By: Tuhin Chakraborty
Former Vice President and Presidential Candidate Joe Biden did well during the Detroit debates, so why can’t we give him credit?
Coming out of the NBC debates in June, Joe Biden was widely criticized for having a woefully weak performance. He stuttered, stumbled, and was unable to push back against Kamala Harris’s allegations of racial injustice when it came to Biden’s working with segregationists or his policies against federally managed bussing. He also appeared far too polite and meek, even cutting himself off when his time was up, despite other candidates ruthlessly pushing through talking points beyond their time limits. Reflecting on this week’s debates, I believe that I can say with confidence that although Biden may not have dominated the debate in the way that many of his supporters were hoping for, he certainly rectified many of his problems from the last debate. Quite frankly, I would argue that Biden had one of the best, if not THE best performance of the night, steadily touting his experience with the Obama administration as well as clear and well-outlined policy proposals for how he plans to tackle a variety of hot-button issues as president, ranging from health care to climate change.
I was not surprised at all when the other candidates immediately ganged up on Biden when the debate started. He is the front runner right now after all. However, unlike his June debacles with Kamala and Eric Swallwell, Biden kept his composure and fought back quite effectively. When attacked for his past support of harsh crime bills, he called out Cory Booker on the questionable setup of the Newark police department when it came to criminal justice reform, to which Booker replied with a zingy Kool-Aide quip that was anything but policy focused. When Julian Castro tore into Biden for not being effective on immigration, Biden made sure to point out how as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, Castro never seemed to mention any of his immigration policies when it mattered in meetings with then-vice-President Biden and then-President Obama. When Kirsten Gillibrand tried to nail him on his previous comments on whether or not women working led to family deterioration, he adroitly noted how Gillibrand has previously praised Biden on his work on women’s rights but was now flip-flopping only because she wanted to be President. This list goes on; the people who had nothing to lose because they were struggling in the polls attacked, and Biden kept up with and clapped back against them all. Yet still, news organizations like CNN (who sponsored the Detroit debates) called his debate “uneven” and USA TODAY even referred to Biden as “battered.” To them, I say this; these debates were not were not a free-for-all so much as 5 or 6 against 1. Biden went into Wednesday night with the toughest situation of any Democratic candidate. Although Tulsi Gabbard did have her moment skewering Kamala Harris on her tough-on-crime term as California Attorney General, almost everyone attacked Biden, and he did very well under such immense pressure.
Furthermore, Biden was often one of the few people on stage actually laying out realistic policies for real issues. On healthcare, he was very explicit in pointing out how he was going to spend $750 billion over 10 years building on the Affordable Care Act and ensuring that it preserves employer and union-based private healthcare coverage. While laying out his plans, he also shrugged off cool-sounding but policy-nonspecific comments from Bill De Blasio about private healthcare not working for everybody. The only candidates with potentially more detailed healthcare plans that I’ve seen are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom were on stage with Biden. Although Kamala Harris did have solid policies coming from her end, Biden effectively exposed her ambiguity between private and public healthcare options, calling it “double talk” and also mentioned how the sheer costs of her plans (in the trillions over the next ten years) may lead to significant tax increases for Americans all over the country.
On climate change, Biden was, compared to his rivals on stage, commendably specific and thorough. Among other actions, he announced that he would get back in the Kyoto accords (not game changing but still a step in the right direction), invest around $400 billion in alternative energy, fund nationwide charging stations so that the country can shift to all electric vehicles by 2030, and also use his status as an elder statesman with international name recognition to establish a more climate action-oriented consensus among other countries to strongly combat climate change. That last bit might be vague, but, if you recall Andrew Yang’s statement on how the US is only responsible for 15% of carbon emissions globally right now, international cooperation with bigger emitters like China is vital. Although Jay Inslee did make an impassioned case that Biden’s “middle ground” plans may be “too little, too late,” and that more extreme action was required, he was not to keen on specifics. For example, he mentioned that the US needed to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible (i.e. in 15 years or so), but he never mentioned how he would do that in the debate. The house may be on fire, but we still need to act with a sound plan.
Personally, Biden is not my first choice to be the nominee; I favor another democrat (whose name is not relevant to this piece) among those running. However, we must give credit where credit is due. Biden improves greatly in Detroit compared to the Miami debates, and I am hard pressed to find another candidate who performed better that night. Whether or not Biden should be held to a different debating standard than those around him due to his front runners is another story, but given the sheer number of rivals willing to pummel him in his policies and legislative history, Biden must be given props for weathering all of their criticism and emerging energetic and undaunted.