Democratic Debate Night Two: Biden’s Loss Is Kamala Harris’s Gain

Last night, the remaining 10 qualified candidates for the Democratic nomination met for their first debate of the 2020 primary season. It was a very different debate than Wednesday night’s, both in tone and in substance. The high level of interaction between candidates forced issues that should have been talked about, like LGBT issues on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the two pivotal cases decided by the Supreme Court yesterday, aside.

The Participants:

+ Marianne Williamson – Author and activist
+ John Hickenlooper – Former Governor of Colorado
+ Andrew Yang – Former Tech Executive
+ Pete Buttigieg – Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
+ Joe Biden – Former Vice President
+ Bernie Sanders – Senator from Vermont
+ Kamala Harris – Senator from California
+ Kirsten Gillibrand – Senator from New York
+ Michael Bennet – Senator from Colorado
+ Eric Swalwell – Congressman from California’s 15th district

Kamala Harris Is REALLY Good at This

Back in March, Kamala Harris sat, as a member of the Senate’s Judiciary committee, to hear testimony from Attorney General Bill Barr. She patiently waited her turn in the order of seniority until it was her turn to question the AG. Then for the next eight minutes she dismantled Barr so thoroughly that even her 2020 opponent Cory Booker could hardly contain his glee. And yet, somehow in the 118 days since then, we all forgot how good Kamala Harris is at this… because, dear Lord, she is very good.

Harris commanded the stage almost from the opening bell: when Savannah Guthrie asked about plans to pay for each policy proposal, Harris questioned why Republicans are rarely asked to explain where the money to pay for their tax cuts will come from. Later, when the debate descended into a bit of chaos, Harris stood up and became the adult in the room, saying, “America does not want to witness a food fight, they want to know how we are going to put food on their table.”

While other candidates were just happy for the opportunity to make their case to a large audience, Harris came to Miami with the goal of showing that she’s ready for the fight to win the nomination and the presidency. No moment was bigger for the California senator than her confrontation of the former Vice President about race and his history of support for busing. She’d held on to this piece of opposition research since January, when CNN’s Jake Tapper mentioned Biden’s work on busing in an interview. It was the first direct attack on the frontrunner — aside from Eric Swalwell’s urging that Biden “pass the torch” — of the night and the hit landed so squarely on Biden’s chin that he seemed punch-drunk for the rest of the debate.

But while the busing exchange will get more airtime, I think Kamala Harris’ best and bravest moment was when she challenged Biden on the Obama legacy on immigration. It’s one thing to challenge Joe Biden on the issues, it’s another thing to challenge the most popular person in the Democratic Party today through him and, perhaps more importantly, the nostalgia Democrats carry for that time. It’s a difficult needle to thread but Harris did it, respectfully.

“I disagreed with my president, because the policy was to allow deportation of people who by ICE’s own definition were non-criminals,” Harris said. “The problem with this kind of policy, and I know it as a prosecutor — I want a rape victim to be able to run in the middle of the street and wave down a police officer and report the crime against her. I want anybody who has been the victim of any real crime to be able to do that and not be afraid that if they do that, they will be deported, because the abuser will tell them it is they who is the criminal.”

Whatever you think of Kamala Harris’ politics or her history, it was hard to watch last night’s debate and not salivate over how she would eviscerate Trump in a debate.

The Tale of Two Candidates

No candidate goes into a debate knowing what the questions will be but it’s usually pretty easy to anticipate a bulk of them. Candidates and their staff do hours of debate prep, honing their responses on key issues — health care, the economy, climate change — and developing answers for any hot topics that are permeating the news cycle. For all the candidates, the recent pictures of the lifeless bodies of Oscar Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria meant that they’d have to come prepared to talk about asylum and family separation. And when controversy ensnares your own campaign, as it has recently with Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, you walk into the debate knowing that you’re going to get a question about it.

Buttigieg had to know he’d get a question about Eric Logan, the 54-year-old black man killed by police in his city on June 16. Since the shooting, the city’s been awash with protests and the anguish of its black residents has made its way from South Bend to the pages of the New York Times. Buttigieg may not have known what form the question would take but, certainly, he knew that he’d be asked directly about it, so he prepared… and took the opportunity to try to respond differently than he did in his widely criticized performance in a community meeting after the incident.

