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In Final Test of Nerves, Bernie Sanders Blinks

Joe Biden did just enough to survive an eerie debate overshadowed by a national emergency.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Tonight’s presidential debate may have been functionally the end of the Democratic primary campaign—not just because the forthcoming primaries favor Joe Biden, but because the coronavirus pandemic has made much of the usual practice of a campaign impossible. There can be no rallies, no pressing the flesh at diners—restaurant dining rooms will close in New York City before the next votes are cast, for example. It was likely Bernie Sanders’s last chance to do something to upend the race, and though he landed a few significant blows on Biden, it seems unlikely that the narrative of the race will have shifted enough to overcome Biden’s advantage.

The debate was blessedly different from previous matchups in a number of ways, most notably the lack of an audience, which meant more time for the two remaining candidates to actually debate each other, and to do so more substantively. The one-on-one format lent itself to demonstrating the clear divide between Sanders and Biden on a number of issues, although throughout much of the debate, Biden seemed to desperately want to claim that he has agreed all along with his rival.

The divide in the candidates’ philosophies of government was immediately clear in their differing approaches to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden repeatedly claimed that America is, or ought to be, “at war with the virus,” framing the drastic response necessary as a temporary series of measures. For Sanders, the coronavirus pandemic is “making a bad situation worse,” exposing both the existing cracks in our health care system and in our unequal economy. Biden did not just have a different focus, however, he specifically attacked the idea of seeing this crisis as a moment to address underlying issues. “What’s a revolution going to do?” he asked. “Disrupt everything in the meantime?” He went on to criticize Italy’s single-payer system for “not working” to fight the pandemic. (South Korea, which has so far done much better than almost any affected nation in bending the epidemic curve and limiting fatalities, also has a single-payer system.)

The debate betrayed a difference in political style, too, most notably that Biden was willing to lie without shame, correctly surmising that the moderators would be unwilling or unable to flag him for it. During the candidates’ confrontation over Joe Biden’s record on Social Security, Biden repeatedly claimed he had never supported cuts to the program, which is a lie. Yet it was Sanders whom the moderators held to account with specific quotes, citing a 1996 op-ed in which Sanders called for “adjustments” to Social Security (though his other statements from the time make it clear that Sanders did not support cuts, a record that Biden cannot claim). It would have been laughably easy, thanks to the work of journalists like Ryan Grim at The Intercept, for moderators to have similar material locked and loaded to confront Biden, yet they did not.

Biden also claimed Sanders has “nine super PACs,” which is not true. (There are several outside groups that support Sanders, only some of which are super PACs, which have spent $1.5 million in support of him; groups supporting Biden have spent $7.9 million.) He misstated, or lied about, his own fracking policy. He obfuscated his history of supporting the Hyde amendment, which bans the use of federal funds for abortion and which he supported as recently as June of last year. Biden even claimed that the emergency coronavirus bill passed by the House of Representatives on Friday stipulated that Americans “do not have to pay for any of this, period.” Again, this is not true—the bill only covers the cost of testing for the disease, not treating it. Sanders pushed back on much of this, with particular force on the super PAC question, but not hard enough.

There is a sweeping case to be made against Joe Biden—that for decades, he has upheld and preserved the system that is crushing low-income Americans, backed by the donor class, while Sanders has fought for them with just and humane policies that people like Biden considered radical. Sanders makes this case well on individual issues, like his record on Social Security, but is unwilling to connect it to a broader indictment of Biden and his character. In all likelihood, this is because he likes Biden personally.

Bernie Sanders’s closing argument—that the coronavirus pandemic means systemic change is more, not less, necessary in order to address the fundamental underlying injustices in this country—is correct. Biden’s commonsense wisdom that better things aren’t possible looks a bit foolish when states and cities are already taking steps—like pausing evictions and housing the homeless in hotels—that they could have taken without a pandemic, demonstrating the arbitrary limits that Democratic politicians put upon themselves. But the window of opportunity to press this crucial point was vanishingly small. Sanders is frequently cast as an aggressive, even toxic, radical, because he shouts and inspires rude people on the internet. Ironically, in this most crucial moment, Sanders’s unwillingness to truly take a kill-shot on his rival may have dealt the final, fatal blow to his own candidacy.