Bernie Sanders, Not Joe Biden, Sets the Democratic Party Line
Biden may be popular among Democratic voters, but he becomes a marginal figure in the company of his presidential primary rivals
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In his opening remarks at the third Democratic presidential primary debate, Joe Biden struck a lonesome defensive in his battle against “Medicare for All.” “My distinguished friend—the senator on my left—has not indicated how she pays for it,” Biden said, “and the senator [on my right] has in fact come forward and said how he’s going to pay for it, but it gets him about halfway there.”
Biden was referring to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who flanked the former vice president on the debate stage at Texas Southern University in Houston. It was the first debate on network television, and the ABC News moderators asked the 10 candidates far more pointed questions than in the previous debates on CNN and MSNBC. It was also the first time Biden and Warren appeared on the same stage together, which presented a loaded contrast given their decade-old rivalry about bankruptcy reform in the Senate.
But Biden and Warren didn’t duel too aggressively. Biden and Sanders—the two front-runners in the race—haggled over health care reform (in the first hour) and the Iraq War (in the second hour), but they, too, declined to heighten the ideological contrast of their positions. Instead, Biden again confronted his most unlikely critic, Julián Castro, who, like Biden, served in Barack Obama’s administration. Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, mocked Biden’s wavering promises about buy-in costs in his “Medicare for choice” proposal. “Are you forgetting already what you said just two minutes ago?”
Castro then ridiculed Biden’s attempt to deflect questions from the Univision anchor, Jorge Ramos, about 3 million deportations—“the most ever in U.S. history,” Castro stressed—recorded under the Obama administration. “Every time something good about Barack Obama comes up, he says, ‘oh, I was there, I was there, I was there, that’s me, too,’ and then every time somebody questions part of the administration that we were both part of, he says, ‘well, that was the president,’” Castro said. “He wants to take credit for Obama’s work but not have to answer to any questions.”
Biden didn’t quite lose to Castro, whose remarks verged on arrogance and cruelty. But Castro’s pointed attacks on Biden’s record as vice president underscored a persistent riddle in these debates. Obama remains highly popular among Democratic voters, and Biden wastes little opportunity to tout that administration’s record. How might the party’s major presidential contenders glamorize Obama’s legacy even as they jockey to supersede the signature achievement of his presidency? On Thursday, the 10 Democrats on stage acknowledged only two partisan forebears: Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders.