Rival presidential contenders pummeled former Vice President Joe Biden with searing, emotional critiques Thursday at his first presidential debate in Miami – denouncing his record on racial issues and calling on him to pass the torch to a new generation of leaders.
In one of the most dramatic moments of the campaign season, Biden found that his long-held stature as a beloved party leader offered him no respite at the center of a crowded debate stage, given his early domination of national polling in the race.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who commanded the event at several points in the night, led the charge.
“I do not believe you are a racist. I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said. “But I also believe – and it’s personal – it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country.”
She accused him of opposing policies that could have kept black girls like her from attending integrated schools. “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,” she said. “That little girl was me.”
Biden looked away as Harris spoke, appearing emotionally affected by the attack as he attempted to defend himself. “Mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said. “I did not praise racists. That is not true.”
“I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor,” he added, referencing controversy over Harris’ own record on criminal justice in California before she became a senator.
Harris was not the only one to set her sights on Biden. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., criticized him for striking a deal with Republican leaders to keep some of the George W. Bush tax cuts. And 36-year-old Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., opened a generational front, calling Biden, 76, to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders.
Biden’s game plan – to focus on Trump and his own policies and experience – was thrown off track by rivals who repeatedly interrupted one another and disregarded the instructions of moderators. Candidates had learned from watching Wednesday’s debate between a different group of Democratic candidates that there was little cost for breaking the debate rules.
Biden was able at times to lead the rest of the stage in a set of direct attacks on Trump. Calling him a liar, a phony and a failure who did not have the interests of the American people, the candidates collectively took a different approach than the Wednesday debate participants.
Policy distinction between the liberal and moderate wings of the party, a focus of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also faded into the background for much of the night.
Biden went so far as to blame Trump for the current state of income inequality in the country, which has been growing by most measures for decades. “Look, Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation,” he said, slamming the tax cuts signed into law by Trump as a source of “enormous income inequality.”
Others piled on. “He’s tore apart the moral fabric of this country,” said Sen. Kristin Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Author Marianne Williamson accused the Trump administration of kidnapping migrant children, a reference to the president’s family-separation policy.
Trump, who was attending the Group of 20 summit in Japan, was paying attention to the debate and weighed in after most of the debaters raised their hands to declare that they would support providing health care for undocumented immigrants.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited health care,” Trump said on Twitter during the debate. “How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”
Health care dominated the early portion of the debate, with the candidates discussing ideas for moving toward universal coverage. Sanders and Harris were the only two candidates to raise their hands when asked whether they would eliminate private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan, echoing similar pledges Wednesday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“We will substantially lower the cost of health care in this country because we’ll stop the greed of the insurance companies,” Sanders said, arguing that Americans would pay higher taxes – but lower overall costs – under his plan.
Several candidates sought to show their personal experience with a health care system that many Americans tell pollsters is their top priority.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said his father was able to navigate the health care system during a terminal illness due to his Medicare coverage. Bennet, who recently battled prostate cancer, said he opposed getting rid of private insurance. Swalwell, the father of a young child, said he was just in the emergency room and battles insurance companies weekly.
Buttigieg’s appearance was his first national appearance since a white police officer in South Bend shot and killed a black man. The shooting highlighted the racial tensions that have lingered there under his leadership, and Buttigieg drew public criticism of what he called his failure to diversify the South Bend police force and his handling of the victim’s family. Buttigieg, a Harvard University graduate and military veteran, has acknowledged his need to build trust with minority voters.
The race conversation began with Buttigieg, who was asked why his city, which is 26% black, is policed by a force that is 6% black.
“Because I didn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said.
“This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country,” Buttigieg said. “And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”
Then Harris, one of only two people of color on the stage, asked to speak, positioning herself as the candidate best qualified to handle racial tension – and therefore, best able to stage what amounted to a personal attack on the former vice president.
It was one of many authoritative moments for Harris, who channeled the forceful prosecutor approach that earned her national attention in Senate hearings with Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Attorney General William Barr and others. Since drawing 22,000 people to her January campaign launch in Oakland, Harris hasn’t seized a place in the top three in early polls, hovering just outside the tier consistently occupied by Biden, Sanders and, more recently, Warren.
Harris began making a case against Biden by offering delicate criticism of former President Barack Obama’s record of deporting millions of undocumented immigrants – saying that while she respected Obama, she disagreed with his deportation policy.
She went in for the more direct hit on Biden’s record on race, which ended with her asking if Biden stands by his position on busing today.
“I did not oppose busing in America,” Biden said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
At one point, as Swalwell argued Biden should pass the torch, Buttigieg jumped in to say he, the youngest person on the stage, should be talking about generational change. Gillibrand tried to jump in over him. Harris raised her voice through the cacophony.
“Hey guys. America does not want a food fight,” Harris said. “They want to hear how we’re going to put food on their table.”
Video: The second round of the first Democratic debate was heated Thursday as candidates went head to head on a number of issues. (Monica Akhtar / The Washington Post)