Biden fights back against attacks in Detroit presidential debate

Detroit — Former Vice President Joe Biden opened Wednesday night’s presidential debate by asking Kamala Harris to “go easy” on him, but spent the better part of the next two-plus hours fighting off criticism by her and the majority of his opponents.

Ten Democrats took the stage on the second of back-to-back presidential debate nights at the Fox Theatre, with protesters making a scene in the theater and interrupting opening statements and even answers to questions.

As the evening wore on, candidates continued to pile on to Biden with the former Delaware senator also taking hits from opponents his votes on abortion funding, invading Iraq and against expanding a child care tax credit. 

Batting back attacks, Biden stressed his ability to win back a state like Michigan that President Donald Trump flipped in 2016. He pushed back against progressives who argue his plans are not ambitious enough to energize liberal voters needed to turn out to help defeat Trump.

“Because we did it,” Biden said, noting his record of work in Michigan.

The former vice president touted the Obama administration’s 2009 federal stimulus spending, as well as his role in federal bailouts that helped save General Motors Co. and Chrysler from collapse and his work to help Detroit emerge from bankruptcy and “get back on its feet.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., shake hands before the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN Wednesday, July 31, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.

“I spent the better part of two years out here working to make sure that it did exactly that,” Biden said. “We made significant investments in this state, this city, I expect that’s why (Mayor Mike Duggan) endorsed me.”

Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders later argued that Biden proved his mettle by fighting back against the attacks from his fellow Democrats.

“We knew we were going to take some fire on that stage today, but what you saw tonight was unprecedented,” she said.

“The question coming into this debate was … can he be strong? Can he fight back if he were to be against Donald Trump? And I think the answer you saw tonight was an unequivocal yes.”

But Biden was flanked by the two African-American senators, Harris of California and Booker of New Jersey, both of whom sharply criticized Biden on racial justice issues and his civil rights record. 

Harris also came under fire for her record as a prosecutor in California, which she defended by touting reforms her office undertook. 

Less than a week after calling Biden an “architect of mass destruction,” Booker again criticized the former Delaware senator for his role in helping pass a 1994 crime bill that boosted federal spending on police officers, prisons and prevention programs.

Critics say the law resulted in disproportionate arrest rates for African Americans, particularly young black men.

“You stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” said Booker, the former mayor of Newark.

Biden noted the bill passed by a wide margin and fired back at Booker by noting the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama had to take action against Newark police for an aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policy when Booker was mayor.

“Nothing was done for the entire eight years he was president,” Biden said.

Wednesday night is likely the last debate for several lower-tier candidates before more stringent rules go into effect for the third Democratic showdown in Houston in September, for which 10 or fewer hopefuls are expected to qualify. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist warmed up the crowd inside the theater ahead of the debate, saying there is “no better place” to discuss the future of the country than in his hometown of Detroit.

“To all the pundits who said Michigan was a red state, we — we — proved them wrong in 2018, and we are going to prove them wrong again in 2020,” Gilchrist said.

Early in the debate, protesters apparently wanted New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was on stage, to "Fire Pantaleo" — their chant about the New York Police Department officer accused of using a fatal chokehold on Eric Garner. The protesters were removed. 

In a largely empty area across Woodward Avenue from the Fox Theatre, a group of Biden supporters cheer for a television camera before the second round of the Democratic Presidential Debates in Detroit , Wednesday.

As the top-polling candidate, Biden came out first onto the stage and then greeted Harris, aiming to overcome a shaky performance at Miami’s forum last month. He made his "go easy on me, kid," appeal to Harris in in a brief exchange picked up by the microphones.  

Harris had criticized Biden in last month's debate for opposing a federal busing mandate to force school desegregation in the 1970s. But Harris later said she also believes busing decisions should be made at the local level.

Asked Wednesday if their positions were the same, Harris said "that is simply false," accusing Biden of working with segregationists in the Senate to oppose busing.

"Had I been in the United States Senate, at that time, I would have been completely on the other side of the aisle," Harris said. 

"On the issue we could not be more apart, which is that the vice president has still failed to acknowledge that it was wrong to take the position that he took at that time."

Biden responded by slamming Harris' record as California attorney general for eight years. 

"There were two of the most segregated school districts in country in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and she did not — I didn't see a single solitary time she brought a case against them," Biden said, suggesting Harris also didn't properly handle a police department that "was abusing people's rights."

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also targeted Harris’ years as a prosecutor.

“There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations, then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so,” Gabbard said.

“She kept people in prison on their sentences to use them as a cheap labor in the state of California. And she thought to keep a cash-bail system in place that impacts poor people at the worst kind of way.”

Harris in response highlighted initiatives to get counseling for former offenders reentering society and her support for legalizing marijuana.

“I did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people, which became a national model for the work that needs to be done. And I am proud of that work,” she said.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she does not think it is the responsibility of Harris and Booker to take on systemic racism in America, suggesting there is a role for her, as well.

“I can talk to white women in the suburbs that voted for Trump and explain to them what white privilege really is,” she said, “that when their son is walking down the street with a bag of M&M’s in his pocket, wearing a hoodie, his whiteness is what protects him from not being shot.”

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., listens as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates.

At one point in their criminal justice exchange, Biden appeared to accidentally refer to Booker as the president and then corrected himself by graciously calling Booker “the future president.”

Booker said he was grateful Biden “has endorsed my presidency already” but defended his record in Newark, saying he inherited a police department with “major” problems and developed accountability standards.

“Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community: ‘You’re dipping the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor,” Booker said.

Biden said he wants to reform the criminal justice system to focus more on rehabilitation “and change the way we look at prisons,” suggesting it is similar to plans Booker has also put forward.

