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Biden and Harris Fend Off Attacks in Testy Second Democratic Debate

August 1, 2019, 12:54 PM UTC

Former Vice President Joe Biden took it again on the chin but came ready to battle during the second presidential debate in Detroit Wednesday night as the Democratic frontrunner’s rivals attacked him from all sides.

Before the debate began, 76-year-old Biden told 54-year-old Senator Kamala Harris, “Go easy on me, kid.”

She didn’t.

Harris, who got the best of Biden during their first debate, wasted no time going after him again on Wednesday while defending her recently released health care plan, which calls for a single-payer national health insurance system over 10 years that also allows Americans to sign up for private insurers modeled on the Medicare Advantage plan.

“The bottom line is this: We must agree that access to health care must be a right and not just a privilege of those who can afford it,” she said.

After an unexpected subpar performance during the first debate in Miami last month, Biden, who maintains a lead in most major polls, showed some grit and withstood several attacks from his nine Democratic challengers.

Biden told Harris’ that her health plan would be too expensive and slow to take shape. Biden accused Harris of not saying that her plan will supposedly cost $3 trillion.

“This idea is a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said. “And to be very blunt, and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with doubletalk on this plan.”

“Obamacare is working,” Biden continued, explaining he prefers to expand on the current Affordable Care Act with a government-backed insurance plan known as a public option.

Biden shook Harris this time, a sharp contrast from their first debate when Harris shocked Biden by directly attacking his past statements about busing in schools and his previous praising working with segregationists while in the Senate in the 1970s.

This time, Harris was on the defense about her health care plan.

“You’re just simply inaccurate,” said Harris, adding that her health care plan has been endorsed by former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Your plan does not cover everyone in America. By your own staff and your own definition, 10 million people — as many as 10 million people — will not have access to health care. And in 2019, in America, for a Democrat to be running for president with a plan that does not cover everyone is without excuse.”

“The cost of doing nothing is far too expensive,” Harris told Biden.

Following the debate, former Obama-era U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the candidates via Twitter to watch what they say.

“To my fellow Democrats. Be wary of attacking the Obama record.  Build on it.  Expand it. But there is little to be gained — for you or the party — by attacking a very successful and still popular Democratic President,” Holder tweeted.

However, Biden took an “interesting tact in spreading subtle doubt against his opponents, while also taking incoming hits,” said Dan Sena, former executive director of theDemocratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

When the debate shifted to criminal justice, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who is fighting to save his presidential aspirations, went toe-to-toe with Biden for sponsoring the 1994 crime bill.

Biden singled out Booker for doing practically “nothing” during his eight years as the mayor of Newark, N.J., to “deal with the corrupt police department.”

Booker smiled and said the head of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) praised him for embracing reforms, however, only after the ACLU made a 96-page complaint against the Newark Police in 2014 saying they found “reasonable cause to believe” cops were engaging in “stop-and-frisk” practices against African Americans.

Booker also gave Biden a streetwise reply.

“There’s a saying in my community: You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker said to applause.

Sena said Booker “certainly showed up,” as did former HUD secretary Julian Castro, who said Biden has “flip-flopped,” his stances on criminal justice.

Castro, who worked with Biden in the Obama administration chastised the former vice president who said immigration should be a civil violation. Castro said he stands by his plan to decriminalize the border if he’s elected president to cheers.

Biden said, “I never heard him talk about any of this when he was (HUD) secretary.”

But Castro remained firm with his stance.

“It looks like one of us has learned the lesson of the past, while the other of us has not,” he said. “What we need are politicians that actually have some guts on this issue.”

Biden, however, said that the Trump administration has been cracking down on legal immigration with as much determination as they do with illegal border crossings.

Meanwhile, Booker dropped his peacemaker act and went directly after Biden again, especially on criminal justice.

“If you want to compare records and, frankly, and I’m shocked that you do,” Booker said, “there are right now people in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that phony ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that destroyed a lot of communities like mine. I’m glad you evolved, but you offer no redemption to those people.”

