Candidates including California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro clashed with Biden on everything from criminal justice reform and immigration to health care and issues of women’s economic empowerment. They also discussed what to do about climate change, a topic that voters have said they are eager to hear about.
Harris and Biden had been expected to face off on Wednesday night after clashing during the first round of debates last month. The former Vice President kicked off the night telling Harris to, “Go easy on me, kid.” After opening statements, the pair quickly sparred over health care and Harris’ Medicare for All plan, which recalled the energy of their confrontation in June over his previous position on school busing. Following Harris’ standout performance last month, she has seen seen a bump in the polls. By contrast, although Biden remains the frontrunner, he has slipped significantly since declaring his candidacy.
Biden advisers told TIME that he was wary of attacking Harris on her record as California state attorney general during last month’s debate.
This time around, he decided to go for it and was critical of both Harris and Booker. But Harris, Booker and many of the candidates on the stage shot back at Biden, arguing that they had fresher ideas to appeal to crucial voters of color, a key part of the Democratic Party’s base.
Wednesday’s debate was expected to further highlight the identity crisis within the Democratic Party. On Tuesday night, progressive leaders Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren clashed with more moderate candidates South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on policy positions including Medicare for All, student loan debt, and the Green New Deal.
Booker attacks Biden on immigration
The New Jersey senator responded forcefully to Biden after the former Vice President suggested legal immigration should be expanded to automatically include seven-year green cards for PhDs.
“This really irks me, because I heard the Vice President say that if you got a PhD you can come right into this country,” Booker said. “Well, that’s playing into what the Republicans want. To pit some immigrants against other immigrants. Some are from sh-thole countries, and some are from working countries.”
The profanity was not censored in the broadcast, and it appeared the word was a deliberate choice by the senator, since Booker’s press secretary almost immediately shared a response on Twitter.
Biden counter-punches on school busing
CNN moderators returned to the biggest flashpoint in June’s debate — Harris’ criticism of Biden’s stance on school busing. Harris criticized Biden’s position on busing in the 1970s — when he opposed federally mandated busing to desegregate schools — as well as his friendly relationship with segregationist senators.
Earlier this month, the California senator clarified her stance, saying that federally mandated busing was necessary in the 1960s and 1970s, when organizations “were literally working against integration of our schools.” Now, she said, she supports busing as a “tool” for local governments and school districts to tackle segregation.
Picking up on Harris’s statement, Biden claimed in recent weeks that the two actually have the same position on the matter. Harris was not happy with that claim at Wednesday’s debate.
“On that issue, we could not be more apart,” she said. “Had those segregationists had their way, I would not be a member of the United States senate, Booker would not be a member of the United States senate and President Obama would not have been in a position to nominate him to the place he holds.”
Biden then attacked Harris’ record as a prosecutor. “When Senator Harris was the attorney general for eight years in the state of California, there were two of the most segregated school districts in the country, in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” he said. “I didn’t see a single time she brought a case against them to desegregate them.”
Harris responded, “That is simply not true. As attorney general of California, where I ran the second largest department of justice in the United States … I am proud of the work we did. Work that has received national recognition for what has been the important work of reforming a criminal justice system and cleaning up the consequences of the bills that you passed when you were in the United States senate for decades.”
A report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project published in 2014, during Harris’s tenure as attorney general, found that students in California were more likely than ever to attend racially divided schools. A 2019 report from the same organization on segregation across the U.S. finds that California is the most segregated state for Latino students, 58% of whom attend “intensely segregated schools.”
Harris and Biden trade barbs on health care
The first question of the debate once again focused on health care. CNN’s moderators asked Harris about Biden’s criticism of her recently announced health care plan, which would move to a Medicare for all system over 10 years.
Harris strongly defended her plan and came out strongly criticizing Biden’s proposal, which includes a “public option” that Americans could buy into and would build on the Affordable Care Act. “They’re probably confused because they haven’t read it,” Harris said of her critics.
Biden accused Harris of engaging in “double talk” and said the California senator “has had several plans so far” before he hit her plan for being too expensive.
Harris shot back that Biden’s plan would not cover all Americans as many of the other Democrats have said they would do. “Your plan leaves out almost 10 million Americans,” she said.
Several of the other candidates, including Booker, jumped in to say that Democrats’ internal fighting over health care would play into the Republicans’ hands. Trump is the one enjoying this debate, Booker warned.
Gabbard challenges Harris on criminal justice
Rep. Gabbard challenged Sen. Harris’ record while serving as attorney general of California, criticizing her for imprisoning people for marijuana violations, maintaining California’s cash bail system, and blocking the release of evidence that would have freed a death row inmate.
“Now, Sen. Harris said she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president, but I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said.
Harris then defended her record, arguing that she was in fact a reformer who instituted programs such as rehabilitative services for offenders. She also contended that the changes she put in place made California a model for criminal justice reform.
“I am proud of that work,” Harris said. “And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that was badly in need of reform.”
Harris also emphasized that she is currently against the death penalty, but defended the instances in which she previously pursued capital punishment.
Booker and Biden spar on criminal justice
When asked for his response to Booker’s criticism of his criminal justice reform proposals, Biden started with a moment of camaraderie.
“I don’t think he is wrong. I think we should work together,” the former vice president said, before elaborating on his proposals aimed at rehabilitating drug offenders versus pushing jail time.
But Booker argued that it was because of Biden’s work in Congress that current issues within the criminal justice system exist.
“Since the 1970s, every major crime bill — major and minor — has had his name on it,” Booker said.
Biden came back swinging, insulting Booker’s record as the former mayor of Newark. The former vice president accused Booker of “hiring Giuliani’s guy,” using stop-and-frisk methods that were seen as illegal, and an investigation by the Justice Department. Biden further asserted that “nothing happened when you were mayor.”
