Tonight’s debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was eerie in a number of ways: no audience, no handshakes, and yet the candidates moved on swiftly after an early coronavirus exchange to beat each other up about votes 15 to 30 years ago, as if they were not addressing a freaked-out nation living under quarantine. (Bernie: “You remember that bill, right?” Biden: “Yeah, I do.”) CNN, to its credit, did not ignore the elephant in the room: the very advanced age of these two candidates in a time of a disease that targets the elderly. Biden coughed to start the debate. Bernie sniffled.
The debate was an advertisement for the kind of substantive arguments you can get with just two candidates and no crowd, reminiscent of the gravitas-off between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman in 2000. It showcased Biden’s common touch as an old man who has seen a lot of grief, and it handed him a ton of easy debate points where he could paint himself as a practical moderate in contrast to Bernie’s radicalism — like driving home the fact that Italy (whose health-care system is breaking under the coronavirus strain) has single-payer health care. He got Bernie to admit that he voted against Russia sanctions because John Kerry didn’t want him undermining the Iran deal, a point that Obama-administration flacks would not have wanted said out loud.
There were also a lot of “senior moments,” with Bernie saying, “America, go to the YouTube right now” and Biden constantly backtracking to correct himself. Biden kept reminding himself to change “Bernie” to “Senator Sanders,” undoubtedly a tic from his 36 years operating under the debate strictures of the Senate floor.
The biggest news that comes out of this debate is that Biden absolutely ruled out a male running mate, which will come as a disappointment to Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg. My own assumption is that Biden, who has spent the bulk of his life in the Senate, will choose a senator, and perhaps this elevates several of those as contenders: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Tammy Duckworth. Biden certainly went out of his way tonight to embrace Warren and her “plans” even on issues such as bankruptcy, on which she was acidly critical of Biden’s own record. Biden also pledged to appoint the first black woman to the Supreme Court.
But this debate may also haunt Biden. Bernie is, in practical terms, finished, and he plainly knows it. His clear goal in this debate, in the vein of issue and movement candidates since time immemorial, was to push his agenda on the party. Biden, though he came onstage wearing a red tie, took the bait. He bragged about his shifts to the left on abortion and immigration. He promised “no new fracking,” committed to crackdowns on oil drilling, and pledged himself to the “New Green Deal.” Some of those lines were delivered in gift-wrapped sound bites for the Trump campaign. All of which is why Biden, though he looked better than usual in this format, probably won’t want to debate Bernie Sanders again.