Rachel Maddow asked why the demographics of the South Bend police department didn’t reflect the community it served and Buttigieg replied candidly, “because I couldn’t get it done.” Whatever steps he’d taken as mayor, whatever good intentions he’d had, they weren’t enough because Eric Logan wasn’t able to come home to his mother. It was brave and honest answer, one that offered more insight into the type of leader Buttigieg would be than anything substantive he could have said at that moment.

Contrast that with Joe Biden. As is his wont, the former vice president’s mouth got him into trouble earlier this month when, at a fundraiser, Biden talked about the “civility” that existed in 1970s Washington, even with ardent segregationists like James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. His 2020 opponents pounced on the suggestion that segregationists were models of any sort of civility, and Biden was indignant about suggestions that he apologize. It caused Biden’s campaign enough consternation that the former vice president was compelled to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus. With that controversy a little over a week old, of course, Joe Biden was going to be asked about it in this debate. He knew it, his campaign knew it, and yet somehow the candidate wasn’t at all prepared for it.

Harris pivoted off the answer given by Buttigieg about South Bend’s police department to talk about race and busing and then directing her argument right at Biden… somehow, he never even saw the question coming. He stumbled to come up with a response, grabbing for one flimsy explanation after another. He accused Harris of mischaracterizing his record — spoiler alert: she wasn’t — and offered “states’ rights” argument in favor of busing… in a Democratic debate… in 2019! Biden did so poorly, he called “time” on his own answer.

Like Buttigieg, Biden could have avoided the entire mess if he’d shown a little bit of humility and empathy in the moment, particularly given that Harris couched her critique in very personal language. He could have admitted that he was wrong to oppose busing and reflect on how much he’s learned since but he’s unwilling to live and learn… a prospect that’s far more worrisome for the Biden campaign that one errant response in a debate.

Bernie Sanders’ Disappearing Act

Of the 10 candidates participating in last night’s debate, Bernie Sanders spoke for a total of 11 minutes, finishing only behind Biden and Harris. He had a few good moments, particularly when he promised to beat Trump by exposing him as a phony and a fraud. But somehow, it seemed like the Vermont Senator disappeared from the debate.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders was able to easily distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton with a strong set of progressive policies. He ran to her left on nearly every policy issue, advocating for things like for Medicare for All and free college. But there’s been a shift in the Democratic Party since then and now the ideas that Sanders touted in 2016 have become much more mainstream. And while that shift might be great for voters and, ultimately, for the country, it puts Sanders in an unenviable position. The glow from his previous run has worn off and voters are looking at new candidates touting those same ideals. In the polls, Elizabeth Warren’s been the great beneficiary of the loss of luster but, on last night’s stage, I think it played to Kirsten Gillibrand’s benefit. When Sanders faltered, she stepped in — most of the time without being called on — to address their Medicare for All bill and “corrupt capitalism.”

Beyond the substance of it, though, there’s a style issue with which the Sanders’ campaign has to contend. Nothing Bernie Sanders said last night felt new. If you paid any attention to Sanders’ rhetoric in 2016 — which, if you’re engaged in the 2020 campaign this early, you probably did — you heard a lot of same talking points. It’s incumbent that Sanders switch the style, if not the substance, of his campaign up so it doesn’t feel like voters have been listening to the same song for the past three years.

What’d you think of the second night of debates? Did any moments or candidates stand out to you? Any candidate that you found underwhelming? Was there an issue you would’ve liked to hear the candidates address.

Next Democratic Debate: July 30-31 in Detroit, Michigan (hosted by CNN)

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A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 400 articles for us.


  1. Great job with the debate coverage, Natalie. Really good. You’re killing more than Kamala killed Biden last night!

  2. – Harris was incredible.
    – I was expecting Yang to be more aggressive and assertive last night. Something that Gillibrand managed to do pretty well. I saw some people dismissing her saying she was “too Tracy Flick” but I don’t see that as an issue. I would vote for Tracy Flick.
    – so Williamson still calls people on the telephone… Don’t do that, please. Send a text instead
    – I guess we will see Biden and Bernie love voters to Warren, Harris, Pete and Castro on the next polls…

  3. Harris has me questioning my Warren/Castro OTP. She killed it!

    I hope the self-help anti-vax maven is about done-for. She’s a bizarre candidate, like the current president, and this country is prone to self-sabotage.

