On the second night of the second Democratic primary debate, Joe Biden was center stage, and took the brunt of challenger attacks. Biden was prepped.
The Detroit Democratic presidential debates are in the books.
Joe Biden showed some fight. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders defended their similar progressive worldviews from low-polling moderates who warned of “Fairy tale promises” and “wish-list economics.” And author Marianne Williamson, while still a fringe candidate, earned plenty of kudos (and Google searches) for some of her answers on reparations for slavery and environmental justice.
Here is what else we learned from two nights of the Detroit debates.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
1. Joe Biden can take a punch, but he still has work to do.
From the moment he stepped on stage Wednesday, Biden seemed intent on sending the message that he was ready to tussle.
Biden at times looked like a deer-in-the-headlights at the Miami debate last month, coming under blistering attack by Sen. Kamala Harris for his past opposition to federally-mandated school busing and his relationship with two segregationist lawmakers he served with in the Senate.
The former vice president and leader in Democratic polls made it clear from the get-go in Detroit that this time he understood it was going to be a knife fight.
“Tonight, I think Democrats are expecting some engagement here,” Biden said in his opening statement. “And I expect we'll get it.”
He went after Harris early on over her version of Medicare for All that would be rolled out over a 10-year period.
“The senator’s had several plans so far, and anytime someone tells you you’re gonna get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years,” Biden said. “If you notice, there’s no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $3 trillion. You will lose your employer-based insurance.”
Medicare for All? 'Let's talk about math': Biden and Harris spar over healthcare
He also appeared ready when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came after him about a 1981 editorial in which he wrote that expanding the childcare tax credit and allowing more women to work would subsidize "the deterioration of the family."
In his response to Gillibrand, Biden reminded her that she was full of praise for his dedication to equality at a 2015 Syracuse University event to raise awareness about campus sexual assault.
“I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president,” Biden fired back.
Gillibrand vs. Biden: 'Mr. Vice President, you didn’t answer my question,' Kirsten Gillibrand digs in with Joe Biden at Democratic debate
But he was less steady in his tough exchange with Sen. Cory Booker, who went after Biden for his role in advancing the 1994 crime bill that is widely cited as a prime factor in the mass incarceration of African Americans.
Biden tried to turn the tables on Booker, taking aim at him for the Newark Police Department embracing stop-and-frisk policies when Booker was mayor.
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“If you want to compare records, and frankly I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that,” Booker retorted. “There’s a saying in my community: you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
But in the end, Biden showed he could both throw and take a punch.
It’s skill he’ll need to keep honing as long as he’s the Democratic frontrunner and will need to perfect should he win the nomination and get to the debate stage with President Trump.
From left, Marianne Williamson, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock take the stage for the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Photo: Paul Sancya, AP)
2: The embrace of Obama may be both a blessing and curse.
Throughout both nights, candidates sought to bolster their chances by connecting their stances and policies to former President Barack Obama.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on the first night of the debate noted that his opposition to decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing was the same stance as Obama’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Harris touted that Obama Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius endorsed her health care plan. And Biden didn't miss a chance to remind voters that he’s the guy Obama picked to be his vice president.
But the Obama connection cut both ways on the second night of the debate.
De Blasio questioned Biden on whether he supported the Obama administration’s wide-scale deportation of undocumented immigrants. Biden demurred.
“I was vice president. I was not the president,” Biden responded. “I keep my recommendation in private.”
Protestors at one point interrupted the debate, shouting while Biden spoke and referencing Obama's history with deportations.
The former president's legacy is a badge of honor for many, but has also seen criticism from some wings of the left, and could be a continuing talking point as the campaign rolls on.
Democratic presidential hopefuls (L-R) US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker, Former Vice President Joe Biden and US Senator from California Kamala Harris speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo: JIM WATSON, AFP/Getty Images)
3. Cory Booker finally landed a big moment.
For months, Booker has been treading water in the polls, unable to crack into the top-tier of candidates.
But on Wednesday, he landed some of the toughest blows against Biden and in the process breathed some much-needed oxygen into his campaign.
His sharpest exchange with Biden came as the two men debated their criminal justice records
"Since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor has had his name on it," Booker said of Biden. "This is one of those instances when the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws.”
As Booker and Biden went back-and-forth, Biden misspoke and called Booker “the president” and then called him “the future president.”
Booker embraced the unintentional endorsement.
“First of all I'm grateful that he endorsed my presidency already,” Booker said with a laugh.
Minutes after the debate ended, the Booker campaign was already selling stickers featuring a smiling photo of the New Jersey senator adorned with the future president quote from Biden.
Democratic presidential hopefuls US Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker (L) and Former Vice President Joe Biden (R) speak during the second round of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images (Photo: JIM WATSON, AFP/Getty Images)
4. The debate stage will almost certainly be less crowded next time.
The winnowing of the unwieldy Democratic field now seems inevitable.
Half of the contenders who made the stage in Detroit now face a steep climb to meet tougher polling and fundraising requirements the Democratic National Committee has set for next month’s debate in Houston.
For debates scheduled for September and October, candidates will have to hit 2% in four qualifying polls and tally at least 130,000 individual donors, according to the DNC guidance. For the first and second rounds of debates, the DNC required candidates only had to either hit at least 1% in three polls or receive campaign contributions from at least 65,000 donors.
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Seven candidates — Biden, Booker, Harris, Warren, Sanders, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — say they have crossed the threshold. Sen Amy Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang are on the cusp.
It’s going to be tough sledding for the rest of the field. More than half of the candidates are routinely polling at less than 2%, and none had a real breakout moment during the debates that might have catapulted them into voters' minds. So this may have been the last time you saw the likes of Jay Inslee or John Hickenlooper on the debate.
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. 20 Democratic presidential candidates were split into two groups of 10 to take part in the debate sponsored by CNN held over two nights at Detroits Fox Theatre. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775382060 ORIG FILE ID: 1165225830 (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
5. It’s going to be difficult for cable, networks to keep viewers engaged in debates.
The good news from the first night of the debates: CNN drew more viewers (about 10 million) than the season-finale of ABC’s "The Bachelorette" (7.2 million), according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research numbers.
The bad news: Viewership was way down from last month’s Miami debate, which drew a whopping 15.3 million viewers.
Prominent politicos groused during the first night of the debate that the format left them unsatisfied: too many candidates, too little time for cogent answers, and too many big issues not getting enough attention.
With fewer candidates expected to qualify for the September and October debates, some of the issues could be alleviated.
During night 2 of the debate, Yang waxed during his closing statement about the absurdity of the theater of the debate.
“Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million jobs away — hundreds and thousands right here in Michigan,” Yang said. “We’re up here with makeup on our faces and rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.”
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