MIAMI — For the first half of Thursday’s presidential debate, Joe Biden looked as if he would somehow be able to stand at center stage yet not be the center of the bull’s-eye of other candidates’ attacks.
California Sen. Kamala Harris changed that, taking Biden to task for his opposition to busing and his working relationships decades ago as a U.S. senator.
The testy exchange, during which both raised their voices, highlighted a racial as well as a generational divide between the two candidates and solidified Harris as the buzziest candidate onstage. Earlier, she was the voice of reason when she quieted squabbling colleagues.
“Guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight,” Harris said. “They wanna know how we’re gonna put food on their table.”
The debate hall erupted in applause.
Here are some of the debate’s key moments:
Biden and Bernie and a little bit of Trump
The debate began with the top two candidates flexing their rhetorical muscle.
When asked about his comments that the wealthy would not be treated too differently under a Biden administration, the former vice president went right after his favorite target: President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America. Ordinary middle-class Americans built America,” Biden said. “My dad used to have an expression. He said, ‘Joe, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s being able to look your kid in the eye and saying that everything is going to be OK.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked about whether his proposals would result in higher taxes for the middle class and, after first explaining the need for ‘Medicare for All’ and subsidized college debt relief, he said taxes would go up but health care costs would go down.
“We have a new vision for America. And at a time when we have three people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America, while 500,000 people are sleeping out on the streets today, we think it is time for change. Real change,” Sanders said. “By that, I mean health care in my view is a human right.”
Harris tears into Biden over busing
One of Biden’s biggest potential liabilities heading into the debate was his long-ago opposition to federal involvement in busing to solve segregation problems and his working relationship, bragged about on the campaign trail, with noted segregationist senators.
Harris, the only black woman on stage, took the chance to turn directly to Biden and challenge him on the issue during a discussion that started with the shooting of a black man in Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s city of South Bend, Ind.
“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris told him, “but I also believe and it is personal and it was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Biden, the vice president to the first black president in history, bristled at her criticism and denied he “praised” segregationists, even though Harris didn’t use the word. He said busing was a local issue and he did not oppose it, just the federal involvement in it.
Harris then asked him: “But do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?”
Biden: “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed was busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”
Harris then replied that the federal government was needed because “there was a failure of the states” to integrate schools and pointed out she was in the second class of students integrated into schools while he was a U.S. senator.
Harris then began raising her voice: “There are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
Biden began to speak loudly as well.
“I have supported the ERA from the very beginning! I’m the guy who extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” he said. “And I argued very strongly that we in fact deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box.”
Biden then ran out of steam: “I agree that everybody wants that in fact — anyway, my time is up.”
Bernie Sanders embraces socialist label — his opponents are eager to use it against him.
Republicans want to frame Democrats as socialists and Sanders is usually open to the label. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was eager to criticize him for it.
“I think that the bottom line is if we don’t clearly define that we are not socialists, the Republicans are going to come at us every way we can and call us socialists,” Hickenlooper said. “If you look at the ‘Green New Deal,’ which I admire the sense of urgency and how important it is to do climate change … but we can’t promise every American a government job. I believe health care is a right and not a privilege, but you can’t expect to eliminate private experience for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.”
Sanders, given a chance to reply, went right to the polls and right at Trump.
“Well, I think the response is that the polls … have us 10 points ahead of Donald Trump because the American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist and that he lied to the American people during his campaign,” Sanders said.
Harris ends ‘food fight’ over generational change
Rep. Eric Swalwell recalled that he was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic convention with a message of passing the torch to a new generation.
“That candidate was then-Sen. Joe Biden,” Swalwell said. “Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago. He’s still right today. … Pass the torch.”
The crowd laughed. Even Biden himself smiled before he was given a chance to respond. “I’m still holding on to that torch,” he shot back. “I wanna make it clear to you.”
Then the pile-on began. Buttigieg, 37, chimed in, arguing that, “as the youngest guy on the stage, I should contribute.” But Sanders also wanted to interject. “As part of Joe’s generation … ,” Sanders began, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also fought for airtime.
Democrats go after Trump on immigration
The Democrats on stage were united against Trump’s zero-tolerance policy for border-crossers that has led to mass family separations, but each attacked him in a slightly different way.
Harris asked the crowd to consider how desperate mothers have sent their kids on long journeys for a reason: “She has decided for that child to remain where they are is worse. But what does Donald Trump do? He says go back to where you came from. That is not reflective of our America and our values and it’s got to end.”
Marianne Williamson: “What Donald Trump has done to these children … it is kidnapping and it’s important for us to realize that, if you forcibly take a child from their parents’ arms, you are kidnapping them. If you take a lot of children and you put them in detainment centers thus inflicting trauma upon them, that’s called child abuse … these are state-sponsored crimes.”
Gillibrand: “One of the worst things about President Trump [has] done to this country, is he’s torn apart the moral fabric of who we are. When he started separating children at the border from their parents, the fact that seven children have died in his custody, the fact that dozens of children have been separated from their parents and they have no plan to reunite them.”
Buttigieg focused what he said was religious hypocrisy of those who say they’re Christians, yet support Trump’s immigration proposals: “To suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religion language again.”
Buttigieg accepts failure on police diversity
Buttigieg conceded he had failed during his tenure as mayor to diversify South Bend’s police force, which is overwhelmingly white despite his city’s population being more than 25 percent black.
“I couldn’t get it done,” he said. He also acknowledged the recent officer-involved shooting of a black man that has gripped the community in South Bend and taken Buttigieg off the campaign trail.
“It’s a mess, and we’re hurting,” he said. “I could walk you through all of the things that we have done as a community, all of the steps that we took … but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan,” a black man who was shot by a white police officer. “And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I have to face the fact that nothing I say will bring him back.”
Buttigieg added that the situation in South Bend is not unique to the rest of the country, which has seen people of color killed by police turned into hashtags as activists call for justice and more police accountability.
“I am determined to bring about a day when a white person driving a vehicle and a black person driving a vehicle, when they see a police officer approaching, feels the exact same thing: a feeling not of fear but of safety,”Buttigieg said.