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.
A Quinnipiac University poll this week found him getting 34 percent support among Democrats, 19 points ahead of his nearest rival. His lead is even greater than it was before he announced his candidacy in April.
Biden’s triumph over mediocrity has a ready explanation. Correctly or not, voters believe this nonthreatening old white guy of moderate leanings is the one to beat President Donald Trump. In the Quinnipiac poll, fully 51 percent of Democrats said that Biden has the best chance of doing so.
On Wednesday, Biden trotted onstage and joked to Harris: “Go easy on me, kid.”
But that wasn’t in the cards. De Blasio, the mayor of New York, used part of his opening statement to attack Biden and his “wealthy donors.”
Soon after, Harris was telling him “you don’t know what you’re saying” on health care.
Later came Julian Castro scolding him on immigration: “One of us learned from the problems of the past, one of us hasn’t.”
Booker taunted the front-runner: “You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don’t even know the flavor.”
For more than two hours, Biden parried the unrelenting attacks.
To Harris: “You can’t beat Donald Trump with double talk.”
To de Blasio: “To compare (Obama) to Donald Trump, I think, is absolutely bizarre.”
To Castro: “I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense.”
His rejoinders were of varying quality, but Biden accomplished important things: While others attacked him, he repeatedly returned the focus to Trump, he stuck to his moderate positions, and he tied himself closely to Obama. “Everybody is talking about how terrible I am on these issues,” he said. “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was. ... He chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made.”
After one of several attacks by an incessantly nasty de Blasio — the former vice president smiled and said: “I love your affection for me. You spend a lot of time with me.”
De Blasio, who declared “victory” because Biden had changed the position he held on the North American Free Trade Agreement 25 years ago, replied: “We believe in redemption in this party.”
“Well,” Biden said dryly, “I hope you’re part of it.”
Not a bad line — on not a bad night for Biden. In fact, it was brilliantly and gloriously acceptable.
This columnist’s wife, Anna Greenberg, works for John Hickenlooper, a Democratic presidential candidate.
Milbank writes for the Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.