At the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate Thursday, frontrunner Joe Biden ended up on the wrong end of a headline-grabbing exchange with California Sen. Kamala Harris over race. The rather tense back and forth became, as Politico dubbed it, the “most viral moment” of the debate and, along with Biden’s announcement that the first thing he’d do as president would be to “defeat Donald Trump,” helped ensure that he would not walk away the winner of his first chance to prove that he actually deserves to be leading in the polls.
It didn’t take long for reports to circulate that Team Biden was “freaking out” about how poorly he performed. “A source close to the Biden campaign tells me his staff is ‘freaking out’ about his poor performance tonight,” New York Magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi tweeted Thursday.
And it wasn’t just his performance that has the team nervous, the source told Nuzzi, it’s the response of the audiences in their campaign-organized debate watch parties. “The source said that internally, field staff says the campaign-organized debate watch parties in early voting states have been ‘awkward’ and that Biden isn’t playing well to those who attended,” Nuzzi reported (tweets below).
So what went wrong with the frontrunner’s first chance to solidify his lead? Nuzzi’s source had something to say about that too: “According to Biden’s staff, he isn’t listening to his debate prep and he’s ‘set in his ways,’ the source close to the campaign tells me.”
Nuzzi soon posted a reply to her initial post from Biden’s campaign: “Biden spokesperson says that Biden campaign staff is not ‘freaking out,’ as a source close to the Biden campaign said.” The concise response from campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield: “Nope.”
“Nope” wasn’t the Biden campaign’s only response to the debate. As noted by The Week, during the vice president’s rather disappointing first debate appearance, his team tweeted out: “Are you watching the debate? WOW! Joe has been on fire!”
That post, of course, inspired some snarky replies, including, “Yes, he is on fire. Oh God he’s on fire. Someone put him out,” and “I mean, he is getting torched.”
As The Daily Wire’s Frank Camp highlighted, Biden’s firey exchange with Harris on desegregation resulted in a meltdown by the frontrunner. When Harris called him out for his recent complimentary comments about two avidly pro-segregation Democrats and his opposition to federally mandated bussing for desegregation, Biden struggled to mount a coherent response. Video and transcript below:
HARRIS: Growing up, my sister and I had to deal with the neighbor who told us her parents couldn’t play with us because we were black. And I will say also that, in this campaign, we have also heard – and I’m going to now direct this at Vice President Biden – I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But I also believe – and it’s personal – it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose bussing.
And, you know, 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. 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. As attorney general of California, I was very proud to put in place a requirement that all my special agents would wear body cameras and keep those cameras on.
MADDOW: Senator Harris, thank you. Vice President Biden, you have been invoked. We’re going to give you a chance to respond. Vice President Biden?
BIDEN: It’s a mischaracterization of my position across the board. I did not praise racists. That is not true, number one. Number two, if we want to have this campaign litigated on who supports civil rights and whether I did or not, I’m happy to do that. I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender, when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.
Number two, as the vice president of the United States, I worked with a man who, in fact, we worked very hard to see to it we dealt with these issues in a major, major way.
The fact is that, in terms of bussing, the bussing, I never – you would have been able to go to school the same exact way because it was a local decision made by your city council. That’s fine. That’s one of the things I argued for, that we should not be – we should be breaking down these lines. But so the bottom line here is, look, everything I have done in my career, I ran because of civil rights, I continue to think we have to make fundamental changes in civil rights, and those civil rights, by the way, include not just only African-Americans, but the LGBT community.
HARRIS: But, Vice President Biden, do you agree today – do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose bussing in America then? Do you agree?
BIDEN: I did not oppose bussing in America. What I opposed is bussing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed. I did not oppose…
HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision. It was a local decision.
HARRIS: So that’s where the federal government must step in.
BIDEN: The federal government…
HARRIS: That’s why we have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That’s why we need to pass the Equality Act. That’s why we need to pass the ERA, because there are moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.
BIDEN: I supported the ERA from the very beginning. I’m the guy that extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years. We got to the place where we got 98 out of 98 votes in the United States Senate doing it. I’ve also argued very strongly that we, in fact, deal with the notion of denying people access to the ballot box.