Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
The overwhelming strategy may have been “Kill Biden” for the second night of CNN’s Democratic debates, but the former vice president came far more prepared to fend off his critics on Wednesday night than he was in June.
The big picture: Kamala Harris picked up right where she left off at last month's debates, attacking Biden early and often for upholding the status quo with his health care plan — pivoting back to Biden even when asked to respond to comments made by other candidates. But it was clear that Biden did his homework, deflecting attacks with moderate success from Harris, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and others who came armed with opposition research.
- A Biden adviser tells Axios' Mike Allen: "[I]t was everybody versus Biden ... Never threw a first punch, but didn’t let himself be a punching bag."
- Jimmy Kimmel: "It was 'Joe Versus the Volcano.'"
Booker arguably surpassed Harris as Biden's primary antagonist on Wednesday night, attacking the former vice president for refusing to condemn the high number of deportations carried out under the Obama administration: "You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can't do it when it's convenient and dodge it when it's not."
- Castro also went after Biden on immigration, after Biden said the former HUD secretary never mentioned anything about decriminalizing illegal border crossings while he served in the Obama administration: "First of all, Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn't."
- Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand attacked Biden over women's rights. Gillibrand claimed Biden had written in a 1981 op-ed that women working outside the home would cause "deterioration of family." Biden responded by citing Gillibrand's past praise and quipping: "I don't know what's happened, except you're running for president." Harris used his response to attack Biden's flip-flop on support for the Hyde Amendment.
Harris, having propelled herself to join the frontrunners after breaking out at the last debate, found herself staring down attacks from an energized Biden, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Michael Bennet over the details of her health care plan, which she had some trouble defending. As Axios' Alexi McCammond points out from Detroit, Harris' top-dog status led to attacks on her from every side of the stage last night, meaning more scrutiny of her record from both the center and the left.
- Gabbard and Biden also went after Harris for her criminal justice record as a prosecutor, often viewed as a vulnerability in the Democratic field. Harris responded by saying she took pride in her work and the difficult decisions she made.
In a departure from the first night, Wednesday's debate saw two instances of protestors interrupting candidates. The first disruption came from a group directing "Fire Pantaleo" chants at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, referring to the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold in 2014. Earlier this month, the Justice Department ended its investigation of Pantaleo without bringing charges.
- The second disruption came from Movimiento Cosecha, an immigrant advocacy group that chanted "3 million deportations" at Biden in reference to the Obama administration's immigration policies.
Single-issue candidates Jay Inslee and Andrew Yang both had strong nights answering questions through the lens of their respective niches. Inslee, who has centered his campaign on climate change, attacked moderate approaches to weaning the U.S. economy off fossil fuels: "We can not work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won't get done."
- Yang, who has promoted universal basic income as a solution to automation, opened the debate with a laugh line about being the opposite of Donald Trump: "An Asian man who likes math." Throughout his answers, he consistently returned to the theme of the "value of work" and how we must "change the measurements for the 21st century economy around our own well-being."
The bottom line: With so many people attacking Biden this round, it's unclear if any one candidate will reap the benefit that Harris did after the first debate.
- That's in stark contrast to the previous night, when Warren and Bernie Sanders refused to take the bait from the moderators to go after each other, per Axios' Alayna Treene.