Joe Biden looked tan, wrinkle-free, and ready for a gentle game of pickleball.
Unfortunately, he was playing against Senator Kamala Harris of California, who was ready to rumble. During the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate, she told Biden, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.” With that, Harris called out Biden for his opposition to busing and described his fond memories of working with segregationist senators as “hurtful.”
“A mischaracterization of my position across the board,” snapped the former vice president, who went on to explain that he didn’t oppose busing, just having the federal government enforce it. The little girl turned US senator hit back hard: “That’s where the federal government must step in . . . Because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of people.” And that’s when the 76-year-old Biden wrote his own headline — and maybe his own political epitaph: “My time is up, I’m sorry.”
Biden didn’t collapse entirely, but at times he looked wobbly. And that was up against fellow Democrats, who targeted him as an old and bumbling architect of Washington compromise that helped the Republican agenda. Imagine how he might fare next to President Trump.
The debate was supposed to be a showdown between Biden, the establishment Democrat and Bernie Sanders, the fiery socialist who undercut Hillary Clinton in 2016. But that drama never unfolded. The Vermont senator is still mad as hell and wants a revolution. But this time around, he seems less a pied piper and more an angry afterthought. He stood back as Harris took on Biden, likely believing he will gain from Biden’s takedown. He won’t.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., had some good moments, especially when he got a chance to address the police shooting of a black man in his city. Asked why his police force had so few black officers, he said, “Because I couldn’t get it done.” Contrition is good for the soul and the debate stage. But it won’t be enough, if, down the road, Harris decides to take on Buttigieg concerning race.
As for the rest of candidates — this is America, they have the right to run. But, really, what makes them look in the mirror and see a president? It brings to mind the Tom Wolfe phrase, “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
The end story of this debate was Harris’ domination of the field — and of Biden. “Hey guys, America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table,” she said, when her opponents were shouting over each other. She also spoke passionately about immigration — and took it right to Biden, when she said she disagreed with the Obama administration’s policy of deporting undocumented immigrants who were not criminals.
Asked whether he supports deporting undocumented immigrants who have not committed any other offense, Biden said, “That person should not be the focus of deportation.” It was one more wobbly answer during a night of them.
At the start of the debate, US Rep. Eric Swalwell of California reminded Biden of a speech he gave as a presidential candidate many years ago, when he said it was time to pass the torch. “Pass the torch,” he told Biden. “I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden said gamely, with a smile. He will have to fight back hard to hold onto it.