Debate Night 2: The ‘On Politics’ Breakdown

Hi, and welcome to a special post-debate edition of On Politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

Where did our love go? All you need is love. It must have been love … but it’s over now.

Senator Cory Booker entered the 2020 race preaching the gospel of “radical love.”

He talked about restoring “grace and decency” and erasing “the lines that people think divide us — racial lines, religious lines, geographic lines.” It was a theme rooted in the political legacy of President Barack Obama, who rode a message of national unity to become the first black man to win the White House.

Well, the love is gone.

In the second debate, Mr. Booker slammed Joe Biden on civil rights, immigration and the former vice president’s record on criminal justice reform.

He chided Mr. Biden for interrupting him: “I didn’t interrupt you. Please show me that respect, sir.”

He pushed back hard when Mr. Biden went after his record as mayor of Newark: “You are trying to shift the view from what you created,” he said, referring to Mr. Biden’s role in the 1994 crime bill, which experts have linked to mass incarceration.

And he got off one of the most memorable lines of the evening: “Mr. Vice President, there’s a saying in my community — you’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”

Mr. Booker’s aides attributed his forceful performance to his passion for criminal justice, an issue they said had animated much of his career.

And he wasn’t the only one ganging up on Mr. Biden.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand hit him over statements about women working outside the home. Senator Kamala Harris went after him on health care and his support for the Hyde amendment. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington slammed him on climate change. Julián Castro questioned his record on immigration, wondering why he didn’t object to the number of deportations during the Obama administration. Even Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York got into the act, getting Mr. Biden to say he’d renegotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty he championed as vice president.

But Mr. Booker’s decision to go after Mr. Biden was particularly striking because it cut such a sharp contrast with his message at the start of the race. His pivot tells us something fairly essential about the 2020 primary: There’s no room for love.

At this point in this historically crowded race, the path to victory — or at least making the September debate stage — lies with tough attacks. At a time when Democrats are enraged by the White House, primary voters want to see that their candidates can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump. And the way to show that, at least for now, is by practicing on your primary rivals.

During the first debate, Ms. Harris was rewarded with donors, momentum and a boost in the polls after she went after Mr. Biden. All her rivals — from Mr. de Blasio to Mr. Inslee — tried to replicate her strategy in the second round.

Mr. Booker, perhaps, co-opted it most successfully.

He’s built a campaign prepared to capitalize on a big moment, with a fairly big operation in Iowa. Now, the question is whether his best-in-class debate performance translates into the kind of fund-raising cash he’ll need to survive the next few months.

One other observation: Some of the early takes give Mr. Biden a lot of credit for performing better than his fairly disastrous debut in last month’s debate. I’m not quite as convinced — it felt a bit like taking a test after failing one, when there’s nowhere to go but up. Shouldn’t the bar be the same for all the candidates?

I’ll be at the Iowa State Fair next weekend. Eager to hear from our favorite early caucus state voters how they view Mr. Biden after his performance.

Do you have thoughts on last night’s performances? Let us know! Email


Here are five takeaways from last night’s action.

Joe Biden was far from perfect, and rarely exactly steady. But, my colleague Matt Flegenheimer argues, he nonetheless achieved some of the goals that seemed to elude him last time.


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