigration, gender equality and criminal justice.
Biden got in his share of blows too though, and seemed more prepared to respond aggressively, as he promised we would be before this debate. And Harris, who stood out in the first debate with her remarks about Biden’s civil rights record, was also singled out for criticism on the debate stage.
Overall, it was a bruising debate heavy on criticism for the top candidates with occasional breaks from some of the candidates, who urged their Democratic colleagues to remember to keep their efforts focused on beating President Trump next year.
Here were some of the memorable moments:
“The senator’s had several plans so far”
Almost immediately, Biden and Harris tangled over the California senator’s recently released health care plan. While Tuesday night’s debate had the two most prominent proponents of “Medicare for All,” Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it was Harris who represented single payer health care on Wednesday night’s stage, in opposition to the public option plan touted by Biden and other moderates.
But Harris’ plan is less pure than Warren’s or Sanders’, and she has faced some criticism for a lack of clarity on her plan. Biden was quick to press her on that. “The senator’s had several plans so far,” Biden said of Harris. “You can’t beat Trump with double talk,” he warned.
There are some things that remain unclear about Harris’ plan, even Wednesday evening as she defended it. “There will be a public plan, under my plan for Medicare, and a private plan, under my plan for Medicare,” Harris said of her proposal, which would also take a decade to transition to single-payer.
Biden also accused Harris of touting a plan that would cost $3 trillion (compared to his less expensive plan’s $750 billion price tag), eliminate employer-provided insurance and result in a tax hike for the middle class.
Harris parried that Biden was “just simply inaccurate” and said that she’d bring health care to “all Americans” under a Medicare-for-All system, while his would leave 10 million uninsured.
But Sen. Michael Bennet, another moderate, explicitly took Biden’s side on the issue, and attacked Harris as well as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, on single-payer health care, saying they would all “make illegal employer-based health insurance in this country and massively raise taxes on the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.”
“Three million deportations”
The former vice president faced sharp criticism on deportations, too. Moderators, pointing out that the Obama administration had deported far more immigrants in its first two years than the Trump administration had, asked Biden whether he’d resume higher deportation rates. He responded, “Absolutely not.”
Biden was also interrupted by hecklers who mocked him with chants of “three million deportations,” a reference to the estimated number of removals by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during President Obama’s eight years in office.
And Bill de Blasio prodded Biden more than once on how or whether he’d used his influence with Mr. Obama to stop the deportations. Biden responded by citing instead Mr. Obama’s efforts to help immigrants, citing his executive actions allowing some young undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. on renewable work and student visas.
De Blasio hit him again with the same question about deportations, and Biden replied he wouldn’t disclose the private conversations he’d had with Mr. Obama.
Booker seized on that to accuse Biden of being eager to invoke his connection to the former president but declining to comment when it comes to the difficult topics.
“You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not,” Booker said, jabbing at Biden’s repeated mentions of Mr. Obama.
“You’re dipping into the Kool-aid and you don’t even know what flavor it is”
Biden attempted to go on the offensive on criminal justice against Booker, since Biden has been expecting for days that Booker would criticize him for the 1994 crime bill he wrote to expand criminal prosecutions on several fronts. The measure has in recent years been blamed by critics for overly harsh convictions and sentences that have unfairly targeted minorities.
Biden hit Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, with an accusation about the Newark Police Department engaging in stop-and-frisk. Booker quickly shot back, “You’re dipping into the Kool-aid and you don’t even know what flavor it is,” arguing that the police department he inherited came with a legacy of challenges.
Booker, who was one of the lead sponsors of the criminal justice legislation signed into law during the Trump administration, said he was “shocked” Biden wanted to compare records on criminal justice reform.
On climate change, too, Jay Inslee, said Biden’s proposals to combat the threat simply don’t go far enough.
“Middle-ground solutions like the vice president has proposed … are not going to save us,” Inslee said. “Too little, too late is too dangerous.”
Harris v. Gabbard
Harris, too was on the receiving end of some blistering criticism, not only for her health care plan, but also for her past as California’s top prosecutor.
Tulsi Gabbard said she was “deeply concerned” about Harris’ record.
“Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” she charged as the audience applauded. “And worse yet, in the case of those who were on death row, innocent people, you actually blocked evidence from being revealed that would have freed them until you were forced to do so.”
“There is no excuse for that and the people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor owe — you owe them an apology,” Gabbard insisted.
Harris said she was proud of her record and fired back, “I think you can judge people by when they are under fire and it’s not about some fancy opinion on a stage but when they’re in the position to actually make a decision, what do they do.”
The next debate
The candidates meet again on the debate stage in September, and the field could still be quite large even though the threshold for entry will be higher. There are still two dozen candidates running in the Democratic primary, and even if the field were cut in half, the stage would still be crowded.