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Joe Biden and Chuck Todd Lose the Second Democratic Debate

Biden had a bad night, full stop. The ground has shifted.

Democratic presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris arrive on stage for the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season, in Miami, Florida, on June 27, 2019.

I would like to congratulate the 2016 presidential platform of Bernie Sanders for winning both halves of this week’s twin-bill Democratic presidential debate in a rout. Even without being in the room on Wednesday night, Sanders’ then-outlandish 2016 policy ideas on health care and income inequality dominated the discourse.

His positions have not changed in three years, but the elemental nature of the Democratic Party — at least in the guise of most of the other people who took the debate stage this week — has clearly come around to several of Sanders’ premier points of view. By being present in the flesh last night, Sanders was able to say for himself what the others have been parroting since the race began. It appears 2016 was a better year than many of us thought.

Joe “Well Guess What” Biden had a bad night, full stop. His long record on the economy, the Iraq war and so much else got dragged from one end of the room to the other. Specifically, Biden’s entire reason for being a presidential candidate — I’m the guy who can fight Donald Trump and win — got taken for a long walk off a short pier by Kamala Harris. Harris, the only Black person on Thursday’s debate stage, cleaned the ceiling with Biden’s toothpaste-ad veneers over his praise for white supremacists and his fight against busing as a means of desegregating schools.

“It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country,” said Harris during the exchange. “And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

Wham and splatter, as Stephen King once wrote. Biden had little response for Harris, which begs the question of how he will handle a knife-fighter like Trump. The evening’s events did not bode well on that score.

This is not to praise Kamala Harris as a candidate; her deeply disturbing record as a prosecutor includes defending wrongful convictions, opposing criminal legal system reforms, and supporting the death penalty. However, if your only metric for a Democratic presidential candidate is their ability to handle Trump in a debate, turn Harris loose in the general election and be sure to have a mop handy when it’s over. Her performance last night cemented her position as a top contender, just as Elizabeth Warren’s own showing did the night before.

Pete Buttigieg also had a solid outing on Thursday. There are deep problems with Buttigieg’s candidacy, including his support of “Medicare-for-all-who-want­-it” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one) and his militarism. His harmful record on racial justice has been grimly underscored by the recent police shooting of Eric Logan by police in Buttigieg’s town of South Bend, Indiana.

Yet Buttigieg’s response to a question about race and policing was his best moment of the night. When pressed on why he has not fixed the fact that there are so few Black officers in the South Bend police force, Buttigieg responded, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” It was a rare moment of perfect candor from a politician on a huge stage, and you could have heard a pin drop in the room.

As for the rest of the group, well… let’s just say it was clear last night who is running for president and who is running for the vice president slot, a cabinet position, or just for the money.

John Hickenlooper kept warning the audience that socialism will make Republicans angry or something. Michael Bennet’s laconic delivery took the punch out of some very decent ideas. Eric Swalwell kept talking about passing torches while he waited for his mom to come pick him up. Kirsten Gillibrand had trouble eluding her Wall Street ties and used serial interruption as a means of appearing relevant. Andrew Yang may have been the smartest person on the stage, but he is going to have to throw some elbows if he wants to get noticed, because the absent necktie was not enough.

Aside from Harris’ strong performance, Pete’s disarming humility and Biden’s slow-rolling flameout, I found Marianne Williamson to be one of the most intriguing people on the stage. When the subject of the concentration camps at the border was raised, Williamson boldly went to one of the core issues of the crisis. “I haven’t heard anybody on this stage who has talked about American foreign policy in Latin America,” she said, “and how we might have in the last few decades contributed to something being more helpful.”

It was a necessary shout-out to a facet of U.S. foreign policy that gets short shrift because it is uncomfortable for the many politicians of both parties who have long supported it. To no small degree, U.S. actions in Central and South America are a reason why so many migrants have been flooding north, and Williamson damn well said it out loud.

Having Marianne Williamson on the stage was like having the internet participate in the debate. That is not an insult; the internet is my office, and it was important to have someone up there willing to say the kind of things that get left out, even by candidates like Sanders and Warren. A friend noted that most run-of-the-mill politicians focus on problems in the branches, while Williamson has a way of looking at the roots. She was a welcome and refreshing presence, even when she was occasionally confusing (and despite some of her eyebrow-raising past statements), and I hope she stays in the race for a while.

Finally, debate moderator and “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd is the kind of person who goes for a walk and gets eaten by bears. The only thing more oblivious to its surroundings during these debates was the table Todd leaned on while he yammered his meandering, incoherent questions at the candidates. On Wednesday, Todd got more words in than seven of the ten participants, and he was only there for the second half of the event. Last night was no better.

Todd was a sallow reminder that, all things considered, this debate was not a representation of how the candidates would govern or even what their positions are; it was a representation of how they are able to perform in an NBC-orchestrated rhetorical game. I mean it: Bears.

So, anyway, that happened. We have heard from 20 Democrats, some of whom may not be in the game for much longer, a probable truth made plain even in the eyeblink format of these debates. Those who did not qualify for the show – including Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, and Wayne Messam — likely won’t last long either, which means these mob scene debates could be coming to an end. Some genuine substance might actually be in the offing, but only if the bears up their game. We can dream.

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