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Joe Biden Cleared a Very Low Bar in Last Night’s Debate

Pundits are declaring Joe Biden the winner of last night’s debate. They’re conveniently ignoring the lies he told about his civil rights and immigration record.

Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Texas Southern University on September 12, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

After three rounds now of Democratic debates, we have a settled pattern for how these things are going to go: moderators will drape a right-wing framing around their questions, almost everyone will attack Medicare for All, and Joe Biden will misrepresent his record.

With nearly all the mini-Bidens vanquished, it was down to the final boss himself. Biden, who after two lackluster debate performances and a string of increasingly hilarious “gaffes” needed to prove he was, in his words, “not going nuts,” eked out a surprisingly nondisastrous showing, largely by taking aim at Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All legislation.

While Biden’s team had leaked to the press he would be going after Elizabeth Warren during the debate, most of Biden’s big moments involved attacking Sanders; even his opening salvo against Warren on health care was that “she’s for Bernie” while Biden was “for Barack.” Biden cycled through all the familiar attacks: It costs $30 trillion over ten years! The middle class will pay more in taxes! “This is America”! South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined in, charging that Sanders’s bill “doesn’t trust the American people,” as did Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said that “while Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” and fearmongered about Americans losing their private insurance. (For some reason, the moderators threw it back to Warren for a response on that one.)

Biden and the others’ attacks were helped from the get-go by moderator George Stephanopoulos, who lobbed Biden a readymade attack opportunity, asking if the two candidates were “pushing too far beyond where Democrats want to go and where the country needs to go.” Similar questioning continued throughout the night, with Stephanopoulos trying his best to get Warren to say middle-class taxes would go up, and asking Harris why she was now “uncomfortable” with Sanders’s bill. Moderator David Muir would later repeatedly suggest that the rise of ISIS was due to Obama rapidly withdrawing troops from Iraq (in fact, Obama reversed his original promise to immediately get troops out, and they only left at the end of 2011 because the Iraqi government refused to let them stay), and that a withdrawal from Afghanistan would lead to a similar outcome.

By clearing the extremely low bar of appearing coherent and not having any of his body parts malfunction on stage, Biden has already been awarded top marks for his performance, even declared the winner. But it’s important to remember that Biden’s performance rested on a patina of lies.

Challenged by moderator Jorge Ramos on the distinctly Trumpian nature of the “Obama-Biden” administration’s immigration policies, Biden dubbed the comparison “outrageous.” “We didn’t lock people up in cages,” he said. “We didn’t separate families.” Both are untrue.

As fact-checkers quickly pointed out, Obama and Biden infamously did detain immigrants, including children, in cages. And while it’s true the administration didn’t make snatching children from migrants an official policy as Trump has, breaking families apart, sometimes permanently, was a cornerstone of the Obama-Biden approach to immigration, usually by arresting and simply disappearing the undocumented parents of US citizen children, but also, under the Alien Transfer and Exit Program, by separating families traveling together at the border, including minors. Pressed by Ramos for dodging the question, which asked if Biden and Obama had made a mistake by deporting as many people as they did, Biden was forced to re-endorse the policy, saying that Obama “did the best thing that was able to be done at the time.”

When the issues of mass incarceration and segregation came up, always fraught territory for Biden, the former vice president engaged in more rewriting of history. “I’ve been involved from the beginning,” he said about the fight for black civil rights, later repeating that “from the time I got involved, I started dealing with” institutional segregation.

This, too, is false. Biden was reviled by educators and the civil rights community for the Biden-Eagleton amendment, passed in 1977, which forbade what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) to spend money on school busing. In 1980, the Education Commission of the States voted to declare the amendment the most “far-reaching” legislative roadblock to civil rights enforcement. On the 25th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1979, the Civil Rights Commission published a report that bitterly noted the lack of progress on desegregation and specifically criticized the law. The commission’s chairman charged it had “aided and abetted” anti-integrationist forces, called for its repeal, and labeled it “one of, if not the major civil rights issues confronting the country at this time.” Political scientist Stephen C. Halpern called it a “death knell” for the use of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VI in education, and it ground desegregation efforts to a halt around the country, including in Chicago. Ironically, it had no effect on the court-ordered busing initiative in Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, the ostensible reason he had crafted the amendment.

In the process, Biden staked out a position on desegregation that was far from liberal. He nonsensically claimed there was a “conceptual difference between desegregation and integration,” charged integration with being “racist and insulting” in some of its forms, and even said that integrating people “so that they all have the same access and they learn to grow up with one another and all the rest” was a “rejection of the whole movement of black pride.” As he explained to the attendees of a fundraising dinner in 1975, the liberal idea that the United States owed its strength to its status as a “great melting pot” was “a bunch of poppycock because we know being black and white and Christian and Jew breaks us apart.” By the time Biden, who entered the Senate with a reputation as a civil rights advocate, ran for president in 1986, his hometown paper noted his major legislative accomplishment was arguably a tough-on-crime law he had authored with former segregationist Strom Thurmond.

With a history like this, it’s hardly surprising Biden would gloss over it.

Biden wasn’t the only candidate to misrepresent his early years, however. Former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro closed the evening with a story about how, upon being elected to the city council, he had courageously quit his day job at a law firm due to a conflict of interest: the firm was representing a client pushing for the council to approve a land deal to build a golf course over an important water supply.

“So, one day, I walked into my law firm, and I quit my job,” he said last night. “And then I went, and I voted against that land deal on the city council.”

This is an accurate description of the story. Unfortunately, Castro left out the rest of it. Gearing up to run for mayor and wary of crossing the business community whose support he’d need, Castro then turned around and supported the revived deal. As the San Antonio Express-News put it, he had transformed from an “obstacle to progress” in the eyes of the project’s backers, to “champion for a major development.” Activists decried what one called his “about-face,” and in 2005, Castro voted for the project, even as further developer giveaways were rammed through at the last minute.

For the most part, however, this debate will be, and is already being, viewed as an important moment of consolidation for Biden, for whom another doddering debate performance would have further eroded his steadily falling lead. Other than the opening exchange, Sanders was conspicuously quiet throughout the night, not helped by the fact that the moderators didn’t call on him to speak about either criminal justice or, most bafflingly, climate change, even as Sanders’s climate plan has been singled out by experts as the best in the field, and despite his long record of leadership on the issue. Warren, too, was relatively silent as the debate went on, though her defense of Medicare for All in the face of centrist attacks will no doubt help her campaign, with Warren struggling in recent months to prove her commitment to the policy.

Even so, debates are only one part of the campaign. Biden has been steadily losing ground ever since he jumped in the race, and he’s now down by nearly eight points to Sanders in New Hampshire, and neck and neck in other states. Yesterday’s debate will buoy his supporters and financial backers. But it’s only a matter of time before he has to go back out in public again.