  4. First the easy part. Eric Swalwell and waiving the “I’m young, I’m young” thing. You have a bunch of things to attack Biden with (for example how come every single political deal he has made with Republicans threw the Democrat base under the bus), and you choose to go with his age? Eric, there’s still a bunch of old people voting, and for the most part they really go out and vote on election day.

    What can I say about Kamala Harris? The way she handle the stage was AMAZING and she wiped the floor with Biden. Clearly she was the winner of last night’s debate. But now that the gloves are gone she will be under attack, particularly from the left, for her record as a prosecutor and I can’t wait to see how she goes about it.

    There was also another big highlight for me on the debate, when Michael Bennet went against Biden for the deal he made with McConnel on 2012 about taxes. I don’t think anybody can explain that deal and it’s even worse if you considered that, at the time, Democrats had the majority in the Senate.

    Dear Joe, besides the beat Kamala gave you, nobody mentioned the Hyde Amendment (Kirsten Gillibrand did mentioned it but it wasn’t a direct punch at you), how do you think you will survive Elizabeth Warren going at you? She will destroy you on that, plus big banks, taxes, etc. Another thing I can’t wait to see.

  5. I will preface by saying I didn’t stay up for the debate, it was just too late and my post-run fatigue had me out by 11.

    I did however read the full transcript the NY Times posted this morning, and I will say a few things really stuck out at me about the debate last night. First, Harris, Buttigieg, and Sanders all said things that rather aligned with what I wanted out of the candidates. Of those three, I thought Buttigieg and Harris stood out the most, and I was extremely impressed with Harris’s ability to get her point across and dominate the conversation.

    Of the other candidates my thoughts were as followed:
    -Where was Yang? He spoke like, twice, and while I like the idea of Universal Basic Income, I really didn’t think he did a good job articulating it at all. I also sorta have no idea what else he stood for?
    -I was not a fan of Gillibrand, she didn’t dominate the conversation as well as Harris and to make up the difference I felt like she kept trying to cut in. Wasn’t as huge a fan of her policies either.
    -Biden lost so hard, and for that I cannot be more thankful. I dread the idea that he could be pushed through as ‘democratic candidate’ by the superdelegates. The sooner he can be knocked out from the running the better.
    -Bennet was kinda… how do I phrase this, pathetic. It seemed like he was clinging onto Gillibrand for a lot of it, but whereas she was contributing he wasn’t really… doing much? It also sounded like the few times when he had the spotlight, that he was surprised it was even his turn. Like wake up man, make your time count.
    -Apparently people really like Williamson? I can honestly say I read the entire transcript and I really did not get a feel for her save for in her closing remarks. I knew where Harris stood, I knew where Buttigieg stood, I knew where Sanders stood. I even knew where Biden and Gillibrand stood… but Williamson completely failed to leave any sort of impression on me somehow. Did I miss some sort of memo or something?
    -Hickenlooper left a very negative taste in my mouth with their closing remarks essentially fear mongering about socialism. Sorry, we get enough of that from the republicans, take that elsewhere.
    -Other candidate(s): really did not leave an impression.

    • As someone who just moved away from CO, tour takes on Hick and Bennett are exactly right.

  6. I really struggle to swallow the harm Harris has done by advocating for for-profit prisons and even fairly recently saying we needed prison labor more than prison reform (YIKES). And yet I want to root for the woman of color and she is doing so well in these debates. It’s getting me all turned around.

    That being said, I genuinely appreciate the Autostraddle election coverage and really appreciate that it’s a queer person of color. My mind about primaries is not 100% made up but I am really thrilled to see coverage that cares about the same things I do.

    • Yeah, Kamala as a bit of a mix track record out here and really want to root for her. However, some of her records have me being cautious. If I remember correctly she also was against prop to legalize cannabis in California in 2010 as district attorney of the SF, but then activist thankfully made her change her tune.

