WASHINGTON - Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was at center stage Thursday on the second night of Democratic presidential debates, but one of his main challengers, Sen. Kamala Harris, sharply questioned his relations with segregationist lawmakers four decades ago and his opposition to forced school busing to integrate schools.
Harris, a California lawmaker and former prosecutor, turned to Biden, saying, “I do not believe you are a racist.” But the African American senator drew cheers from the crowd in an auditorium in Miami, Florida, when she said it was “hurtful to hear” Biden recently as he described how as a young senator he worked with segregationist Southern senators to pass legislation.
“That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” a stern-faced Biden responded. “I did not praise racists.”
But Harris persisted in a sharp exchange, demanding of Biden, “Do you acknowledge it was wrong to oppose busing?” Harris said she had benefited from busing to attend desegregated schools.
Biden defended his longtime support for civil rights legislation, but he did not explain his opposition to school busing in the state of Delaware, which he represented in the U.S. Senate.
Court-ordered school busing was a divisive issue in numerous American cities in the 1970s, especially opposed by white parents whose children were sent to black-majority schools elsewhere in their communities to desegregate them.
The Harris-Biden exchange was one of the most pointed of the debate, perhaps catching Biden off guard. The issue of race was triggered midway through the debate when Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was questioned about his handling of the recent fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.
Buttigieg, who temporarily suspended his campaign to return to his city, said the shooting is under investigation, but added, “It’s a mess and we’re hurting.”
Many in the black community have protested Buttigieg’s handling of the police incident and the relatively small number of black police officers on the South Bend force.
Biden leading early survey
Biden currently leads Democratic voter preference surveys for the party’s presidential nomination, but he was facing some of his biggest rivals, with millions watching on national television. He often defended his long role in the U.S. government, most recently as former President Barack Obama’s two-term vice president.
He was joined in the debate by nine other presidential candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
In the early moments of the debate, Biden, Sanders and Harris all attacked President Donald Trump for his staunch support for a $1.5 trillion tax cut Congress enacted that chiefly benefited corporations and the wealthy.
“Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation,” Biden said. “I would be going about eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.” Sanders called for the elimination of $1.6 trillion of student debt across the country, while Harris said she would change the tax code to benefit the American middle class, not the wealthy.
‘The fraud he is’
Sanders attacked Trump in the most direct way of any of the Democratic contenders, declaring, “Trump is a phony, pathological liar and a racist.” He said Democrats need to “expose him as the fraud he is.”
In a wide-ranging debate, some of the contenders voiced disagreements on how to change U.S. health care policies. Sanders, Harris and Gillibrand all, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren the night before, called for the controversial adoption of a government-run health care program to replace the current U.S. system, which is based on workers buying private insurance policies to pay most of their health care bills.
But the other candidates disagreed. Biden, a staunch supporter of the Obamacare plan adopted while he was vice president that helped millions of Americans gain health insurance coverage, said that the existing plan should be improved, not abandoned.
“I’m against any Democrat who takes down Obamacare,” Biden said.
All 10 contenders said they supported providing health care coverage for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Biden, reflecting other candidates’ comments, said, “You cannot let people be sick no matter where they came from.”
Trump, who was following the debate from the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, blasted the democratic candidates’ position.
Biden twice has failed to win the party’s presidential nomination, in 1988 and 2008. But he has consistently led national polling this year, both over his Democratic rivals for the party nomination and over Trump in a hypothetical 2020 general election matchup.
Biden’s closest Democratic challengers are Sanders and Warren of Massachusetts, the key contender among 10 on the debate stage Wednesday, when more than 15 million people tuned in to see the first major political event of the 2020 campaign.
Biden has attempted to portray himself as a steady alternative to the unpredictable Trump, one who would restore frayed U.S. relations with foreign allies and undo conservative domestic policies Trump has adopted.
But more progressive Democrats have questioned Biden’s bona fides and political history over four decades in Washington as the party’s key current figures have aggressively moved toward more liberal stances on a host of key policy issues, including health care and abortion, taxes and immigration.
Some critics also have suggested that Biden might be too old to become the U.S. leader. Now 76, Biden would be 78 and the oldest first-term president if he were to defeat the 73-year-old Trump and take office in January 2021. Trump often mocks him as “Sleepy Joe.”
‘Pass the torch’
Congressman Eric Swalwell of California jabbed at Biden, recalling that 32 years ago, when Biden first ran for president, Biden contended the U.S. needed to “pass the torch” to a new generation of leaders. Swalwell said Biden was right when he said that then and joked that “he’s right today.”
Biden laughed at the reference, responding, “I’m still holding on to that torch.”
In the Midwestern farm state of Iowa recently, Trump assessed his possible Democratic opponents, saying of Biden, “I think he’s the weakest mentally, and I think Joe is weak mentally. The others have much more energy.”
Biden, for his part, labeled Trump “an existential threat” to the U.S.