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The Coronavirus Debate, aka Grumpy Old Men


US 2020

The Coronavirus Debate, aka Grumpy Old Men

Democratic US presidential candidates, former vice president Joe Biden, left, and Senator Bernie Sanders. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The Sunday night debate between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden took place amid the growing concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic, and the lacklustre response by the Trump administration. Biden proved he could go toe to toe with Sanders, without falling down a well.

The 15 March, Sunday night, Democratic Party presidential candidates debate was like no other debate in US history. Ever. Originally scheduled for Phoenix, Arizona which was one of the states participating in Super Tuesday round three, because of the ever-escalating Covid-19 crisis, it ultimately took place in a Washington, DC television studio, but with just a dozen people in the room – the two candidates, the three co-moderators, and the handful of technical people needed to make the broadcast actually happen. No raucous, cheering, hyper-partisan crowd.

With just the two debaters, former vice-president Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, on the stage, and with the two standing several metres apart and greeting each other with a chaste elbow bump, the unique format actually allowed for more sustained responses and rebuttals. 

The resulting event was actually much closer to our idea of a traditional candidates’ debate such as the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 or even the Lincoln-Douglas verbal confrontations of 1858, in contrast to the earlier sessions in this electoral cycle where there had been a half dozen or more contestants appearing at the same time, and where far too much energy had been spent on tossing out pre-programmed retorts or snarky gotcha comments. This time around there often seemed to be some real engagement, even if the two candidates sometimes talked over each other, grimaced, pointed fingers, and asked each other questions – both substantive and rhetorical – without deferring to the moderators.

In some ways, though, watching this debate could even make one think they were watching a previously unreleased version of the classic film, The Odd Couple, or even Grumpy Old Men. That thought, in turn, started us wondering how playwright Neil Simon had managed to send in a script for this debate from beyond the grave. (Well, okay, Mark Steven Johnson wrote the script for Grumpy Old Men, but that film also sounded like one of Simon’s and it also drew upon the comedic partnership of Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau — the original Odd Couple team.)

 Okay, back to the real debate. The three moderators, CNN’s Jake Tapper and Donna Bash and Ilia Calderón from Univision, set a contentious pace, largely declining to let either candidate wriggle away easily from any unanswered questions, or getting away with red herring answers.

Given the prevailing news climate, from the very opening moments of this encounter, the two candidates were asked to comment on the Covid-19 pandemic and the US government’s (and thus the incumbent president’s) response to the crisis so far. 

Not surprisingly, both Sanders and Biden attacked the Trump administration’s behaviour with regard to Covid-19 (admittedly not a particularly hard task). But, in most ways, the differences between the two candidates in this sphere were rather modest. There was discussion about bolstering the lost wages of those who might be quarantined because of infection; emergency spending to support urgently needed medical support and facilities; and even bringing in military teams to shore up medical resources applied to public health emergencies.

But within this discussion, one key difference between the two candidates did come through clearly. While both men, as Biden said, “fundamentally disagree with this president on everything,” on dealing with the virus, the two candidates did demonstrate their rather different philosophies on the proper extent of the government’s role in the economy. 

While Biden said he would draw upon the military to respond, he also said that at this moment of crisis, the American people actually want “results, not a revolution” in tackling the crisis, rather than broad promises of entirely rearranging the country’s economy.

This, of course, was a swipe at his opponent’s nearly-constant mantra Medicare-for-all (plus wealth taxes to fund much of Sanders’ plans) will fix whatever ails the US. In contrast, Sanders took what could be termed the 10,000-metre view, arguing the current situation in the US simply highlights the deep flaws in today’s US healthcare – and the economic system more broadly – and demonstrates the need for massive change.

In essence, this debate was about the need to change through incrementalism versus revolutionary change. Thus, the core difference was a disagreement between being deeply conscious of the political realities of what is possible versus advocacy of broad systemic changes, regardless of the current possibilities of enactment by a centrist (or even significantly conservative) Congress.

In other moments between the two men over the course of two hours, there were arguments over their respective historical congressional voting records. For Biden, a key point was how Sanders had failed to support any form of gun control, while Sanders upbraided Biden for his vote in support of the second Gulf War, and that he had agreed, at a moment of national budgetary distress a decade earlier, that budgets for Medicare and Social Security should not be immune from budgetary limits.

But as Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty argued the morning after the debate:

“What happened on Sunday night was not a presidential debate. It was former vice president Joe Biden’s debut as the Democrats’ presumptive 2020 nominee. The headline of the evening was Biden’s declaration that he plans to pick a female running mate, and that he would nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court.

“But it was the confidence with which Biden conducted himself throughout his two-hour exchange with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that signalled how dramatically the race has changed in the two weeks since the voters of South Carolina rescued his candidacy from oblivion.

“The fact that the debate took place in the shadow of a national crisis only served to illuminate the degree to which Democrats are stepping back from arguing about philosophical differences within their party. Their energy from here on out will be focused on making the case against President Trump, whose handling of the coronavirus epidemic has thrown his prospects for reelection into greater peril.”

And building upon this, in the same newspaper space, commentator Jennifer Rubin had argued:

The debate between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was entirely unnecessary given that Sanders is all but eliminated as a serious contender. He continues to take money from donors and encourage others to congregate (for example, phone banking), which is neither reasonable nor responsible. The debate changed nothing and suggests Sanders should have exited the race.

“…Sanders tried to argue about Biden’s past votes on the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding for poor women seeking abortions, but when pressed would only say ‘in all likelihood’ he would pick a woman for vice president. The Sanders camp was caught flat-footed. The rest of the debate did not go any better for Sanders.

“Biden’s first instinct is to express empathy. (‘First of all, my heart goes out to those … who are suffering from the virus.’) Biden explained the stakes: ‘This is bigger than any one of us.’ Sanders’s first instinct is to revert to his Medicare-for-all talking points.

“Biden has a grasp of specifics, recommendations he can offer that demonstrate he has a deep understanding of the issue. He can refer to expertise in handling previous health pandemics. When Sanders tried again and again to make this a Medicare-for-all issue, Biden called him out. ‘With all due respect to Medicare-for-all, you have a single-payer system in Italy,’ Biden said. ‘It is not working in Italy right now.’ ”

Looking forward, Covid-19 has intervened in much more than just the way public policy is being debated between the two remaining Democratic candidates – and thus between the presumptive Democratic candidate and the incumbent president. The virus’s impact has meant some of the remaining primary states such as Louisiana have just elected to postpone their voting until later in the US spring, rather than have a public moment where hundreds of thousands of people must come together in close proximity, effectively in defiance of all of the guidelines about how to respond to the possibilities of contagion. 

On Tuesday, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio will vote.  (Read the latest: Ohio governor seeks to postpone Tuesday primary; Kentucky delays primary til June – Ed) The polling indicates these are Biden’s states to win. Now that he has managed to demonstrate that he did not flub his one-on-one appearance with Sanders – he didn’t go off on one of those patented Biden confusing segues or sentence with a strangled syntax – it seems increasingly likely he will eventually roll up sufficient delegates to become the nominee-in-waiting before the actual convention. The choice at that point will be whether Sanders chooses to embrace the ticket wholeheartedly, or in the same halfhearted way he came forward on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

For his part, Biden must figure out a way to give Sanders a consolation prize sufficient to make him want to be part of a team that can defeat the president in November. DM


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