On Night 2, the Democratic Debate Wakes Up and Shakes Up

The moderators, having originally given Ms. Harris 30 seconds, let the drama play out for minutes, and the NBC producers quickly put it in split-screen. The visuals, certain to be played and replayed, are even more striking: Mr. Biden, head bowed, eyes downcast, his mouth at an uncomfortable slant, grimacing as the audience cheers the flogging of the party’s front-runner.

I’m not saying it was fatal — who knows anything in politics anymore? But if this were “Game of Thrones,” the guards would have locked the doors and the band would have played “The Rains of Castamere.”

The former vice president gave an irritated defense, but it may have been the first time in his career that Mr. Biden has seemed relieved to stop talking. “Anyway, my time is up,” he finished, never a phrase you want to hand the headline writers and meme-makers.

Mr. Biden came across rusty much of the night, though he had his own feisty moments, mostly targeted against President Trump; likewise his podium neighbor Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, who picked up his finger-wagging expostulations where he left them in 2016.

Not every aspirant made their mark by leaving one in someone else. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., maintained a steady room-temperature cool, responding to his own damaging racial issue, involving police violence, with an introspective mea culpa on why the problem hadn’t gotten better in his city: “I couldn’t get it done.”

From the far end of the stage, the spiritual guide Marianne Williamson promised to “harness love for political purposes.” It’d be easy to treat her aphorisms, perfumed with burning sage, as comic relief. But she had a theme and a point: For all the high-minded focus on policy, the current president ran on a gut appeal to instincts and archetypes, and his opponent would need some counter besides bullet points.

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