Opinion: Joe Biden took some hits, but still had a better debate than last time around

Joe Biden
Joe Biden had a better night Wednesday.
(Los Angeles Times)

Wednesday’s debate as a whole was much less satisfying and substantial than Tuesday’s installment.

Former Vice President Joe Biden seemed more assured and less prone to distraction than in his first debate on June 27, including in his interactions with Sen. Kamala Harris. But he distanced himself in awkward ways from the administration of Barack Obama with which he is so closely identified, giving the impression that he didn’t agree with Obama’s deportation of migrants and suggesting that he would renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal pursued by Obama that President Trump repudiated.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey drew some blood when he said to Biden: “Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

Biden’s discussion of deportation was especially odd. He defended Obama for supporting immigration reform and for protecting the so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States illegally when they were children. But he didn’t hammer home the Obama administration’s position that it prioritized criminals in its deportations.


Harris seemed a bit off her game, and offered a shaky defense of her complicated version of “Medicare for all” against an accusation from Biden that it would be introduced too slowly. It’s doubtful, however, whether most viewers are familiar with the nuances of the Democrats’ various heathcare proposals, and the debate didn’t provide much enlightenment.

Booker displayed a new crispness and self-confidence, especially in his closing statement. He adroitly responded to a bit of opposition research deployed by Biden, a suggestion that as mayor of Newark, Booker presided over a racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk policy. “You’re dipping into Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker shot back.

Now for the disappointing big picture: Wednesday’s debate was less substantial and I suspect less satisfactory for viewers than Tuesday’s encounter.

The earlier debate, which pitted progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren against a group of more centrist contenders, touched on big themes that a viewer could relate to: principle vs. pragmatism, incremental reform vs. Warren’s call for “big structural change,” retaining employer-provided health insurance vs. Medicare for all, and whether it’s too risky for the Democrats to choose a disruptive nominee to challenge Donald Trump.

By contrast, Wednesday’s debate often descended into skirmishes over the candidates’ records and prior positions that were difficult for viewers to evaluate (unless they dutifully peruse fact-checking articles on Thursday morning).

Did Harris, as Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii alleged, “put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laugh about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana”? Was Booker, now viewed as a criminal-justice reformer, a hard-line mayor? Did Biden write an op-ed saying that mothers who work outside the home harmed families, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York claimed?

This back-and-forth struck probably most viewers as ancient history.

Harris did score by calling attention to one of Biden’s very recent statements, a reversal of his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds for abortion. That was a palpable hit that viewers could understand. A lot of the other blows delivered on Wednesday night were of interest mostly to political junkies.