The advice to “dance like nobody’s watching” has featured prominently on dorm room walls and Etsy merchandise for years. Perhaps the ratings will bear this out, but former Vice President Joe Biden may have wished no one was watching his debate performance Thursday night. In the main event, following Wednesday night’s undercard, Biden looked every one of his 76 years, and then some— even compared to the spry, 76-year old democratic socialist from Vermont. It’s a long way to Iowa and New Hampshire, but Joe has a long way to go.
Biden had to know his recent remarks about a warm working relationship with segregationist senators, and his opposition to busing 45 years ago, were bound to come up. He looked totally unprepared in dealing with or addressing either of them. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the only African-American woman on stage, reminded Biden that this debate was not just abstract or theoretical. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools,” Harris said. “And she was bused to school every day. That little girl was me.” Biden shot back, “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.” Biden, however, ran out of steam. In an unintentional line that may reverberate far beyond tonight, Biden admitted, “my time is up. I’m sorry.”
Immigration and health care also featured prominently tonight, as they did Wednesday. Eight candidates on stage— all but Sen. Michael Bennet and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, both of Colorado— favored decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States, and all ten supported health care for undocumented immigrants. “Our country is healthier when everybody is healthier,” argued South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Biden agreed. On decriminalization, Buttigieg got religious, and attacked the hypocrisy of a Republican Party that “likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” but separates families at the border.
Those hoping to see a different, deeper, or more rounded version of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) must have been disappointed. Medicare for All, taking on Wall Street, and democratic socialist revolution were, famously, all he had to offer four years ago. Tonight, it was more of the same, with scant, deflective answers on issues not in his wheelhouse. Like another democratic socialist across the Atlantic, Sanders sees issues like foreign trade and national defense as irrelevancies, distractions from building socialism in one country. His cadre on Twitter will love it.
If tonight was supposed to be a return to the middle, after a race to the left on Wednesday, that didn’t happen either. Hickenlooper and Bennet— warning against the dangers of socialism— and especially Biden, looked out of place on stage, and increasingly, out of step with where the Democratic Party is going. Those expected to do well Thursday night— Harris, Mayor Pete, and, to some extent, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)— largely did so. The real winner tonight might’ve been the guy watching— and live tweeting— from the G20 Summit in Japan. He seemed to have a blast.