Democratic Debate: Is Joe Biden OK?

Mehdi Hasan and a panel of guests analyze the latest Democratic debate.

Photo illustration: The Intercept/Getty Images

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The Democratic candidates met in Houston on Thursday night for a third round of televised debates. This time the format was limited to a single night with 10 participants, which meant that for the first time, all the top-tier candidates were onstage together. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren defended their respective healthcare plans, but the center of attention was frontrunner Joe Biden, who spent the night fending off attacks from his rivals. As the evening wore on, Biden’s answers became increasingly difficult to decipher. Intercept DC Bureau Chief Ryan Grim joins Mehdi Hasan to breakdown the latest debate, as do Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas and Pod Save the World host Tommy Vietor.

Beto O’Rourke: In Odessa, I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15. And that mother watched her bleed to death over the course of an hour. Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. [Audience cheers and applauds.] We’re not going to let them be used against fellow our fellow Americans anymore.

[Musical interlude]

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan. And we are back from our rather long and relaxing summer break with a very special episode of this podcast focused laser-like on last night’s Democratic Debate. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who embarrassed themselves?

Joe Biden: I know that the senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack.

Elizabeth Warren: Let’s be clear. I’ve actually never met anybody who likes their health insurance company.

Kamala Harris: “Well, do you think Trump is responsible for what happened?” I said, “Well, look. I mean, obviously he hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he’s certainly been tweeting out the ammunition.”

[Musical interlude]

MH: When we took our summer break back in June there were a whopping 25 Democrats vying for their party’s presidential nomination. Since then, six candidates thankfully dropped out — I wish more had as well — though one new candidate joined the fray, the billionaire Tom Steyer who you heard on this show earlier this year discussing Trump and impeachment with me.

But he wasn’t on stage last night for the third Democratic debate. Nor was Marianne Williamson — thank God. There were only 10 Democrats on stage, out of the 20 left in the fray. And it was the first time we saw all of the front-runners, the big hitters: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, on stage together. Finally.

So what went down? Who got the upper hand? Did the Biden the frontrunner do anything to reassure those of us who think he’s in decline and just isn’t mentally fit enough to take on Donald Trump and the Republican Party next November?

Later on in the show I’ll talk to former Obama adviser and now Pod Save The World host Tommy Vietor about his take on the debate, but first, joining me now to chew over all of this are my colleague Ryan Grim, DC bureau chief for The Intercept, and from New York, Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Justice Democrats, the campaigning group that helped give the world Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, among others.

Ryan, you and I just spent three hours of our life sitting here at The Intercept offices in Washington, DC watching that debate? Was it worth it?

Ryan Grim: Well, I didn’t have anything else to do. And the company was great. So — so sure!

MH: High praise for the Democratic debate on ABC. What stood out to you from this debate?

RG: I think it’s got to be Castro, going Kamikaze style at Joe Biden. And then Joe Biden over the next few hours, kind of fumbling, fumbling through his answers. You know, I’m talking about Castro, of course, you know, questioning whether Biden was even able to remember what he had said a couple minutes ago, which gives permission to journalists to start talking about his mental acuity and his, and his apparent decline.

You know, some journalists, like us, didn’t need that permission and were already talking about it, but a lot of the other kind of do need it.

MH: Well, let’s listen to that clip. That exchange because it was one of the major highlights of the night Julián Castro, former Housing Secretary, former Mayor of San Antonio, going up against former Vice President Joe Biden, they both of course served in the Obama administration together on health care.

Julián Castro: Barack Obama’s vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered. He wanted every single person in this country covered, my plan would do that your plan would not.

Joe Biden: They do not have to buy in. They do not have to buy in.

JC: You just said that. You just said that two minutes ago. You just said two minutes ago that they would have to buy in. You said they would have to buy in. Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago? Are you forgetting already what you said, just two minutes ago?

MH: There was this sense Alexandra, that he went too far. People are trying to scold, I saw, Julián Castro on Twitter.