After more back-and-forth between the two, the biggest moment came when Biden brought up Booker’s record on crime in Newark once more. The New Jersey senator quickly fought back.
“Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community: you’re dipping in the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” he said to laughter and applause from the audience. “You need to come to the city of Newark and see the reforms that we’ve put in place.”
Candidates want to impeach Trump, but focus on beating him in 2020, too
After failing to make its way into Tuesday night’s debate, the issue of whether President Donald Trump should be impeached finally made its way onto the stage Wednesday night.
The candidates on stage remained divided when it came to the fervor with which they backed impeachment, but the candidates who answered agreed the first priority should be beating Trump in 2020.
Two of the candidates – Booker and Castro – said impeachment should happen immediately. De Blasio and Bennet demurred, though, cautioning that it would need to happen with concurrent legislation — and Bennet only came to that conclusion after initially ruling it out because he believes Trump would be acquitted in the Senate.
De Blasio and Biden’s awkward moment
Discussing trade, De Blasio called NAFTA a danger to the U.S. and said that Biden, who voted for the original NAFTA, needed to denounce the trade deal entirely: “Are you ready to say here and now that you will oppose a new NAFTA, and that what you will believe in, which a lot of us hope for, is trade treaties that empower organized labor across the boundaries of the world, and give working people power again, not just multinational corporations?”
“Yes,” was Biden’s simple response to the long-winded question. “He said, ‘would I insist that labor be engaged’ — the answer is yes.” Laughing, De Blasio said, “I consider that a victory.”
Biden ended the exchange by pointing out the fact that, like many other candidates in the race, the two have worked together before. “Well I love your affection for me,” Biden said. “You’ve spent a lot of time with me.”
Gillibrand hits Biden on past position on women in the workplace
Biden had to answer for his previous stances on gender issues when Gillibrand asked what he meant when he, as a senator, wrote in an op-ed that women who were working outside the home would “create the deterioration of family.”
Biden invoked Jill Biden, his wife of more than 40 years, as well as his late wife – pointing out that they worked outside the home and said he worked on the Violence Against Women Act. He then painted Gillibrand as an opportunist, saying that they have previously worked together on issues regarding women. “I don’t know what’s happened except you’re now running for president,” he said.
Biden and Castro spar on immigration: “One of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t”
As the debate shifted to the topic of immigration, Castro, a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama Administration, defended himself as Biden criticized his proposal to decriminalize border crossings. Castro has called for changing the laws on illegal border crossings to a civil offense from a criminal offense – and implementing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary,” Biden said in response to Castro’s immigration policy plans.
Castro said, “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” to applause from the crowd. He added that politicians need to have “guts” on the issue of immigration.
Biden responded: “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”
Gillibrand wants to “Clorox” the Oval Office
Gillibrand snuck in a comedic dig at President Trump while answering a question about the Green New Deal.
“The first thing that I’m going to do when I’m president is I’m going to Clorox the Oval Office,” she said to applause, before pivoting to a more serious response. “The second thing that I’m going to do is I’m going to re-engage on global climate change.”
The New York senator then described her environmental proposal, which includes guaranteed jobs and paid vacations, signing the Paris Climate Accords and making the U.S. a world leader in climate change policy.
“The greatest threat to humanity is global climate change,” she said.
Hecklers demand firing of NYPD officer
A heckler in the crowd interrupted de Blasio with a chant of “fire Pantaleo” as the mayor introduced himself. Several other members of the audience chimed in when Booker, who was major of Newark, N.J. introduced himself a few minutes later.
The chant was a reference to New York City, where de Blasio. The “Pantaleo” from the chant is Daniel Pantaleo, a New York City police officer who was accused of killing Eric Garner during an arrest in 2014. Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a decision that was highly criticized by Garner’s family and many activists, federal prosecutors announced of July 16 that they will not file civil rights charges against Pantaleo.
After that, several candidates, including de Blasio, Gillibrand and Harris addressed the case, with Gillibrand and Harris saying that Pantaleo should be fired.
Pantaleo has been accused of placing Garner in a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD, though the officer’s lawyers have argued that he actually used a permitted move known as a “seatbelt.”
Biden greets Harris: “Go easy on me, kid.”
Biden immediately acknowledged the tension of Wednesday night’s debate when he met Harris on stage. “Go easy on me, kid,” he told Harris, who is 54.
The greeting recalled their confrontation at the first round of Democratic debates in June, when Harris criticized Biden for his position on busing and school segregation in the 1970s. The exchange that became one of the most notable moments of the debate, sending Harris up in polls in the weeks after and putting Biden on the defensive. All eyes are on the two candidates as they gear up for a second match-up on Wednesday.
Candidates took the stage
Unsurprisingly, candidates took to social media before hitting the stage.
Harris shared a black-and-white photo of herself taking notes on her Twitter page.
“Here we go,” she wrote.
Di Blasio had a similar message for his fans. “I’m ready,” he tweeted.
Riding the success of his pre-debate hip hop video last month, Yang shared a video from the @MiniYang2050 Twitter account set, in part, to Eminem music, as his pre-debate social media primer.
Biden shared a picture on Twitter with his family together before the debate.
“I’m getting ready to take the stage in Detroit! Grateful to have my family by my side,” he wrote.
Booker used the opportunity to remind supporters of what he thinks the night is all about, and reminding supporters to tune in. “We will beat Donald Trump, not by fighting on his terms, but by rising above his hate,” he said.
Which candidates debated Wednesday?
Biden and Harris took center stage, flanked by Booker and businessman Andrew Yang. Other candidates include former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.