As most of the country was busy soaking panic beans or owning the libs by licking airplane toilet seats during a deadly pandemic, Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders faced-off in a debate on CNN Sunday evening.
Since Biden has pretty much wrapped up the race for the Democratic nomination, the debate served three possible functions. (1) To give Sanders one last chance to reveal Biden as an ineffectual Democrat suffering from cognitive decline before ultimately bowing out and pressing him to support parts of his platform. (2) Therapeutic schadenfreude for Sanders supporters. (3) To show the country that the Democratic party, regardless of its internal ideological differences, is the right party to take the reins in 2020.
Some of that sort of happened. Some of that didn't. Let's go over the highlights.
• In general, Sanders did what he does best, which is channel the anger of Americans frustrated with a political system unfit to meet the crises facing the world. Biden did what he does best, which is project readiness by using the words "situation room" and "surge" as often as possible. Though he did repeatedly try to spin his record, which I'm sure will in no way come back to haunt him, Biden did not fall to the ground and start writhing as brainworms crawled out of his ears, so I guess that means he won, which means he'll likely sweep Tuesday's primaries as expected. Sanders was never going turn his campaign around with a strong debate performance—he's just not that kind of politician—but it was worth a shot.
• The big news of the night was Biden committing to picking a woman as his running mate and to installing a black woman on the Supreme Court. Though he didn't give any details onstage, possible contenders include Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, rightful Gov. Stacey Abrams, and others, but we all know it's going to be Selina Meyer. Sanders hedged, saying he would "in all likelihood" pick a woman, but he wanted to make sure she was progressive, which makes sense given his need for a VP willing to push Medicare for All through reconciliation.
• Some media commenters praised the announcement as a victory for women and young girls everywhere, which it may be if he's elected, while others noted a disconnect between the way Biden talks about women and the way he...sniffs them without their permission and reluctantly embraces their right to choose.
• On the coronavirus, Biden said he wanted to send in the military, and Sanders said he wanted to send money to make poor people and workers "whole." Neither answer seemed to meet the need of the moment, as Biden's plan seemed vague and the delegate math rendered Sanders's plan a distant dream. Troublingly, Biden borrowed Trump's rhetoric on the crisis, saying we should treat the spread of the virus like an "attack from abroad." For political gain, he also unhelpfully decoupled the foundational problems of our immiserating healthcare system from the current struggle to handle an outbreak, noting that Italy has a single-payer system and it's not helping them. Sanders eventually got around to arguing that the outbreak reveals the extreme "dysfunctionality" of our current system, but his good riposte came a little too late.
• At one point, Sanders confused ebola with the coronavirus, but then Biden called it SARS, which didn't exactly comfort an anxious nation.
• In a series of tense, extended exchanges, Sanders pressed Biden on his Super PACs and on his record of calling for cuts to Social Security. Sanders's interrogation didn't hit the way Sen. Elizabeth Warren's interrogation of Mike Bloomberg did, though you could tell he wanted it to. The idea was to tank Biden's trustworthiness by revealing him to be the mercurial politician he's always been, but Biden was able to counter attacks on his record by attacking Sanders on his record with guns. Moreover, Biden's willingness to cut Social Security in the past doesn't excite the people Sanders needs to turn out in historic numbers in the primary, so it seemed like the attempt was fatally flawed from the outset.
• Having the right line on climate change may turn out the voters Sanders needs, and Sanders definitely won that portion of the debate. Biden said he wanted to re-enter the Paris Climate Accords, ban offshore drilling, and limit any new fracking. Sanders talked up the Green New Deal as the only way forward, which it is.
• The exchange about electability pretty much summed up the state of the race as it stands. Sanders argued that Biden may win the primary, but he'll need to increase turnout with Latinos and young people if he wants to win in the general. In one of his stronger moments, Biden said the energy of the party was with him, which it is. Biden thinks that's because voters "understand I know what needs to be done," which they don't, as evidenced by the fact that Sanders, as he said, is winning the policy debate, if not the primary race.