Candidates for the Democratic nomination for president take the stage for a debate at Texas Southern University in Houston: From left: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)
Photo: TAMIR KALIFA
Photo: TAMIR KALIFA

At Democratic debate, Biden at center stage and center of attacks

Houston - Former Vice President Joe Biden came under siege during Thursday’s Democratic debate from more liberal opponents who challenged his health care policy and approach to defeating Donald Trump in a showdown featuring the top candidates on the same stage for the first time.

Sandwiched between more liberal rivals, Biden sought to frame himself as the heir to President Barack Obama’s more centrist legacy as he faced stinging attacks from candidates who said his middle-of-the-road stance on pressing issues would do little to solve systemic problems.

Biden was flanked on either side by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, offering a visible reminder through the three-hour debate at Texas Southern University that he was outnumbered and surrounded by his party’s more liberal wing.

But he faced bracing attacks, too, from candidates lagging far behind him in the polls. The sharpest policy distinction centered on Biden’s opposition to eliminating private health insurance, a tenet of the “Medicare for all” proposal that several of his rivals support.

Julian Castro, the former U.S. secretary of housing, drew the sharpest distinction when he chastised Biden over a fact-check that found his health plan “leaves 10 million people uncovered” before delivering a stinging insult.

“I’m fulfilling the legacy of Barack Obama,” he said to Biden, “and you’re not.”

“That would be a surprise to him,” Biden shot back.

Biden, too, went on the offensive, singling out Warren’s support for the health care expansion as an assault on Obama’s legacy. “The senator says she’s for Bernie,” he said. “Well, I’m for Barack.”

And he took aim at Sanders, saying the Vermont senator’s health care plan was too reliant on the private sector.

“For a socialist you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do,” the former vice president said.

Sanders fired back, saying that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt because of rising health care costs: “You know why they’re going bankrupt? Because they suffered a terrible disease, cancer, or heart disease.”

“I know a lot about cancer,” said a visibly upset Biden, whose son Beau died of cancer in 2015. “Let me tell you something: It’s personal to me.”

The debate offered viewers a broad view of the ideological divide that could define the Democratic race for president in 2020.

Should voters back a more centrist view of the White House that Biden supports? Or should the party’s electorate embrace the fundamental “structural change” of American government that Warren and other liberals represent?

‘Hell yes’

The debate presented the seven candidates trailing in the polls what could be one of their last chances to break out.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. and U.S. Sen Kamala Harris tried to present themselves as alternatives to Biden and peacemakers in a contentious debate. So did U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a candidate supporting middle-of-the-road ideals who has struggled to emerge.

“If you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you’ve got a home with me,” said Klobuchar. “Because I don’t want a president for half America. I want to be the president for all America.”

And it was a homecoming of sorts for the two Texas candidates — former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Castro, who each lag in the polls despite initial signs of momentum.

In his first debate since the massacre in his hometown of El Paso led to a retooling of his campaign, O’Rourke focused his remarks on gun restrictions – and was repeatedly praised by his rivals for his work to heal his community after the shootings.

He took the opportunity to call for mandatory buybacks of assault rifles, an idea that’s receiving increasing support among 2020 hopefuls.

“Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” said O’Rourke, his voice rising, to a roar from the crowd. “We’re not going to allow it to be used against a fellow American anymore.”

Presenting a message of generational change, Castro said he was the candidate who could excite the party’s younger base and flip states that President Donald Trump captured in 2016.

“Get back Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia and Arizona – and finally get Texas back to blue and say goodbye to Donald Trump,” he said.

‘Broken promises’

After two unwieldy debates featuring 20 candidates over two nights, the ABC-sponsored event in Houston used higher thresholds for polling and fundraising to cram 10 of the top contenders on the same stage.

It was a welcome change for many Democratic voters who pined to see the back-and-forth with the candidates at the top of the polls – and other second-tier candidates aiming for a breakout moment.

It also posed a new challenge for Biden, who was at the center of the stage and the center of the dialogue. He struggled at times, delivering meandering responses that could be hard to comprehend. 

And when he volunteered that he regretted his 2002 vote to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq, it gave Sanders an opening. 

“One of the differences between you and me is that I never believed what Cheney and Bush said,” Sanders said, referring to then-Vice President Dick Cheney. “I voted against the war in Iraq and led the opposition to it.”

Biden punched back, mixing biting responses to attacks with a pledge to offer a more optimistic vision for voters infuriated by Trump. 

“We’re walking around with our heads down, like, ‘Woe is me,’” he said. “We should get moving. And there’s enormous, enormous opportunity once we get rid of Donald Trump.”

The Republican president was a frequent theme of the debate. He was alternately criticized as racist, vengeful and spiteful by his opponents, including Harris, who used her opening remarks to speak directly to him.

“You have used hate, intimidation, fear and over 12,000 lies as a way to distract from your failed policies and your broken promises,” she said.

“What you don’t get is that the American people are so much better than this. And we know that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what divides us.”

As for the president, he signaled his disdain for the debate at an event in Baltimore. He predicted the race would boil down to Biden, Sanders or Warren – and said he was “going to have to watch it as a re-run.”

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