The coronavirus, “Medicare for All,” old Senate votes, the Iraq War, Social Security, gun control, immigration, visions of leadership: They were all on the table Sunday night in the first one-on-one debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, a matchup that comes two days before four delegate-rich states hold primaries.
Here are six takeaways from the only March debate of the primary race:
Sanders had his best debate yet. And?
Sanders had been waiting months — years, really — for a one-on-one shot to compare his record and platform with Biden. He did not waste the opportunity.
Sanders delivered a clinical evisceration of Biden’s record from a progressive perspective, picking apart past Biden votes and statements on economic issues, the Iraq war, immigration and LGBTQ rights. By drawing Biden into a debate about his record stretching back decades, Sanders won a victory on substance, delivering his best debate in the 11th forum sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
It’s almost certainly too late to matter.
Sanders has won just seven of the 26 primaries and caucuses so far (he’s also leading in California). He trails Biden in the delegate count by a significant amount — so much that Sanders would have to start winning states by about 8 percentage points to catch up. And polling suggests Biden is likely to win the four states with primaries Tuesday — Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio.
The senator’s attacks on Biden on Sunday night didn’t go as far as some Sanders aides had hoped. Yet his criticism also disappointed members of the Democratic establishment who had hoped Sanders would use the debate as a stage to effectively bow out of the race with grace.
Only Sanders knows how long he’s willing to fight for a Democratic presidential nomination he’s increasingly unlikely to win. Four years ago, he took Hillary Clinton all the way to the end of the party’s calendar to see if he could win California’s megaprimary. But now, in the midst of a global pandemic and with the overriding imperative in the party to remove President Donald Trump, Sanders could find himself coming to a different conclusion soon.
And yet: After the debate, in an interview on CNN, Sanders sounded skeptical about even holding the upcoming primaries Tuesday, questioning if it made sense for senior citizens to be congregating at polling sites during the coronavirus outbreak.
The debate was discordant with the urgency of a global pandemic.
It began with an elbow bump, unfolded with Biden and Sanders standing 6 feet apart and ended without a handshake.
The debate was held during the extraordinary moment of a global pandemic threatening to upend America’s political, social and economic order. Yet for long stretches of the night, Biden and Sanders were consumed with trading shots and sniping about old Senate votes and debates from decades past.
If the policy issues were significant, the focus felt discordant in a moment when millions of Americans are preparing to bunker down to slow the spread of an infectious virus, facing disruptive school closures and the possibility of future quarantines.
“I don’t want to get into a back and forth about our politics here,” Biden said at one point, as Sanders pressed him on health care.
Eventually they did get into just such a back-and-forth, and spent much of the debate engaged not on real-and-present-dangers but on distant pasts and potential futures.
Biden made overtures to the left …
He invoked Sen. Elizabeth Warren and mentioned that he spoke with her recently. He promised that, for his first 100 days in office, “no one will be deported at all.” He highlighted his new support for making public colleges and universities tuition-free for many students.
Biden, a relative moderate who has won a series of major primary contests in recent weeks, is beginning to think about how to unify the Democratic Party should he become the nominee — and he is looking for ways to appeal to progressives who have long been skeptical of his candidacy, even as the coronavirus crisis has forced him off the campaign trail.
On the debate stage, he noted his moves to the left on several policy matters, and — in a nod to Sanders’ supporters — promised that, “If Bernie is the nominee, I will not only support him, I will campaign for him.”
But Biden’s efforts at extending olive branches only went so far — and sometimes, he appeared visibly frustrated by Sanders.
“He’s making it hard for me right now,” Biden said of Sanders, when asked directly about how he would appeal to the Vermont senator’s supporters if he became the nominee. “I was trying to give him credit for things and he won’t even take credit for things he wants to do.”
… and promised to pick a female running mate.
Biden committed for the first time to selecting a female running mate if he wins the Democratic nomination, a move sure to be welcomed by many party activists, operatives and voters who have long wanted to see a woman on the Democratic ticket in November.
The former vice president has previously laid out other criteria he would prioritize in a running mate, including the importance of trust, shared values and experience.
But promising to select a woman could help him generate more enthusiasm headed into upcoming primary contests, reassuring some voters who may feel apathetic toward Biden, 77. It will also set off a round of predictions about which specific Democratic candidates Biden may be considering should he clinch the nomination.
And, given the crucial role that black voters played in first reviving Biden’s candidacy in South Carolina and then elevating him to become a front-runner on Super Tuesday, the speculation will undoubtedly be intense about whether he will select not just a woman but a black woman as his running mate.
It was the last debate before the campaign stops.
When the 2020 campaign is all over, Sunday night’s debate may be unearthed like a fossil from the La Brea Tar Pits.
Campaigning in person has stopped. Upcoming primaries after Tuesday’s four contests have been postponed. The nation is about to go into a collective social and economic hibernation. So what effect will this debate have on who wins the Democratic presidential nomination?
Probably not all that much. Biden has a durable advantage with black voters, the party’s most reliable constituency. Sanders romps among young people, who haven’t shown much inclination toward Biden. But if Sanders can’t win at least one and probably two states Tuesday, his path toward the nomination will narrow nearly to a close without much of an opportunity to change the direction of the campaign for weeks — and maybe months.
The Democratic National Committee’s rules require all states to hold presidential nominating contests and assign delegates to the national convention by late June. It’s now next to impossible that the party will hold its last planned debate in April, given coronavirus concerns. So the debate between Biden and Sanders will serve as the last opportunity for voters in remaining primary states to size up their two options.
The question is how they’ll weigh their choice — extending the race and opting for political revolution by picking Sanders or finishing it and focusing on beating Trump by choosing Biden.
The choice was as clear as ever: revolution vs. restoration.
Biden firmly believes that if and when Trump is defeated, there will be a restoration of normalcy in the nation. Sanders believes that Trump’s exit is only the first step toward a necessary political revolution.
That divide — one of the most fundamental between the two remaining candidates — was on vivid display in the debate, especially over how they framed the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sanders used the moment to pitch the need for his government-run Medicare for All program. Biden was almost singularly focused on the immediate crisis at hand.
“People are looking for results,” Biden said. “Not a revolution.”
Later, Biden returned to the same theme. “We have problems we have to solve now,” he said, arguing that the Sanders agenda was unfeasible and unrealistic. “What’s the revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?”
But Sanders argued that his brand of democratic socialist revolution was the only way to tackle the economic, social and health inequities in a capitalist country.
Over and over, Sanders panned out beyond the immediate national emergency to address systemic problems that he said were simply being exacerbated by the current crisis.
“This coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system,” Sanders said. He applied the same logic to other fronts.
“It’s time to ask the question of where the power is in America,” Sanders said in his final remarks of what could be his final debate. “Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process?”