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With Biden and Harris on the defensive, where Detroit debates leave 2020 Democrats

Night two of the Detroit Democratic debate may have opened with a handshake between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, but there was no shortage of attacks on either of them during the course of the evening. Judy Woodruff talks to Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Karine Jean-Pierre of MoveOn.org for highlights and analysis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Night two of the Democratic presidential debate in Detroit started with a handshake and a plea from former Vice President Joe Biden to California Senator Kamala Harris: "Go easy on me, kid."

    This go-around, it was more than just Harris criticizing the man leading the crowded Democratic field.

  • Bill De Blasio:

    Mr. Vice President, you want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    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.

  • Jay Inslee:

    Mr. Vice President, your argument is not with me. It's with science. And, unfortunately, your plan is just too late.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:

    Under Vice President Biden's analysis, am I serving in Congress resulting in the deterioration of the family because I had access to quality affordable day care? I just want to know what he meant when he said that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, we consider how last night shapes the race going forward with Stu Rothenberg, senior editor of Inside Elections, Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser to MoveOn.org, and Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of "Politics With Amy Walter" on WNYC Radio.

    To all of you, second night of the debate, it is now behind us.

    Let me ask each one of you.

    And I will start with you, Amy.

    Clearly, Joe Biden was taking incoming from a lot of directions last night. What was your main takeaway, though, from this debate?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, that he did. That is exactly what you saw, was the fact that they came after Joe Biden.

    And, look, there were times he looked a little shaky, times that he looked stronger. I think, overall, though, he weathered it pretty well.

    There was nothing that happened last night that would lead you to believe that he has now been taken from his perch as the front-runner.

    The other person who got a lot of incoming was Kamala Harris, who had a great first debate, and, as such, was a big target for the other people on the stage. She was fine, but she also had to endure a lot of grilling.

    And, you know, she spent a lot of time on her heels, instead of where she was in the first debate, which was completely on offense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're going to look at some of that in just a second.

    Karine, what was your main takeaway?

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    Yes, pretty much what Amy just said.

    I think, look, Joe Biden came into Detroit as the front-runner. He is going to leave Detroit as the front-runner. He didn't have a knockout punch, if you will. And he didn't get knocked out as well. And he was — you know, he was a little shaky himself. But he didn't do any damage to himself either.

    And I wouldn't be surprised if his numbers go up a bit, because one of the things that he did do was defend the Obama legacy, which, as we know, what is propelling his numbers is the African-American community, who love Obama, who love the fact that Joe Biden was his V.P.

    Look, Judy, we saw six hours of debate over the last two nights. And we saw some folks do really well, like Warren and Buttigieg and Bernie and Biden.

    But I don't think much will change moving forward. I don't think — whoever came in, in the tier one will be tier one. Whoever came in, in tier two will be tier two. And the folks who came in the lower tier will probably not make it to the next debate in June, which will — I'm sorry — not in June, in September, which will be in Houston.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Stu, what is your top line?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    I will be the tougher grader tonight.

    Look, I think Joe Biden did better than the first debate. But, of course, that wasn't difficult. He had a terrible first debate. So he was better. He counterattacked better. He had research against Booker that he could use. So he was better.

    But I thought his performance was very uneven. I don't think he has shown that he is very agile in these debates. And that is a problem. So, while he is better off, I think he still has to answer some questions.

    And Kamala Harris, that was really remarkable. She apparently thought she was going to have an easy go, and very quickly found out that, you won the first debate, doesn't mean you are going to win the second debate.

    I thought throughout much of the debate, she looked bored, uninterested and deflated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, you and Amy both mentioning Kamala Harris.

    And let's — we are going to show a couple of sections of last night's debate. But let's start with a piece where Harris was clearly a target. This has to do with health care.

    Let's watch this.

  • Joe Biden:

    The senator has had several plans so far. And any time someone tells you you're going to get something good in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years.

    If you noticed, there is no talk about the fact that the plan in 10 years will cost $3 trillion. You will lose your employer-based insurance.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Unfortunately, Vice President Biden, you're just simply inaccurate in what you're describing. The reality is that our plan will bring health care to all Americans under a Medicare for all system.

    Your plan, by contrast, leaves out almost 10 million Americans.

  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.:

    Senator Harris is my friend as well, but I have to say if we can't admit — if we can't admit tonight what's in the plan, which is banning employer-based insurance, we're not going to be able to admit that when Donald Trump is accusing democrats of doing that as well.

    We need to be honest about what's in this plan. It bans employer-based insurance and taxes the middle class to the tune of $30 trillion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So Amy Walter, what is it about Kamala Harris' plan that is attracting all of this criticism?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, this is the sort of continuation of the debate that we had on the first night between those Democrats who want to go much further, beyond Obama, the boundaries of Obamacare, into some form of Medicare for all, and those, like Senator Bennet, Joe Biden, who want to build on the Obamacare.

    But, look, fundamentally, I think this is why parties don't like primary debates, because they spend a whole lot of time arguing with each other, going into the weeds on a lot of policies. And they are not able to, at this stage of the game, talk about the things that actually Democratic voters, but all voters, say they are the most worried about with health care, which is cost, especially prescription drug costs and surprise medical bills and high deductions.

    None of that was discussed in these two debates, in part because they are arguing over ideology. Now, that is fine, because it is a primary and they are trying to appeal to primary voters. But you can see why this is such a challenging experience for party establishment and party leaders, because they would like to see the Democrats stop fighting amongst each other, focus on the president, and focus especially on health care in the same way that Democrats did in 2018.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of which, Karine, today, President Trump put out a statement early this morning, in which another thing he said: "Over the last two days, Americans saw Democrats arguing about how the government will take over their health insurance, eliminate their private plans, give taxpayer-funded health care to illegal immigrants, raise taxes to pay for it all."

