Wednesday’s debate was, aside from discussions on free college for undocumented immigrants, and whether to throw Donald Trump in jail or beat him first, a debate on a single subject: Joe Biden’s fitness as the Democratic nominee. There had been tremendous doubts following his first round face-plant in June. This time, Joe came ready. While he didn’t throw a perfect game, he did more than enough to get the win. The combative, belligerent Uncle Joe, who shredded both Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan before, returned on Wednesday night, after seven years of hibernation. And he had jokes.
“Go easy on me, kid,” he jested, as he shook Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) hand during introductions. He knew he had a target on his back, and that Harris had done more than anyone to put it there. From the opening bell, Biden didn’t just dodge punches, he hit back hard. Sen. Harris was the latest candidate to introduce a healthcare plan, and unexpectedly, she succeeded in uniting all of her rivals against it. The former Vice President previously called Kamala Care a “have it every which way” approach. “Anytime someone tells you you’re going to get something good in ten years, you should wonder why it takes ten years,” Biden said. “You can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan.” This time it was Harris who didn’t have an answer.
Biden’s past has been a convenient line of attack for his rivals, and his long senate record on criminal justice was no exception. In one of the lines of the night, Sen. Cory Booker reminded the audience that, since the 1970’s, every crime bill of consequence had Joe Biden’s name on it. “The house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws,” Booker said. “You can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.” Biden’s return volley was on Booker’s record as mayor, his use of stop-and-frisk, and his hiring “Rudy Giuliani’s guy” in the Newark police department. But again, his most devastating attack came at Harris’ expense, attacking her overzealous record as California’s Attorney General, and her disregard for prisoners’ rights. “If you doubt me, Google ‘1,000 prisoners freed, Kamala Harris.’”
The former Vice President also admitted his mistakes— on trade, deportations, crime, and the Iraq War— but frequently deferred to the decision of his ex-boss more than a decade ago. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was,” Biden said. “He had ten lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was at the best decision he made.” The rhetorical decision to “take his judgement” was invoked frequently by the last administration official to seek the office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The ex-president is still quite popular, after all, especially in Democratic circles.
The next debate will be September 12 in Houston. There will likely be only one, as the stage is about to get a lot smaller. Candidates will have to meet both higher polling and donor thresholds, and only seven candidates have so far: the Killer B’s, Harris, and Elizabeth Warren. This will continue the central question facing Democrats, heading into a must-win election next year: Joe Biden’s past versus the party’s future. By being able to survive and advance this night, it’s a question the former Vice President and current frontrunner gets another chance to answer.