NBC’s Second Democratic Debate Brought Searing Clashes on Inequality

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In the most dramatic moment of Thursday’s debate, Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden directly clashed over the former vice president’s record on race as Ms. Harris laced into his recent remarks about working with segregationists in the Senate, as well as his active opposition to busing in the 1970s.

“I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden,” Ms. Harris said. “I do not believe you are a racist. And I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground.

But, she continued, “It is personal and it was actually very hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputation and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

That was a reference to remarks Mr. Biden made at a fund-raiser last week in which he spoke fondly about what he described as a more civil time in the Senate, a time when he had working relationships even with segregationist Southern senators. Mr. Biden has since said he made those references to show that he was willing to work even with those whose views he finds abhorrent, but the remarks nevertheless rocked his campaign and angered many in his party.

“A mischaracterization of my position across the board, I did not praise racists,” he said.

Ms. Harris went on to press him over his record of fighting to oppose busing decades ago, noting that she was a beneficiary of that practice.

“Do you agree today, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” she said. “Do you agree?”

“I did not oppose busing in America,” Mr. Biden said. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.”

With about 15 minutes left in the debate, Mr. Sanders sought to draw a contrast with Mr. Biden over the former vice president’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq when he was a senator.

“One of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war,” Mr. Sanders said. “I helped lead the opposition to that war.”

Mr. Biden had previously defended his commander-in-chief’s credentials when asked why voters should trust his judgment after his support for a war that most Democrats and many Republicans now consider misguided.

He noted the role he played in getting combat troops out of Iraq as vice president.

“I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq,” Mr. Biden said, going on to add, “I believe that you are not going to find anybody who has pulled together more of our alliances to deal with what is the real stateless threat out there. We cannot go it alone in terms of dealing with terrorism.”

Several of the Democratic candidates sparred over health care policy, eliminating student loan debt and generational change, with a debate marked by notably sharper disagreements between the top tier candidates, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders, than occurred during Wednesday’s debate.

While Mr. Biden aimed his fire mostly at President Trump, the other more moderate candidates on stage took aim at Mr. Sanders and his brand of democratic socialism, in particular his support for Medicare-for-All.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders disagreed over whether to scrape the health system established by the Affordable Care Act. Mr. Biden, after speaking emotionally about losing his son to cancer and daughter and first wife in an automobile accident, suggested he was interested in a more incremental approach, by building on the Affordable Care Act that was passed when President Obama and Mr. Biden, the former vice president, were in office.

“I’m against any Democrat who opposes, takes down Obamacare — and then a Republican who wants to get rid of it,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Sanders, meanwhile, defended his Medicare-for-All plan without offering specifics on how such an expansive program would be implemented on a national level.

“We will have Medicare for All when tens of millions of people are tens of millions are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone, that health care is a human right, not something to make huge profits on,” Mr. Sanders said.

The two men didn’t call each other out by name, but it was one of the clearest examples of their policy and ideological differences.

One of the early clarifying moments came when the candidates were asked, as they were last night, to raise their hand if they would “abolish” private health insurers. While Mr. Sanders, Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. Harris all support Mr. Sanders’s bill only Ms. Harris and Mr. Sanders raised their hands.

That represented an about-face for Ms. Harris, who endorsed eliminating private insurers in an CNN town hall earlier this year and then said they would have a role under a Harris administration.

Mr. Buttigieg got the question he had to be expecting: on the recent police shooting in South Bend and why the police department in a 26 percent black city has only a 6 percent black police force still.

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Mr. Buttigieg said flatly.

He continued on the shooting where the officer did not have on his body camera and where black residents have been outraged.

“I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. He says he was attacked be knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And when I look into his mother’s eyes, I had to face the fact that nothing that I say will bring him back.”

“This is an issue that is facing our community and so many communities around the country,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “And until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there is a wall of mistrust put up one racist act at a time.”

Mr. Swalwell, the second youngest candidate in the race after Mr. Buttigieg, called for him to fire the police chief.

“You’re the mayor and you should fire the chief if that’s the policy,” he said, “And someone died.”

Mr. Buttigieg stared at him without comment.

Mr. Swalwell took a direct swipe at Mr. Biden’s age early in the debate, describing a moment years ago when he said Mr. Biden “said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans.”

“If we’re going to solve the issues of the nation, pass the torch. If we’re going to solve the issue of climate chaos, pass the torch. If we are going to solve school violence, pass the torch,” he said.

Mr. Biden, 76, smiled.

“I’m still holding onto that torch,” he said before pivoting to discuss his education plans.

