Both Candidates Lost Sunday’s Debate by Acting as if the Last Three Weeks Never Happened

Biden and Sanders point at each other from across the debate stage.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic debate at CNN’s D.C. studios on Sunday night. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Short of Joe Biden dropping out, he is almost certainly going to be the Democratic nominee for president and Bernie Sanders is not. Biden’s delegate lead, his polling leads in states that haven’t voted, and the possibility that many of those votes will be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic add up to “presumptive” status. Biden surely knows this, and Bernie Sanders has acknowledged it as well by conspicuously not claiming that a comeback “path to victory” exists for him.

With a public health crisis sharpening attention even further on the urgency of some—any—Democrat winning the November general election, it would have made sense for both candidates to approach Sunday night’s debate on CNN as a kind of two-person sales job: Biden explaining to Sanders supporters why he has sympathy for their viewpoint, and Sanders explaining to Biden supporters why taking stronger positions on certain issues could benefit their candidate’s all-important electability. Since the last debate, the shape of the Democratic race and the contours of daily life in America have both been drastically transformed. Here was the chance for the two veteran politicians to show how they could respond to changing circumstances with a coherent, constructive new message.

That’s not what happened. Instead, Biden and Sanders—whether out of habit, or deference to the mano a mano format, or fear of letting down their own base supporters—forcefully delineated and defended the differences between their worldviews and careers in a way that wouldn’t have seemed unnatural if it had happened nine months ago.

It’s not that the tone of the debate was heated. Though each candidate seemed frequently exasperated with the other’s account of his record, there weren’t any chaotic everyone-shouting-at-once moments or audacious personal attacks of the kind that would have induced audience gasps had there been an audience. (CNN moved the debate from Phoenix to D.C. and held it in a studio rather than a full theater for social distancing reasons.) But on issue after issue—Social Security, climate change, foreign authoritarianism, youth turnout, even the coronavirus—there was no effort on either candidate’s part to turn the conversation away from the (at this point well-established) differences between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and toward the kind of pan-Democratic message that it would behoove both of them to deliver.

Sanders, for example, missed an opportunity when CNN asked about the hoary subject of whether incremental change is more palatable to Americans than a “political revolution.” The Vermont senator could have said yes, many people think I’m too risky, but if those people want to make common cause with my supporters and win in November, they should try to understand why so many people are part of my movement. He could have gone on to say that many people support him because they haven’t seen as many benefits from the status quo as older and/or more affluent voters may have. He could have linked the answer directly to the way the coronavirus outbreak has revealed the connections among seemingly unrelated cracks in our social system on issues like sick leave, student debt, and internet access—and to the related possibility that changes to that system might actually make for fewer disruptions to more comfortable individuals’ everyday lives, not more.

Such a principled but conciliatory answer could have served Sanders’ interests not only by showing that he’s a “team player,” but by demonstrating his usefulness to a potential Biden administration as a figure who can speak for—and bring along—voters that Biden may not have as direct a connection with.

Instead, Sanders repeated some of his boilerplate “rigged economy” talking points—points that, as factual as they may be, essentially amounted to an insistence that Biden voters really should join the revolution—and then pivoted to a campaign finance riff that was an implicit attack on Biden’s fundraising:

Let’s do something that’s very rarely done in the Congress. Let’s do something that the media doesn’t do. Let’s talk about the reality of American life. Why is it that over the last 45 years, despite the huge increase in productivity and technology, the average worker is not making a nickel more? Why is it that over the last 30 years the richest 1 percent have seen a $21 trillion increase in their wealth; bottom half of America, $900 million decline in their wealth? Why is it that we are the only major country not to guarantee health care to all people as a human right? Why the only major country not to have paid medical and family leave? We give tax breaks to billionaires when half a million people are homeless. It comes down to something we don’t talk about: the power structure in America. Who has the power?

I’ll tell you who has the power. It’s the people who contribute money. The billionaires who contribute money to political campaigns. Who control the legislative agenda. Those people have power. You want to make real changes in this country, if you want to create an economy that works for all, not just a few, if you want to guarantee quality health care for all, you know what you need? You need to take on Wall Street. You need to take on the drug companies. And the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry. You don’t take campaign contributions from them. You take them on and create an economy that works for all.

And here was Biden, later in the debate, missing a mirror opportunity to speak directly to younger, more disaffected voters when CNN’s moderators asked why Sanders is still beating him among certain demographics:

By the way, let’s get this straight. The energy and excitement that’s taken place so far has been for me. Seventy percent turnout increase in Virginia—I can go down the list. They are coming out for me. I didn’t even have the money to compete with this man in those states. I virtually had no money. The press kept saying, “Biden has no money.” They were right—Biden had no money. The idea—why are they doing that? The reason they are doing that is because they know I know what has to happen. I know what needs to be done. And by the way, the idea that everybody supports “Medicare for All”—he still hasn’t indicated how much it’s going to cost people. So here’s my point—people don’t know the detail at all. And the fact is I am winning overwhelmingly among Democratic constituencies across the board. 

Almost any conceivable answer probably would have been more useful, for Biden’s chances going forward of winning over young people, than one in which he defensively declared that he’s winning a race that everyone knows he’s winning. But maybe something like this would have gone over especially well: “I think that Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real, and he has credibility on it. And that is—the absolute enormous concentration of wealth in a small group, with the middle class being left out. There used to be a basic bargain: If you contributed to the profitability of an enterprise, you got to share in the profit. That’s been broken. Productivity’s up, wages are stagnant. No one questions Bernie’s authenticity on those issues.”

That sympathetic explanation of Sanders’ appeal was delivered by none other than Joe Biden, in 2016, when he was explaining to CNN why another front-runner was having trouble consolidating the youth vote. It would have been good for the Democratic Party (and for the cause of preventing civilizational collapse) for Biden to start making that argument again, and for Sanders to help him make it. Instead, like so many others are doing at the moment, they just aired a rerun.