If Thursday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami proved one thing, it’s this: You can beat Joe Biden if you try.
Biden has been sitting comfortably atop the polls ever since he launched his presidential candidacy back in April, and it’s far too soon to tell whether his stumbling, shoddy debate performance will cause lasting harm to his candidacy. What Thursday night underscored, however, is that Biden really does have some deep vulnerabilities—and that his rivals have to exploit them if they want to beat him.
Kamala Harris is a deeply flawed candidate in many ways, from her disturbing record on criminal justice issues to her ideological slipperiness on questions like Medicare for All. But she deserves credit for understanding that there is no way to avoid confronting Joe Biden head-on if you want to become the 2020 Democratic nominee. Her denunciation of his decades-long coziness with vile racists—and, even more pertinently for Harris, his alliance with them to bring down attempts to integrate American public schools through busing—completely floored Biden.
Astonishingly, he seemed totally unprepared for such a direct assault on his record, and botched his response so badly that he was left saying, “My time’s up.” Truer words may never be spoken.
This is not rocket science. Biden has made it clear, over and over and over again, that he is a man of another era, one who is literally going around telling rich people that “nothing would fundamentally change” for them if he was president. He is basing his entire candidacy around the broad themes of a return to normalcy and the absurd notion that he is the one man who can turn the Republican Party from a white nationalist bulwark against democracy into a centrist dealmaking partner. His fingerprints are proudly on almost every piece of shameful, racist mass incarceration legislation that has come out of Congress in the last 40 years. He is the man who betrayed Anita Hill and supported the Hyde Amendment, now running during a period when both the ravages of patriarchy and the crisis of the Supreme Court are central issues in Democratic politics. He was confronted on Thursday with the fact that he helped preside over mass deportations as vice president, and that he voted for the Iraq War. He had no answer for either one.
It is a record, in short, that you can do something with. Harris understood that intuitively, and she made Biden look diminished, defensive, and distasteful. But where are the other frontrunners? If Bernie Sanders wants to beat Biden, he will have to do better than he did on Thursday, when—save a gentle line about Biden’s Iraq vote—he all but pretended Biden wasn’t in the room. That won’t work. Biden is very much in the room, and he has an excellent chance of becoming the nominee, which would be a disaster. Counting on him to self-destruct is foolhardy and dangerous. People like Sanders—and Elizabeth Warren, when she gets the chance to debate him—have to do what Harris did, and put in the work of dismantling him.
The point is to make sure that the Biden brand of politics is done away with. But you can’t do that without taking down the man himself.