Last night, voters across the country finally got the opportunity to hear two serious presidential contenders debate their differences and settle their disagreements with surprisingly few interjections from moderators. After an exhaustive ten debates featuring too many candidates and too little substance, it was refreshing to hear a real dialogue between Sanders and Biden, the only candidates who proved viable for this nomination, and both of whom embody their side of the Democratic party’s civil war.
At this late stage, the debate needed to be explosive to have any measurable impact on the race, especially as the Coronavirus pandemic eats up headlines and attention. Biden, the likely nominee, had one of his best debate performances yet, impressively staying on topic for the entire two hours and remaining uncharacteristically coherent, a boon for his candidacy given some of his more embarrassing moments in past debates of this election cycle. The former Vice President has succeeded in this primary mostly due to his connection to Barack Obama, and continued to link his every policy position to his time as V.P., taking credit for accomplishments of the Obama administration and muddying his record by emphasizing his rhetoric during those years at the expense of anything else in his past; Biden was quick to point out that he supported gay marriage openly during the Obama years for example, but was less quick to admit to voting for the Defence of Marriage Act in 1996.
Likewise, Biden was forced to answer for his history of having advocated for Social Security cuts. Repeatedly asked to confirm or deny the existence of these statements, Biden repeatedly denied what he did indeed say. Visibly stunned by the Vice President’s refusal to confront reality, Bernie simply told the audience to check “The Youtube” for the truth. This moment offered Bernie a golden opportunity he sadly didn’t take: to call Biden a liar on national television.
Anyone familiar with the candidate knows it’s not in Bernie’s character to insult his opponents or tear them down; Sanders doesn’t just pretend to believe in civility, he practices it in his politics to a degree that few of his Democratic opponents actually lived up to despite their rhetoric on the issue. But this moment presented such an impermissible faux pas–Biden explicitly, repeatedly lying to a nation of voters–that it should have been seized upon and called out for what it was. Last night Bernie tried to draw a clear distinction between his record and Joe’s, but this would have been an ideal illustration of the contrast between the men: one is honest and consistent, the other has no problem lying to Americans for political gain.
Unfortunately, Bernie once again pulled his punches, letting the exchange over Social Security go down as a wash in the eyes of the average viewer, unsure of who was telling the truth. After all, how many viewers on the fence really did end up checking “The Youtube”? This is the embodiment of what has been Sanders’ greatest weakness in this primary: his continued refusal to call out the active participants in our corrupt, broken political system. It has now likely cost him the primary to Joe Biden, a pillar of the neoliberal politics he has railed against his entire career.
Regardless of whose campaign benefited more from the debate, the conversation was a long time coming, and Americans deserved an opportunity to see each side make their case and emphasize their points of contention with the other. Bernie advocated for the most vulnerable Americans–those without healthcare, documentation or financial security. He pleaded with Biden and the audience to humanize the problems they face and for a reconsidering of how the poor and working class should be treated in a twenty-first century society and in the wealthiest nation in the world. True to his brand, Sanders’ message was to-the-point, effective and particularly relevant given the global pandemic we find ourselves facing.
Meanwhile, Biden leaned into his experience as VP; he hammered home just how competently he and the Obama administration reacted to the Ebola scare, and effectively contrasted that episode with the stunning incompetence on display from President Trump as he deals with the spread of COVID-19. Biden also pledged to select a woman as his running mate, a move likely designed to become the media’s main takeaway of the night. It was a shrewd calculation on behalf of Joe and his campaign, as it made him appear progressive to the common viewer despite his brazen lack of progressive qualifications or policies, and garnered him a great deal of favorable Monday morning media.
A case could be made for either candidate being the winner of last night’s debate, but ultimately little appears to have changed about the state of the primary. Both Sanders and Biden stood their own in the first Mono E Mono discussion of the 2020 primary season yet, but unfortunately for Bernie, who faces Tuesday’s primaries severely disadvantaged, he needed Joe to totally self-destruct, which just didn’t happen. If this was Biden’s final test to become the nominee, he may have passed it simply by staying awake and on-topic.