Alexandra Rojas: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, there are a lot of — he’s popular within the Democratic Party. But I think Castro needed to do what he needed to do. He’s polling at 1 percent. It was a calculated risk. And I think that sort of DC punditry class is going to say that that is, you know, not OK. Right? It’s not within decorum.

But I think that a lot of young people and people that want to see a new generation of leadership, and for us to take on, I think politicians that have not gotten us to where we need to be as a nation, within the Democratic Party, that it wasn’t a big turnoff.

MH: It’s so weird, isn’t it, Alexandra that, you know, on the one hand, we’re told the Democrats want to pick a candidate who can take the fight to Donald Trump.

AR: I know!

MH: But at the same time, we’ve been told, “Oh, but you shouldn’t have a fight to pick that candidate. And that candidate might be upset if you’re too mean to them on stage.” In fact, it wasn’t just pundits who was saying that Pete Buttigieg, Mayor Pete, who was on stage at tried to kind of admonish Julián Castro.

Pete Buttigieg: This is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. It reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington. Scoring points at each other, poking each other, and telling each other, “My plan, your plan!” Look, we all —

JC: That’s called a Democratic Primary Election, Pete. That’s called an Election. That’s called an Election. This is what we’re here for. That’s an Election.

MH: I’m with, I’m with Julián Castro. I mean, the whole point of a debate is for people to argue and the idea that that bit was unwatchable, I would argue that was the most watchable bit of the night, it’s the bit that’s going to be clipped and played again and again on cable news.

RG: Right, this idea that you don’t want to see people debate at a debate is absurd. That’s why you tune into the debate.

MH: You’re watching the wrong show.

RG: It’s like you’re watching a boxing match. “Look at these guys punching each other in the face.”

AR: It’s the primaries.

MH: It is the primaries, exactly. And it’s interesting that people like Amy Klobuchar, I don’t know if you caught that bit, Alexandra, where Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had just spent several minutes saying she didn’t agree with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on Medicare for All, then saying oh, a house divided is — what was the phrase she used, Ryan?

RG: A house divided cannot stand.

MH: A house divided cannot stand. This idea that — but they get to disagree. But no one should disagree with them, which I find —

RG: Except she’s also plagiarizing Lincoln, and he was trying to instigate a civil war.

MH: So she’s getting a references wrong, in addition to her jokes — by the way, was it just me or did Amy Klobuchar, every single one of her jokes just bomb tonight? It was — they were bad. Is there such a thing as mom jokes to go with dad jokes?

RG: Yes, I think there are.

MH: Alexandra, just on the actual substantive stuff, health care. Bernie Sanders, who is the guy who wrote the damn bill, as he told us again tonight, didn’t get in as much as we saw in previous debates. Did you notice that or was it just me?

AR: No, I noticed that. But I think I do think that, you know, Warren and Bernie, are the most consistent on stage. And I think, you know, regardless of, you know, he wasn’t able to talk as much, his message was consistent and clear. And you also saw that from audience members, you know, go on and say that they actually liked Bernie’s health care plan and solution because it probably has the most clarity, and was actually willing to address some of the deepest problems. So I was disappointed that he didn’t get to speak as much, but I think it’s also because he’s got so much clarity in his message and, and did what he needed to do.

MH: Do you think either, you know, you’re with Justice Democrats, people are waiting to see, you know, we you know, in the past, you would have been associated with Bernie Sanders this time, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have energized a lot of people on the left in the party, and I’m assuming in your organization as well. Did either one of them do better than the other tonight? Did either one of them stand out more than the other for the lefties watching, do you think?

AR: I, I didn’t feel that way? I think that they were both really consistent on their message. I don’t think it was the strongest debate performance for either of them. But to be quite honest, I don’t think that was for very many people on stage at all.

And so of the folks that I think, again, had the most clarity and consistency in their message and talked about actually getting to the systemic issues that we’re facing, it was clearly Bernie, and it was clearly Warren and I think particularly on healthcare, Bernie is — this is his bill. Like he said, he wrote the damn bill, he’s a lot stronger on it, and he defended it. He went all out tonight and doing so. And I don’t think that Warren did the same for Medicare for All.

