Democratic debates: Joe Biden hits back at rivals in Detroit

Former Vice-President Joe Biden has come under attack from other Democratic 2020 candidates in a televised debate.

There were sharp exchanges on healthcare and the southern border between the frontrunner and nine other hopefuls on stage in Detroit.

In an echo of the last debate in June, Senator Kamala Harris again launched an assault on Mr Biden’s record on race.

But she herself had to defend her actions against drug offenders when she was a prosecutor in California.

“She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” said Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

All eyes were on Mr Biden and Ms Harris when they took the stage, given what had happened last month.

And as the candidates were introduced ahead of the opening statements, they shared their first exchange of the night, with the former vice-president saying: “Go easy on me, kid.”

Mr Biden was criticised during his last debate appearance for being unprepared amid fierce criticism of his ties to two Democratic senators who had favoured racial segregation, but he seemed better equipped to respond to such attacks on Wednesday night.

It was the second of two nights of debates among Democrats vying to win the presidential nomination, which will be announced next July at the party’s convention.

Tuesday’s debate saw liberal senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defend their policies on healthcare and university tuition against criticism from more centrist candidates.

The presidential election will take place in November 2020.

Who was on stage on Wednesday?

The line-up was chosen at random by CNN, who hosted the event.

In addition to Mr Biden and Ms Harris, the debaters were:

  • New Jersey Senator Cory Booker
  • Former Secretary of Housing and Development Julián Castro
  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
  • Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard
  • New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
  • Colorado Senator Michael Bennet
  • Washington Governor Jay Inslee
  • Business entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Biden steadies the ship

The former vice-president came into the Detroit debate with a giant target on his back. Kamala Harris had drawn blood with her attacks in the first debate, and weakness begets weakness.

“I think Democrats are expecting some engagement here,” Biden said to begin the debate, “And I expect we’ll get it.”

He got it, alright. He clashed with Harris on healthcare. Both Harris and Cory Booker blasted his record on criminal justice reform. He took shots from Julián Castro on immigration. Jay Inslee went after him on climate change. Kirsten Gillibrand questioned old comments he had made about the place of women in the workplace.

He didn’t have a clean slate by any means. There were several moments where he displayed the kind of stumbles that typified his first debate.

He did, however, mount a vigorous defence of his record and policies. There were moments where he displayed the kind of fire he’s had in the past. His performance won’t put all the questions about his age and political dexterity to bed, but it more than steadied the ship.

When Castro questioned whether he had the guts to rescind a law criminalising undocumented border crossings, Biden shot back: “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”

One thing Biden just really, really has to stop doing, however, is letting himself get cut off by the moderators, instead of talking over them. Deference to cable news hosts will never win any votes.

What was the big issue?

The first question posed, as it was at Tuesday’s debate, was about healthcare and Medicare for All, the single-payer health system plan popularised by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Mr Biden said that expanding President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was the best way to fix problems in the system quickly.

In their first back-and-forth of the debate, Ms Harris answered that her Medicare for All plan would allow people to sign up from day one, while Mr Biden’s proposal “leaves out 10 million Americans”.

The former vice-president responded that Ms Harris’s policy would cost too much, take too long and raise taxes for the middle class, and he asked: “What happens in the meantime?”

“The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive,” Ms Harris said.

What else was debated?

The candidates next offered their takes on immigration policy, which saw Mr Biden clash with Mr Castro over decriminalising illegal border crossings.

Mr Biden called out Mr Castro, who was also a member of Mr Obama’s administration, for not speaking up about the issue at that time. He also said decriminalising it would be unfair to people around the world who also wanted to come to the US but had to wait in line.

“When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal to do it unless they’re seeking asylum,” Mr Biden said. “People should have to get in line.”

Another heated exchange followed when the candidates were asked about criminal justice reform, this time between Mr Biden and Mr Booker.

“Since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it,” Mr Booker said of Mr Biden.

“You claimed responsibility for those laws, and you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”

Mr Biden hit back by criticising Mr Booker’s record during his time as Mayor of Newark and issues with police corruption.

Ms Harris and Ms Gabbard also shared a sharp debate over criminal justice, when Ms Gabbard said Ms Harris ought to apologise to those she had jailed as a prosecutor in California.

After Ms Gabbard made her statement on marijuana offenders, she also accused Ms Harris of extending jail sentences.

Ms Harris defended her record, pointing out her work against the death penalty, saying: “It’s not about a fancy opinion on a stage.”

What happened in the first debate?

During Tuesday’s debate, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – who represent the left-most wing of their party – defended their progressive policies against centrists.

Several candidates called the progressive senators’ policies – on issues such as healthcare and university tuition – unrealistic and not the best way for the party to defeat President Trump.

The politicians disagreed over whether to keep border crossings illegal, and whether reparations should be paid to black Americans for the crime of slavery.

But the 10 hopefuls largely agreed when it came to gun violence, dark money in politics and the need to urgently address climate change.

What next?

Only 10 candidates in the crowded pool will qualify for the next debate in September, based on polling and fundraising.

For now, Mr Biden continues to maintain a significant lead in the polls.

Meanwhile, President Trump has amassed $105m (£86m) between his re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee in his second quarter of fundraising – more than the second quarter numbers of President Barack Obama in 2011, US media report.

It is also more than the Democratic contenders raised in the same time frame.

Indiana’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg topped the second quarter haul list, bringing in $24.8m, with Mr Biden just behind at $21m.

Who will take on Trump in 2020?

In September, 10 Democrats will debate again for the chance to win the nomination and take on Donald Trump.

Source: BBC

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