Second night of first Democratic presidential debate included heated rhetoric on race

Harris Biden split screen

Jake Webster

The second Democratic presidential debate was markedly more heated than the first. Sen. Kamala Harris, one of only a handful black women to ever seek the presidency, spoke powerfully on race.

Following a line of questioning regarding police brutality, Harris spoke up.

“As the only black person on the stage, I would like to speak on the issue of race,” Harris said.

She reflected on her youth, growing up in the immediate aftermath of civil rights laws and rulings integrating schools and public spaces in the United States.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day, and that little girl was me,” Harris said.

In one of the most contentious moments of either debate night, Harris described former Vice President Joe Biden’s statements about working with segregationists senators as “hurtful.”

Biden responded first by looking down towards his feet, and then aggressively defending his record on race relations. 

Race relations

“Biden looks completely lost in the discussion about race and was eviscerated by Harris. His response was way too defensive and totally out of tune,” Mack Shelley, professor and chair of the political science department, said.

Iowa State College Democrats Co-President Sehba Faheem said she believed that exchange hurt Biden.

“For one, he didn’t even apologize for making that statement,” Faheem said.

Harris had correctly said Biden also worked with segregationist senators to oppose bussing.

“So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats — we have to take it seriously — we have to act swiftly,” Harris said.

Biden looked at his feet, and appeared nervous. He looked away from Harris as she spoke.

“That’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board,” Biden said. “I did not praise racists, that is not true.”

Biden went on to make some potentially misleading statements about his history as a public defender, and mischaracterized his history by saying he had not opposed busing.

Harris drew from her prosecutorial background in her cross-examination of Biden. 

“Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then,” Harris asked.

Biden responded by again falsely claiming that he did not oppose busing, adding he had been opposed to the federal government enforcing busing. Biden said he believed busing had been an issue of states rights.

Just before this exchange — during the commercial break — the Club for Growth ran an ad in Iowa markets highlighting Biden’s past support of segregationists in their fight against busing.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked about a police shooting in his city. Moderator Rachel Maddow said the city is 26% black, though the police force is only 6% black. She asked why that had not improved during his time as mayor. 

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” Buttigieg said. “My community is in anguish right now, because of an officer-involved shooting. A black man, Eric Logan — killed by a white officer.”

Buttigieg said they have taken many steps: from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save Logan’s life.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper said when he was mayor of Denver there was a shooting “10 years before Ferguson,” and the community came together and created an oversight commission and “diversified the police force in two years.”

“I think the real question that America should be asking is: why five years after Ferguson … every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability,” Hickenlooper said.


Self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders got the first question of the night, on whether his proposed policies would lead to a tax increase for the middle class and how he could “sell” that to voters.

“We have a new vision for America, and at a time when we have three people in this country owning more wealth than the bottom half of America — while 500,000 people are sleeping out on the streets today, we think it is time for change — real change,” Sanders said. “By that I mean that health care in my view is a human right.” 

Sanders did not directly answer moderator Savannah Guthrie’s question initially, and she reiterated it. 

“Yes, they will pay more in taxes, but less in health care for what they get,” Sanders said. 

Shelley said the question seemed designed to get Sanders and Biden to go “at each other.”

“[The] [f]ocus on taxes seems to ignore benefits that could more than offset any tax increases,” Shelley said.

Biden was asked about remarks he made to a “group of wealthy donors” in which he said “we shouldn’t demonize the rich.”

Biden jumped into an anecdote and did not directly answer the question.

“My dad used to have an expression: ‘see Joe, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck — it’s about your dignity, it’s about respect, it’s about being able to look your kid in the eye and say to him that he’s gonna be okay,” Biden said.

Harris received a question on whether Democrats have a responsibility to explain how they will pay for their policy proposals.

“Where was that question when Republicans and Donald Trump passed a tax bill that benefits the top 1% [of income earners] and the biggest corporations in this country,” Harris said. “Working families need support and need to be lifted up.”

Faheem said she thought Harris was a co-winner of the debate.

“I think it would definitely be a tie between Buttigieg and Harris,” Faheem said.

Harris went on to propose changing the tax code so families making less than $100,000 each year receive a tax credit to collect up to $500 each month.

Businessman Andrew Yang, who spoke the least of all the candidates on the stage, has a more inclusive plan. He proposes all Americans over age 18 should receive $1,000 each month, which he calls a “freedom dividend.”

“We’d save money on things like incarceration, homelessness services, emergency room health care — and just the value gains from having a stronger, healthier [and] mentally healthier population … it would increase GDP by $700 billion,” Yang said. “This is the move we have to make, particularly as technology is now automating away millions of American jobs.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was asked about statements he has made saying Democrats will lose in 2020 if they embrace “socialism.”