MH: Bernie was very strong on one aspect of health care, which often gets overlooked. How people get bankrupted by the system.

Bernie Sanders: Not only do we have 87 million people, uninsured and underinsured, you got to defend the fact that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt. You know why they’re going bankrupt? Because they suffered a terrible disease.

MH: Ryan, one problem, one point you and I discussed, and I’m sure many others did, too, is when Bernie did get to speak, didn’t sound so good tonight, for a man is kind of fending off accusations of, you’re too old to run, etc, you shout too much, he had some kind of sore throat, he didn’t seem his usual — he wasn’t on his A game, I think it’s fair to say,

RG: Yeah, unfortunately, you know, these kinds of things matter to voters. And, you know, polls have showed that, you know, a significant concern that voters have related to Bernie and Biden is their advanced age. And Bernie came out on stage, you know, ready to start swinging. And it seems like he didn’t hear his name get called, so they had to call him twice. And then he has this incredibly hoarse voice, that you, where you just start feeling bad for him as you’re hearing him talk, which is the complete opposite of what people want in a leader. And it’s like, you know that this has nothing to do with the substance of what he represents. But that couldn’t have started much worse for him.

MH: The advantage he had, I guess, Ryan, is that he was standing next to Joe Biden, and when you stand next to Joe Biden, anyone can look dynamic, coherent, clear, on top of their game, Biden tonight started off strong, I think, was the consensus, he actually had some energy, he had some talking points, he had some put downs. That was hour one. By hours two and three, he was flagging, and he was back to gaffe-machine king.

There was this moment where Lindsay Davis of ABC News, one of the moderators — who I think did a great job, finally, as a moderator asking tough questions of the candidates — she put a question to him, which he dealt with in a rather odd way. Let’s play that.

Linsey Davis: What responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?

JB: Well, they have to deal with the — look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks … we have [to] made sure that every single child does in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school — school — not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want they don’t know quite what to do!

Play the radio, make sure the television, excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone, make sure the kids hear words — a kid coming from a very poor school, or a very poor background, will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

LD: Thanks —

JB: No, I’m going to go like the rest of them do twice over. Twice over. [Cheers and applause] OK? Because, see here’s the deal. The deal is that we’ve got this little backwards. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela, I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro.

Number two, you talk about the need to do something to Latin America. I’m the guy that came up with $740 million dollars to see to it that those three countries, in fact, changed their system so people don’t have a chance to leave. You’re all acting like you just discovered this yesterday.

LD: Thank you, Mr. Vice President.

MH: Joe Biden, there, talking about record players and Venezuela, when asked a pretty straightforward question about his own history of controversial remarks about race. What was going on there? What was that all about?

AR: I think it’s a repeated pattern that Joe Biden is unable to own up to mistakes that he’s made in the past. And I think part of leadership is being able to own up to those types of things. And I think that, you know, he’s proven to really struggle and on the debate stage, and I think you need a candidate that can go up against Trump, but also, we need someone to just to get through the debate and do well enough. And it’s like, how long is that going to be enough to reassure Democratic voters? At a certain point, they’re going to want to see a front runner like Joe Biden not just survive and struggle through questions like that. At the end of the day, he is going to be on the debate stage with Donald Trump. And in a basic question on, you know, segregation, why is Venezuela coming up?

MH: Alexandra, I know you have to run, you’re doing lots of commentary on the debates tonight. That’s a great question that you’ve left for me and Ryan to try and tackle on Biden and why this is happening. Thanks so much for taking time out tonight!

AR: Thank you so much. Bye.

MH: Ryan, what I don’t get here is, a lot of people are saying this is ageism for Julián TK Castro to attack Joe Biden, this is ageism, to say, Biden’s a rambling old man talking about record players and Venezuela.

