Any Democrat who thought Senator Bernie Sanders could quietly quit the presidential race was wrong in Sunday’s debate as he hammered out Joe Biden’s record on issues ranging from abortion rights to bankruptcy to social Security.
But all of those issues have been eclipsed by one that grips the nation and the world: the coronavirus pandemic, which may have dashed the Vermont senator’s last hope to change the dynamics of the 2020 presidential race.
Biden seemed more in tune with the national mood of the moment – as Americans face life-threatening health risks, a failing economy, and total disruption to their lives – when he fought off a Sanders attack:
“Look, this is a national crisis. I don’t want to go into a political back and forth here, ”the former vice president said.
The debate over how to handle the pandemic played into Biden’s strategy to present himself as the experienced and stable hand ready to take charge on day one. Especially in the first hour of the debate, as Sanders sought to steer the discussion towards the long-term changes needed in the country’s economy and healthcare system, Biden focused on the immediate actions that need to be addressed. .
“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said.
Sunday’s debate was almost certainly Sanders’ last long-term chance to get back into the race. All week long, people on his side have been talking about the possibility that Democrats, seeing the two main candidates remaining on stage, will turn away from their current path towards Biden. In the end, nothing happened that seemed likely to bring about such a change: Biden is still on track to win the nomination.
“Biden did enough not to lose his lead,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist who backs Sanders. He noted that Biden had crafted his own positive headline by announcing that he would choose a woman as his running mate.
But the surprisingly controversial debate has left much less clear how the two candidates will be reconciled after Sanders executed one of his most direct and sustained campaign attacks on Biden’s record and his ability to beat President Trump. .
It was not clear that Sanders would go after Biden with the fervor some of his supporters wanted. Throughout the campaign, he called Biden “my friend Joe” and at times refused to use lines of attack his advisers had prepared for the debates.
But Sanders was relentless on Sunday, so much so that when Biden was asked how he would involve Sanders supporters if he got the nomination, Biden replied, “He’s making it difficult for me right now.”
Biden probably didn’t help endear himself to Sanders supporters when, during the debate, he laughed or smiled at some of Sanders’ questions or comments.
When Biden scoffed at something Sanders said about the inadequacy of his climate change policy, Vermonter retorted, “If you’re laughing, Joe, then you’re missing the point: it’s a crisis. existential. “
And whether it was out of annoyance at Sanders’ needling or a desire to show voters he could stand up for himself in a general election debate, Biden gave in many ways what he got.
He has confronted Sanders on several occasions over his recent words of support for Cuba’s decades-old literacy policies of Fidel Castro, which he described as equivalent to supporting a dictatorship.
Biden scoffed at Sanders’ claims that he would be the candidate best equipped to generate excitement in a general election against Trump, pointing to high turnout in Virginia and other states he had won.
“The energy and excitement so far has been on my mind,” he said.
The two argued over who had super PAC support, shouting at each other by first name.
Biden’s aides also did not retaliate in a post-debate call with reporters.
“I think it’s fair to say that Vice President Biden showed up for a debate tonight and graciously treated for two hours the kind of protester who often shows up at campaign events on live television.” , said Senior Advisor Anita Dunn.
The anger contrasted with the preparations for the debate, in which Biden had offered two olive branches: he announced that he was embracing the idea of free tuition at public colleges, at least for families with incomes of up to $ 125,000, as well as bankruptcy reform – inspired by Sanders and his progressive ally, former presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In a CNN interview after the debate, Sanders was somewhat proud of having shifted the Democratic Party to the left. “I think we are winning the ideological struggle, and we won it tonight,” he said. “Isn’t it remarkable that so many of them have moved so far from where we were four years ago?”
During the debate, however, Sanders ridiculed Biden for being slow to adopt this policy and other liberal policies he had not supported in the past.
He tried to get Biden to admit that in the 1990s he allowed Social Security cuts to be on the table when Congress was considering deficit reduction measures. When Biden denied – and then confused – the issue, Sanders questioned his honesty by urging viewers to seek YouTube clips of Biden’s Senate speeches.
Sanders avoided calling Biden a liar directly, but his allies and advisers on Twitter weren’t so restrained.
Sanders compared his own continued support for reproductive rights to Biden’s past support for limiting federal funding for abortions, a position he has since reversed. He lambasted Biden’s past support for a 2005 bankruptcy bill backed by the credit card companies.
Many of the attacks on Biden – including his refusal to support a total ban on the oil and gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, and the support he received from a super PAC – were familiar to supporters of Sanders, but they were rarely combined in such a prolonged exchange, made possible by the presence of only two candidates on stage.
The difficulty for Sanders, however, was that, as the debate has shown, the coronavirus crisis makes it very difficult to focus attention on anything else.
With this topic dominating much of the first hour of the debate, the two spent more time criticizing Trump’s handling of the crisis than grappling with it, giving Sanders limited openings to launch his attacks.
Where they differed was in focus: Sanders said the crisis highlighted systemic weaknesses in the healthcare system, while Biden argued that it showed the need for strong leadership.
Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia who backs Biden, summed up the dynamics well: The two candidates got their messages across the debate stage, he said on CNN, but “the problem for Senator Sanders is that we have the damn coronavirus going on today, and nobody cares about a vote that took place 20 years ago.