Most disappointing in the two-hour event, there were no zingers. Just as there are auto racing fans who secretly hope that if a pile-up happens they’ll get to see it, there are debate fans like me who hope to see a devastating zinger, the memorably sharp-edged remark, punchline or putdown that instantly takes the air out of an opponent’s demeanor and momentum.
Trump might well have felt bored on the first night because he knew the truth, that the debate was really about him, yet the candidates barely mentioned his name. If so, I shared his disappointment. The first-night candidates missed a golden opportunity to take on the most unifying issue that today’s divided Democrats have.
But the second-night Dems didn’t miss that opportunity. Zingers? Ask Joe Biden. After coasting along for weeks as the clear front-runner in the crowded 2020 field, the former vice president stepped into a slow-rolling ambush, yet seemed stunningly unprepared for the challenge.
First came young California Rep. Eric Swalwell with a story that began pleasantly and ended with a bombshell for Biden. “I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. “That candidate was then-Sen. Joe Biden.”
Oh, yes, he went there. Everybody knew about the age issue regarding the two oldest candidates, Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But it seemed to catch Biden by surprise.
“Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago,” Swalwell said. “He’s still right today.”
Biden maintained his composure, beaming a forced grin that was big and bright enough to glow in the dark. A moderator asked if he was “still holding on to that torch.” Grinning Joe said he absolutely was. Then he quickly steered into a defense of his education plan.
But another Californian, Sen. Kamala Harris, soon spoke up on the subject of race “as the only black person on this stage.” She directed her attention to Biden, who recently had to defend some warm words he had spoken about working across ideology with two of the body’s last leading segregationists.
“I do not believe you are a racist,” she said to Biden. “And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground ...”
But, she continued, “it is personal, and it was actually very hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputation and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
Biden also worked with them to oppose busing, she noted, and described her own experience as “a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools” and was “bused to school every day.”
Biden rebutted the charge as “a mischaracterization of my position across the board.” He didn’t oppose busing in America, he said, maintaining that he had opposed only the intervention of the federal government into local school decisions. In fact, he spoke strongly against busing at the time, as The Washington Post reported in a March story that examined Biden’s views on the controversial subject of desegregation.
But, as Harris noted, her district’s actions in Berkeley, Calif., came two decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, demonstrating the need for the federal government to protect fundamental rights at the state and local level.
The irony here is that Biden has stuck his neck out in defense of civil rights on numerous occasions, from his votes for the Equal Rights Amendment and extension of the Voting Rights Act to his advocacy for same-sex marriage that helped persuade President Barack Obama to switch sides too.
But Biden couldn’t easily shake the charge that he’s falling out of touch with changing times and his own party’s movement to the left on a range of issues, including sensitivity to the experiences of minorities in this era of BlackLivesMatter and MeToo.
Biden has plenty of chances to recover in future debates. And there are many Democrats and persuadable swing voters in Biden’s base who think his opposition to forced school busing — very controversial then and now — was OK.
But Biden’s image of inevitability has evaporated. Harris’ star is rising, particularly among those who can’t wait to see her on a debate stage with Trump. If that happens, I’m sure it won’t be “boring.”