It’s not ageism, in my view, as someone who spent the last two years pointing out that we really need to use the 25th amendment to get rid of a President who is clearly mentally, cognitively unfit for office, how can Democrats really suggest that Joe Biden should go up against Donald Trump without asking questions about his mental state, his cognitive decline that we’re seeing in front of our eyes?

RG: They can’t! You know, and, and we had a situation like this in our politics in 1984, where people around Ronald Reagan, knew that he was in sharp mental decline heading into the election. And some of the people around him have since expressed some versions of regret —

MH:  —  for covering  —

RG: For covering for it.

MH: Do you think people are on buying the covering from right now?

RG: You know, I think at this point, they’re not consciously covering, I think they’re, they’re still at a point where they can convince themselves that they’re not covering for him. But I think if by some chance he wins the nomination and wins a general election, there, we will absolutely see people say, in hindsight, “I should have seen the signs. We didn’t see this coming.”

MH: And there was a moment where everyone on Twitter took a break to go, “Was that Joe Biden’s teeth coming out? Did he lose control of his teeth in his mouth?” And you might say, “Oh!” I can imagine listeners to this podcast who are suitably highbrow and interested in substance might say, “Why are they talking about teeth? It’s so irrelevant.” But yet, Trump-world I believe is already circulating that clip. shamelessly, Donald Trump, of course, has his own issues with pronunciations and teeth — his own teeth, and can he speak properly. But they’re so shameless, they don’t care, they’ll go for Biden over anything.

RG: Right? They know what lands, and they are, Trump world’s already circulating this clip of, of Biden’s teeth, apparently dislodging from their position, their proper position inside his mouth. And you can kind of see him replace them, as he’s, as he’s talking.

MH: And I can hear people at home say, “Why are you discussing this? Why are you giving that ammunition?” but Hillary Clinton lost in 2016, because she had so many flaws, so much baggage, and we were told to ignore them and focused on the substance.

RG: And she fainted after the 9/11 event, you know.

MH: And they used it against her, outrageously.

RG: Right. And then.

MH: These guys will weaponize anything. Why put a candidate like Biden up, who has all of Clinton’s cons and very few of her pros?

RG: It would be nice if we have held debates on the pure merits. But we don’t. But on the other hand, is it fair to ask that the the President of the United States be you know, mentally fit? And, and not sunsetting before our eyes? You know, I think you know, we’re experiencing right now what happens when you have a cognitively challenged President of the United States. The guy can’t put together a sentence.

MH: Yeah.

RG: And I, and I spent 2016, watching an ungodly number of hours of Donald Trump at the 1980s and 1990s, while, while covering him, and he has declined. He had, you know, he never really made a lot of sense, but he could talk in complete sentences. And you could follow a coherent thread through what he was saying. That’s not the case with him anymore. And that’s relevant to ask about him.

MH: I just feel like Democrats are kind of unilaterally disarming, they’re taking away a weapon from their arsenal, saying, “This is the President who says dumb things, who rambles who does not fit for office.”

Now, let’s be clear, I’m not saying Biden is anywhere in Trump’s league, Trump is sui generis. No one comes close to Trump. And he’s not a kind of serial fabricator or sexual assaulter or all the other things that we know Donald Trump is. But to kind of offer Trump world that opportunity to kind of label Biden in so many ways, everyone attacked him from the left on race. And tonight he had another opportunity to kind of disown that. He didn’t. He wanted to talk about record players instead? I would like to see Warren and Bernie go after him stronger. Do you think they didn’t because they think it’s easier for Julián Castro to do it?

RG: That might be. Interestingly, the Warren campaign put out a statement just after the debate that I just got, that hints at it. One piece of it reads, Warren, “showed clear command over the facts,” which, you know, shouldn’t be something that differentiates you on a stage of people that want to be President of the United States. But I think for them to highlight that is subtly making the point that a number of the others didn’t have a clear command over that.

I think that might be right, that they were hoping that Castro and some others would do their dirty work. Because, you know, Warren has been the happy warrior. You know, she’s had a sunny disposition through the campaign, and she has seen herself steadily rise. So there are high risks and high rewards that come with a blunt attack on the front-runner. You know, I think she probably correlates some of her rise with her refusal, so far, to attack other Democrats.

