Seven takeaways from Democratic debate Night 2: Sparks from Biden and Harris, honesty from Buttigieg

Los Angeles Times reporter Seema Mehta breaks down the second night debate with 10 Democratic candidates. 


Can we not do this again soon?

Even the most ravenous political junkie may feel overstuffed after gorging on two nights, four hours and 20 candidates’ worth of debate smorgasbord.

The presidential candidates sparred. They clashed. (Don’t they always?)

They also agreed a fair amount; choosing among Democrats doesn’t offer the stark contrast voters will face in November 2020 when, presumably, one of the roughly two dozen candidates now running faces President Trump.

With just about a month until the next round of debates, that leaves plenty of time to digest.


Here are seven quick takeaways from Thursday night’s second debate.

This is not your father’s Democratic Party: Debate shows how leftward it has moved »

Biden can tolerate only so much

There was never a doubt the front-runner would be in the line of fire, and for the most part he maintained his equanimity when other candidates took their shots.

The 76-year-old Biden sloughed off a swipe at his age with a grin and launched into a discussion of his education plans. His conversational, modulated tone for most of the two-hour session telegraphed the notion, “I’m the experienced, unflappable one here onstage.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris has sharp words for former Vice President Joe Biden on the issue of busing during the debate Thursday.  

But when California Sen. Kamala Harris questioned Biden’s commitment to civil rights, citing his fond reminiscence of working with openly racist members of the Senate, his color rose along with his temper. “I’m the guy who extended the Voting Rights Act 25 years!” he bellowed in a lengthy defense of his record on issues of equality.


Neither candidate was satisfied with the other’s response, but the passionate exchange between Biden and Harris made for one of the most electric moments of the two nights of debate and is certain to play on a repeat loop for some time.

Bernie is gonna Bernie

The Vermont senator has changed not one iota from the fist-shaking insurgent who mounted a stunningly strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016. Like a tribute band playing its greatest hits, he reeled off familiar attacks on Wall Street, special interests, Big Pharma, plutocrats. To Bernie fans, it was sweet music.

But he conceded, when pressed, that middle-class taxpayers would end up paying more to finance proposals such as his call to forgive more than $1 trillion in student debt. “They will pay more in taxes but less in healthcare” under the government-run universal healthcare program he envisions, Sanders said.

That “yes, but” is politically risky. Promising to raise taxes didn’t work so well for Walter Mondale in 1984 when he made that vow.

Harris in prosecutor mode

The former district attorney and California attorney general seems most comfortable in the role of prosecutor. That hasn’t always stood her in good stead with left-leaning Democratic primary voters.

But onstage, the demeanor served Harris well as she repeatedly played the role of Serious Adult and steered the squabbling back to substantive conversation. “Americans don’t want to witness a food fight,” she said at one point, sternly breaking through the cross-talk and bringing her rivals to heel. “They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”

The studio audience rewarded her with one of the biggest cheers of the evening.

Democratic debate: Joe Biden pushed on the defensive by Kamala Harris and others »

Buttigieg owns it

Tap-dancers could learn a few things from the way politicians dance around issues.

Not Pete Buttigieg. The mayor of South Bend, Ind., was asked about the recent shooting of an African American man by a white police officer and Buttigieg’s troubled relations with the city’s black community.

Why, he was asked, is the police force only 6% black in a city that is 26% African American? “Because I couldn’t get it done,” the two-term mayor responded, bluntly.

He spoke with evident emotion of the pain of black residents and said he was determined to bring about a day when police would inspire support instead of fear among African Americans not just at home, but everywhere.

The response won’t defuse tensions. But he may get credit for not dissembling or trying to palm the blame off on others.

Fodder for Republicans

All 10 candidates said their health plans would cover immigrants here illegally. Count on the GOP to claim Democrats want open borders and would turn on the spending spigot to coddle “illegal immigrants.”

Indeed, soon after the exchange, President Trump, or someone operating his Twitter account, took note:

“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!”

Ten’s a crowd

Other candidates tried to insinuate themselves into the conversation.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell made a passionate appeal for gun control.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper reiterated his assertion that Democrats were tilting too far left and would lose in November 2020 unless they reined themselves in.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet spoke emotionally about his family’s immigrant experience. Andrew Yang touted his plan for a universal guaranteed income of $1,000 a month for every American adult.

But none of those underdogs had even the mini-breakout moment that former Housing Secretary Julian Castro enjoyed by tangling Wednesday night with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a fellow Texan, over immigration.

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What is it about New Yorkers?

On Wednesday night, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio kept swerving into other candidates’ lanes, talking over them, interrupting, wreaking verbal havoc on efforts to confine candidates within their allotted times.

On Thursday night, it was New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand who butted in and continually had to be admonished for disrupting and speaking beyond her quota.

It was reminiscent of another New Yorker known for his unrestrained style and refusal to abide by rules.

Something in the water?