By a bizarre stroke of chance, the random drawing system that CNN used to divide the second Democratic debate across two nights split the candidates along racial lines. Tuesday was the “Candidates White People Like” Debate. Wednesday was dominated by candidates favored by people of color. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the two most popular candidates among African-Americans, squared off. Cory Booker, unluckily, was wedged into the same slot.
The most important development of the debate is that Joe Biden recovered. His unsteady performance in the first debate may not have dislodged his polling lead for long, but it left political insiders deeply skeptical of his ability to perform at an acceptable level. “It doesn’t matter how good the coach is. He can’t stay on the script. He’s uncoachable,” one Democratic strategist who has worked with Biden in the past told Politico.
In some ways, Biden simply had more favorable circumstances. Kamala Harris attacked him again on busing after being prodded by moderators, but the sequel sounded more wan than the original. Bill de Blasio attacked him for supporting President Obama’s immigration policy, effectively throwing Biden into his favorite briar patch. And Kirsten Gillibrand unearthed a planned attack on an op-ed Biden had written about child care and working women almost 40 years ago that had been detected by Biden’s researchers, allowing him to prepare an effective defense. (It gave him a chance to mention that he raised his children as a single father, a highly sympathetic and memorable detail.)
It’s possible Biden was just lucky to run into easier questions, or attacks for which he was prepared. If that’s not the case, and he can continue to maintain this level, he will be difficult to dislodge as a front-runner.
If not for Biden’s recovery, Cory Booker’s performance might have emerged as a major storyline of the debate. Booker never stumbled and managed to deliver coherent answers with broad appeal within his party. (He remembers to attack Donald Trump most of the time, a productive and crowd-pleasing impulse that seems to escape his rivals as they squabble over obscure or antiquated details.)
Harris, for her part, was unable to replicate her dominating star turn of the first debate. Luck may have played a role here, too. She has risen high enough to make herself a target, and was hit effectively in several directions, including by Tulsi Gabbard. It also didn’t help that she was prompted to rehash her busing attack on Biden, an issue with little relevance to the prospective agenda of any candidate onstage. Even accounting for that, she seemed more hesitant, and her answers on health care continue to sound unclear, though she recovered in the second half of the debate.
Harris and Booker have the same problem: They need Joe Biden to collapse, and for the moment, that isn’t happening.