MH: You mentioned that, you know, the people on stage want to be President. One thing I would say is that there are some people onstage who probably don’t want to be President, or don’t — know they’re not going to be President, but they’re running for Vice President, right. Do you think Castro is in that category?

RG: That’s still a serious job.

MH: Serious job, especially if the person on top of the ticket is in their 70s. Julián Castro is definitely, seems to be running for that gig. And Beto O’Rourke, who’s had a bit of a resurgence over the summer after the tragic event in El Paso, the terrorist attack there in his hometown. He had one of the lines of the night, and we were, you know, there was a — people were wondering whether he was going to drop the f-bomb, as he’s done quite a lot recently. ABC News told him he couldn’t; he decided to go with a milder profanity in order to take on the NRA and the gun lobby.

BO: Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” [Audience cheers and applauds.] We’re not going to let them be used against fellow our fellow Americans anymore.

MH: Beto, something seems to have happened to him, he’s more energized, he’s more passionate. And this is what a lot of people in the Democratic base want to see.

RG: This is why I thought, and you can knock me on my pundit points for this, that he was going to be a more credible candidate for President, because I covered his 2018 race fairly closely, and this was the kind of thing that that he would do. This is how he had those viral moments. And those viral moments were not unusual, the ones that you saw about him, you know, him talking, you know, talking about NFL players taking a knee or police shootings, or, you know, that was who he was, he was just blunt, he was direct, he was righteous, and he was filled with rage directed at the proper enemies. And you know, you could see a path where that could be put together and, you know, formed into a viable candidate.

It may be too late for him. You know, he may have spent too much time fumbling around with the Vanity Fair cover. And, you know, once you have, you know, dipped into the doldrums that takes away what the Democratic primary voters want, which is for you to be a winner, for you to be somebody that can beat Trump. And so looking like a loser for a couple months, you know, undercuts that badly. But tonight, yeah, we saw what, you know, the potential that he had.

MH: Last question to you Ryan: Where do we go from here? What happens now?

RG: Well, whichever of Sanders or Warren, who can first kind of edge next to Biden, and then ahead of him, will have a huge first mover advantage, and will then start to consolidate a lot of support from the others’ base as there was a recent poll that said 8 in 10 Warren supporters would happily support Bernie, 8 in 10 Bernie supporters would happily support Warren. So if the left gets a sense that one of them has a better chance of beating Biden, then you could see a rapid consolidation. And it’s not clear which of them will move in that direction.

I think of Bernie and Warren, Warren probably had a better night, if only because of what we were talking about earlier with, you know, Bernie just looking a little bit old.

MH: And it’s worth pointing out when we talk about polls and Biden being the front runner, these polls can sometimes be rather meaningless. Back in the 2012 race at this point in the cycle, Rick Perry was leading Mitt Romney by 12 points. We know what happened there. And back in the 2008 presidential primaries at this stage, at this point, Hillary Clinton had a 20-point lead, nearly, over Barack Obama, and we know what happened to her.

Ryan, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed and staying up late to talk about the debate.

RG: It’s a pleasure. I had nothing else to do.

MH: [laughs]

[Musical interlude]

MH: Joining me now is my good friend Tommy Vietor, founder of Crooked Media and co-host of Pod Save America and Pod Save the World. He previously served as spokesperson for President Obama’s National Security Council. Tommy, thanks for coming back on Deconstructed.

TV: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me.

MH: What did you make of the debate? Were there any particular winners or losers who jumped out at you?

TV: It was one of those funny nights where I felt like a lot of the lower tier candidates helped themselves out. Like I thought that O’Rourke finally reminded people why they liked him so much during the Senate campaign. He took a bold stance on race and reparations and guns, and it seemed sincere and it seemed real.

I thought, you know, a lot of people are talking about the Castro-Biden exchange where they think Castro sounded a little too nasty for the moment, and I don’t, I don’t know that it’ll wear well, overnight. You know, I thought Amy Klobuchar was pretty good. Warren is always good.

