Democratic presidential candidates were on attack mode in the second night of their first Democratic debate, with the 10 contenders onstage taking aim at President Donald Trump and each other.
Trump’s name came up more often during Thursday’s debate than during Wednesday’s, which featured 10 other candidates. Thursday’s contenders also directly challenged one another, with the two leading the polls, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, facing the most criticism.
At one point the confrontations became so heated that California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris quieted the stage by saying, “Hey, guys you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
Later, Harris had perhaps the most memorable moment of the night by confronting Biden over busing to integrate schools. Here are six areas where the candidates went on offense:
1. Taking on Trump
Trump came up in the very first answer Thursday night, when Biden was asked about remarks he made to wealthy donors about how no one’s standard of living should have to change. Moderator Savannah Guthrie of NBC wanted to know what he meant by that. Biden pivoted to Trump immediately.
“What I meant by that is, look, Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America,” Biden said, using Trump to move away from the contrast the moderator was probing between him and Sanders on their approach to income inequality.
Biden returned to Trump moments later. “Look, Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation,” he said.
On Wednesday, Trump’s name was mentioned 19 times. On Thursday night, the candidates mentioned the president 35 times, usually to attack him and his record. Sanders, for example, called him a “pathological liar and a racist,” while Harris called him the greatest national security threat. Many of the candidates attacked his border policies and the GOP tax overhaul he signed in 2017.
But much of the focus on Trump Thursday was about beating him — both the imperative to do so and specific candidates’ qualifications for that fight. On that front, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, on stage with three other senators, tried to set herself apart. “I’ve stood up to Trump more than any other senator in the U.S. Senate,” she said.
Gillibrand has supported the president 11.3 percent of the time Trump has been in office — the lowest of any senator, according to CQ Vote Watch. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is close, supporting Trump slightly more at 11.5 percent, followed by Sanders at 11.7 percent. Of the senators running for president, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has supported Trump the most — about 45 percent of the time.
2. All the wheels on the bus
The biggest moment of the debate, and one that’s likely to continue to play out on the campaign trail in the coming days, came when Harris attacked Biden on some of his recent comments about working with segregationist senators. She called it “hurtful” and then took particular aim at his opposition to busing.
“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,” Harris said. Her campaign was ready for the moment, posting photos of a school-aged Harris on her social media platforms before the debate was even over.
Biden accused Harris of distorting his civil rights record, and in the process took a shot at her career as California’s attorney general.
“I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor,” he said. “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education.”
In a 1975 interview Biden put his opposition to busing in blunt terms.
“It’s an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me,” he told the People Paper, a Newark, Delaware, based publication, according to the Washington Post.
For Harris, Biden’s answer wasn’t good enough — and it gave her an excuse to forcefully argue that there’s a role for the federal government to intervene when state and local governments aren’t protecting civil rights.
Biden was on defense, clearly miffed that a civil rights legacy he considers to be a cornerstone of his career in public service was being put on trial.
“I supported the [Equal Rights Amendment] from the very beginning. I am the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” Biden said. He went on, talking about how the government needs to protect voting rights, but then he abruptly gave up. “My time is up. I’m sorry.”
The back-and-forth over busing was the most tense discussion about race in the debate, but there were others. The conversation began when South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked why his city’s police force hasn’t become more racially diverse under his mayoral administration.
“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said, in a rare moment of humility for any presidential candidate. Buttigeig described the pain in his community following a recent shooting of a black man by a white police officer.
“I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back,” Buttigieg said, before gliding into a lofty discussion about overcoming systematic racism.
Suddenly there was a voice from the end of the stage.
“You should fire the chief,” California Rep. Eric Swalwell said. Buttigieg, who’s come under fire for once firing a black police chief, responded that there’s an investigation and that there will be accountability for the officer.
Swalwell piped up again.
“But you’re the mayor,” he said. “You should fire the chief if that’s the policy and someone died.”
Even after author Marianne Williamson began talking next, all the way on the opposite end of the stage, Buttigieg kept his head turned the other way, staring at Swalwell.
3. Talkin’ ’bout my generation
Two of the youngest candidates in the field shared the stage with the two oldest contenders: Biden and Sanders, who are 77 and 78, respectively. Swalwell, 39, pointed out that he was six years old when Biden called on leaders to “pass the torch” to a new generation in a speech to the California Democratic Party.
