Joe Biden wasn’t mentioned at all by Elizabeth Warren and the nine Democratic dwarfs Wednesday night at the first debate. But today the former Vice President and clear 2020 front-runner was center stage in Miami and the man to beat.
Even with Biden, a breakout by Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Bernie Sanders, the booster rocket-shedding Pete Buttigieg, and six other contenders on stage in Miami, the upshot was a primetime of compelling television that was less policy wonk central, and more about putting the electoral fate of the most powerful country on Earth front and center with a potential POTUS or two.
To that end, from little known Congressmen and Senators, with the noted exception of Sanders throughout most of the second hour of tonight’s two-hour debate, blooding Biden became the main aim of most of the Democrats double digits behind him and a California Senator who saw her moment.
“As the Vice President of the United States, I worked with a man who, in fact, we worked very hard to see to it that we dealt with these issues in a major, major way,” a rattled Biden replied to a hard swing from the “only black person on the stage,” as Harris pointed out, on his background on civil rights.
To soften the blow, Biden invoked the last POTUS, who was the first African American to hold the office. That link to Obama and reinvigorating the coalition that elected the man from Hawaii in 2008 and 2012 was Biden’s underlying theme tonight, and he brought it up again and again tirelessly in an event that had high production value narrative soaking its bones.
Which means, launching off a strong viewership of 15.3 million watching on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, and 9 million catching the showdown of sorts on streaming on Wednesday, the second two-hour debate of the Democrats was simply much more of a marquee show, with some pyrotechnics thrown in – no wonder Donald Trump chimed in from overseas just before sitting down with Vladimir Putin.
Yes, there was the same stunted format that renders complex proposals to complex problems to monosyllabic declarations.
But from the opening introduction by Lester Holt, with Savannah Guthrie and Telemundo’s José Diaz-Balart by the NBC News anchor’s side, the atmosphere was much more “spirited,” to quote Holt, and the stakes seemingly much higher as the past, present and future of top tier American progressive politics pitched their wares.
As Today co-host Guthrie made clear, “health care, immigration” plus “jobs, the economy and climate change” were on the menu like last night for center stage Biden, a New Zealand worshiping Marianne Williamson, John Hickenlooper, the tieless Andrew Yang, Buttigieg, the always-fire- breathing Sanders, Harris, Empire State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell.
Having learned a lesson off the mainly staid shindig of last night, the NBC moderators on Thursday also let the gladiators pull out their rhetorical swords this evening and slash away at each other in true blood sport fashion – though Dems are more into flesh wounds, if you know what I mean?
Pushing the first commercial break back until 48 minutes after the 9 PM ET start, the streamlined result was almost everyone who actually had a chance to speak broke the one-minute answer and 30-second follow-up rules and jumped all over the competition in a mild brawl that shattered some of the consultant bullet points.
Lacking the open microphones that marred Wednesday’s debate and rightfully earned Trump’s online mocking on the way to the G20 summit in Japan, tonight was a little slicker and a little sharper – though there was another spate of technical difficulties. Also, coming off the almost forgotten first installment of this week’s Democratic debates miniseries yesterday, it was hard not to look at the stage in the Florida metropolis and see a possible 46th and 47th POTUS, with the wide generational range of the contenders prancing behind the podiums.
Of course, near non-existent-polling Rep. Swalwell tried to horn in on that with his demand near the end of the first half-hour that Biden get out of the way and the race and “pass the torch” to a new generation of Dems. “I’m still holding on to that torch,” the well-seasoned crowd-pleaser Biden responded, after a clearly sympathetic Holt asked if he’d like to “sing a torch song.”
At that point, as a deep-pocketed Hollywood donor told Deadline earlier this week, this debate miniseries was Joe Biden’s to lose. The passionate applause in the room and the pathetic bickering among the likes of rivals Sanders and no-hoper Gillibrand made it obvious Obama’s right-hand man wasn’t going to lose anything to the likes of Swalwell or others, although Biden had to give up some traction to the multi-pronged muscular performance of Sen. Harris, despite her ill-named “3 AM agenda”.
The opening question went to 2016 alum Sanders, who has dipped to third place in the Democratic polls after the bump Warren got from last night. Unlike last night, Sanders eschewed, giving the partisan crowd at the Adrienne Arsht Center his autobiography.
Also unlike Night 1, following a few jabs against Trump by the ex-VP, Bernie Sanders tore into the ex-Celebrity Apprentice host unapologetically. “Trump is a phony,” said the Vermont Senator, with Biden on one side and Harris on the other. “Trump is a pathological liar and a racist”.
That was basically Bernie’s best for the night, as the topics he introduced to the Democrats in 2016 have become the status quo for the party and his limelight has dimmed.
Fully aware he was the best punching bag around after Trump, Biden centered on the sins and shortcomings of the incumbent. It was a smart move and proved an old dog can learn new tricks if he has to – even as Kamala Harris sought to bite deep on a very personal POV on busing and Jim Crow in what may prove a big bounce for her.
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 28, 2019
Even though he was a U.S. Senator for over 30 years, ran for POTUS twice before, and took on Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan in Veep contests, debates have never been Joe Biden’s forte. The fact is, the once unofficial third Senator from the Keystone State is a man who has to tell you how he exited the vehicle when he gets out of a car.
Though Biden had the most speaking time with 13 minutes and 30-seconds rocking the mic, for the most part, that oversharing and over-speaking guy didn’t show up tonight but neither did his famous empathy when Harris confronted him with her story.
Focusing his campaign on Trump as if he already has the nomination, the high-name-recognition Biden wanted to coast more on a verse, chorus, verse approach, and for the most part, hung back when there was no reason for him to get into it with his lesser known rivals – unless they came after him.
Having also been labeled as a man who can’t avoid a gaffe if given enough time, the 76-year old, 47th VPOTUS has had to play a lot of defense since announcing in late April that he was kicking off a third run for the White House, with stumbles over segregationists, abortion rights, being seen as way too handsy and out of touch with the mood of the party he aims to lead into the election next November.
If a salt of the earth Biden held his lead in a far more adrenalized and sharp elbows night and dropped 44th’s name strategically, Harris stepped on the Executive Office stage early and then often, with an opportunity and a line that Aaron Sorkin probably kicked himself at home for having never written.
“America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we’re going to put food on their table,” California’s former Attorney General and current junior Senator proclaimed, as her fellow Senators proved that they were just not really primetime material, as politics as usual broke out.
There was also a naked moment or two of the real people behind the practiced veneer of 21st century politicians. Having had a spectacular start to his race for the Oval Office, Mayor Pete has tumbled in recent weeks, as a fatal police shooting this month in his hometown brought racial and institutional divisions to the fore and showed how limited Buttigieg’s scope is.
Tonight, after some schticky banter with co-moderator Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow turned the spotlight right on the Mayor’s scab and his community’s pain. “I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg admitted of diversifying the South Bend police force, admitting the “anguish” the town is in. If Buttigieg has any hope of turning his campaign for the big leagues into more than a flash in the pan, his candor could provide the path.
And it’s a long path to November 3, 2020.
The fact that these first debates are happening so early, like they did in the last election, and the Iowa caucuses aren’t until February 3 and the New Hampshire primary doesn’t occur until February 11, poignantly proves that Presidential elections are like award season in Hollywood – never ending.