MH: Really? Amy Klobuchar was good, with those like, awful gags.

TV: Listen, I groaned as hard as you did in the beginning. But I thought she had some good answers near the end. So I don’t know it was, it’s weird because these debates keep starting with like 35-minute back-and-forths on healthcare where we debate the merits of Medicare for all versus public option. And sometimes it’s hard for me to follow them. I wonder how much  they inform voters or move the ball.

MH: OK. So what frustrates me Tommy, and what I wanted to talk to you about, is that we have these presidential debates, and Ezra Klein of Vox made a good point on Twitter last night where he said, you know, we’re all arguing about these health care plans, Congress will write the next health care plan, not the President.

TV: Yeah. Exactly.

MH: We have these debates where — Presidents cannot do that much certainly not on their own on the domestic scene. That’s just a reality. Where they do have almost unlimited power is in foreign policy.

TV: Right.

MH: They have the power to nuke a foreign nation without congressional approval. They launch wars, including your former boss, Barack Obama, without congressional authorization. And I just find it bizarre that in a debate, this debate we had yesterday, yesterday night, there’s no discussion of Israel the week before the Israeli election, the week after Benjamin Netanyahu basically said he would annex the West Bank and end the two-state solution, no discussion of Iran and nuclear negotiations at a time when President Trump might be meeting President Rouhani face to face at the UN in a few weeks’ time. Were you as disappointed as I was that foreign policy plays such a little role, such a tiny role in these debates again and again?

TV: Yes, it drives me crazy. And you brought up two great subjects that are very newsworthy. I mean, you mentioned how Bibi Netanyahu was saying that he was going to annex the West Bank. I know that Bernie Sanders and I believe Pete Buttigieg, has said that they would consider conditioning U.S. Aid to Israel if that happened. Everyone else should get pressed on whether they would — whether they agree or whether they’d follow suit.

And everyone should be asked if they would get back in the Iran deal. I know that Cory Booker, had expressed some reservations about getting back into the deal, he said he would try to renegotiate it, I’d like to understand why. I’d like to hear what people think is going on in North Korea, and whether they’re ready to call that negotiation a failure. There’s so much we should talk about and how about, and yes —

MH: How about the Russians? I mean, all we heard about for two years was Russian Attack on American democracy. But no questions for any of the candidates about what they’re going to do about that. One topic that did come up, well, a couple came up, Afghanistan came up briefly. And Iraq came up in the context of Joe Biden. I just want to play this question and answer that happened with Joe Biden, when he tried to explain his pro-war vote in 2002, before the invasion in 2003.

JB: The fact of the matter is that, you know, I should have never voted to give Bush authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do. The AUMF was designed, he said, to go in and get the Security Council to vote 15 to nothing to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons. And when that happened, he went ahead and went anyway, without any of that proof.

MH: So I know a lot of people were laughing on Twitter about Biden going on about record players in Venezuela. But for me, the Iraq answer was equally incoherent, rambling, weird, a self-own, you know, talking about having voted for an AUMF, and I shouldn’t have voted for giving Bush, the authorization to do what he said he was going to do. I mean, I don’t know about you, I was lost.

TV: I just feel like it’s 15 years too late to try to find some nuance in what you voted for when it comes to the Iraq War. You know, it’s like no one remembers that these guys said that they were trying to give Bush authorization to the UN to do more like—we invaded, it was a disaster. We have to apologize for it and move forward and say was a mistake.

MH: And also, you’re being more generous than I am when you say nuance. I mean, for me, Biden’s flat-out lying. I was, I remember that period, I’ve gone back and looked at the quotes. Andrew Kaczynski of CNN has gone back and pulled the quotes. There was no sense that he was just saying let’s allow inspectors to have access; he was saying the time, “We’re going to have to go into Iraq.” He just wanted to do it with allies. The only difference between him and Bush is he wanted to do with UN approval and with allies, but he was always up for going in to disarm Saddam of these non-existent WMDs.

