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Presidential Politics Confronts a Global Pandemic

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders had the most sensible and sympathetic debate yet in the presidential primary contest as they discussed how the nation needed to deal with the spread of the coronavirus

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday, CNN and Univision hosted Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Washington D.C. for the 11th debate in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest, and the first featuring only Biden and Sanders on stage together.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has complicated Biden’s recent triumph over Sanders in the presidential primary forecasts; both campaigns have canceled rallies, and so far, two states, Georgia and Louisiana, have rescheduled their election days. The pandemic complicated the debate format, too. Biden and Sanders bumped elbows. They stood six feet apart. They addressed three moderators—Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Ilia Calderón—on a small stage with no live studio audience. The candidates made the best of bad circumstances and had their most sensible and sympathetic interactions yet. They spent the first half hour discussing the pandemic. They criticized Donald Trump’s crisis mismanagement. Despite the drama and combat inherent in a presidential debate, Biden and Sanders modeled their own competence, solidarity, and reassurance, in contrast with Trump’s chaos-governance. They promised a “bailout” for employees, homeowners, and patients who now confront layoffs, quarantine, hospitalization, and medical debt as the pandemic spreads. Sanders implored Biden to reconsider the 2008 bank bailout—Biden voted for it; Sanders voted against it—as a cautionary tale: “We need to stabilize the economy,” Sanders said. “We have got to do more than save the banks or the oil companies.”

For the past nine months, Biden and Sanders have argued on stage alongside so many other contenders. For once, Biden and Sanders could simplify the differences between them in stark, consolidated contrast: Biden by underscoring his plans to address the pandemic “right now” and Sanders by illustrating his broader concerns about healthcare and other social services which will be strained by the pandemic. “This is a time to move aggressively, dealing with the coronavirus crisis, dealing with the economic fallout,” Sanders said, “but it is also time to rethink America and create a country where we care about each other rather than a nation of greed and corruption which is what is taking place among the corporate elite.” Sanders sounded more eloquent than ever before. He didn’t yell as much. Biden spoke more forcefully than he tended to speak in past debates, without so many jagged tangents. Biden and Sanders both seemed to be coming to their senses. Despite the outstanding contrasts between them, they couldn’t have seemed closer to a truce in a contest, which now seems determined to nominate Biden against Trump in the general election.

On Sunday, Biden recited his script about voters preferring “reform” over “revolution.” And yet, as pithy and stubborn as he sounds whenever he says as much, Biden seems to have internalized every caution that Hillary Clinton resisted in her 2016 campaign against Sanders: Biden seems to regard Sanders as a constructive influence in his party’s politics. On the smallest stage they’ve ever shared, Biden and Sanders seemed to make peace. No, Biden doesn’t seem to “get” left-wing aspirations—and left-wing frustrations with the Democratic Party—any better than he understood them when he launched his presidential campaign 11 months ago. But he’s always seemed to understand Sanders on some personal level, which ameliorates the outstanding disagreements about Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, etc. Biden may struggle to incorporate Sanders’s left-wing faction into a party that otherwise prepares to nominate the candidate they have opposed most vehemently from the start—but Biden will struggle much less bitterly against Sanders than Clinton did. Though nonetheless strident in his complaints about “the billionaires who fund Joe’s campaign,” Sanders made his most graceful pleas to date. Sanders and Biden proved they could share a stage without sharing the sort of contempt that split Sanders and Clinton beyond repair. The pandemic set the tone for the debate: urgent but cautious, anxious but resigned to confronting the larger threat together.