HOUSTON — With all the leading Democratic candidates on the same stage for the first time this year, former vice president Joe Biden on Thursday delivered the kind of performance his supporters have been waiting for — combative when needed and in the thick of the action throughout.
Biden did not dominate from start to finish and did not make it through the evening mistake-free. But on balance this was the kind of evening he needed, after two previous debates in which he drew mixed to negative reviews, and after uneven performances at Democratic gatherings and along the campaign trail.
In the first two debates, Biden became the target of attacks from those running against him. On Thursday, he didn’t wait for that to happen. He got the first question and used it to go on the offensive against Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), challenging them on the cost and complexity of their proposals to replace the current health-care system with Medicare-for-all.
The two senators stood their ground, arguing that overall families would save money on health care, but Biden pressed his case that neither has fully explained how they would finance a public-run health-care system and insisted that everyone would face a hike in their income taxes. “Now, it’s not a bad idea if you like it,” he said. “I don’t like it.”
The exchange highlighted the ideological division within the party and pointed to the question all Democratic voters will be asked to answer: What is the best way to defeat President Trump in November 2020, and what kind of candidate can do that?
The debate played out mostly on liberal turf, another reminder of the Democratic Party’s new center of gravity, one that Trump and his reelection campaign will seek to exploit as the Democrats are caught up in their own nomination battle.
The focus heading into the debate was on Biden, Warren and Sanders, it being the first time the former vice president and the rising Massachusetts senator were paired in a debate, and the opening half-hour suggested that this would be a night in which they would be at the center of the stage and the center of the conversation.
Instead, this was also a night when other candidates who are still running in single digits in the polls showed their potential. Some might argue that those who aren’t leading in the polls had the best of nights.
Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) spoke with passion and eloquence about two mass shootings in his state in the past weeks and pressed his case, controversial as it is, to force owners of assault weapons to sell them back to the government.
Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) used their moments to show their passions, and both issued powerful calls for leadership that would seek to heal and unify the country.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg came into the debate with things to prove. Buttigieg has plateaued after a highly positive spring introduction. Harris has fallen back after winning plaudits for her first debate performance. Both were credible when they had the stage, but neither probably did much to advance their candidacies, especially given how some of the others around them performed.
The debate played out against a backdrop of shifting fortunes in the Democratic nomination campaign and a sharpening in the stratification of the field of candidates. Although there is considerable time between now and the first votes in 2020, the stakes continue to rise, especially for those who have struggled throughout the year to gain a foothold.
But the fact that some of those far down in the polls stood out on Thursday was a reminder that fortunes can change and candidates written out of the script on Labor Day can look far better at the turn of a new year ahead of the first votes.
What has been consistent throughout this contest is Biden’s standing atop the polls. He has not been the kind of leader who appears so formidable that others have been reluctant to take him on. Quite the contrary. But through good days and not so good days, he has maintained a breadth of support that none of the others have yet matched.
Biden has enjoyed the top spot in virtually every national measure of the campaign, seen as the most electable by a considerable margin and displaying the broadest support within the party of any of the candidates. That position has come with more intense scrutiny, and often negative assessments, of his performance as a candidate.
There were moments he would want to take back. Pressed by one of the moderators, Jorge Ramos, to declare whether he had made a mistake in supporting the deportation policies carried out during the presidency of Barack Obama, Biden paused, seemingly uncomfortably, and then said, “I’m the vice president of the United States.”
That drew a rebuke from Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and housing secretary in the Obama administration. He challenged Biden, claiming the former vice president seemed happy to take credit for good things under Obama but walked away from the bad things.
Biden quickly tried to clean things up. “I stand with Barack Obama all eight years, good, bad and indifferent,” he said. “That’s where I stand. I did not say I did not stand with him.”
That was not the only time he fully embraced the former president. In the opening exchange over health care, he said of Warren, “The senator says she’s for Bernie, well, I’m for Barack,” a reference to his plan to build on the Affordable Care Act rather than replace it with a single-payer plan favored by Sanders and Warren.
Biden and Sanders clashed over trade policy and especially over the congressional vote that authorized the war in Iraq. Biden said he had been mistaken to believe then-President George W. Bush would use the authorization as a tool to use at the United Nations to force inspections on the Iraqis. Sanders said he never believed Bush from the beginning.
Warren has been an attention-getter over the summer and the only one of the top three candidates to show upward movement in the polls. She has risen to a position that threatens Sanders’s standing and has caused Biden loyalists and other Democrats to take notice. In the analysis of many Democrats, she has been the most consistent candidate in the field and one who has set a pace, particularly on policy, that has forced others to follow along.
In the first two debates, Warren drew positive reviews for the consistency and clarity of her message and for the discipline she showed in knowing when to engage and when not to engage. On Thursday, she was effective again in making her case against a system she believes has been corrupted by big corporations, lobbyists and the richest individuals in the country.
But at times she also disappeared from the conversation, even with her hand up seeking recognition from the moderators from ABC and Univision. Her evening was generally free of mistakes, but those who thought Warren might take down Biden or deliver a major blow were overly optimistic.
Biden was aided as much by the fact that neither Warren nor Sanders was the dominant force on Thursday as by his own performance. There was one moment that caused Twitter to go into overdrive, which was when he referred to listening to “a record player” in their homes, something that has echoes of households of decades ago.
It was both a reminder of why some Democrats worry about Biden as an effective long-distance runner and why the Biden campaign believes political insiders are detached from the real-world priorities of everyday Americans.
If Thursday’s debate was good for Biden’s candidacy, it fell far short of settling anything. There are serious differences between Biden and the two senators who are currently his principal rivals, and the field of candidates is big enough, diverse enough and talented enough for things to change in the months ahead.
Biden offers one direction, Warren and Sanders another, and the rest of the candidates are looking to stake their claim as the best fit for that electoral matrix. Thursday’s debate provided hints of the battle to come.