DETROIT — Joe Biden used to warn his Democratic rivals against forming a "circular firing squad" as they compete for the right to take on President Donald Trump.
Biden helped assemble that squad here Wednesday night during the second round of primary debates. The former vice president was both a frequent shooter and central target in a relentless string of attacks from virtually every side.
Two long-anticipated conflicts erupted: Biden vs. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Biden vs. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, in a repeat of their debate clash last month. And their shots — unlike those fired in Tuesday’s debate involving 10 candidates who spent much of the time arguing about the party’s leftward lean — hit in intensely personal ways as they scrutinized each other’s records in public office.
“Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told Harris as they took the stage.
No one went easy on anyone.
The night was striking, too, for how many of the lower-tier candidates — with plenty of encouragement from the CNN moderators — got in on the action. As the highest polling candidates debating Wednesday, Biden and Harris found themselves, at various times, defending themselves against sharp critiques from former housing secretary Julián Castro, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
There was a sense of whiplash. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been languishing in polls, alluded to an op-ed Biden wrote in the 1980s claiming that Congress was “subsidizing the deterioration of the family” by providing childcare tax credits to wealthier families. She accused Biden of opposing women working outside the home.
“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?” Gillibrand asked. “I just want to know what he meant when he said that.”
Biden pointed out that his current wife and his first wife, who is deceased, had both worked while helping to raise their children, and reminded Gillibrand she had praised his past work on women’s issues.
“I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president,” he said to Gillibrand, to oohs from the crowd.
Harris quickly leapt in, pivoting to an attack on Biden’s record of support for the Hyde Amendment, a law that bars federal funds from being used to pay for most abortions. “Do you now say that you have evolved and you regret that? Because you’ve only since you’ve been running for president this time said that you, in some way, would take that back or didn't agree with the decision that you made over many, many years.”
Harris kept the focus on Biden throughout the night, redirecting explicit attacks from other candidates into criticism of the former vice president. Asked by a moderator early in the night to respond to a comment from Gillibrand, Harris ignored her colleague from New York.
“In response to Sen. Biden about the Affordable Care Act …,” she began.
The early stages of the debate were focused, for the most part, squarely on Harris, who released her own, more moderate version of Medicare for All, the health care plan pioneered by Sanders, days before the debate. Health care has been seen as a weak spot for Harris, who has sometimes fumbled answers on the issue, and her plan came under attack from both sides of the ideological spectrum.
Gabbard hammered Harris for a plan that she said would allow private insurance companies to profit. Biden criticized the plan’s high price tag and potential to end employer-based coverage, accusing Harris of “double-talk.”
Biden had vowed going into Wednesday’s debate to not “be as polite this time.” His advisers said he was caught off guard at the first debate last month, when Harris rebuked him over his past relationships with segregationists and his opposition to federal mandated busing as a means to desegregate schools. She ended the critique on a personal note — how she had been bused to school in the 1970s — that her campaign quickly turned into a T-shirt.
In the last week, Biden had been telegraphing a more aggressive strategy, launching preemptive strikes and indignation that he and his allies made little effort to conceal. When Booker hinted he would hit Biden on the tough crime bills Biden championed as a senator, Biden’s deputy campaign manager framed the criticism of Biden’s crime legislation as hypocritical, given policies Booker supported while mayor of Newark, New Jersey. And earlier Wednesday, senior Biden campaign officials expressed anger over what they said were “mischaracterizations” of Biden’s record. They also dismissed the polling boost Harris got after the June debate as fleeting.
“She got a T-shirt moment out of it,” one official said ruefully, but no sustainable traction.
Booker and Biden got their chance to tangle on criminal justice reform during an extended back-and-forth. Biden, as telegraphed, criticized the Newark police department’s use of stop-and-frisk practices during Booker’s mayoral tenure in between Booker’s criticisms of Biden’s record in the Senate.
“We have a system right now that's broken,” Booker said. “And if you want to compare records — and frankly I'm shocked that you do — I am happy to do that. Because all the problems that he is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills, that you were, frankly, to correct you, Mr. Vice President, you were bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up until 2015.”
When Biden tried to go into specific allegations about policing during Booker’s time in Newark, he responded, “Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community that you're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor.”
Harris and Biden were drawn into another exchange on the issue of race and busing, the breakout moment of the debates last month. But this time, Biden had an answer for Harris’s criticism of his work with segregationists to oppose federally mandated school integration. Biden pointed out that Harris had not brought any cases to desegregate schools in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco during her time as attorney general in California.
Gabbard, too, took an opportunity to criticize Harris’s record in California, going after Harris’s history as a prosecutor, which had so far not received much scrutiny in a long back-and-forth over criminal justice issues.
“Now, Sen. Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president,” Gabbard said. “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.”
But the clashes involving Biden, Booker, and Harris carried the most drama, given the stakes involved for all. Booker and Harris have struggled to match Biden in support among black voters. A recent Monmouth University poll in South Carolina, which holds an early primary where black voters account for a majority of the electorate, Biden’s support among black voters measured at 51%, compared to 12% for Harris and 2% for Booker.
A senior Biden official noted before Wednesday’s debate that it was great to see two prominent black candidates in the race, but “the unfortunate part is we have 51% of the African-American vote and they want it.”
Harris several times addressed Biden by his previous title — Senator Biden. It wasn’t clear if this was an intentional snub, but the former vice president leans heavily on his service under Obama, the nation’s first black president. And during an exchange on immigration, Biden was in the awkward position of emphasizing his role in the Obama administration one minute and minimizing it the next.
“I found that Julián — excuse me — the secretary, we sat together in many meetings,” Biden said after Castro, who had served as Obama’s housing secretary, discussed immigration policy. “I never heard him talk about any of this when he was the secretary.”
Later, when de Blasio — the liberal mayor of New York who attacked Biden from the left — asked Biden to answer for deportations on the Obama administration’s watch, Biden demurred, prompting another shot from Booker.
“First of all, Mr. Vice President, you can't have it both ways,” Booker said. “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.”