Biden reminded Booker and the audience that Obama chose him to be his vice president.

“I find it fascinating, everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” Biden said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. He had 10 lawyers do a background check and everything about me on civil rights and he chose me and said it was the best decision he ever made.”

Booker snapped back.

“You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign,” he said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and dodge it when it’s not.”

Harris, agreeing with Booker, told Biden that as a former district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, she’s spent her career “cleaning up the consequences of the bills that you passed when you were in the U.S. Senate for decades.”

And she piled on Biden again by revisiting his work with those segregationist senators four decades ago.

“Had those segregationists (had) their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate, Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate and Barack Obama would not have been in the position to nominate him to the title he now holds,” Harris said.

But struggling candidate Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took exception to Harris’ prosecutorial record to task saying she was “deeply concerned” about it.

“There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana,” said Gabbard about Harris to applause.

“She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so,” Gabbard added. “She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California, and she fought to keep the cash bail system in place. That impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”

Harris rolled her eyes and defended her record as a top prosecutor and expert on criminal justice reform she said was widely praised. She also commended herself for being in a position that required tough decisionmaking. 

“I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done,” she said. “And I am proud of that work.”

Harris later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that as a “top-tier” candidate she expected to take some hits on Wednesday “because there are a lot of candidates trying to make the stage for the next debate,” in September.

Harris also took a dig at Gabbard’s controversial meeting with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad two years ago. Gabbard said previously she was “skeptical” that Assad’s government perpetrated a chemical weapons attack in April 2017 killing dozens of Syrians, even though the Department of Defense Department and the United Nations said Assad was responsible for the deaths.

“This coming from someone who has been an apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered the people of his country like cockroaches. She, who has embraced and been an apologist for him in a way that she refuses to call him a war criminal,” Harris said. “I can only take what she says and her opinion so seriously. And, so, you know, I’m prepared to move on.”

Still, Gabbard showed that Harris could be stood up to and challenged, Sena said. “Most people before the debate didn’t believe that could be done,” he added.

Other candidates had their moments, including New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who joked that the first thing she will do as president is, “I’m going to Clorox the Oval Office.”

Gillibrand also said she will reengage on global climate change and sign the Paris Accord. “I will lead a worldwide conversation about the urgency of this crisis,” she said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee reiterated a similar point on climate change, as he, too, laid into Biden’s plan, saying it was a bit “too little, too late.”

When Harris and Biden were talking about busing again, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet said, “We need a conversation about what’s happening now, and when there’s a group of kids in this country that don’t get preschool through no fault of their own and another group does—equal is not equal.”

Maybe the best line from longshot candidate New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was during his closing remarks when he called Trump a “real socialist,” who only caters to the rich.

Another longshot candidate, entrepreneur Andrew Yang reminded his debate opponents that the president is their real enemy.

“I would trust anyone on this stage more than I trust our President,” he said. “We have to focus on beating Donald Trump in 2020.”

Naturally, Trump tweeted in response late Wednesday.

“The people on the stage tonight, and last, were not those that will either Make America Great Again or Keep America Great!,” Trump said. “Our Country now is breaking records in almost every category, from Stock Market to Military to Unemployment. We have prosperity & success like never before…,

“It will soon be time to choose to keep and build upon that prosperity and success or let it go,” Trump continued. “We are respected again all around the world. Keep it that way! I said I will never let you down, and I haven’t. We will only grow bigger, better and stronger TOGETHER!”

Sena, the former DCCC executive director, believes that all of the candidates are “raising their game, but we will see how much of a long-term impact this debate has in a few weeks.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The House is already losing at least 11 Republicans—and that number could rise

—The strongest Democratic candidate for 2020 is a woman, poll finds

—Why kids are skipping school to fight climate change

—Thousands of migrant children remain in shelters at the border

—When it comes to politics, Americans are divided. Can data change that

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