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    So, this is a thing that really troubled me a lot last night, which was that they didn't bring up Donald Trump, right, the person that they want to beat in 2020.

    They litigated the Obama legacy, the Obama policies. But there is an existential threat of Donald Trump. And that barely came up. And we have a president who believes he is above the law. There is the immigration — his immigration policies. He is in court right now, his administration, trying to take health care away from tense of millions of people.

    So that is the thing that I thought was really lacking, and just that contrast with Donald Trump, which is what voters want to hear. They want to hear from these folks not just about the policies, but the number one thing is, how are they going to beat Donald Trump?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's look at another example last night. This was on immigration, where Vice President Biden and President Obama's policies came under criticism.

  • Julian Castro:

    Open borders is a right-wing talking point, and, frankly, I'm disappointed that some folks, including some folks on this stage, have taken the bait.

    The only way that we're going to guarantee that we don't have family separations in this country again is to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration Nationality Act.

  • Joe Biden:

    The secretary, we sat together in many meetings. I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary.

    The fact of the matter is, you should be able to — if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It's a crime.

  • Julian Castro:

    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.

    Let me begin by telling you — there's still going to be consequences if somebody crosses the border. It's a civil action.

  • Joe Biden:

    I have guts enough to say his plan doesn't make sense.

    I think the president of the United States, Barack Obama, went out of his way to try to change the system and he got pushed back significantly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Stu Rothenberg, is this a good discussion for the Democrats to be having right now?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    It is not.

    And I don't think it is a good discussion for Joe Biden to be having with Julian Castro, to talk about immigration and the border and people coming to the United States.

    It goes back to actually one of your earlier sound bites, where Senator Booker said, you like to embrace Barack Obama and you are part of that administration, but when you don't want to, you say suddenly, oh, I can't discuss it.

    I think this is one of those areas where the former vice president is not very sharp and agile, and he needs to get better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Amy, this really does pick up on your comment earlier about this, this is a tough — all three of you were making this point — it's tough during the primaries, when the Democrats are trying to distinguish themselves from one another, but in so doing they potentially are hurting each other.

  • Amy Walter:

    That's right.

    And, remember, there is another incentive structure involved in here, which is how you get on the debate stage in the first place. These debates have been set up this way. We have two nights. This is the second set of debates where we have to go two nights with 10 candidates each, because of backlash from Democrats, those in Democratic sort of activist area, about how the 2016 debates were created.

    They said there were too few of them, that Bernie Sanders didn't get enough time and the right amount of time to showcase himself, challenge Senator — I'm sorry — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

    And so their answer to that was to say, we need to have lots of debates and make sure we open it up to everybody, get as many people involved as possible.

    Well, the way to get on that stage is also to create — try to create as many of these moments as possible, right, to speak to the base, the low-dollar donors who are going to be able to get you back on to that stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Amy Walter:

    You get enough of those low-dollar donors, you get another chance to come on stage. And so it is only encourages more of this kind of infighting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Karine, I want you to comment.

    I'm going to play this final chunk from the debate. This is on criminal justice reform, again, the candidates criticizing each other. Let's listen.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Mr. Vice President has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill — every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it.

    And, sir, those are your words, not — not mine.

    And this is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws. And you can't just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.

  • Joe Biden:

    There was nothing done for the entire eight years he was mayor. There was nothing done to deal with the police department that was corrupt.

    Why did you announce on the first day a zero tolerance policy of stop and frisk and hire Rudy Giuliani's guy in 2007, when I was trying to get rid of the crack cocaine disparity?

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community. You're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor.

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii:

    Now, Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president.

    But I'm deeply concerned about this record. 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.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    I am proud of that work. And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor, but actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Karine, this is getting personal.

    Who comes out of a discussion, an exchange like that looking stronger?

  • Karine Jean-Pierre:

    So, this is really interesting, what you just played, Judy, because you have — this is a very good example of the two front-runners being on the defense.

    And when you are a front-runner, this is what is going to happen. Your record is going to be scrutinized. And we know, with Biden, his crime bill that he could co-authored — I shouldn't say his crime bill, but the crime bill he has co-authored has always been something out there, since we have known that he was going to run before he stepped into this — into the arena.

    And he hasn't really dealt with it. You know, he hasn't really talked about it in a way that people feel like he understands how much the crime bill has affected the black and brown community.

    Now, with Kamala Harris, that was the first time that she was pushed on her record as a prosecutor. And this — we're going to see this over and over again, because you have to try and figure out how to defend your record. And that is goes to be kind of on the chopping blocks, if you will.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, Stu, what are we left with here?

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    We are left, I believe, with Harris and Biden still having a lot of questions after this debate, seemed weaker than they should have been.

    That probably means that Warren and Sanders are looking a bit stronger. And that is a problem for Democratic strategists who believe the party needs to move to the center, not to the populist progressive wing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In just 15 seconds, Amy, and we have got — we don't have another debate for six weeks.

  • Amy Walter:

    We don't.

    And it should be a smaller debate. But I think that what a lot of folks want to see then, to Stu's point, is Joe Biden, Harris and Warren and Sanders all on the same debate stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And perhaps we will see that in September.

    Thank you all, Amy Walter, Karine Jean-Pierre, Stu Rothenberg.

  • Stu Rothenberg:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Amy Walter:

    You're welcome.

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