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Joe Biden gets slammed

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic primary debate on Thursday in Miami. | Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

The case against Joe Biden’s presidential campaign got made Thursday night right out in the open — sound up, lights glaring — nothing blurred in a haze of euphemism, politesse, or indirection.

Arguments that have hovered around Biden for months, which he has mostly brushed aside in above-the-fray fashion that left his front-runner status secure, were made directly to his face on the Democratic debate stage in Miami. Sen. Kamala Harris played the most dramatic part, but most of Biden’s nine rivals, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, played some role in crafting a painful string of indictments.

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Biden, the arguments went, is at age 76 from the wrong generation to lead Democrats in 2020. His paeans to the supposedly more civil Senate of his 30s, as well as his own record in those days, show racial insensitivity. He’s gotten big questions, like the 2002 Iraq War vote, wrong. He’s been played for a fool by Republicans in his efforts to show that he is a consummate doer and dealmaker.

Biden’s response to the barrage was decidedly uneven.

At his best, he gave spirited and plausible answers even while stumbling over a word here or there, inviting sympathizers to view him as he views himself — someone who’s made honest mistakes, but has proven himself one of the good guys over a long public life, fighting for civil rights and other progressive values in many arenas or over many years.

At his worst, the frontrunner seemed to shrink on the crowded stage, coming off as tired in his manner, soggy in words and argument in ways that sometimes unintentionally reinforced the criticism.

He offered some cringe-worthy moments that his obviously emboldened competitors will surely use as metaphors for dotage, in ways that will probably be unfair when stripped of context but could be potently damaging.

When a lesser-known candidate, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, puckishly served up a quote about how it was time to pass the leadership torch to a new generation — supposedly delivered by Biden himself 32 years ago — the former vice president smiled as though to say good one and retorted: “I am still holding on to that torch. I want to make it clear to you.”

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A generous interpretation of that line was that he was trying to convey good-natured defiance, but it could easily be framed for less charitable purposes as a man stubbornly clinging to ambition even as his moment passed.

“Anyway, my time is up,” Biden said, as he finished his dramatic exchange over racial history with Harris.

He meant his allotted time from NBC moderators literally was up. But the line was terrible symbolism as he finished an exchange over his interactions with segregationist senators and opposition to federally ordered busing in the 1970s.

Several questions flowed from the evening, starting with: What the hell was up with Biden Thursday night? Even beyond the clumsy phrase, since when does a famously garrulous politician voluntarily hit the brakes on his own words? Was the evening a fair picture of Biden’s political performance skills at this stage of his career?

One explanation could have been the setting. The stage was crowded and time limits were tight, making it harder to strike the more conversational and intimate tone which typically shows Biden at his best. The proceedings were loud and often rude, as NBC moderators struggled to maintain order, as candidates honked and stammered and talked over one another in desperate efforts to gain the floor. Even much younger candidates seemed to find the whole thing disorienting.

The larger question is how will the evening echo in the weeks ahead?

Any instinct to assume that an uncommanding performance inevitably introduces new fluidity into the race must be offset by the knowledge that earlier episodes — such as women complaining that Biden had made them uncomfortable by invading their personal space — quickly receded. It could be that Democrats who have put Biden atop polls — including plurality leads with women and racial minorities — feel they already have a fair picture of a very familiar politician and like him in spite of, or even because of, occasionally undisciplined performances.

His rivals definitely were showing discipline — and clear strategic purpose — in taking the fight directly to him.

“I do not believe you are a racist,” Harris told Biden, as she unveiled her attack, but quickly added that for her “it’s personal and it was actually hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

Harris was referring to recent Biden remarks in which he praised himself for being able to work productively even with senators whose views he loathed, such as Dixiecrats James Eastland and Herman Talmadge. She also said she took offense at Biden’s opposition to busing, citing her own history as a “little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public school” through crosstown busing.

Biden became animated in response. “It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” he said. “I did not praise racists. That is not true.” He said he got into politics because of civil rights and noted acerbically that as a young man he became a public defender, not a prosecutor like Harris.

On busing, he said he was opposed to federally mandated busing, but never objected to localities ordering it. Harris countered with the historically accurate argument that the federal government acted precisely because so many states and localities refused to desegregate after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision.

This was just one of several arresting moments. A normally mild-mannered senator, Michael Bennet of Colorado, got tough with Biden in attacking his claims that he drove hard bargains with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The episode Biden cited, getting Republicans to pass funds for financial recovery early in the Obama presidency, was actually a raw deal, Bennet said, since it allowed permanent extension of tax cuts begun in the George W. Bush presidency: “That was a great deal for Mitch McConnell and a terrible deal for America.”

Moderator Rachel Maddow pressed Biden on his early support for the Iraq War, which he has since recanted, and opened a window for Sanders to swoop in. “One of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war and I helped lead the opposition to that war, which was a total disaster, said Sanders, adding that, “I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran which would be far worse than the disastrous war with Iraq.”

Despite sometimes being annoying to listen to, because of so many candidates interrupting, the Thursday night debate was on balance a much more bracing and illuminating event than the first round of ten Democrats who debated the night before. The central question facing Democratic primary voters — who is best equipped to dethrone Trump — was engaged in a much more direct way, with repeated and impassioned denunciations of the president by name.

Democrats also engaged with each other in relevant ways. There were substantive discussions, such as whether to build on Obama’s Affordable Care Act in incremental ways, as Biden and several others want, or scrap it entirely in favor of mandatory “Medicare for All” in which private insurance is banned, as Sanders argues for.

There were also stylistic contrasts, such as Harris’s and Sanders’s more theatrical exhortations, versus the lower-volume and more expository style of Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Bennet.

Inevitably, though, the debate kept returning to Biden, and appropriately: There is likely no one other than Biden getting the nomination except if he or she manages to dethrone him. These exchanges offered reminders of two familiar realities: People who have been legislators, as Biden was for so long, sometimes find it hard to not talk like legislators. Also, 1972, when Biden first got elected senator just before his 30th birthday, was a long time ago.

When Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was promoting her plans for bringing the influence of big money in Washington to heel, Biden reached way back for a response. “The first constitutional amendment to do that,” he said, “was introduced by me when I was a young senator.”

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