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Biden parries attacks, Harris faces criticism in US Democratic debate

Lucas Jackson, Reuters | Former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris on the second night of consecutive Democratic presidential debates in Detroit on July 31.

If Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Detroit was marked by moderates ganging up on progressives, Wednesday’s was the opposite, with more left-leaning candidates attacking centrist former US vice president Joe Biden.

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On the second consecutive night of debates among Democrats seeking the chance to face off against Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, former vice president Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris were at the centre of a fight over health care that has split the Democratic Party and which dominated the first debate in Detroit on Tuesday.

Harris made a reputation for herself as a spitfire after the first round of debates in June, when she chastened her opponent Biden for siding with anti-busing politicians in the 1970s. Wednesday’s evening, as the candidates took to the stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Biden was heard telling Harris, “Go easy on me, Kid.”

As it turned out, it may have been Harris who should have been asking people to go easy on her. She found herself under attack from all sides, particularly on the matter of healthcare reform.

The moderators asked for her reaction to criticisms of her proposed Medicare for All plan, which she released on Monday. Biden's campaign called it a “have-it-every-which-way approach”. The plan does not advocate for a government-run, single-payer system. Instead it would allow private health insurance companies to remain in the system, a proposal some detractors say does not square with the concept of Medicare for All.

"You can't beat President Trump with double-talk on this plan," Biden told Harris. "The plan, no matter how you cut, it costs $3 trillion. It will require middle-class taxes to go up, not down. Thirdly, it will eliminate employer-based insurance."

Harris rejected Biden's description as "simply inaccurate" and ripped into his proposal to build on former president Barack Obama's healthcare plan, popularly known as Obamacare, and to include a government-run option, saying it would leave millions uninsured.

Their off-stage fellow contender Bernie Sanders, who debated on Tuesday, was not having any of it. His campaign tweeted his disapproval of both Biden's and Harris’s positions:

Biden’s Obama ties: A double-edged sword

The feather in Biden’s cap for the 2020 campaign has been his role as right-hand man for popular former president Barack Obama.

On the other hand, his vice presidential bona fides came back to bite him on the topic of immigration. A heckler in the crowd shouted over Biden, “Three million deportations!”– a reference to the number of undocumented immigrants the Obama administration expelled from the United States.

When Biden tried to distance himself from the issue, former Newark, New Jersey, mayor Cory Booker told him, “You can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anyone else in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then duck it when it’s not.”

Biden was arguably the most centrist of those on stage, something the other candidates again tried to emphasise during a discussion of climate change.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who has made global warming central to his political platform, said, "Middle-ground solutions, like the vice president has proposed, or sort of average-sized things, are not going to save us. Too little, too late is too dangerous.”

Biden defended himself from Inslee’s dig, saying, “The fact of the matter is, nothing is 'middle ground' about my plan. I call for immediate action to be taken."

He added: "Here's the deal, in that area, there's also [a] piece, 85% of it is something I helped negotiate and that is the Paris climate accord. I would re-join that accord."

Other candidates would not let Biden rest on his Obama-era Paris climate accord laurels. Booker said, “Nobody should get applause when they say they’re going to re-join the Paris climate accord. That is kindergarten, we need advanced thinking."

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is running on the promise of a universal basic income of $1000 per month for all adult Americans, took a more cynical stance than the other candidates.

“This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late," Yang said. "We are 10 years too late.”

What’s next?

Biden is far ahead of his 20-odd Democratic opponents in the polls, coming in at 32.2% versus Sanders’ 16.2%, according to the most recent polls on Real Clear Politics, which calculates a running average of six major polls. Due to his clear lead, many pundits observed that these debates were Biden’s to lose, and that he was unlikely to lose his lead as long as he did not make a huge gaffe, a pitfall he avoided.

Though Wednesday’s debates saw candidates like Booker and Inslee distinguish themselves, it still looks to be a three-way race between Biden, Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who debated on Tuesday.

The real test of mettle comes with caucus season, which kicks off in Iowa February 3. Super Tuesday, on which 16 US jurisdictions and Democrats Abroad have their primaries simultaneously, takes place on March 3.

(with AP and REUTERS)

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