Any Democrat who thought Sen. Bernie Sanders might leave the presidential race quietly was proved wrong in Sunday’s debate as he hammered Joe Biden’s record on issues from abortion rights to bankruptcy to Social Security.
But all of those issues were eclipsed by the one gripping the nation and the world: the coronavirus pandemic, which may have dashed the Vermont senator’s last hope to change the dynamic of the 2020 presidential race.
Biden seemed more in sync with the national mood of the moment — as Americans face life-threatening health risks, a tanking economy and total disruption of their lives — when he parried one Sanders attack:
“Look, this is a national crisis. I don’t want to get this into a back-and-forth in terms of our politics here,” the former vice president said.
The debate over how to handle the pandemic played into Biden’s strategy of portraying himself as the experienced, steady hand ready to take charge on Day One. Especially in the debate’s first hour, as Sanders sought to steer the discussion to long-term changes needed in the nation’s economy and healthcare system, Biden focused on immediate actions that need to be addressed.
“People are looking for results, not revolution,” Biden said.
Sunday’s debate was almost certainly Sanders’ last, long-shot chance to get back into contention. All week long, people in his camp talked about the chance that Democrats, seeing the two remaining major candidates on stage, would turn away from their current path toward Biden. In the end, nothing happened that seemed likely to cause such a shift: Biden is still on track to win the nomination.
“Biden did enough to not blow his lead,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist who backs Sanders. He noted that Biden engineered his own positive headline by announcing he would pick a woman as his running mate.
But the surprisingly contentious debate left it much less clear how the two candidates will be reconciled after Sanders executed one of his most direct, sustained attacks of the campaign on Biden’s record and ability to beat President Trump.
It had not been clear that Sanders would go after Biden with the fervor some of his supporters wanted. Throughout the campaign, he has referred to Biden as “my friend Joe” and sometimes declined to use lines of attack his advisors prepared for debates.
But Sanders was relentless Sunday, so much so that when Biden was asked how he would bring Sanders supporters on board if he got the nomination, Biden responded: “He’s making it hard for me right now.”
Biden probably didn’t help endear himself to Sanders supporters when, during the debate, he laughed at or grinned at some of Sanders’ questions or comments.
When Biden laughed at something Sanders said about the inadequacy of his climate change policy, the Vermonter snapped, “If you are laughing, Joe, then you are missing the point: This is an existential crisis.”
And whether from annoyance at Sanders’ needling or out of a desire to show voters that he could stand up for himself in a general election debate, Biden at many points gave as good as he got.
He confronted Sanders repeatedly on his recent words of support for the decades-old literacy policies of Cuba’s Fidel Castro, which he called tantamount to supporting a dictatorship.
Biden derided Sanders’ claims to be the candidate best equipped to generate enthusiasm in a general election against Trump, pointing to high voter turnout in Virginia and other states he had won.
“The energy and excitement so far has been for me,” he said.
The two got into a shouting match over who had support from super PACs, yelling at each other by first name.
Biden’s aides pulled no punches, either, in a post-debate call with reporters.
“I think it’s fair to say that Vice President Biden showed up to a debate tonight and for two hours graciously dealt with the kind of protester who often shows up at campaign events on live television,” said senior advisor Anita Dunn.
The testiness contrasted with the run-up to the debate, in which Biden had offered two olive branches: He announced he was embracing the idea of free public college tuition, 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 contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In an interview on CNN after the debate, Sanders took some pride in having moved 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 so many of them have moved so far from where we were four years ago.”
During the debate, however, Sanders derided Biden for being slow to adopt that and other liberal policies that he had not backed in the past.
He tried to get Biden to admit that in the 1990s, he had allowed Social Security cuts to be on the table when Congress was considering deficit-reduction measures. When Biden denied — then muddled — the question, Sanders cast doubt on his honesty by urging viewers to look up YouTube clips of Biden’s Senate speeches.
Sanders avoided directly calling Biden a liar, but his allies and advisors on Twitter were not so restrained.
Sanders contrasted his own consistent 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 credit card companies.
Many of the attacks on Biden — including his refusal to support a full ban on the oil and gas drilling technique known as fracking, and the support he received from a super PAC — were familiar to Sanders supporters, but rarely have they been combined in such an extended exchange, made possible by the presence of only two candidates on stage.
The difficulty for Sanders, however, was that as the debate showed, the coronavirus crisis makes it very difficult to focus attention on anything else.
With that topic dominating much of the debate’s first hour, the two spent more time criticizing Trump’s handling of the crisis than attacking each other, giving Sanders limited openings to land his attacks.
Where they differed was in emphasis: Sanders said the crisis underscored systemic weaknesses in the healthcare system, while Biden argued it showed the need for strong leadership.
Terry McAuliffe, the former Virginia governor who is backing Biden, summed up the dynamic aptly: Both candidates got their messages across on the debate stage, he said on CNN, but “the problem for Sen. Sanders is we got the damn coronavirus going on today, and nobody cares about a vote that happened 20 years ago.”