Moments into Thursday night’s Democratic debate, it was clear that Joe Biden faces a tall task in the months before the Iowa caucuses — proving to Democratic voters that he can fill the mantle of being “progressive enough” as other leaders continue to drag the party further and further to the left.
While Biden burnished those credentials as Barack Obama’s vice president, he now stands closer to the center than contenders like Bernie Sanders, along with Elizabeth Warren, who has made an impassioned case for “Medicare-for-All” and doing away with private health insurance — a dramatic policy shift that is unlikely to go over as easily with the moderates and independents that Democrats must win to retake the White House.
As he attempted to project the air of electability that is so important to many Democratic voters, he immediately appealed to the middle-class voters he feels are central to his electoral chances.
“Too many people in the middle class had the bottom fall out. I am saying we have to be straight forward,” Biden said. “We have to make sure we understand that we return dignity to the middle class. They have to have insurance that is covered and they can afford it. They have to make sure we have a situation where there is continuing education and they are able to pay for it, and they have to make sure they breathe air that is clean and they have water that they can drink.”
It was the first moment for Biden to stand out as the leading Democrats vying to unseat President Donald Trump are taking the debate stage for the first time Thursday night with Joe Biden at center stage, hoping to demonstrate a command of the issues as the elder statesman in the race.
After a feisty and vigorous fight night among the other 10 candidates in Miami Wednesday night , Biden is sharing the stage Thursday, with his closest rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who have piqued the interest of Democrats looking for a fresh generation of leadership in the White House. It’s the first test for the former vice president since he left government in January 2017, and he is aiming to show that he has the kind of message discipline that has been lacking in some of his past debate performances over his lengthy career in politics.
Biden, Sanders, Harris and Buttigieg are onstage with six candidates who have gained far less traction in the polls: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, California Rep. Eric Swalwell, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and spiritual author Marianne Williamson who all met the threshold set by the Democratic National Committee.
For months, Biden has been on a glide path as the Democratic front-runner, holding far fewer events than his rivals and engaging in relatively few one-on-one interviews. That’s made it easy to avoid the mistakes and gaffes that marred his previous attempt to win the White House, even if he’s still stepped on his own feet a few times with his shifting position on federal funds for abortions and his comments about working with segregationist senators.
Those missteps allowed some of Biden’s lesser-known competitors to make headlines at his expense. Biden and Sanders could clash onstage tonight, not only because they have major policy differences, but also because the Vermont senator must do something to reverse his decline in the polls as Sen. Elizabeth Warren has ascended.
Biden has topped the polls nationally because most Democratic voters see him as the most viable candidate to take on Trump. But candidates like Harris are looking to show that same kind of mettle.
In recent weeks, the California senator has leaned heavily into her background as a prosecutor to argue that she can prosecute the case against Trump. She will try to show both her policy depth as a progressive and her unique biography taking on an array of foes, from rapists and murderers in the courtroom, to big banks as California’s attorney general.
Buttigieg — the mayor of South Bend, who has dazzled some Democrats with his charisma and background as a former Rhodes scholar, who also speaks seven languages and served as a naval intelligence reserve officer in Afghanistan — is looking to regain his footing after a tough week. Buttigieg has eschewed campaigning in recent days while working in his hometown, where the mayor has been trying to soothe racial tensions after a police officer shot and killed a black man .
In the hours before the debate, the candidates were preoccupied with the Supreme Court’s decision on gerrymandering — with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four other conservatives arguing that the courts should have no role in deciding partisan gerrymandering controversies from Maryland and North Carolina. Roberts opined that “federal judges have no license to reallocate power between the two majority political parties with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
Harris was among the first to tweet about the decision earlier on Thursday: “Politicians shouldn’t be able to pick their voters, voters should choose their representatives.” She said the court’s decision would have “drastic consequences for the future of our nation.”
Several of the candidates also weighed in on the court’s decision to block the citizenship question on the 2020 census for the time being, after deciding that the administrations argument did not pass muster.
Sanders used the decision to sharply take on the President’s motives. “Trump lied about his motivations, and five justices called him on it,” the Vermont senator tweeted. “His proposal to add a citizenship question to the census was nothing but a racist attempt to disenfranchise communities of color.”