NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Eleventh 2020 Democratic debate was defined by the coronavirus pandemic

The glob­al coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic has had a dra­mat­ic impact on the entire coun­try, shut­ting down trav­el, large gath­er­ings, sports events, bars, and restau­rants. The effects of the cri­sis were imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent to any­one tun­ing in to last night’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial debate between for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont.

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders at podiumsInstead of a packed audi­to­ri­um in Ari­zona, the two men met in a ster­ile-look­ing CNN stu­dio in Wash­ing­ton D.C. with only each oth­er and the mod­er­a­tors for com­pa­ny (the risk of infec­tion in a live audi­ence was deemed to be too high).

And instead of shak­ing each other’s hands, they opt­ed for a friend­ly elbow bump.

The debate itself was over­whelm­ing­ly focused on the pan­dem­ic, with the can­di­dates being asked about their plans to deal with the emer­gency, their own per­son­al prac­tices to avoid infec­tion, and how they would reas­sure Amer­i­cans suf­fer­ing from the ill­ness or afraid of con­tract­ing it.

Both can­di­dates went into the debate with clear objec­tives.

Biden holds a con­vinc­ing lead in del­e­gates and will like­ly cruise to a major­i­ty through a sheer sense of inevitabil­i­ty. All he had to do in the debate was stay calm, appear pres­i­den­tial, and not fall into some dis­as­trous gaffe (as he has a habit of doing in debates). Sanders’ task was much hard­er; he had to knock the aura of invin­ci­bil­i­ty off of Biden and per­suade Biden’s key base – African Amer­i­cans and old­er vot­ers – to aban­don the for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent.

The debate began with how each can­di­date would respond to the coro­n­avirus if they were pres­i­dent. Biden, draw­ing on his expe­ri­ence as Vice Pres­i­dent, sum­ma­rized a wide vari­ety of mea­sures he would have pur­sued, empha­siz­ing the impor­tance of nation­al lead­er­ship from the White House.

Sanders took a slight­ly dif­fer­ent approach.

While lay­ing out sim­i­lar emer­gency mea­sures he would take, he used the cri­sis to expose the U.S. health­care system’s many weak­ness­es – one of which is the fact that “we don’t have a sys­tem, we’ve got thou­sands of pri­vate insur­ance plans.”

He used the pan­dem­ic cri­sis to per­sua­sive­ly argue for pub­licly-fund­ed health­care, because right now the fear of costs is caus­ing peo­ple to avoid treat­ment.

How­ev­er, Biden argued that Medicare for All had “noth­ing to do with” this nation­al emer­gency. Instead of look­ing at the broad­er prob­lems of U.S. health­care, Biden sim­pli­fied the issue, say­ing “we’re at war with the virus.”

This was the first in a series of disin­gen­u­ous moments for Biden.

Whilst declar­ing that Medicare for All was not a solu­tion to the pan­dem­ic, Biden pro­claimed that he would “pass a law say­ing you do not have to pay for [COVID-19 treat­ment], peri­od.” He seemed not to real­ize that his pro­pos­al to deal with COVID-19 is akin to Sanders’ pro­pos­als for uni­ver­sal sin­gle pay­er health­care.

The dis­cus­sion moved on to the pandemic’s eco­nom­ic fall­out. Both can­di­dates argued for dra­mat­ic fed­er­al inter­ven­tion in the econ­o­my to pro­tect ordi­nary Amer­i­cans, but had very dif­fer­ent emphases. Sanders repeat­ed­ly asked the ques­tion, “how did we get here?” He point­ed to the vast eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty that has been sim­ply exac­er­bat­ed by the pan­dem­ic cri­sis. Biden, in con­trast, sought to divorce the cri­sis from its con­text, say­ing that “peo­ple are look­ing for results, not a rev­o­lu­tion.” Biden repeat­ed­ly went back to the idea of “mak­ing peo­ple whole.”

From then on, the debate got testi­er as the can­di­dates harsh­ly scru­ti­nized each other’s vot­ing records. Biden admon­ished Sanders for his votes against the 2008 Wall Street bailout bill and gun respon­si­bil­i­ty, but Sanders got in far more hits on a wide range of issues. He and Biden were on dif­fer­ent sides of votes on mar­riage equal­i­ty, the dis­as­trous bank­rupt­cy bill, the inva­sion of Iraq, trade deals like NAFTA and PNT, and the anti-repro­duc­tive health Hyde Amend­ment. Sanders’ mantra through all these points was that “it takes courage to do the right thing.

Biden can’t match Sanders’ pro­gres­sive record, so he sought to mud­dy the waters by tak­ing a series of disin­gen­u­ous posi­tions, and fib­bing on the stage.

He crit­i­cized Sanders’ nuanced posi­tions on author­i­tar­i­an regimes (“look at the world the way it is!”) with blunt refusal to see nuance. He said look­ing at China’s pover­­ty-reduc­­tion pro­grams was like prais­ing Jack the Rip­per.

Biden also took a disin­gen­u­ous stance on the Iraq occu­pa­tion.

He said that he vot­ed for Bush’s AUMF because “they assured me they would not use force.” In fact, Biden sup­port­ed an inva­sion of Iraq as far back as 1998, as well as after U.S. troops were on the ground in Iraq.

Biden went even fur­ther on the issue of pro­tect­ing Social Secu­ri­ty.

When Sanders pressed him about speech­es he had made argu­ing for the “need” to cut Social Secu­ri­ty (which he did as ear­ly as 1984 and as recent­ly as 2018), Biden sim­ply denied that he had ever made such com­ments. This led to an increas­ing­ly exas­per­at­ed Sanders push­ing the point, bit to no avail.

Biden also dis­tort­ed his involve­ment in the Bush error bank­rupt­cy bill, claim­ing he was­n’t for the pro­pos­al and only worked to make it less awful despite hav­ing vot­ed for it on final pas­sage, and spo­ken in favor of it.

Espe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing that Biden had to resort to fibs to defend his posi­tion, Sanders undoubt­ed­ly won the argu­ment in Sun­day night’s debate.

Addi­tion­al­ly, in advance of the debate, Biden promised to adopt a num­ber of Sanders and Eliz­a­beth Warren’s pro­gres­sive plans.

How­ev­er, Sanders didn’t do enough.

The debate was Sanders’ last oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn the tables on the for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent before vot­ing in Flori­da, Illi­nois, Ari­zona and Ohio on Tues­day.

Sanders did his best, but he failed in his main objec­tives. He didn’t go after Biden over Biden’s posi­tions on issues like bus­ing, as Kamala Har­ris did last sum­mer.

His attempts to shake Biden’s hold on old­er vot­ers over Social Secu­ri­ty were negat­ed by Biden’s fibs. And he failed to goad Biden into mak­ing a major gaffe – although Biden did have some word-sal­ad moments.

Com­ing out of the debate, Biden seems like­ly to increase his lead in del­e­gates in the com­ing states, and Sanders’ cam­paign is unlike­ly to be able to catch up. The ques­tion is increas­ing­ly becom­ing not who will win, but how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty can even hold nom­i­nat­ing events amidst an unprece­dent­ed pan­dem­ic.

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One Comment

  1. And now the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion has moved to August…

    # by Isha Noor :: April 2nd, 2020 at 5:49 AM

One Ping

  1. […] last tele­vised debate between the two men stark­ly demon­strat­ed the impact of the pan­dem­ic on Demo­c­ra­t­ic […]