Is it ironic? Is it funny? Is it weird that 2008, when your man Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton, Iraq was a big issue, then. A few years ago, Bernie tried to make it an issue with Hillary Clinton, it definitely hurt Hillary Clinton again, in 2016, both in the primaries and in the general. And now Iraq, this war that happened 16 years ago, I’m glad that people are still talking about it, because it was a crime, it was a disaster, is now hurting the front runner, again, Joe Biden.

Let’s play Bernie Sanders bringing up the difference between him and Joe Biden on this.

BS: You talked about the big mistake in Iraq and the surge. The truth is the big mistake, the huge mistake — and one of the big differences between you and me, I never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq. I voted against the war in Iraq, and helped lead the opposition.

MH: Tommy, do you think Biden’s vote on Iraq and the way that Bernie is able to kind of differentiate himself from this, do you think that’s a) going to hurt Joe Biden as we carry on with this process, and b) should it hurt Joe Biden?

I mean, I think if you are making an argument about your foreign policy judgment and experience, and you got the Iraq War wrong, that should hurt your case, right? I mean, it’s certainly, it certainly was damaging for Hillary Clinton in 2008. It’s very hard for me to predict what voters will care about this time around. I spent four or five days in Iowa recently, and it just felt like all anyone cared about or talked about was beating Donald Trump and “electability,” and even though none of us can define what that means, it just was all-consuming punditry from voters when we should be focused on this.

MH: And Donald Trump, let’s not forget, despite having supported the Iraq War, refashioned and rebranded himself as an Iraq War-opponent, and just the other day was firing John Bolton and bringing up the Iraq War. Trump will shamelessly attack Biden on this stuff. And we know that. And you’re right, it’s about a broader question about foreign policy judgment, not about re-litigating the Iraq war or getting into that detail again. But yes, he claims to be this great foreign policy sage. He seemed to be confused tonight about whether he once advocated partitioning Afghanistan or Iraq. And there’s that general confusion.

In the midst of the confusion, my view, my words, not yours, he does tell a lot of porky pies, some untruths. He said something about the administration that you served in, something that happened after you left that administration, which was Obama’s border policies. When he was talking about Trump, this is what Biden said:

JB: Comparing this President to the President we have is outrageous. Number one, we didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families. We didn’t do all of those things.

MH: The problem, of course, there, for Biden is that, sadly, and the problem for a lot of Democrats who don’t like to talk about this, is that Barack Obama, yes, he did not separate parents from their children as a deliberate policy. But he did put kids in cages, those cages that we saw photos of during the crisis last year, many of them were built and transported and set up during the Obama administration.

How much is the Obama legacy — we talk about the Obama legacy, helping Biden with Democratic voters who love Obama — but how much is it going to hurt him too when you hear Jorge Ramos last night talking about the three million people deported? How much is that gonna hurt Biden, and Democrats as a whole, if you don’t reckon with the whole Obama legacy, not just the good stuff?

TV: It’s a great question, Mehdi. I mean, look, there’s a whole lot of issues where on their face, you think that any candidate could jump in and criticize the Obama-Biden record? Right? Like you could, you could start talking about drone strikes and or sending more troops to Afghanistan, and those are notionally areas where I think that a lot of progressives would disagree with Obama’s record.

The question I have is: Will people remember those specific policy areas? Or will they just remember Barack Obama fondly as the President who came before this one whom they liked at the time, and they and they really like now, with the benefit of hindsight, you know?

And so that’s sort of been the challenge in all these debates, like people keep coming at Biden, they come in at his record on bussing or in other policy areas, and nothing has stuck. They just sort of — the gains that people have made, like Elizabeth Warren, have seemingly come from other tier two or tier three candidates, not from Biden.

MH: That’s a fair point as well, and especially about Obama. And you know, this is a president who’s now —  history will look back and see a president who was sandwiched between George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump, and he will look much the greater for it.

TV: Yeah.

MH: That’s the reality.

