Live commentary on the CNN debate (opinion)

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“Godfather II” is the rarest of movies: a film in which the sequel is better than the original. Joe Biden v. Kamala Harris II is no Godfather II. Both the former Vice President and the California senator had uneven debate performances, but nothing happened that changed the fundamental structure of the race.

Biden spent far too much time deep in the weeds, critiquing Harris’ health care proposal. Harris responded by going even deeper, and their colleagues got even more obscure. You’ve heard of missing the forest for the trees? This was a microscopic examination of the veins on the leaves of a tree.

Biden’s job was to make every sentence — to paraphrase Biden himself — a noun, a verb and an attack on President Donald Trump. Instead, he dug deep into his opposition research, which gave him effective counterpunches against his fellow Democrats, but took his eyes off the prize.

It took Sen. Cory Booker to show him how it’s done. The New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor had the performance his admirers have longed for. More than any other candidate, he consistently brought the fight back to Trump, rather than participating in the circular firing squad former President Barack Obama has warned about.

Speaking of Obama, I was stunned at how disrespected he was tonight. On immigration, criminal justice and trade, Democrats denigrated the record of the man who saved the American economy, rescued the auto industry, signed the Paris Climate Accord and placed two impressive female justices on the Supreme Court. It was sad and stupid. 

Biden, late in the debate, finally used Obama as both a sword and a shield, noting that the former President had numerous lawyers scrutinize every scrap of his long record — and Obama still chose him as Vice President.

As a Democratic strategist, I am not thrilled. This was a rear-view mirror debate — far too focused on the Democrats’ past, too little focused on Trump’s disastrous present. No one mentioned that Trump has proposed cutting hundreds of billions from Medicare and Medicaid, and only Booker had the presence of mind to tell the nation that Trump is in court seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its popular protections for folks with pre-existing conditions.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington brought passion and climate change to the stage, at one point fairly screaming, “The house is on fire!” And Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet shed his senatorial bearing and returned to his previous job as Denver schools’ superintendent. I hope both qualify for the next debate in Houston in September. And between now and then, I hope each candidate can figure out that the other Democrats on the stage are their opponents, but Trump is their enemy.


Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House.

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