Thursday’s was a much more spirited debate than Wednesday’s, and a much more confrontational one. In the middle of ten candidates stood the three who made a lasting impression: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. The first two were always predicted to come out on top (albeit on different ends of the ideological spectrum) while Harris was a bit more of a wild card. Along with Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, she had a healthy presence in the polls and in the papers in the weeks preceding the debate, but sometimes for underwhelming reasons. The most widely circulated news items concerned speculations that she might be a useful VP to boost a Bernie Sanders ticket.
Harris came onto the stage fully intending to shatter that illusion. Her biggest cheer of the night came after she said that “the mic that the president holds in her hand” should be used to further humanitarian causes rather than to increase divisiveness. Loud female cheers were heard from the audience in response to the unexpected pronoun. The message was clear: if an old white man wants to share a ticket with me, then he’s not going to be at the top of it.
Harris, whose background as a court prosecutor no doubt helped prepare her for that moment, peppered her policy-led speeches with personal anecdotes. She spoke movingly of how she benefited from the policy of busing, and told Joe Biden directly that she found it “hurtful” how he’d spoken of working with segregationists and unacceptable that he’d opposed busing while in government (“There was a little girl in California who was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me.”) Minutes later, photographs of Harris as a child standing at a bus stop started circulating on social media. Biden kept his mouth shut rather than interrupt her, which was wise. He then gave an unclear response where he made half-truths about his legacy.
Uncle Joe clearly wasn’t prepared to be challenged so directly by his fellow opponents, but he should have been. Seen by most as the establishment candidate, he was an easy target: Eric Swalwell in particular rowed with him onstage about why he hadn’t come out to support a ban on assault weapons (again, Biden’s response to that was unclear) after urging him to “pass the torch”.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden said, before summarising his progressive credentials in the Obama administration and before. When asked if he regretted his stance on bussing, he said that he didn’t; when asked if he regretted voting for the Iraq War, he said that he did.
Harris, who had previously been seen as unpalatable by the so-called Bernie Bros and Elizabeth Warren supporters (Lizards?), made a clear play for those more left-leaning Democrats across the US. Instead of positioning herself, as she did in previous weeks, as a “steady hand” or a “sensible choice” — a slightly more diverse version of Joe Biden — she spoke about how Trump saying the stock market is doing well means nothing for the US economy, because it’s only “fine if you have stocks”. She talked about the importance of Medicare-for-All, saying that private insurance doesn’t work for the mother standing outside the emergency room with her child and facing the reality of a $5,000 deductible.
When NBC presenters asked for a show of hands over who supported a full Medicare-for-All package, it was just her and Bernie Sanders who identified themselves. And she spoke about how she disagreed with Obama over the deportation of undocumented immigrants who hadn’t committed any crimes. In a stroke of personal fortune, she somehow managed to escape criticism of an anti-truancy program she was responsible for in California that many say unjustly criminalised parents of colour.
Bernie Sanders relied heavily on a favourite statistic: three people in America (Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, according to a 2017 report, though Sanders didn’t mention them by name) are making more wealth than the entire bottom half of America. He said it at least four times, shoehorning it in even when the question was about healthcare, racial issues or women’s reproductive rights. He came dangerously close, on a couple of questions, to repeating that old socialist adage that so long as we concentrate on getting it right for working people (meaning, of course, working men) then everyone else’s rights will follow.
Sanders was another who was told by the much younger Eric Swalwell to “pass the torch”, and he was also asked by the hosts, in a roundabout way, whether another white man running for president out of such a diverse set of Democratic candidates would be a good thing. “We need a party that is diverse but also has the guts to stand up to Wall Street and the guts to stand up to health insurers,” he said, presumably meaning that a white man still counts as progressive so long as he has the guts to do just that. With his head down and his eyes on the prize, he repeated that line about “having the guts” to deliver about as often as he repeated his “three people” statistic. He’s a good orator, but it felt repetitive during the end — especially with Harris thinking so quickly on her feet, Swalwell making jibes about his age and Pete Buttigieg joining in to remind everyone that he’ll only reach Donald Trump’s age by the year 2055.
Pete Buttigieg had been expected to come out from Thursday’s debate swinging but he held back. At one point, he was pretty much handed a rhetorical victory on a plate when he was asked, as the only veteran onstage (he served in the US Army in Afghanistan) how he felt about assault weapons. He delivered a surprisingly sparse reply, lacking in the passion the subject needed. He was, almost unbelievably, overshadowed by Eric Swalwell, who nobody seriously believes will get much further in the race.
There were some great lines in this debate, many of which were ridiculously overdone but entertaining nonetheless. Swalwell’s “when I’m not changing diapers, I’m changing Washington — and usually the diapers smell better” was one.
Self-help author Marianne Williamson’s bizarre claim (repeated each time she spoke) that people running for presidents “don’t need plans” was interesting. And John Hickenlooper and Kirsten Gillibrand sparred in a way which laid bare the current divisions within the Democratic Party when he claimed picking “a socialist” would hand 2020 to Donald Trump and she responded that “now is not the time to play it safe.”
Overall, Biden, Sanders and Harris were equally strong on policy, but Biden and Sanders seemed overwhelmed with how to cope with people bringing up some of their past mistakes, many of which were made decades ago. Harris, however, had an eloquent answer for everything, and is the only one of them who massively benefited from being seen debating on national television tonight. In her closing statement, she spoke of having a “3am agenda” which solves everything American families might worry about in the middle of the night. She sounded like she was at a national campaign rally weeks before standing against Donald Trump. I could see her there.
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