On Sunday night in front of what one imagines was a large sports-starved television audience on CNN (and exactly zero in-person spectators), Bernie Sanders gave his best debate performance of the 2020 presidential campaign. For the first time since these exchanges began last June, the Vermont senator got angry. He also got specific. On issue after issue, from immigration to health care to student debt to foreign policy, he challenged Joe Biden’s record. The former vice president rolled his eyes, quibbled, and at times simply denied his own past votes. But despite the best efforts of the moderators — I lost track of the number of times Sanders was cut off — Biden sounded like a bad impersonation of himself in his famous 2012 debate with Paul Ryan: petulant, dismissive, spewing outright nonsense as confidently as possible. (It didn’t help that he himself referred to this historic exchange multiple times on Sunday, though he appeared to be under the impression that it had taken place in 2008.)
Unfortunately, it is hard not to come away with the impression that for Sanders all of this was too little, too late. The delegate math already makes his chances of winning the Democratic nomination statistically insignificant (compared with Biden’s 99 percent odds). Coronavirus, to which a significant portion of the evening was understandably, if pointlessly devoted, is not going to help him in Ohio on Tuesday, his last chance at proving that he can attract a broad base of support in the Upper Midwest. Meanwhile, Georgia and Louisiana have delayed their contests until May and June, while Wyoming has suspended in-person voting. These are not exactly ideal circumstances for undertaking what would be not only the greatest comeback in the history of American presidential primaries but one of the most astonishing results ever seen in a democracy.
Besides, not all of Sanders’ blows actually landed. This was not always his fault. If you have ever argued with someone who cannot remember what either of you said 30 seconds earlier, and would be willing to lie about it anyway even if he did, you will understand the frustration Sanders experienced when Biden time after time criticized the Vermont senator for a remark he had not made or disrupted his cogent reasoning with taunts. He did himself no favors by responding to Biden’s attempts to paint him as America’s leading Xi Jinping fan by politely raising his hand, like the treasurer of the eighth grade student council asking for a point of order. He should have interrupted with one of any number of four-letter words. Most viewers came away with the sense that Bernie was at his wits’ end. They were not wrong, but it was not because Biden was winning the argument.
This does not exhaust the faults with Sanders’ debate performance. As usual, he gave the impression that he does not actually understand why single-payer health care is necessary — that is, because it effectively rations care on a basis other than one’s ability to pay, not because it allows people to go to the doctor whenever they want for any reason or none. “If you feel sick, go to the doctor” is actually terrible advice, especially during a public health crisis. And it certainly does not reflect the reality of what life is like under a single-payer system anywhere in the world (nor does his insistence that the government should also be totally responsible for vision and dental care). This is to say nothing of his naive assumption that a single-payer system would be free even for non-citizens, something that would surprise any of us who have ever purchased a short-term emergency insurance policy before traveling abroad.
Sanders’ best and last pitch was his most effective, one that he should have been making explicitly for the last nine months, namely, that Biden’s campaign will not inspire the country. He will have the support of the Democratic establishment and many of the party’s most reliable voters. He will also likely enjoy the support of some traditional Republican voters in wealthy suburbs across the United States. But that will not necessarily translate into the only thing that really matters: taking back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all three of which will likely be necessary for Democrats to win in November. At this stage in the campaign, this is not an argument for Biden voters to embrace his candidacy. It is a message excusing his own supporters for staying home.
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