Just in terms of going forward now and coming out of this debate and where it goes next, we’re still a long way off from Iowa, and the first vote. The polls are all over the place. I was just saying to Ryan, you know, you had Rick Perry up on Mitt Romney at this stage of the cycle in the 2012 cycle, and the fact that Biden’s leading right now is kind of irrelevant.

If you’re Warren or Sanders in second and third place, fighting for that progressive vote, if you were advising them, what should they be doing now to try and get ahead of Biden and be the left candidate that takes the lead on Biden and then consolidates that support?

TV: I mean, I think you know, what you want to do is organize, organize, organize, build your infrastructure, and then get hot late.

And what, you know, what will often happen is, you know, let’s say 2004, for, for example, Howard Dean was running away with the thing, he was seen as a frontrunner, and then he and Dick Gephardt got in this back and forth, that turned into sort of a political murder-suicide, and John Edwards and John Kerry were able to shoot that gap.

So, you know, I would want to be laying the groundwork, I would want to be identifying all the precinct captains are doing the field work that I need. But I’d also would want to, specifically for Iowa, make sure that I’m your second choice, if I’m not your first, because a lot of caucuses will have precincts where, because of the way the Iowa caucus map works, certain candidates won’t be viable. And then the rest of the campaigns will be trying to encourage those individuals to come over to their corner and stand with them in an effort to get more delegates. So it gets complicated, but it also incentivizes positive campaigning in the state of Iowa, more so than other places down the road.

So that’s what I would be doing now, and Warren, frankly, has been doing a pretty masterful job of that. I think Booker has, too, they have a good organization. I think Biden’s getting there, it took some time. And Mayor Pete is now pumping a ton of money. So it seems like all of them are building out their infrastructure.

MH: And last question, Tommy: Is somebody on that stage is somebody from that stage last night, one of those 10 candidates, gun to your head — assuming Beto O’Rourke doesn’t take it from me —  is one of those 10 people going to defeat, going to defeat Donald J. Trump next November? Yay or nay?

TV: I don’t know. I don’t know, I’m terrified. Every day every day I wake up horrified. Look, most presidents get re-elected. That’s, that’s the history. But I also think that Donald Trump is, you know, likely to be one of the most unpopular presidents to ever seek re-election. So hope springs eternal.

Look, Mehdi: Here’s a question, right? Was 2016 an aberration because Hillary Clinton was an institution of Washington that people knew, and, you know, three decades of baggage coming with her? I don’t know. I hope so. But, we gotta work harder.

MH: Well if it was, the Democrats should really put up an institution of Washington with three decades of baggage behind them, as they can do in 2020. God help us all. Tommy, thanks so much for joining us on the show.

TV: Thanks, Mehdi. Well played, talk to you.

MH: Take care, mate. Goodnight.

[Musical interlude]

MH: That was Tommy Vietor, from Crooked Media.

As of today, Friday, there are 143 days until the first voting takes place in these Democratic primaries, at the Iowa caucuses on February 3. So there’s still a lot of time for things to change, for front runners to lose their front spots. But that’ll require a lot more interrogation of these 10 or 20 candidates. And these debates, well, they just haven’t been up to scratch. A debate is supposed to be, you know, a debate; people debating with one another, arguing with one another, disagreeing with one another. That’s how you pick a candidate.

When someone like Julián Castro actually does something that needs to be done, he goes after another candidate and asks them a pointed question, politicians and pundits alike clutch their pearls and pretend something outrageous just happened. Hold on — I thought this was a contest to pick a person to take on Donald Trump. Shouldn’t they have tougher skins? Shouldn’t they be prepared? I want to see more clashes, not less; more tougher questions, not dumb job interview-style questions about what your biggest setback was, which wasted around half an hour at the end of the debate last night.

Whether that’ll change going forward, who knows. But these people are auditioning for what is supposedly the most important, most powerful job on earth. They’re literally going to be in control of nuclear weapons. So can we hold them to account please? Can they start holding each other to account? Let’s see. I’m not holding my breath.

That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at

Thanks so much! It’s good to be back. See you next week.

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