On both nights of the latest Democratic debate, it took forty-five minutes to move on from health care. That may seem like a narrow start, but it proved useful in considering the Party’s future, because the topic invokes not only the central accomplishment of the Obama Administration but of a liberal generation that worked toward the Affordable Care Act. Was all of that effort a triumph, or not nearly enough? “Obamacare took care of twenty million people right off the bat. One hundred million with preëxisting conditions,” Joe Biden said on Wednesday night. “Obamacare is working.” For the first six months of the Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama’s name was scarcely mentioned. During Wednesday’s debate, his legacy was back in the room. Recalling Obama’s Cabinet meetings, Biden asked the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who now advocates decriminalizing the southern border, why he never mentioned the idea back then. Castro said, “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.”
Biden is more than two decades older than many of his rivals, and so he couldn’t just talk about the Democratic past—he had to own it. There was a generational dynamic from the start. Biden, smiling brightly, leaned down to his antagonist from the first debate, Kamala Harris, as she walked onstage, saying, “Take it easy on me, kid.” Biden made a more coherent case for himself this time, perhaps because he kept summoning his work with Obama. He noted that the 2009 stimulus package, a seven-hundred-and-eighty-seven-billion-dollar plan, had “revived this state,” referring to Michigan, “and many others.” Democrats were unified on citizenship for the Dreamers, he said, because “the President put that into law, and made a pathway to citizenship for people.” Bill de Blasio challenged Biden to defend Obama’s record of aggressive deportations of undocumented people. Biden said, “To compare him to Donald Trump, I think, is absolutely bizarre.”
The trouble for Biden has been that you can’t assemble a biography by pulling selectively from your own past. As the debate went on, his rivals poked deeper into his record, pushing Biden further from the Party’s present progressive consensus. “You said women working outside the home would lead to the deterioration of the family,” Kirsten Gillibrand said to Biden. “These are direct quotes.” (Not exactly. Biden wrote a version of that line in an op-ed in 1981, opposing an expansion of a child-care tax credit for wealthy dual-income households.) Eventually, she forced him to say, “I never believed it.” Jay Inslee raised his own opposition to the Iraq War. “I did make a bad judgment,” Biden offered. Harris revived her attack on Biden’s claim that his history of working with segregationists in the Senate was a strength: if Biden’s old colleagues had had their way, she said, “I wouldn’t have been a senator, Senator Booker wouldn’t have been a senator, and President Obama wouldn’t have been President to give you your job.” Cory Booker was sharp, too, invoking Biden’s authorship of the 1994 crime bill, of which, Booker told Biden, “you were bragging, calling it the Biden Crime Bill, up to 2015.” Biden replied by criticizing Booker for not ending stop-and-frisk policies when he was the mayor of Newark, and Harris for failing to take action, as California’s attorney general, to correct segregation in the Los Angeles and San Francisco school districts. Neither criticism cut deep—Harris and Booker are the two African-American candidates in the race, and the two whose careers have been most dedicated to racial equality—but they made a separate point. The Party has changed quickly, and many of the candidates on the stage have pivoted mid-career. Everyone on the stage has a past.
How much had Biden’s party fixed? Every time the candidates went out into Detroit this week, they could see places where it hadn’t done nearly enough. Inslee visited what he called the most polluted Zip Code in the country, 48217, in southwest Detroit, where, one activist said, there are “thirty-plus smokestacks in three square miles,” and clusters of cancer, asthma, and C.O.P.D. Onstage, Andrew Yang said, “And, if you go to a factory here in Michigan, you will not find wall-to-wall immigrants. You will find wall-to-wall robots and machines.” At times, the betrayal sounded personal. When the debate turned to the Iraq War, Tulsi Gabbard, who had been deployed with the National Guard to Iraq, said, “We were all lied to.” Inslee, speaking of climate change, said, “We are fighting for our survival.”
The Democratic field looked stronger, if more quarrelsome, on Wednesday night than it did on Tuesday. The candidates drew clearer and more meaningful distinctions, the arguments were feistier and more specific, the wisdom of a sharp progressive turn challenged more directly. Harris and Biden, the two leading candidates onstage, exited in roughly the same position they entered: a draw. The meaningful question hanging over the primary was put to voters directly: Did the Party want to break with the politics of its own past, or did it consider that past enough? “We believe in redemption in this party,” de Blasio said to Biden, a bit sarcastically, after a combative exchange. Biden replied, “I hope you’re part of it.”
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