Mr. Swalwell: “Addressing gun violence”

Mr. Bennett: “Climate change”

Ms. Gillibrand: “Family bill of rights,” which she said included a “national paid leave plan, universal pre-K, affordable day care and making sure that women and families are thrive in the workplace no matter who they are.”

Ms. Harris: “A middle-class tax cut,” she tried to quickly add “DACA” and “guns”

Mr. Sanders: “I reject the premise,” he said, adding, “We need a political revolution.”

Mr. Biden: He pivoted, too, saying Mr. Obama did more than one big thing quickly. He wrapped saying he would “defeat Donald Trump.”

Mr. Buttigieg: “Fix our democracy before it’s too late,” which would open the door to further priorities.

Mr. Yang: His “$1,000 freedom dividend” to every family.

Hickenlooper: “Climate change.”

Williamson: “My first call would be to the prime minister of New Zealand,” she said, to say that America is the best place to raise a family.

Just a few minutes into the debate, Mr. Hickenlooper took a veiled swipe at Mr. Sanders’s most expansive proposals: “You can’t eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many who don’t want to give it up,” he said.

Asked to respond to those who say nominating a socialist would re-elect Mr. Trump, Mr. Sanders, a proud democratic socialist, pointed to polls that show him ahead at this early stage in a head-to-head match up with the president.

“Well, President Trump, you are not standing up for working families when you try to throw 32 million people off the health care that they have,” Mr. Sanders said, adding that under Mr. Trump benefits go to “the top 1 percent.”

“That’s how we beat Trump,” he said. “We expose him for the fraud he is.

Ms. Harris, whose record as a prosecutor has come under criticism from some on the left, leaned into her experience in that role as she called for proposals to reduce gun violence, whether through congressional or executive action, should she become president.

“As a prosecutor, I have seen more autopsy photographs than I care to tell you,” she said. “I have hugged more mothers who are the mothers of homicide victims and I have attended more police officer funerals. It is enough. It is enough.”

In the span of just a few moments, Mr. Biden’s answer to a question about deportation evolved.

José Díaz-Balart of Telemundo asked, “If an individual is living in the United States of America without documents, that is his only offense, should that person be deported?”

“Depending on if they committed a major crime, they should be deported,” Mr. Biden said, defending the Obama-Biden administration’s record on immigration and deportation even as he stressed that “we should not be locking people up.”

Pressed again — “should someone who is here without documents and that is his only offense, should that person be deported?” — Mr. Biden replied, “That person should not be the focus of deportation.”

Ms. Harris contrasted with Mr. Biden, saying it was an area where she did not agree with the Obama administration, though she strained to avoid President Obama’s name while doing so. “Absolutely no, they should not be deported,” she said.

The first question to Mr. Buttigieg was about his opposition to the proposal of Mr. Sanders to eliminate all student debt and make public college tuition-free.

“I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little of tuition. While I want tuition costs to go down, I don’t think we can buy down every last penny for that.”

Mr. Buttigieg, 37, said he was sympathetic to student loan, saying he has “six-figure student debt.”

Mr. Swalwell jumped in. “I have a $100,000 student loan debt for myself. If I can’t count on the people around when this problem was created to be the ones to solve it,” he said.

Mr. Swalwell added, “This generation is ready to lead.”

Mr. Biden was asked about his recent remarks to donors that he would not “demonize the rich” as president. He used the opening to pivot to attacking President Trump, a move that has been the centerpiece of his campaign.

“Donald Trump thinks Wall Street built America,” Mr. Biden said at the start of his answer, contrasting himself with the president.

He mentioned Mr. Trump two more times, saying that “Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation” in regards to “income inequality” and that he would seek take aim to “eliminating Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy.”

The crowd cheered.

In his next turn, Mr. Sanders starting in on Mr. Trump too, calling him a “pathological liar” and a “racist.”

“That’s how we beat Trump, we expose him for the fraud he is,” Mr. Sanders said.

The crowd cheered yet again.

Mr. Sanders was pressed twice on whether taxes for the middle class would go up in a Sanders administration as Mr. Sanders pushes for a sweeping, boldly progressive agenda.

“Will taxes go up for the middle class in a Sanders administration and if so, how do you sell that to voters?” she asked.

Mr. Sanders emphasized the challenges of income inequality in the United States and reiterated his support for Medicare for All and tuition-free public college.

Pressed again, he replied, “Yes, they will pay more in taxes but less in health care for what they get.”

Reported and written by Katie Glueck, Shane Goldmacher and Sydney Ember.

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