“I’m still holding onto that torch,” Biden countered. Buttigieg, 37, tried unsuccessfully to weigh in, noting he was the youngest candidate on stage, while Sanders fought for time to respond as a member of “Joe’s generation.” Sanders said the issue was not age, but “who has the guts” to take on special interests.
Asked after the debate about criticisms of older candidates, the Vermont senator told reporters, “I think that’s ageism, to tell you the truth.”
Biden and Sanders have led in recent polls, along with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is 70 and was part of Wednesday’s debate. Swalwell and Buttigieg both referenced the need for younger generations to take the lead in their closing remarks on Thursday night. They are two of three Democratic candidates in their late thirties, while the median age of the 24-candidate field is 54 years old.
4. Thanks, Obama
The word “sequester” isn’t thrown around at every debate. But it came up when Biden touted his work as former President Barack Obama’s vice president, when Biden was often tapped to broker deals with congressional Republicans, some of whom he’d known for decades. Biden pointed to his role in crafting an economic stimulus package and a deal on the eve of a “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and automatic spending cuts.
Bennet seized on that moment, slamming the fiscal cliff deal as “a complete victory for the tea party” and “a terrible deal for America,” to which Biden replied, “Come on.”
At the end of 2012, the George W. Bush-era tax cuts were set to expire, while a law mandating spending cuts across government were due to take effect. Biden and then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellreached a compromise on New Year’s Eve to delay the spending cuts, known as sequestration, for two months and increase income taxes on wealthy individuals.
But the spending cuts took effect when Congress failed to reach a deal two months later, with some Democrats criticizing Biden for giving up too much leverage in the fiscal cliff negotiations.
The exchange wasn’t the only time Obama’s legacy came up Thursday night.
Biden pushed back on a question from moderator Jose Diaz Balart, who cited the Obama administration’s record deporting undocumented immigrants. Biden said comparing the Obama administration with Trump’s actions on immigration was “close to immoral.” Harris later said she opposed deportations during Obama’s administration, but was careful to note it was “one of the very few issues with which I disagreed with the administration, with whom I otherwise had a great relationship and a great deal of respect.”
5. Health care clash continues
Biden also invoked Obama by pledging to defend the 2010 health care law, which was the former president’s signature legislative achievement, as health care once again divided the Democrats on stage. Sanders and Harris were the only candidates who raised their hands to say they would support abolishing private insurance coverage in favor of a single-payer system.
Sanders is the lead sponsor of a “Medicare for All” bill and campaigned on the issue ahead of the 2016 election. Harris, who has co-sponsored Sanders’ bill, has previously said a single-payer system would not completely abolish private insurance.
Gillibrand kept her hand down when asked about abolishing private insurance even though she is also a co-sponsor of Sanders’ bill. She noted that she authored part of the bill that includes a four-year transition to a single-payer system, which would initially allow people to buy into Medicare or stay on a private insurance plan.
“What will happen is people will choose Medicare. You will transition. We will get to Medicare for All, and then your step to single payer is so short,” she said.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper knocked a single-payer system earlier in the night when asked which of his opponents’ policies were “veering towards socialism.”
Hickenlooper made a nod to Sanders’ proposal in his answer by saying “you can’t expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don’t want to give it up.” The former governor warned that Republicans were going to attack Democrats as socialists, which is already happening in House and Senate races.
6. The presidential pen
Many of the candidates, even those in Congress, took the opportunity to knock the legislative branch and suggested they’d use executive power to achieve their priorities. And although that may sound good on a presidential debate stage, helping them come across as strong leaders, in reality, little of that would be feasible given the division of powers that controls the government.
The presidential hopefuls blamed Congress for failing to act on gun violence and immigration, for example.
Ironically, it was mostly the senators on stage who seemed to forget about the political and legislative role of Congress.
“On day one, I will repeal that tax bill that benefits the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in America,” Harris said, alluding to the GOP tax overhaul that Congress took most of 2017 to debate and revise before Trump signed it before Christmas. As president, Harris would not have the power to single-handedly change tax rates.
Harris also said she’d give Congress 100 days to put a gun control bill on her desk. “And if they do not, I will take executive action and I will put in place the most comprehensive background check policy we’ve had,” she said. Harris also said she’d use executive action to reinstate DACA protections.
Sanders agreed with Harris’s support for executive action, at least on immigration, suggesting, “On day one we take out our executive order pen and we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done.”
Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.