Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the race to be the Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, has come under attack from his younger colleagues during a fiery televised debate which saw him subjected to his toughest scrutiny of the campaign so far.
The former US vice-president was attacked over his willingness to co-operate with two segregationist colleagues while in the Senate, and urged by another rival to “pass the torch to a younger generation”.
In one of the most stinging exchanges of the night, Kamala Harris, the senator from California, rounded on Mr Biden for his opposition, as a young senator from Delaware, to the federally-enforced busing of children into mixed-race schools.
Ms Harris, who is of Jamaican and Indian descent, told Mr Biden she had been affected by his recent comments touting how he had worked with segregationist senators despite differing ideological beliefs.
“It is personal,” Ms Harris said, “and 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.”
Mr Biden said he would be happy to fight on his civil rights record over a political career now reaching 50 years. He called Ms Harris’s attacks “a mischaracterisation of my position across the board. I did not praise racists, that is not true”.
Meanwhile, Eric Swalwell, a thirtysomething California congressman, repeatedly argued it was “time to pass the torch to a new generation of Americans”.
“If we’re going to solve the issues of climate chaos, pass the torch,” Mr Swalwell said. “If we’re going to solve the issue of student loan debt, pass the torch. If we’re going to [stop] any gun violence for families who are fearful to send their kids to school, pass the torch.”
Mr Biden retorted: “I’m still holding on to the torch.”
The exchange underscored the generational and ideological divisions on display on Thursday night — the second-night in two back-to-back live TV debates and the first forum for many of the top contenders to introduce themselves to voters.
Mr Biden entered Thursday night’s debate as the frontrunner. According to an average of RealClearPolitics polls, Mr Biden is currently leading the pack of more than two-dozen candidates with 32 per cent support. Behind Mr Biden are Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, with 17 per cent; Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren with 13 per cent; Ms Harris with 7 per cent; and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, with just under 7 per cent.
In recent weeks Mr Biden has come under fire for not only for the segregation issue but also for saying that he would continue to support the Hyde amendment, which blocks federal funding for abortion — a position he later reversed following blowback from Democratic colleagues.
Mr Biden’s change in stance is one of numerous examples of how the Democratic party and its presidential candidates have tacked to the left in the age of Donald Trump, with many of the voters that make up the party’s base calling for increasingly liberal policies on immigration, healthcare and even the Democratic strategy to take on — and take down — Mr Trump.
Like Mr Biden, Mr Sanders also found himself on the receiving end of attacks from other parties who challenged some of his far-left views, including abolishing private health insurance, and his identification as a socialist.
However, the main target was Mr Biden who was questioned over his vote for the Iraq war and the Obama administration’s deportation policies and its shortcomings in accomplishing some of its main policy goals.
The night offered a breakout moment for Ms Harris who in addition to taking repeated shots at Mr Biden, garnered loud applause for her policy proposals, including the reversal of Mr Trump’s tax cuts and amnesty for the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers as well as deferred deportation for their parents.
She also roused the crowd with a number of evocative images, ranging from an immigrant mother pulling her child through Mexico to the US to American parents worried about the cost of taking a sick child to the emergency room. She also talked about “the little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day”, adding: “And that little girl was me.”
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