DETROIT — Former Vice President Joe Biden summed it up pretty cleanly.
“Everybody’s talking about how terrible I am on all these issues,” he said after an onslaught from nearly every other Democrat onstage with him at the second round of Democratic debates. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was.”
Biden took hits on his criminal justice and immigration record, for not going far enough on his climate change and health insurance proposals, for his past support of trade deals, for his vote to authorize the war in Iraq — even for leaning too hard on President Obama.
While he didn’t take any knockout punches like in the first debate, Biden was consistently on the ropes as his opponents piled on.
“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,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Biden during a testy exchange over their civil rights records and Biden’s support for crime bills that contributed to mass incarceration. “All the problems that he is talking about [are problems] that he created.”
Biden dodged repeatedly when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) pushed him on whether he’d supported President Obama’s mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, eventually saying he keeps his “recommendations to him in private.”
“You can't have it both ways,” Booker fired back. “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.”
And the former vice president took shots from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) who said “as many as 10 million people will not have access to healthcare” under Biden’s plan to expand Obamacare.
She reiterated her attacks on Biden’s work with segregationists to oppose forced busing to integrate schools, and later slammed Biden’s recent on his change of heart on the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal money for abortion.
“Had those segregationists [had] their way, I would not be in the United States Senate,” Harris said. “The vice president has still failed to acknowledge that it was wrong to take the position that he took at that time.”
He wasn’t the only one to take some heavy incoming. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) unloaded on Harris, blasting her for incarcerating people for marijuana use and seeking to hide tainted evidence that eventually ended up dismissing 1,000 drug-related cases.
“People who suffered under your reign as prosecutor,” Gabbard said. “You owe them an apology.”
But Biden bore the brunt of the attacks in a night that turned into a game of king of the hill as his opponents looked to cut down the front-runner.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) warned Biden his smaller-bore plan would make it “too late” to avert global warming-fueled disaster, telling him, “Your argument is not with me, it is with science.”
On his trade record, too, Biden took some heat. DeBlasio challenged Biden to commit to supporting a new North American Free Trade Agreement with protections for labor. Biden agreed after dancing around his previous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leading DeBlasio to declare victory.
“I love your affection for me,” Biden smirked. “You spent a lot of time with me.”
Gillibrand hit him for saying in the 1970s that women working outside the home “would create the deterioration of family” as he explained his opposition to a child tax credit.
“I don’t know what’s happened except you’re now running for president,” Biden shot back after ticking off her previous praise for him and his work on women’s rights issues from the Violence Against Women Act to the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Biden began the night with an acknowledgement that he knew he had a target on his back. “Democrats are expecting some engagement here, and I expect we’ll get it,” he said in his opening remarks after greeting Harris onstage with a jokey “Go easy on me, kid.”
She didn’t. They didn’t.
Cover: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)