On the debate stage, let it rip, Joe

On the debate stage, let it rip, Joe
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This week’s Democratic debates will take on more importance than usual because former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Democratic nominee won't be democratically chosen Fox's Ingraham mocks DNC over Nevada voting malfunctions: 'Are we a Third World country?' At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration MORE, the front-runner, had a disappointing showing in the first debate. The media attention will center around one question: Can Biden rebound and show Americans he is the tough warrior who had convinced people he was the best bet to take on Donald Trump? There’s an old saying that “free advice is worth what you pay for it,” but as two people who greatly admire the former vice president and who care about the fate of our country, we say, “Let it rip, Joe!”

Actually, Biden started his campaign with a “let it rip” video, in which, citing Charlottesville, he kicked the living daylights out of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhere do we go from here? Conservation can show the way Gov. Ron DeSantis more popular in Florida than Trump Sotomayor accuses Supreme Court of bias in favor of Trump administration MORE. He did it convincingly and shot way ahead in the polls. In fact, in one national poll, he led the next highest candidate by 30 points. But since that time, he has not been the Joe Biden we all got to know and love. He’s been playing defense. Worse still, he’s been playing prevent defense and, as all of us know, the only thing that prevent defense prevents is your team from winning. 

Let’s take a look at what happened in the first debate. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHouse to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Overnight Energy: EPA to regulate 'forever chemicals' in drinking water | Trump budget calls for slashing funds for climate science centers | House Dems urge banks not to fund drilling in Arctic refuge Democratic senators criticize plan that could expand Arctic oil and gas development MORE (D-Calif.), trailing Biden significantly among African American voters, particularly older women, in the critical state of South Carolina, began by looking directly at the vice president and saying, “I don’t think you’re a racist.” She then asked him, “Vice President Biden, do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then?” 

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This attack seemed to stun Biden, which was not surprising since, moments before, Harris had decried that the debate was becoming a food fight. Well, if it was a food fight, Harris, notwithstanding her admonition to the other candidates, had picked up a big plate of mashed potatoes and gravy and dumped it right on the vice president’s head. Biden’s response was totally out of character. He offered a nervous, tortured and legalistic explanation that he only opposed federally mandated busing. 

The Joe Biden we know could have done any of a number of things that would have made him look firm and strong — without being mean-spirited — and ready to take on Trump. He could have chosen to not respond to the substance of Harris’s criticism and instead reflect on his own record, which includes leading the fight to pass the Voting Rights Act; being instrumental in mending and not ending affirmative action; and expanding the definition of hate crimes and strengthening laws against employment discrimination. 

And, of course, he was chosen as a running mate by the first African American president in history, who knew all about Biden’s past position on busing. That would have been a good response to Harris, but not the best. 

What should Biden have done?  He should have turned and looked Harris in the eye and said, “Busing was a failed policy. I didn’t believe then, and I don’t believe now, that we ought to rip some black children from their neighborhood schools and friends. It wasn’t fair to them, and it wasn’t fair to the black children who, unlike you, Senator, were left behind in subpar schools. That’s why, back in the ’70s, the majority of white and black citizens opposed the policy; only 4 percent of whites and 9 percent of blacks supported busing.”  

From there, Biden could have pivoted to the policies he has put forth that are designed to make all schools better. Those policies essentially do what busing never did — such as tripling federal funding of low-income schools (from $16 billion to $48 billion per year) to raise teacher salaries, extend pre-K and make Advanced Placement courses available in all schools.

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That argument would have been consistent with the Biden brand: Practical, passionate, non-ideological. That response would have caused an imaginary sign to light up that said, “Game over” because Harris would have had no cogent response to it. 

So let’s hope we’ll see a different Joe Biden performance than we saw in the first debate. We hope to see the real Biden — a happy warrior who is fearless, passionate and committed to making middle-class lives better, a public official with the guts to tell the truth to the American people and, most importantly, a change agent these divided times call for, someone who can restore decency, fairness and commonsense values to our politics.

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. He is now co-chairman of the Immigration Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.

Larry Platt, a Philadelphia-based editor and author, is co-founder of The Philadelphia Citizen, a nonprofit news site, and the former editor of The Philadelphia Daily News. Follow him on Twitter @platt_larry.