Hickenlooper said if they don’t clearly define that they’re not “socialists” Republicans will call them socialists.

Republicans have for years run advertisements accusing Democrats of being socialists regardless of the policies they promulgate.

There is a strong contrast in how young and old Americans view socialism. According to a Pew survey, 50% of 18-29 year olds have a positive view of socialism, compared to 34% of those 65+.

Answering a question on how to get people the skills they need to adapt to a new world, Rep. Eric Swalwell briefly addressed modernizing schools and wiping away the student debt of teachers. He then addressed the former vice president.

“I was six years old when a presidential candidate came to the California Democratic Convention and said it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans,” Swalwell said. “That candidate was then-Sen. Joe Biden. Joe Biden was right when he said it was time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans 32 years ago — he’s still right today.”

“I’m still holding on to that torch,” Biden replied.

Health care

All the candidates were asked whether they would support abolishing private health care in favor of a government-run plan, only Sanders and Harris raised their hands.

“I find it hard to believe that every other major country on earth, including my neighbor 50 miles north of me — Canada — somehow has figured out a way to provide health care to every man, woman and child, and in most cases they’re spending 50% per capita what we are spending,” Sanders said.

Swalwell and Harris were speaking over each other, though the moderator called on Harris to speak.

“Harris outdid Swalwell for getting in on the discussion on ‘Medicare for All,’” Shelley said.

Harris said parents go to emergency rooms with their sick kids, “knowing that if they walk through those sliding glass doors — even though they have insurance — they will be out a $5,000 deductible when they walk through those doors.”

Sen. Michael Bennet was asked if expanding upon “Obamacare” is enough to get to universal coverage. He supports a “public option” to allow Americans to buy into Medicare.

“I believe that will get us the quickest way there [sic] … I had prostate cancer recently,” Bennet said. “I feel very strongly that families ought to be able to have this choice.”

The candidates were then asked to raise their hand if their government health care plan would provide coverage to undocumented immigrants; all candidates raised their hands.

“There are undocumented immigrants in my community who pay — they pay sales taxes, they pay property taxes directly, or indirectly — it’s not about a handout; this is an insurance program, and we do ourselves no favors by having 11 million undocumented people in our country be unable to access healthcare,” Buttigieg said.

Foreign policy and immigration

Buttigieg then pivoted to immigration.

“The real problem is we shouldn’t have 11 million undocumented people with no pathway to citizenship — it makes no sense,” Buttigieg said. “The American people agree on what to do … [they] want a pathway to citizenship, they want protections for “Dreamers,” … we need to clean up the lawful immigration system.”

Asked about asylum seekers at the border, Hickenlooper said the “world is judging us.”

“If you’d ever told me any time in my life that this country would sanction federal agents to take children from the arms of their parents … in Colorado we’d call that kidnapping,” Hickenlooper said.

Author Marianne Williamson agreed with Hickenlooper on the characterization of government actions as “kidnapping.”

“This is collective child abuse,” Williamson said. “I haven’t heard anyone on this stage talk about American foreign policy in Latin America, and how we might have in the last few decades contributed to something.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was asked a similar question about asylum seekers.

“When [Trump] started separating children from their parents … the fact that seven children have died in his custody — the fact that dozens of children have been separated from their parents and they have no plan to reunite them,” Gillibrand said. “I would fight for comprehensive immigration reform.”

All the candidates were asked to raise their hand if they favor changing crossing the American border illegally from a criminal offense to a civil offense. Only Bennet kept his hand down, though the moderators did not ask him why. Biden was asked to clarify his stance and demurred, only saying those who entered illegally “should not be the focus of deportation.”

The candidates were asked which foreign policy relationship they would “reset.”

Williamson: European leaders

Hickenlooper: China

Buttigieg: the world

Biden: NATO

Sanders: United Nations

Harris: NATO

Gillibrand: Iran

Bennet: European allies and willing Latin American nations

Swalwell: “Breakin’ up with Russia, makin’ up with NATO.”

Biden was asked about his vote for the Iraq War and why voters should trust his judgment moving forward.

“I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of my Iraq, and my son was one of them,” Biden said. “I also think we should not have combat troops in Afghanistan.”

Sanders made his first direct contrast with Biden on the Iraq War.

“Joe voted for that war — I helped lead the opposition to that war,” Sanders said. “I helped lead the effort — for the first time — to utilize the War Powers Act to get the United States out of Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.”

Shelley said he believes Biden is “vulnerable for supporting the Iraq War” but could play “successfully of his experience in the Senate and as vice president” to combat attacks on his voting record.

Reporting contributed by Emily Berch.