The former vice president last week unveiled a criminal justice plan that included a call to eliminate the death penalty that he formerly supported. 

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., gestures to former Vice President Joe Biden during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates.

But Booker suggested Biden’s plan was too little too late and said the former vice president has boasted about putting his name on most of the country’s major crime bills since the 1970s.

“The house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws, and you can’t just now come up with a plan to put out that fire,” Booker said.

On a night that included exchanges on immigration and climate change, Harris defended her new plan that would would establish a government-run health insurance system but allow private insurers to compete within that system — a less aggressive form of Medicare for All that would take 10 years to phase in.

Biden argued that Harris's proposal would lead to the elimination of employer-provided health care, accusing her of “double speak” on the issue.

The former vice president criticized it on several fronts, saying it would eliminate employer-based insurance and not be fully phased in until after Harris would be out of office if she won two terms.

“Anytime someone tells you you’ll get something in 10 years, you should wonder why it takes 10 years," Biden said. 

He noted Harris is not touting the cost of her plan, which he said would cost $3 trillion once phased in and require middle-class tax increases.

“This is the single most important issue facing the public,” Biden said. “To be very blunt and to be very straightforward, you can’t beat President Trump with double talk on this plan.”

Harris has proposed financing her health care plan, in part, by imposing a new tax that would generally apply to households earning more than $100,000 a year. Harris also wants to tax financial transactions like stock and bond trades.

She called Biden’s claims inaccurate Wednesday.

“The reality is our plan will bring health care to all Americans under a Medicare for All system,” Harris said. “Our plan will allow people to start signing up on the first day. Babies will be born into our plan.”

Biden’s own health care proposal centers around expanding the Affordable Care Act to include new subsidies and creating a government-run health insurance option to compete with private insurers.

He wants to pay for the plan — estimated to $750 billion over a decade — by raising taxes on the rich.

“Obamacare is working,” Biden said. 

He disputed claims that criticizing Medicare for All plans that would eliminate private insurance amounts to GOP talking points.

“Republicans are trying to kill Obamcare,” Biden said. “This idea is a bunch of malarkey.”

Booker said Trump was likely enjoying the debate more than anyone else.

"We pit Democrats against each other while he is working right now to take away America’s health care," Booker said.

"There’s a court case right now working through the system that’s going to gut the Affordable Care Act and actually gut protections on pre-existing conditions.”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement the Democrats offered "no original thoughts" in Wednesday's forum. 

"Plenty of socialist stupidity — eliminating private insurance, decriminalizing border crossings, higher taxes, getting rid of fossil fuels," McEnany said. 

"Goodbye Pennsylvania. Goodbye auto industry. Goodbye Midwest. Another win for President Trump.”

But Democrats took Trump to task for failing to keep promises to protect the jobs of autoworkers in the Midwest and launching trade wars with China and the European Union.

"There are a lot of Americans right now that are hurting. Just go and ask the folks that just received notice that they're getting laid off by General Motors," said Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. 

"The idea that America is doing just fine is wrong."

Biden chided the Trump administration for pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the trade deal negotiated by the Obama administration, saying he would rejoin the 11-country pact after tweaking it.

De Blasio dismissed Trump’s proposed replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the U.S. Mexico Candidate Agreement, which has stalled in the Democratic-controlled House. 

“President Trump is trying to sell NAFTA 2.0,” he said. “He’s got a new name for it, it’s just as dangerous as the old NAFTA. It’s going to take away American jobs like the old NAFTA, like it did to Michigan. We cannot have Democrats in favor of a new NAFTA.”

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang gave a shout-out to Detroit in plugging his proposal for the government to provide every U.S. citizen with a $1,000-a-month stipend.

"Why do we need to do it? We already automated away millions of manufacturing jobs and chances are your job could be next. If you don't believe me, just ask an auto worker here in Detroit," Yang said.

"We need to do the opposite of much of what we're doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math." 

Gillibrand questioned Biden on an old commentary he wrote while the Senate debated day care affordability in which he said women working outside the home would "create the deterioration of family" and were avoiding responsibility.

"I wonder, under Vice President Biden's analysis, am I serving in Congress resulting in the deterioration of the family because I had access to quality, affordable daycare? I just want to know what you meant when you said that," Gillibrand said.

Biden replied, "That was a long time ago." 

He said what he opposed in the legislation was a child-care tax break for people making more than $100,000, and noted that his late wife and current wife, Jill, both worked while raising their children. 

He also highlighted his work pushing for women's rights legislation, including a proposal for that she supported regarding women on college campuses.

"You came to Syracuse University with me and said it was wonderful," he told Gillibrand. "I'm passionate about the concern — making sure women are treated equally. I don't know what's happened, except that you're now running for president."

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett spoke against decriminalizing border crossings — an idea endorsed by some other candidates — but stressed the agreement among Democrats on ending family separations that have been prevalent under Trump.

“There’s not a single person on this stage who if they were president would ever separate a child from its parents,” he said.

De Blasio challenged Biden on whether he spoke out and tried to stop the deportation of undocumented immigrants under Obama, accusing Biden of evading the question.

“Mr. Vice President, you want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions," de Blasio said. "I guarantee you if you're debating Doanld Trump, he's not gonna let you off the hook." 

Biden retorted that he had been vice president and not president.

“I keep my recommendation private. Unlike you, I expect you to go ahead and say whatever was said. That's not what I do,” Biden said.

“He moved to fundamentally change the system,” Biden added, referring to Obama's program to defer deportation for children of undocumented immigrants. 

"That's what he did."

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee listens as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the second of two Democratic presidential primary debates.