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Joe Biden was brilliantly and gloriously adequate

Dana Milbank on

WASHINGTON -- Joe Biden was good enough. And that, in itself, was a victory.

His fellow Democrats began attacking him in the very first minute of Wednesday night's debate, and they didn't stop. They attacked him on health care. They attacked him on immigration. They attacked him on crime. They attacked him on inequality, race, climate change, trade, equality, abortion and Iraq.

And Biden was … perfectly adequate. He wasn't the most eloquent or stylish debater on the stage. He struggled to find words at times, he seemed over-rehearsed, he seemed not to grasp how texting works ("Go to Joe 30330"), he cut himself off when his allotted time expired and, at times, he seemed stunned by the ferocity of the barrage -- which, in fairness, was stunning.

But in contrast to his lifeless performance at the first debate, Biden was energetic and prepared. He returned fire with fire and, for the most part, he held his own.

He worked in his trademark folksiness -- "this idea is a bunch of malarkey," "everything landed on the president's desk but locusts" -- and parried the constant challenges with a calm "the fact is" or "the fact of the matter is." He defended the Obama administration's record, even when unpopular in the room, and he gave nearly as good as he got.

His performance was, in short, unexceptional but sufficient. There was little to alter the dynamics of the race, in which Biden has a commanding lead. If anything, Biden could benefit from some sympathy from voters, who may well perceive his rivals as unfairly ganging up to take cheap shots at the front-runner -- and at President Barack Obama. Kamala Harris, Bill de Blasio, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand seemed particularly opportunistic in their attacks, and sometimes nasty.

 

For Biden, it was likely yet another instance of failing upward.

He ran two unsuccessful presidential campaigns; he was rewarded with the vice presidency.

He began the 2020 campaign as the consensus front-runner. Then he went through endless trouble -- over his too-affectionate behavior toward women, a non-apology to Anita Hill, a Hyde Amendment flip-flop, a plagiarized climate plan, his praise of segregationists, a lackluster debate performance, his past opposition to busing, as well as staff turmoil and turnover.

The result? Biden remains the clear front-runner. Perhaps even more so.

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