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About The daily Astorian. (Astoria, Or.) 1961-current | View Entire Issue (June 29, 2019)
THE ASTORIAN • SATURDAY, JUNE 29, 2019
AP Photos/Wilfredo Lee
Left to right: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.
Cory Booker, left, and Elizabeth Warren.
Biden’s viability, party’s future face questions
By JULIE PACE
WASHINGTON — The Democratic
Party is in no mood for a coronation.
Joe Biden stepped onto the debate stage
Thursday night as a front runner by default
more than depth of support, and walked
away with a more fragile standing atop
the sprawling Democratic ﬁ eld. His rivals
showed little deference to the former vice
president and longtime senator — a Demo-
cratic elder statesman who has cast himself
as the rightful heir to the legacy of Barack
Obama, the president he spent eight years
The questions surrounding Biden’s viabil-
ity are a proxy for the broader debate among
Democrats about the best path to defeat Pres-
ident Donald Trump, and about the future of
a party that has been trying to reconcile for
a generation the role that government should
play in American life.
Can a moderate like Biden attract some
of the white, working-class voters who
abandoned Democrats for Trump in 2016 or
should the party embrace the energy of its
left ﬂ ank and tap a progressive, like Sens.
Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who are
pressing for sweeping government interven-
tion in the economy? Are Biden’s decades
of experience in Washington an antidote to
Trump, who took ofﬁ ce having never served
in government, or would a fresher face,
such as California Sen. Kamala Harris, help
Democrats ramp up general election turnout
among young voters and minorities?
This week’s back-to-back debates did lit-
tle to answer which course Democratic vot-
ers will take when primary contests begin
early next year. But the face-offs did thrust
the divisions within the party into the spot-
light, as candidates swapped many of the
niceties that have governed the primary’s
early months for pointed and sometimes per-
It’s no surprise that Biden, who has led
early polling since jumping into the race in
April, found himself a frequent target. Yet
the breadth of the critiques — taking aim
at his age, his style of governing, his pol-
icy positions and his views on race — were
at times breathtaking. Biden alternated
between forceful defenses of his record and
stumbling answers that suggested he wasn’t
fully prepared for the intensity of the attacks.
The debate’s enduring exchange came
when Harris challenged Biden over his past
opposition to school busing and recent state-
ments about working with segregation-
ists. Harris, a former prosecutor who would
be the ﬁ rst black woman elected president,
wove her own personal history into her blis-
tering critique of Biden’s words and actions.
“Vice President Biden, I do not believe
you are a racist, and I agree with you, when
you commit yourself to the importance of
ﬁ nding common ground,” Harris said. “But
I also believe — and it’s personal — it was
actually 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.”
Candidates also challenged Biden’s
record as a dealmaker during his tenure as
vice president, jabbing at both a source of
pride for Biden and one of his stated quali-
ﬁ cations for the presidency. Rep. Eric Swal-
well, one of the youngest candidates in the
race, repeatedly called on the 76-year-old to
“pass the torch” to a new generation.
“I’m still hanging onto that torch,” Biden
To some Democrats, Biden still remains a
safe choice to take on Trump, a president the
party views as an existential threat to Ameri-
can democracy. With his centrist policy posi-
tions and everyman stylings, Biden is seen
as a candidate who can win back some of
the working class voters who were drawn to
Trump and helped tip Pennsylvania, Michi-
gan and Wisconsin in the Republican’s favor
in 2016. He also has deep ties with black
voters, a crucial Democratic constituency,
particularly after spending eight years as
Obama’s No. 2.
Other Democrats argue the country and
the party has changed dramatically, even in
the two-and-a-half years since Obama and
Biden left the White House. Liberal Dem-
ocrats, including Warren and Sanders, are
unabashedly embracing costly, big govern-
ment programs to address economic inequal-
ity, climate change and health care costs.
Sanders went so far as to concede that his
“Medicare For All” program would increase
taxes on middle class Americans, though
he argued their health care costs would be
A historic number of women and minori-
ties are agitating to take control of an increas-
ingly diverse party. Some candidates, includ-
ing 37-year-old South Bend, Indiana, Mayor
Pete Buttigieg, are openly calling for Demo-
crats to embrace a new generation of leaders.
Democrats have tested versions of these
political propositions in recent decades. Fac-
ing unpopular incumbent President George
W. Bush in 2004, Democrats went with a
seasoned centrist, Massachusetts Sen. John
Kerry, who would lose the general election.
In 2016, the party establishment, and ulti-
mately voters, rallied around Hillary Clinton
— a secretary of state, senator and ﬁ rst lady
of unmatched experience, who was never-
theless defeated by Trump.
In contrast, Obama surged to the presi-
dency at age 47 and with less than two years
in the Senate on his resume, buoyed by his-
toric turnout among younger voters and
African Americans. Another young Demo-
crat, Bill Clinton, rode a call for generational
change to the top of the 1992 primary ﬁ eld
and two terms in the White House.
In the Trump era, where so many norms
have been upended, political history may
be an imperfect guide as Democrats weigh
their options in the 2020 race. This week’s
debates may not have offered any answers,
but the party’s choices were never clearer.
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