Critic’s Notebook: Biden Survives the Pile-On in Second Democratic Debate

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Joe Biden

The vice president wasn’t always sharp, and found himself frequently pummeled by rivals like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — but nothing registered as a fatal blow.

If there were any doubts before Wednesday night's debate, they've been erased. Joe Biden is definitely the Democratic frontrunner. Not because he's polling the highest, but rather because practically every other candidate on the stage went after him relentlessly. The former vice president was placed in the center of the 10-person lineup, which made it all the easier for everyone to train their weapons on him. If his presidential race doesn't work out, he could make an excellent living as a pinata.

As the candidates walked onto the stage in the opening moments, Biden greeted Kamala Harris by saying, "Go easy on me, kid." The genial remark was instantly attacked on Twitter for its condescending tone, but we should probably be grateful that he didn't rub her shoulders and smell her hair.

This fourth installment in what promises to be a very dragged-out reality show miniseries served as an excellent argument for returning to the days when nominees were selected in smoke-filled back rooms. The candidates themselves seemed aware of this, frequently commenting that they were uncomfortable attacking each other and decrying the "Republican talking points" that constituted many of the questions. Cory Booker made it a running theme, vainly imploring his fellow candidates to come together in one big kumbaya moment. Easy for him to say; he's already qualified for the September debates.

Speaking of which, the event served as a good opportunity to get one last look at most of those onstage. Only three of the candidates in this evening's "Diversity Edition" of the debate have so far qualified for September: Booker, Biden and Harris. So now would be an appropriate time to say a fond farewell to Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and Bill de Blasio. Thank you all very much for playing, ladies and gentlemen, and best of luck in your future endeavors. (And Mr. Yang, if you're looking for more subjects for your "Freedom Dividend" experiment giving people $1,000 a month, call me.)

You could easily imagine Trump laughing his cojones off watching the Democratic candidates do his dirty work for him. He, of course, has the luxury of not having to debate any primary challengers, because the Republican party is in full goosestep behind him.

Biden was standing between Booker and Harris, and you wondered why he didn't simply crouch and let their attacks land on each other. The CNN moderators were clearly thirsty for a rematch between Biden and Harris, with the first question to Harris attempting to get her to respond to Biden's criticism of her recently unveiled health care plan. Harris eagerly took the bait, and we were off and running. But the moderators' manipulations eventually proved grating. When Jake Tapper later attempted to revive the busing issue that the two fought over last time, the crowd booed.

Fortunately, Biden, who must have gone through some serious coaching since then, was in better form this night. He was much more assertive and strong-voiced while defending his record, which is necessary because he's got a lot of record to defend. But he still has an unfortunate habit of being the politest debater ever, repeatedly cutting himself off in such disciplined fashion that you fear what will happen if he debates Trump. Biden seems to think he's playing by Marquess of Queensberry Rules, and Trump is a bare-knuckle brawler. Should they wind up on a stage together, Biden is going to need a skilled cutman. He also occasionally stumbled over his words. His verbal gaffes included referring to both Booker and Inslee as if they were already president and, in his closing statement, warning us of the danger of "eight more years of Donald Trump." (Joe, please don't give him more ideas than he already has.)

Almost everyone got their licks in at one point or another. Harris was actually relatively low-key compared to Booker, who repeatedly jabbed Biden and often smiled while he was doing it. During one exchange, Booker told him, "You're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor," a line that only seemed to confuse Biden. He also called Biden out on his habit of tying himself to his former boss at every opportunity. The observation rang true, because Biden brought up Obama so many times throughout the evening that it would have been easier for him to bring along a life-sized cardboard cutout.

De Blasio clearly strategized that attacking Biden was his only chance of rescuing his floundering campaign. He repeatedly addressed Biden directly, as if they were debating one on one. It was so over-the-top that it became a running gag of the evening, giving Biden the opportunity for a good riposte. "I love your affection for me," he smilingly told the mayor. "You spend a lot of time with me."

(There were several interruptions by protesters throughout the evening, including one group protesting the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD. Leave it to de Blasio to bring a little of New York City to the debate with him.)

Castro bided his time, but managed to stick a dagger in Biden during an exchange about immigration, telling him, "Mr. vice president, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons from the past and one of us hasn't." And Gillibrand delivered a clearly rehearsed, elaborate attack about an op-ed Biden wrote long ago in which he said that working women were causing "the deterioration of the family." By this point, Biden seemed fed-up, responding, "I don't know what's happened, except now you're running for president."

(Gillibrand, by the way, probably achieved her viral moment when she declared, "The first thing I'm going to do as president is Clorox the Oval Office!")

Biden seemed genuinely perplexed by everyone ganging up on him. "I find it fascinating that everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues," he said in a wounded tone, adding, "Barack Obama knew exactly who I was." (Those playing the drinking game at home promptly downed another shot).

The Democrats need to move this process along, and fast. The more the candidates debate such issues as busing and who voted for the Iraq War, the further behind the party is going to get in the race. They're competing against a president who can't achieve a favorable approval rating even with a humming economy and who has alienated nearly every person of color in the nation, and they still might find a way to lose. As entertaining as these overcrowded debates can be, it's time to thin the herd.