Two white male septuagenarians were the headliners of the second Democrat primary debate held in Miami on Thursday night. Barack Obama’s vice president Joe Biden and Socialist-Democrat Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, leaders of the pack so far in early polling, had the opportunity to go head-to-head, without the distraction of “rising star” Senator Elizabeth Warren on the same stage. She had her place in the spotlight on what turned out to be Wednesday night’s undercard. But the expected jousting never took place. Sanders and Biden largely ignored each other and tried to stick to their respective talking points. Sanders was the revolutionary demanding major transformational change. Biden was the experienced public servant who knew how to get things done. The only issue that they directly sparred on directly with each other was the war in Iraq, which Biden voted for as senator and Sanders opposed.
After the two main contenders, the middle of the pack at Thursday’s debate was represented by California Senator Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The also-rans included John Hickenlooper, Colorado's former governor; Colorado Senator Michael Bennet; New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; California Representative Eric Swalwell; writer and spiritual guru Marianne Williamson; and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
There is hardly any difference in terms of the leftward-leaning direction the candidates want to take the country. The differences among the candidates lie in their styles of delivery and the speed of transformative change they want to bring about.
The candidates were totally aligned with each other in making President Trump their punching bag. There were 52 mentions of Trump during this second debate, 17 more than on the first night.
Sanders spewed the most pejoratives, calling President Trump a racist, a pathological liar and a phony in one breath. He said that he would expose President Trump as “the fraud that he is.” Biden said that President Trump has ripped the soul out of America and destroyed alliances. Harris called the president America’s leading national security threat. Hickenhooper called him “the worst president in history.” Williamson accused the president of "harnessing fear for political purposes," which she said she would counter with “love.” And so on.
President Trump’s immigration policies in particular came under fire. The candidates appealed to raw emotion. Their common refrain was to blame the president for “children in cages,” ignoring the fact that children languished in detention during the Obama years.
The candidates offered no solutions to the humanitarian crisis at the border that would ensure the security of the American people. Most of the candidates would de-criminalize illegal entry. All the candidates raised their hands when asked if they would support a health care plan that would cover “undocumented” (i.e., illegal) immigrants. They were clueless to the fact that sanctuary cities, loophole-ridden asylum laws, and lots of free goodies are the magnets that lure more and more people from Central America to make the dangerous trek north in the first place. Making life easier for illegal immigrants, including offering them a path to citizenship, and sending millions of dollars more to the corrupt regimes in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are more important to the Democrat candidates than saving American lives and jobs.
Kamala Harris appeared to have had the best night of the ten candidates. First, she came across as the adult in the room, shutting off cross-talk with this quip: “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.” Later on during the debate, in what was certainly the most dramatic exchange of the evening, Harris said, “As the only black person on this stage, I would like to speak, on the issue of race.” Harris then confronted Biden on race in very personal terms, looking directly at him as she spoke. She excoriated Biden for his remarks on working well with segregationist senators and his opposition as a young senator to busing as a means to achieve integration.
After saying that she did not think that Biden was a racist, Harris said that Biden’s remarks about the segregationist senators were nevertheless “hurtful.” Then she went in for the kill, as Biden could only look on. "It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. 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. That little girl was me."
Biden tried to defend himself by falling back on what he said was his long record of fighting for civil rights. He also tried to minimize the extent to which he had been originally opposed to busing, which he implied that Harris was mischaracterizing.
Bernie Sanders tried to get his 2016 “revolution” mojo back. Gesticulating to make his points, he came out swinging during the first few moments of the debate, aggressively defending his go for broke policy proposals such as Medicare for All, cancellation of student debt and free public college tuition. His problem, however, is they no longer seems so novel as they were in 2016. Other candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren, have stolen his thunder. This time, he came across as a one trick pony, repeating endlessly how we must all rise up against the special interests of Wall Street and the insurance, big pharma, and fossil fuels industries. The audience reaction was not what Sanders was used to his last time around the track.
When Rep. Eric Swalwell said it was time for the elders in the field to pass the torch to a new generation — quoting what Biden had said during his own 1988 presidential campaign – Sanders again turned the issue back to his class warfare theme. "The issue if I may say is not generational. The issue is who has the guts to take on Wall Street, to take on the fossil fuel industry to take on the big money interests," he said.
Sanders admitted that the middle class would face a tax increase under his Medicare for All proposal but claimed that they would save money over all by not having to pay any deductibles, co-pays or premiums. "Yes they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get," Sanders said. This is snake oil. Medicare participants today, who have paid into the system, still have to meet deductibles, make co-payments, and in some cases pay additional premiums. There is no reason to expect that Medicare for All will be more generous. In fact, it will almost certainly be less generous as many more people will enter the system. Sanders also said at one point that people would be able to choose their own doctors under his plan, perhaps forgetting that Obama had made the same false claim about Obamacare.
Sanders also made the strange suggestion that it would be constitutional to rotate justices in and out of the Supreme Court to bring new blood onto the Court. Appointments to the Court are for life.
Joe Biden managed to avoid any damaging gaffes, even during his dust up with Kamala Harris that turned out to be the low point of the evening for Biden. Biden confidently portrayed himself as both the experienced pragmatic incrementalist, who is willing to reach across the aisle to get things done, and as the restorer of American values. He also tethered himself to the record of the Obama-Biden administration, particularly on climate change and on Obamacare. Biden praised Obama as the first leader to bring the world together on climate change, referring to the Paris agreement on climate change from which President Trump decided to withdraw the United States. Biden neglected to mention the grossly disproportionate economic burdens the Paris agreement would have placed on the United States. It was a terrible deal, certainly not one to brag about. When discussing Obamacare, which he promised to build upon, Biden inserted a personal note about the tragedies his family has suffered over the years. He declared that he "can't fathom” what his family would have done without health insurance.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded to a question about his handling of the police killing of a black man in his city fairly well, considering the tough week that he had back in South Bend. He accepted responsibility for what happened and expressed his determination “to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the exact same thing … a feeling not of fear but of safety.”
Buttigieg also delivered what may have been the funniest jibe against President Trump on an otherwise humorless evening. In responding to a question on which foreign relationships each of the candidates would focus on improving first, Buttigieg replied, "We have no idea which of our most important allies [Trump] will have pissed off most" by 2020.
All in all, the second debate was more interesting than the first but no more enlightening. Kamala Harris did very well. Sanders did not. And Biden managed to hold his own despite some bruising from Harris’s offensive on race. Although there were a few moderate voices urging the Democrat Party not to go down the path of socialism, most of the candidates were too afraid of aliening the leftist base of the party. The circus rolls on.