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.

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to debate one-on-one in Washington, D.C. studio

Tonight, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden and Sen­a­tor Bernie Sanders will face each oth­er in the eleventh Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry debate.

The cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing this debate could not be more dra­mat­ic.

Since the last debate – back on Feb­ru­ary 25th – the whole dynam­ic of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry has been upend­ed. Back in late Feb­ru­ary, Sen­a­tor Sanders was the undis­put­ed front run­ner, hav­ing won the pop­u­lar vote count in Iowa, New Hamp­shire and Neva­da (the first ever can­di­date to do so). He faced six rivals (includ­ing Biden), none of whom appeared to have any viable path to the nom­i­na­tion.

In the days fol­low­ing the debate, how­ev­er, Joe Biden staged a record-shat­ter­ing come­back; a con­vinc­ing vic­to­ry in South Car­oli­na led to a flood of endorse­ments from pow­er­ful par­ty fig­ure­heads, rival can­di­dates drop­ping out en masse, and ulti­mate­ly to a mas­sive suc­cess on Super Tues­day.

Biden’s can­di­da­cy went from a zom­­bie-like fugue to front run­ner almost overnight. Sanders, mean­while, was left reel­ing and uncer­tain of how to pro­ceed.

Joe Biden vs. Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are the only cred­i­ble 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates still seek­ing their par­ty’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion.

All of these devel­op­ments have been dwarfed, how­ev­er, by the rapid­ly wors­en­ing glob­al coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. Entire coun­tries have gone into lock­down, many states have imple­mented dra­con­ian mea­sures “not seen since the Span­ish flu”, and Don­ald Trump him­self had a health scare.

Con­se­quent­ly, the debate will take on a dif­fer­ent tone and for­mat.

Instead of fac­ing each oth­er in front of a live audi­ence in Ari­zona, Biden and Sanders will debate in a TV stu­dio in Wash­ing­ton D.C. with­out an audi­ence, in order to mit­i­gate the risk of viral infec­tion.

The threat of COVID-19 will undoubt­ed­ly dom­i­nate the debate, much as it has dom­i­nat­ed news head­lines across the world.

Both can­di­dates can poten­tial­ly ben­e­fit. In a bril­liant move, Joe Biden – who has por­trayed his can­di­da­cy as a “return to nor­mal­cy” – made a speech address­ing the cri­sis that came across as pres­i­den­tial, com­pe­tent and per­sua­sive.

The emer­gency mea­sures he sug­gest­ed con­trast­ed strong­ly with the incom­pe­tence of the Trump Administration’s response to the pan­dem­ic.

Bernie Sanders, mean­while, has used the glob­al pan­dem­ic to make a more expan­sive argu­ment about the entire U.S. health sys­tem.

While going after Trump’s incom­pe­tence, Sanders argued that the U.S. is par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the pan­dem­ic because it lacks uni­ver­sal health­care.

In light of the ben­e­fits oth­er coun­tries are reap­ing from their uni­ver­sal health­care sys­tems to com­bat the coro­n­avirus, Sanders’ sig­na­ture pol­i­cy of Medicare for All look more and more essen­tial every day that the cri­sis con­tin­ues.

Since there will only be two can­di­dates on stage on Sun­day, the debate over health­care will be more clear-cut than it has been before. Both Sanders and Biden have robust and well-thought-through poli­cies, and vot­ers watch­ing this debate will be able to direct­ly com­pare them, with­out the dis­tract­ing input of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s nit-pick­­ing or Eliz­a­beth Warren’s con­fus­ing polit­i­cal “piv­ot­ing” that obscured the issue in pre­vi­ous debates.

Beyond advo­cat­ing for their respec­tive health­care posi­tions, the two can­di­dates have clear – if very dif­fer­ent – objec­tives for this debate.

Bernie Sanders’ can­di­da­cy may be in dire straits, but he is not out of the race. Sanders cur­rent­ly has about 150 few­er del­e­gates than Biden (736 to Biden’s 890) but there is def­i­nite­ly room for him to catch up, since both are far below the num­ber of del­e­gates need­ed to win a major­i­ty at the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion (1,991). Besides, the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an social­ist always thrives as an under­dog – his cam­paign soared after Sanders suf­fered a heart attack on the cam­paign trail!

Sanders is not fin­ished yet, but Sunday’s debate could be his last shot; two days after the debate, the states of Ari­zona, Flori­da, Illi­nois and Ohio hold their pri­maries — or, at least, they are sup­posed to. If Sanders can’t fig­ure out a way to change the dynam­ics of the race by Tues­day, the for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent could rack up a del­e­gate lead from these large states that is all but unas­sail­able.

If Sanders wants to turn the tables on Biden, he needs to shake the for­mer Vice President’s grip on his base of elder­ly and African Amer­i­can vot­ers.

To do that, Sanders needs to make Biden own his past sup­port for cut­ting Social Secu­ri­ty ben­e­fits for the elder­ly and his oppo­si­tion to “bus­ing” pro­grams intend­ed to bring about racial deseg­re­ga­tion in the coun­try’s schools.

Cri­tiques like these have worked before – last sum­mer, Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris received a sig­nif­i­cant bounce in pub­lic opin­ion research sur­veys at the expense of Biden after tak­ing on the for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent in the first Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate.

How­ev­er, Har­ris and Sanders have very dif­fer­ent debat­ing styles.

Sanders has fre­quent­ly exas­per­at­ed pro­gres­sives by fail­ing to be suf­fi­cient­ly tough in con­fronta­tions with neolib­er­al Democ­rats such as Biden.

Biden’s main objec­tive is sim­ply to stay the course; all he needs to do is appear pres­i­den­tial, stay calm, and come across as rea­son­ably lik­able.

Bar­ring any major gaffes, Joe Biden can sim­ply surf to vic­to­ry.

How­ev­er, Joe Biden is a man who has turned the gaffe into an art form. Over the past year on debate stages, the for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent has said that the solu­tion to domes­tic abuse is to “keep punch­ing,” gone on an epic and baf­fling rant about record play­ers, and even tried to send sup­port­ers to the wrong cam­paign web­site.

Biden is prone to gaffes when under pres­sure – his best debate per­for­mances have come when the spot­light is decid­ed­ly away from him (such as the Bloomberg pile-on a month ago). How­ev­er, there will be nowhere for Biden to hide on Sun­day, and there is no guar­an­tee that he can keep his head if Sanders applies the pres­sure. On the oth­er hand, he only has to wor­ry about debat­ing one oppo­nent.

The stakes in this debate are per­haps high­er than they have ever been for the 2020 race, which should hope­ful­ly make for good view­ing! The debate can be watched on CNN, CNN en Español, CNN Inter­na­tion­al, and Uni­vi­sion begin­ning at 5 PM Pacif­ic Time. It will also be livestreamed on CNN.com.

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