Former vice president Joe Biden tried to go on the attack against one of his sharpest critics on criminal justice reform, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and ended up creating a big moment for Booker instead.

What happened

The debate conversation turned to criminal justice reform and almost immediately, Booker criticized Biden’s authorship of a 1994 tough-on-crime bill: “Mr. Vice President has said that, since the 1970s, every major crime bill — every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it. And, sir, those are your words, not — not mine. And this is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws. And you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”

Biden brought up Booker’s record as mayor of Newark a decade ago: “Since 2007, I, for example, tried to get the crack-powder-cocaine disparity . . . totally eliminated.

“In 2007 you became mayor and you had a police department that was — you went out and you hired Rudy Giuliani’s guy and engaged in stop-and-frisk. You had 75 percent of those stops reviewed as illegal. You found yourself in a situation where three times as many African American kids were caught in that chain and caught up. The Justice Department came after you for saying you were . . . engaging in behavior that was inappropriate, and then in fact nothing happened the entire time you were mayor.”

Booker: “. . . It’s no secret that I inherited a criminal — a police department with massive problems and decades-long challenges.

He pivoted quickly to Biden: “We have a system right now that’s broken. 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."

Biden: “Number one, the bill he talks about is a bill that in my — our administration, we passed.

“. . . There was nothing done for the entire eight years he was mayor, there was nothing done to deal with the police department that was corrupt. Why did you announce on the first day a zero-tolerance policy of stop-and-frisk and hire Rudy Giuliani’s guy in 2007, when I was trying to get rid of the crack cocaine disparity?”

Booker: “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor. You need to come to the city of Newark and see the reforms that we put in place. The New Jersey head of the ACLU has said that I embraced reforms not just in action, but in deeds.

“Sir, you are trying to shift the view from what you created. There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that “tough on crime” phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine. This isn’t about the past, sir. This is about the present right now. I believe in redemption.”

The backstory

Why is Biden being attacked for his record on criminal justice?

Biden has been vulnerable from Day 1 of his campaign for his work shepherding a 1994 tough-on-crime bill through the Senate that President Bill Clinton signed. It’s legislation that many of his 2020 rivals, including Booker and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), have said contributed to mass incarceration. (Experts say the bill was one contributing factor to the United States’ high incarceration rates.)

What’s Biden doing about his record now?

Biden has expressed regret for supporting sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine, guidelines that experts say disproportionally jailed black people. And he’s trying to reshape his image away from that legislation: He brought up several times in this debate how he worked in the Senate a decade to fix the disparity in crack-cocaine sentencing. And last week, he released a criminal justice reform plan that would abolish the federal death penalty, decriminalize marijuana and stop jailing people charged with only drug use.

What has Booker said about Biden’s record on criminal justice?

Booker immediately criticized Biden’s plan as inadequate. But his broader point was that Biden is the wrong person to address criminal justice reform, no matter how good his policies are. He accuses Biden of creating a situation that led to people being in jail for life for drug charges across the country.

“The proud architect of a failed system is not the right person to fix it,” Booker said last week.

To some degree, this is an issue where a politician’s ideology is less important than the era the politician comes from. Biden has been criticized by his 2020 Democratic opponents and President Trump for advocating policies to jail drug offenders two decades ago. (Trump signed into law Booker’s federal prison reform bill that rewrote chunks of the ’94 bill to be less strict.)

What was up with Booker’s ‘Kool-Aid’ line?

This is also an issue in which politics drove the policy debate. Booker is not quite in the top tier of candidates. Yet the luck of the draw had him next to Biden and Harris on the second night of the debate. This was his moment to get noticed, and in politics, you get noticed by attacking the people ahead of you in the polls. For the reasons above, Booker felt like he had a strong opening to criticize Biden on criminal justice reform.

Booker is also capable of creating buzzy moments. Earlier in the debate, he accused Biden of picking and choosing which of Obama’s policies to support and managed to fold in how Trump called some countries “shithole" places — a curse word that didn’t get bleeped out on CNN. Shortly after, he dropped his “Kool Aid” line when Biden was trying to accuse him of poorly running Newark’s police department: “There’s a saying in my community, you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”

Every candidate’s aim in these debates is to drop a memorable attack line that instantly reverberates across social media. And Booker did just that, while contrasting himself with the leader in the polls on a major issue.