The big takeaway from last night, according to Politico’s Marc Caputo, was the narrative that practically wrote itself after the first debate in June: Biden fights back! After getting a little blindsided by Kamala Harris the first time around, Biden prepared better for the nearly all-out attack from everyone else on stage hoping to replicate Harris’ polling bump. Most media outlets gave Biden the W simply for surviving it, but Caputo also notes that Biden gave as good as he got this time:
Criminal justice, climate change, health care, trade, abortion, women’s rights, the Iraq War, immigration — Biden took hits on all of those issues, from all sides of the stage. In all, he was attacked by seven of the nine other candidates present.
But unlike the debate last month — when California Sen. Kamala Harris ambushed him for his record on segregation and busing, leaving him stammering and unable to answer clear answers — Biden survived with comparatively minimal damage. His survival alone was a moral victory of sorts.
It calmed jittery donors and staff who were worried about a repeat of last month’s debate flop. And the multiple attacks, they said, cemented in the minds of Americans that Biden is the front-runner who won’t be easily knocked off. After all, Biden survived last month’s scare, and this time he was much better in an even tougher situation.
Well, who doesn’t like a comeback story? How much of this is reality and how much is narrative will be difficult to suss out. Biden, for all of his other shortcomings, is a sharp debater who miscalculated in June in thinking that the first debate would be more colloquial. On the other hand, Biden’s almost certainly going to win the nomination, and that means he has to build a reputation of dominance even when it might not exactly fit.
Also predictably, Harris herself got targeted by Tulsi Gabbard, Biden’s best buddy in the 23 And Me Sweepstakes. For some reason, however, Harris herself got blindsided by Gabbard’s attack on her record despite Gabbard telegraphing the punch for weeks. Harris clearly lost her composure, losing whatever momentum she gained from another exchange on busing with Biden, who rattled Harris initially by bringing up her own record. Gabbard moved in for the kill:
How could Harris not be prepared for this attack, especially from Gabbard? She never answered the substance of the criticism, instead relying on a kind of you weren’t there response. It took hours for Harris to generate a comeback, one a competent candidate would have prepared in advance:
.@KamalaHarris calls @TulsiGabbard an "apologist for an individual, Assad, who has murdered people in his country like cockroaches. She has embraced and been an apologist for him… I can only take her criticisms so seriously."
— Josh Rogin (@joshrogin) August 1, 2019
As Rogin went on to say in this thread, this is a completely legit attack on Gabbard, who at best has been a useful idiot for Assad. However, Gabbard’s attack on Harris was also legit, and Gabbard also kept it up after the debate. Except for the Assad shot, Harris still didn’t have an answer to the specific criticisms of her record from Gabbard and Biden:
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard criticized Senator Kamala Harris for her record as California's attorney general, after the second round of Democratic debates in Detroit. More from the #DemDebate: https://t.co/dk74nbhFEE pic.twitter.com/YRAOj9RtOw
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) August 1, 2019
With Harris neutralized, or at least tied up fighting fringe candidate Gabbard, Biden had an easy way to cruise past the rest of the also-rans. Cory Booker took his shots at Biden too, but Booker’s mired at the bottom of the polls (1.7% in the RCP aggregate average) and his Spartacus act seems to be wearing thin on both sides of the aisle. Harris had developed into a real potential threat; Booker’s a gadfly.
In other words, Biden won by not stepping on his own tongue and showing a little fight. That’s enough for a narrative change, at least until the next debate, when Biden will have to go it alone without Gabbard as his wingman. We’ll hear plenty about Biden locking down the nomination based on this one performance, but all he’s really done is temporarily ended questions as to whether he has enough energy to fight Donald Trump. It’s a long, long campaign, and it’s really only just getting started.