Tense, interruption-filled moments during the second night of the Democratic Party’s first presidential debate highlighted the generational divide underscoring the primary.
A cadre of Democrats onstage criticized former vice president Joe Biden, who is 76, for his record and made the case that it was time to hand the reins of the Democratic Party over to a younger generation of party leaders.
“I was 6 years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans. That candidate was then-senator Joe Biden,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, referencing a speech Biden had given in 1987.
“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,” Swalwell added, taking a swipe at Biden’s centrist campaign, which has pushed a pragmatic, nostalgic vision of a pre-Trump America.
Swalwell went on to argue that if the country wants to move forward on issues like gun control, student loan debt, climate change, and automation, that it was time to hand over those responsibilities to a new generation of Democrats.
“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden quipped back with a smile.
On Thursday night, the candidates onstage represented a wide swath of generations with a nearly 40-year age difference between candidates like Swalwell and Buttigieg, 38 and 37, respectively, and Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, 76 and 77.
Sen. Kamala Harris, in the debate’s biggest single moment, criticized Biden for looking back fondly on his work with segregationist senators and what that work meant for a whole generation of younger black Americans. The issue had overshadowed the presidential race as the candidates prepared to campaign across South Carolina for Rep. Jim Clyburn’s fish fry and the state party convention.
“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris told Biden. “That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously.”
Following Swalwell’s attack, the candidates broke out into a squabble over whose generation is best fit to lead the country.
“As the youngest guy on the stage I feel like I ought to contribute to the generational conversation,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has run his campaign on generational change, could be heard shouting while Marianne Williamson said she forgives Swalwell for his “young and immature comments.”
“As a part of Joe’s generation let me respond, the issue is not generational,” Sanders said. “The issue is who has the guts to take on Wall Street, to take on the fossil fuel industry, to take on the big money interests who have unbelievable influence of the economic and political influence of this country.”
“These issues haven’t gotten better over a number of years,” Swalwell replied as the debate dissolved into a shouting match with candidates trying to be heard. “These issues still persist for 30 years. For 30 years.”