STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Walking onto last night's debate stage in Detroit, Joe Biden made the kind of remark you might hear in a boxing movie. He was shaking hands with Senator Kamala Harris, the rough equivalent of touching boxing gloves, and Biden said this.
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JOE BIDEN: Go easy on me, kid.
INSKEEP: Go easy on me, kid, Biden said there. The internet leaped on that last word, calling a United States senator kid. And Biden's rivals showed little interest in going easy.
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KAMALA HARRIS: Your plan does not cover everyone in America by your staff's and your own definition.
BILL DE BLASIO: So did you say those deportations were a good idea, or did you go to the president and say this is a mistake, we shouldn't do it? Which one?
CORY BOOKER: There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough on crime, phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.
INSKEEP: The voices of Senator Harris, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey all criticizing Joe Biden, who has been leading the early polling on the Democratic side. NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro begins our coverage. He's in Detroit. Domenico, good morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.
INSKEEP: What did the candidates reveal about different ways they would govern if elected?
MONTANARO: I mean, obviously the way that the candidates piled on former Vice President Biden certainly shows just what kind of a threat he is in this campaign. And Biden himself, you know, there is a difference sort of in the way their governing styles would be because Biden is saying, you know, let's build on things like Obamacare, follow the existing laws but have a different policy that comes out of the White House for immigration as opposed to what President Trump is doing now.
That's very different than, say, Cory Booker from New Jersey, who would be much more liberal on something like criminal justice reform or immigration as well - and a host of other candidates who want big, bold change.
INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to an example of that from the former vice president himself. Other candidates are talking about Medicare for All, ending private insurance. And in this bit of sound, Biden calls for just improving Obamacare, which already exists.
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BIDEN: The Republicans are trying to kill Obamacare. Obamacare took care of 20 million people right off the bat, 100 million people with pre-existing conditions. And in fact, what we got is a public option that, in fact, would allow anybody to buy in. No one has to keep their private insurance. They can buy into this plan.
INSKEEP: Domenico, is there a significant political difference between saying I'm going to abolish a large part of the private insurance industry and saying I'm going to keep it but give you this option?
MONTANARO: Well, the main political difference is whether or not it can pass, you know? And I think that's something that the Biden campaign is pretty focused on, saying what is actually pragmatic, what's practical, what can get done. And a lot...
INSKEEP: Are they also asking what can get votes in a general election?
MONTANARO: Well, they are asking that, actually. And you hear their pollster talk about how a lot of the things that Biden is putting forward are the kinds of things that are popular with the general election electorate, unlike some of the other things that candidates are putting forward.
INSKEEP: There are some other conflicts from last night. Kamala Harris got criticized by Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, also really for being a little old style in Gabbard's telling.
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TULSI GABBARD: Senator Harris says she's proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she'll be a prosecutor president. But I'm deeply concerned about this record. There are too many examples to cite, but she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.
INSKEEP: Domenico, is just part of the Democrats' dilemma - Kamala Harris is appealing, a strong candidate, because she was a tough prosecutor, but also vulnerable because she was a tough prosecutor?
MONTANARO: You know, Harris' prosecutorial record is something that is going to get a lot more attention if she rises more in the polls because it's something that the progressive left has not been happy with since she jumped in.
INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks so much for your work.
MONTANARO: You're so welcome.
INSKEEP: Long night for NPR's Domenico Montanaro in Detroit. Now how does all this look to someone who's on the other side of the ideological divide from the Democrats on stage last night? Matt Lewis is with us. He's a conservative political writer with The Daily Beast. Thanks for coming by.
MATT LEWIS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: What stood out for you?
LEWIS: Well, look; I think - coming, in I had a question about Joe Biden's age. And I think that that's because Joe Biden stumbled during his first debate performance, and then actually on the heels of the Robert Mueller testimony, where it looked like you have a guy who maybe has lost a step.
Democrats, I think, were probably a little bit worried. Does Joe Biden have the energy? Is he sharp enough? I think Joe Biden answered that call. He is sharp enough. He has the energy. The question is, is he out of touch with a party that now views Barack Obama as being too conservative?
INSKEEP: You know, you wrote an article about this in The Daily Beast. And you acknowledged that some people are going to hear this very question and consider it ageist to even raise it. But it sounds like you think it needs to be raised and faced.
LEWIS: I think it's legitimate. Look; you know, Ronald Reagan was asked that same question in 1984. He rose to the occasion, and I think Joe Biden probably did as well.
INSKEEP: Now Biden, I guess we would not say he is conservative on his policy stances. He's a Democrat. He describes himself as progressive as a matter of fact. But is there a certain kind of small-c conservatism in his approach to government, wanting to build on what's already there rather than break everything?
LEWIS: Yeah. Look; I think that goes back to Edmund Burke, who himself was a reformer, but in many ways the father of conservatism. It's not about being hidebound or tied to the past. It's about slow evolution and change and not being crazy and radical.
And I think look; if - the Democrats are going to have a real problem because if you give them any criticism, they call it a Republican talking point. I think Joe Biden is much more cautious and realistic than a lot of the other people on the stage.
INSKEEP: Do you imagine, though, that there are voters out there in - I don't know, say, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin - who voted for Donald Trump and would say OK, that Joe Biden guy, he's interesting, I like that?
LEWIS: Yeah, I think that that is the fundamental appeal of Joe Biden. It's that if you look at what this general election is about, it's about winning the Electoral College - and that probably means Pennsylvania and Michigan - and who is best positioned to win over not just the Democratic base - they're important, of course - but also working class white voters that Donald Trump won last time. Joe Biden could certainly compete this time.
INSKEEP: But let me ask an alternative theory here, and maybe this is one of the theories that some Democrats are pursuing. If we look over the past ten or 12 years of American history, you went from President George W. Bush to a Democrat, the first black president, from that to Donald Trump, pretty radical change. And in and among those elections, the Congress flipped a couple of times. People seem to be going for something new again and again. Couldn't this possibly be a moment when voters are hungry for a big change again?
LEWIS: It could be. Look; you go to people like Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, safe establishment choices who lost to incumbent presidents.
INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton comes to mind...
LEWIS: There you go. So that's...
INSKEEP: ...Perhaps, although she won the popular vote. But go on. Go on.
LEWIS: ...An argument against Biden. But I also think we've had a lot of change. Donald Trump, an extreme example of change. People may want a return to normalcy. And I'm not convinced after just redoing our entire health care system less than a decade ago, you know, that people are going to want to do it again. It sounds dangerous.
I think when Joe Biden talks about let's keep Obamacare, that may be - when we talk about the Medicare for All and the disruption that could cause and taxes, it seems dangerous.
INSKEEP: Matt Lewis, thanks so much for coming by.
LEWIS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He's a writer for The Daily Beast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.