Tonight’s Democratic presidential primary debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders felt like a supremely surreal exercise in irrelevance. The threat of the coronavirus is the all-consuming focus of the American public right now, and a pair of men who have no or nominal ability to influence the current government’s policies told us that they would handle the threat much better if they were in charge.
Both Democratic candidates misspoke and referred to the coronavirus as “Ebola virus” and “SARS” at points. Both men said that they would get the military and FEMA involved more. Both criticized the Trump administration’s response. The candidates’ answers were mostly lists of things “we” have to do, with few specifics of how they would accomplish them.
The situation is changing day by day; shortly before debate time, the CDC recommended that events with 50 people or more be canceled or postponed for the next eight weeks.
Perhaps the situation is changing too fast for any public official to give good answers to the big questions that this crisis is provoking. CNN’s Dana Bash asked a particularly good question: “When the outbreak first started, the [Chinese] government censored the whistleblower doctor who sounded the alarm and downplayed the true gravity of the virus. What consequences should China face for its role in this global crisis?”
Sanders made clear he had no interest in punishing China, at least for now, and maybe ever: “Now is the time to be working with China. They are learning a lot about this crisis. And in fact, we have to work with them. We have to work with the World Health Organization, we have to work with Italy. If there was ever a moment when the entire world is in this together, got to support each other, this is that moment.”
Later in the evening, Sanders turned to Biden and seemed to believe he had a gotcha moment: “Is it true, or is it not true, that China made great progress in reducing extreme poverty?” Let that be the epitaph for the Sanders campaign: At the exact moment that American life was turned upside down by a virus that the Chinese government tried to hide and cover up, Sanders was there to tout the regime’s accomplishments.
Quite a few of the debates this cycle felt like frustrating wastes of time, but this one felt particularly moot. The second hour was the non-coronavirus section, and the back-and-forth exchanges about climate change, fracking bans, immigration enforcement, and abortion access felt like a historical relic. Kids may not go back to school before autumn, and the economy is about to get pummeled, which makes the issue of the temperature in a hundred years seem particularly insignificant in the here and now.
Fans of Sanders will contend that he nailed Biden on calling for cuts to Social Security — Biden vaguely supported the idea as an effort to reform entitlement programs but never actually voted for it. Will seniors start worrying about a President Joe Biden cutting their Social Security? With a Democratic House? Or are America’s seniors more worried about something else right now?
Heading into tonight, the majority of Democrats appeared set on nominating Joe Biden. Nothing that happened tonight changed the current trajectory.