Democratic debates: Biden in firing line over immigration policy

Candidates target former vice president over previous comments on women’s rights

Former US vice-president Joe Biden came under pressure from Democratic rivals for his previous policy stances on immigration, women's rights and criminal justice reform during Wednesday night's second debate in Detroit between 10 of the party's presidential candidates.

Though his performance was shaky at times, Biden emerged from this debate in better shape than after last month's debate in Miami.

The tension between Biden and California senator Kamala Harris, who clashed fiercely in Florida, was evident within seconds of the two walking on stage. "Go easy on me kid," said Biden as he shook his rival's hand, a comment that was picked up by the microphones, and seen by many as patronising. Biden and Harris then plunged into a heated exchange about healthcare.

The issue is a weak spot for Harris, who has been equivocal about her support for so-called Medicare for All since she began her campaign. Biden went on the offensive, arguing that his plan would build on Obamacare and allow people to keep their private health insurance if they wished – a key priority for many Americans who are reluctant to give up their private health insurance plans despite misgivings about the health system.


Biden echoed the arguments of many on the moderate wing of the party by describing the single-payer system as economically fanciful.

“The plan, no matter how you cut it, costs $3 trillion,” he said of Harris’s proposal, adding that senator Bernie Sanders’s plan would cost $30 trillion. “Mine is $750 billion,” he said.


But as the conversation moved to immigration, it was Biden’s turn to feel the heat.

For the second half of Wednesday night’s debate, the Democratic front-runner came under attack from all sides.

Probed by the moderators about why deportations rose under the Obama administration, Biden said he did not believe that people who crossed the border illegally should be allowed to do so – setting himself apart from those who said in the last debate that illegal immigrants should not be criminalised. “If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime,” the former vice-president said.

In particular, Biden hit out at Julian Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary under Obama who embraces a more liberal position on immigration.

“We sat together in many cabinet meetings,” he said of his former cabinet colleague. “I never heard him talk about any of this when he was secretary.”

Further trouble was afoot for Biden as discussion turned to criminal justice reform. In one of the most memorable moments of the night, senator Cory Booker criticised Biden's role in endorsing the 1994 Crime Bill which resulted in a sharp increase in the incarceration of African-American men.

Biden responded by drawing attention to Booker’s record as mayor of Newark.

“If you want to compare records – and frankly I’m shocked that you do – I am happy to do that,” Booker replied. “All the problems that he is talking about [are problems] that he created,” he said of the former vice-president.


Other candidates also jumped in, with Harris briefly reprising the debate on “bussing” that dominated the first debate, reminding the audience that Biden sided with segregationists.

But Harris’s record as attorney general in California also came in for criticism, as Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard accused her of blocking evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row, and prosecuting 1,500 people for marijuana possessions. “When you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” she said.

Towards the end of the debate, Biden also came under attack for his position on women’s rights. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand cited an opinion piece written by Biden in 1981 in which he said that federal subsidies would discourage women from staying in the home and would lead to the deterioration of the family unit. Biden shot back saying that he had always supported equal treatment for women, accusing Gillibrand of criticising him just because she was now running for office.

“I don’t know what happened except you’re running for president,” he said. Harris also asked why Biden until lately supported the Hyde amendment — a law that prevented the use of federal money for abortion. Biden failed to give a coherent answer.

Overall, the second night of the Democratic debate had no standout performer, though Cory Booker arguably put in the best performance of the night.

Biden performed better than his first debate appearance in Miami. But questions about his acuity and age still remain. He stumbled at points and stopped speaking immediately when interrupted by the moderators, in contrast to the other candidates who continued to speak after their allotted time was up.

In one unfortunate moment for Biden he referred to Booker as “president”, then corrected himself to say “future president”.

Booker retorted: “I’m grateful that he endorsed my presidency already.”

Biden may have salvaged his campaign, but serious questions remain about whether he is the right person to take on Donald Trump. With several candidates expected to drop out before the next scheduled debate in Houston in September, the Democratic field will narrow considerably.

But with the Democratic National Convention still a year away, it is still all to play for as Democrats decide on their candidate to take on Trump.