The history of presidential debates includes a highlight reel that is etched in our collective national memory.
In 1988, vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen turned to Dan Quayle who had compared himself to Kennedy and said, “Dan, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
In 1984, Ronald Reagan, who showed his age in the first debate with Democrat Walter Mondale, recovered and performed well in the second contest, turned to Mondale and said, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
In 1976, President Gerald Ford did not seem to know that Poland was a Russian satellite.
In last night’s debate, we had another such moment when California Sen. Kamala Harris attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for working with racist Democratic Sens. Herman Talmadge of Georgia and Jim Eastland of Mississippi in pushing a ban on government-ordered and court-ordered school busing.
She began by telling the story of a little girl who had to ride the bus every day to go from her bad neighborhood and inadequate school to a good one a few miles away. Then she dropped the bomb: She was that girl!
Biden had been chided for saying he always was civil with Eastland and Talmadge even though they disagreed frequently. “Eastland,” he said “never called me ‘boy’ but always called me ‘son.’”
But, on March 2, 1977, freshman Sen. Joe Biden wrote to Eastland, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, for his help in passing an anti-busing bill.
“My bill,” Biden wrote “strikes at the heart of the injustice of court-ordered busing. It prohibits the federal courts from disrupting our educational system in the name of the constitution where there is no evidence that the governmental officials intended to discriminate.”
He added: “I believe there is growing sentiment in the Congress to curb unnecessary busing.”
Then, on June 30, 1977, after his bill progressed, the bromance continued when Biden wrote Eastland: “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my antibusing legislation to a vote.” He wrote again to ask that Eastland speak out on behalf of the Biden amendment during the floor debate in the Senate.
Like an old soldier being hauled before the international community for crimes he committed as a young man during the war, Biden was outed in this debate.
In the process, we met Kamala Harris at her best — strong, feisty, determined, righteous, eloquent and demanding. We could, in that moment, peer into her soul.
Apart from Harris’ shredding of Biden, the debate’s winner was Bernie Sanders. His constant, forceful advocacy and consistency was impressive. He pulled no punches and was energized by an anger that he has only barely tapped to date. It was hard to believe that he and Biden are the same age. Biden was the representative of the old Democratic Party while Bernie was the young firebrand.
Biden, himself, did well other than during the exchange with Harris. He did not stumble over his words or mispronounce them — a sure sign of age that has bedeviled him in other forums. He was forceful, coherent, and did a good job of mobilizing Obama’s record on his behalf.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg showed that, despite his only 37 years, he belonged on the stage with the others. He handled the racial/police confrontation in his city with grace and integrity. His theme about a new generation sounded clearly and he did himself much good.
My choice for fifth place goes to Marianne Williamson whose quite different approach to issues stood in contrast to everyone else. When she said we did not have a health system, but a sickness system, and called for broader mitigation of the causes of illness and for tougher regulation of drug companies, polluters, and food manufacturers who are making us sick, she struck a little heard but highly responsive chord.
Her comments on how our border policies amount to child abuse woke us up and made us see them in a new context. Will Americans listen to her? She has had four number one bestsellers, so lots of people do.
I felt that the other five candidates did not impress.
Andrew Yang hardly spoke at all and usually just to repeat his “trickle up” proposal for annual subsidies to all Americans.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado did not break through, although his warning about embracing socialism needs to be heard within the Democratic Party.
Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado sounded like a repeat of governors Jeb Bush and Scott Walker basing their presidential candidacies on endless repetition of their home state accomplishments.
Eric Swalwell scored with his buy-back program for assault rifles but little else.
And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand hurt herself by imitating her former senior Sen. Hillary Clinton. She was tinny, shrieky, overdone and unappealing.
Fortunately for her, she is not high up enough in the polls for anyone to ask her about her career representing big tobacco in its efforts to hide their knowledge of their product’s addictive and carcinogenic properties.
The bottom line from the two nights of debates is that Biden will drop, both because of his denouement by Harris and the strong showings by his rivals for the minority vote: Cory Booker and Julian Castro. Biden will also pale in comparison to Sanders who performed just like he always does — well — in the debates.
Two new candidates made it to the map and engaged our attention: Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard. Expect them to show in future polls.
Who won the Democratic debate — night 2?
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