Yes: Joe Biden for the most part was crisper, more engaged and engaging, in Detroit Wednesday night than he had been in Miami a month ago.
No: he did not summon a performance so commanding as to demand people view an old man in new light.
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If Biden is the essential variable in the Democratic presidential race—none of the nearly two dozen other candidates can rise much further unless or until Biden is perceived to be in a dying fall—then the most reasonable reaction to the latest two-day pair of long and crowded debates is: So what?
That is not so much dismissive comment as authentic question. Biden’s two debate outings this summer suggest that a politician who has been at this game for decades operates within a predictable and fairly narrow range—at his best, not half-bad; at his worst, pretty bad for a supposed front-runner.
Though he was closer to the upper range this time—except for a funny fumbled line at the end when he tried to tell people to support his campaign with a text message—it still seems inconceivable that many undecided voters will move to Biden because they think he is a reliably good debater. It seems fully conceivable that people already leaning toward him will stay that way because they think he is good enough.
In that case, however, the main assumption around these early debates—that the theatrics really matter, that democracy may hinge on assorted viral zingers and splats—would be called into question.
Every candidate other than Biden has a powerful incentive to prove that the debates do matter, and no candidate has a better claim on that case than Sen. Kamala Harris, who along with Biden seemed to have an outsized role (as both attacker and attackee) on the debate stage.
She proved that her breakout moment in Miami, when she threw Biden off his game by attacking his 1970s collaboration with Southern segregationists to oppose federal busing mandates, was not an anomaly. At least on stylistic grounds she truly is a good debater—fluent, well-prepared, emphatic—and she came determined to throw plenty more chops at Biden and others.
None of these landed with quite the same memorable force as last month. What’s more, her fellow debaters paid a compliment to Harris’s new ascendant status, as they joined Biden in skewering her policy plans and her record as prosecutor and attorney general in California. Her rebuttals were usually delivered with passion, but often not addressing the specific point of criticism.
The opening phase of the debate featured an extended grilling of Harris for the latest and more detailed iteration of her health care views. That plan was unveiled this week in what was evidently a response to the charge that Harris has been incoherent in explaining whether her support for “Medicare for All” means she wants to ban private insurance. (Not exactly, but she would replace employer-provided coverage with a public plan that includes private alternatives.)
“The senator has had several plans so far,” Biden taunted, seeming to enjoy the chance to return fire at Harris. “And any time someone tells you you’re going to get something good in ten years, you should wonder why it takes ten years.”
A ten-person debate is long, plenty of time for the pendulum to swing from “Wow, he’s really on tonight,” to “What’s with this? He’s really wandering,” and back again.
A good moment for the vice president came early when he took on Trump’s recent attacks on Democratic members of Congress and suggested critics should “go back” to other countries. Speaking of America, Biden said, “So, Mr. President, let’s get something straight: We love it. We are not leaving it. We are here to stay. And we’re certainly not going to leave it you.”
But that clarity could fade when other candidates or moderators lured him into the arcana of different policies or legislative disputes.
Responding to criticism on his criminal justice record from Sen. Cory Booker, Biden said, “That’s the essence of what my plan, in detail, lays out. I’m happy to discuss it in more detail if the senator would want to. And so I—you know, I look—anyway, that’s what I think my plan—I know what my plan does, and I think it’s not dissimilar to what the senator said we should be working together on getting things done.”
Biden and Harris took enough oxygen—21 and a half minutes of speaking time for him; 17 and a half minutes for her—that other candidates had to be strategic about finding moments to stand out.
There were some successes.
Booker defended his record in cleaning up Newark and rooting out police corruption during his tenure as Newark mayor from Biden’s darts, and later threw others back when Biden said he couldn’t divulge whether as vice president he had pressed President Barack Obama to change his policy on immigrant deportations.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Booker jeered. “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.”
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who is well-positioned to carry the centrist banner against more liberal contenders if Biden stumbles, projected more confidence in this debate than he did in the first round in Miami. He chided Harris and others for allowing the argument to reach back to Biden’s school integration record in the 1970s instead of focusing on current problems. “Our schools are segregated as they were 50 years ago,” Bennet said, urging new focus on improving schools and severing the close correlation between high school drop-out rates and prison incarceration.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was evidently determined to disprove the oft-repeated refrain that voters gravitate to the candidate they would most wish to have a beer with. His face regularly flashed a self-satisfied scowl, as he rasped self-righteously at his rivals.
“I don’t understand why Democrats on this stage are fear-mongering about universal health care,” the mayor said, defending his plan to blow up the current system and noting that Trump won by being a disruptor. “How about we be the party that’s going to disrupt the status quo for working people?”
Later, he added, “When I’m president, we will even up the score and we will tax the hell out of the wealthy to make this a fairer country and to make sure it’s a country that puts working people first.”
It’s impossible to imagine the Joe Biden of the 1970s, or the 1990s, or of this campaign saying something like that. Some politicians try to update their image—the “New Nixon” of 1968 was the most notorious example—but in Biden’s case this year’s model is always pretty much the same.
Whether that’s comforting or disappointing is a question Democrats will decide in coming weeks and months, and it’s likely that what happens on debate stages won’t have that much to do with the answer.