    • Yeah no it really kinda sucks that the only WOC in this debate is a through-and-through authoritarian cop who denied trans inmates healthcare and advocates prison labour (a form of fucking SLAVERY), while the only actual social-democrat is an old white dude…. but I guess ya gotta take what you can get.

  7. “It’s incumbent that Sanders switch the style, if not the substance, of his campaign up so it doesn’t feel like voters have been listening to the same song for the past three years.”

    ……….really? Why?

    Seriously, why should one play this PR game? Virtually nothing has gotten better since 2016, and most things have gotten worse. The poor are as poor as they’ve ever been, and the ruling class are still grinding up their bones to be grist for the mill of capital. I think Bernie’s style is just fine the way it is — it’s about the policies, the substance, the actual (quasi-)revolutionary change we need in the United States. I would ideally like to see the capitalist/colonialist mode of production be abolished in this country once and for all, but Bernie is a damn good first step towards that. He has been saying the same goddamn things for nigh-on forty years, and it’s always been true. I don’t think he needs to change style at all: style is a red herring, focused on by the mass media (which depends on the spectacle to keep it alive).

    • I support Bernie but sometimes I am a little disappointed with his responses sounding too much like a stump speech. It can be too much of the same and people tune it out. I thought he did okay at the debates but not great. It’s tough because his theory of change (basically, the organization of millions of people across the country demanding change) is not one that is really well-known or talked about. So when people hear “political revolution” or “the people need to stand up” they think he’s being vague or that he has no plan. But he’s right. No matter who wins, we need people to organize outside of electoral politics to achieve any real change.

    • Bernie should change his style and substance (though admittedly, I am chuckling at the thought of Bernie with any substance) because it wasn’t even enough for him to win in 2016, and the competition is even stiffer this time around. Whether one likes the PR game or not, he’s not doing his campaign any favors by neglecting to refresh the strategy that lost him the nomination the last go-around.

    • I agree with everything you said here!!!! Its as simple as this for me: I don’t care what a candidate says or performs like or appeals to, if they take big and/or corporate donations they are cancelled. Full stop. The other candidates are parroting Bernies’ platform and messages because they know how popular they actually are. But that doesn’t mean shit later on when they are forced to cave to corporate and big donors. Its so tiring when people continue to choose their politicians based on emotions. Like falling for a partner who is good looking and charismatic but then immediately screws around behind your back, then acting shocked and surprised you got fooled again. Maybe save this for your own dating app escapades and this time decide to choose more critically and seriously for the benefit of our community and other marginalized people that continue to struggle and suffer discrimination and injustice.

    • I mean I agree with you Elizabeth K…….

      Oliviactually comments sound bot like

  8. Watching the debates reminded me what a terrible format it is to evaluate politicians and their beliefs. It’s a spectacle, and a way for candidates to make their marks, but it won’t really tell you what they stand for. You have to examine their record, career, and political philosophy.

    To me it seemed like a lot of people espousing progressive/social-democratic positions, and I could really see Bernie’s 2016 campaign rhetoric shaping the debate. But that made it hard to discern differences between the candidates. Make no mistake, there are real differences!

    Some more thoughts
    – I don’t think the /party/ has moved left, per se. Some of the base has been energized by seeing democratic socialist ideas get light. Moderates feel alienated. Democratic politicians are generally far to the right of Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but you wouldn’t know it from how they talked about wealth inequality and healthcare this week.
    – I don’t support Kamala Harris because of her politics, but I will give it to her that she performed well in the debate. It was great to watch her go after Biden and to watch his face fall.
    – We NEED a climate debate. They gave it a handful of minutes across hours. They treated it like a single issue among many, which is how the DNC thinks of it, but they’re dead wrong. It’s an emergency and it’s core to everything else.

    reference for why I am adamantly opposed to Pete and Kamala:

    • Thank you for the link. Agree re: limitations of debate format and need for more attention to climate.

  9. Natalie this debate coverage is *excellent*, I’m so glad you’re taking on this task! I was just thinking about how I have to wait almost an entire year before you run another March Madness bracket (which is obviously way more fun and way less scary than politics) but I feel so lucky that you’re guiding us through this election season with your excellent reporting and really wonderful writing voice.

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