Wednesday night’s Democratic primary debate saw the two highest-polling candidates on the stage, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, take fire from all sides. The second night of debates in Detroit also saw the first substantive discussion of impeachment at a debate this cycle, along with candidates deferring to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on climate and an extended argument on health care.
Here are five takeaways from Wednesday night’s Democratic debate:
1. Harris goes from prosecution to defense
After the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Sen. Kamala Harris was widely applauded for a sharp performance that included a pointed attack on Joe Biden’s record on race.
But on Wednesday night, the former California prosecutor found herself in an unusual position: defense.
Harris, who got a big boost from a strong performance in the first round of debates in Miami, was targeted by several rivals, most notably Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who assailed her record as a prosecutor.
“She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prisons beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California,” Gabbard said. “She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
Addressing Harris directly, Gabbard said: “When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not. And worse — in the case of those on death row — innocent people? You actually blocked evidence that would have freed them.”
Harris said that she had “personally” always opposed the death penalty, but did not respond directly to Gabbard’s points. She said she was “proud” of her record as California attorney general, drawing a contrast to Gabbard’s job as a legislator.
“I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches, or be in a legislative body and give speeches on a floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform,” Harris said.
2. No rest for Biden
While Harris had to defend her health care proposal and career as a prosecutor, Biden also was confronted at numerous points over his previous positions and statements — despite his request to Harris during the introductions to “go easy on me, kid.” Among the topics addressed as opponents tried to strip away the Obama “shield” Biden had been using all campaign:
Harris pressed him on the fact that his proposed health care plan would leave millions without insurance.
Sen. Cory Booker brought up Biden’s record on criminal justice and his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill that resulted in wholesale incarceration of young black men.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro hit Biden over the Obama administration’s deportation record.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand questioned Biden’s opposition to a 1981 child care tax credit.
Biden also fumbled his closing statement, telling viewers to “go to Joe30330” when he meant to tell them to text “join” to that number.
3. A closing push for impeachment
As more and more House Democrats come out in support of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, presidential candidates also took up the question.
“And so this is a difference with a lot of us on this debate stage,” said Booker, who also noted Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s support for beginning the process. “I believe that we in the United States Congress should start impeachment proceedings immediately.”
“I was the first of the candidates to call on Congress to begin impeachment proceedings,” said Castro. “There are 10 different incidents that Robert Mueller has pointed out where this president either obstructed justice or attempted to obstruct justice. And I believe that they should go forward with impeachment proceedings.”
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet said he was wary of a process that would almost certainly end in an acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate, but Castro responded that the danger was that Trump would claim vindication if House Democrats failed to bring up an impeachment resolution.
4. Inslee shines on climate
On Tuesday, thousands of activists gathered in Detroit to push the Democratic Party to take a strong stand on climate change. The next night, in the presence of Inslee, who has made it the focus of his campaign, the debate turned to the issue. Inslee aimed much of his fire at Biden, who favors less drastic action than the Washington governor.
“Mr. Vice President, your argument is not with me, it’s with science,” said Inslee. “And unfortunately, your plan is just too late. The science tells us we have to get off coal in 10 years. Your plan does not do that. We have to get off of fossil fuels in our electrical grid in 15. Your plan simply does not do that.”
Both Booker and Harris complimented Inslee for his work on the issue and said they agreed with him. Gabbard pointed out the threat that climate change poses to her native Hawaii, Gillibrand said she would rejoin the Paris climate accords and entrepreneur Andrew Yang raised eyebrows for his suggestion that the best way to deal with climate change was his plan to give away $1,000 a month to every American so they could afford to move to higher ground.
5. How much will tonight matter by the next debate?
Following last month’s Democratic debate, Harris saw a big bump in polling and donations after her spirited attack on Biden’s record on segregation. While the money remains in her campaign coffers, the polling bump had almost completely dissipated by last week. This week, a national Quinnipiac poll showed that the gap between Biden and Harris grew 21 points over the course of July. Castro also received very strong reviews for his first debate performance but saw a minimal bump, which raises the question about these past two nights: Can these debates change the fundamental reality of the race, which Biden has led since (or even before) he formally declared his candidacy? One difference is the big change that is coming: The next debate, in September, will likely have a field culled down to fit all the candidates on the stage together, allowing the frontrunners to confront one another directly.
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