There was a lot to like about the Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden last night. Because there were only two people, it allowed for a lot of direct back and forth, with each actually asking the other questions, and the moderators let them do so. The moderators deserve some credit for not interrupting and making it all about them. In general the questions were decent and some important issues were discussed. Of course the pandemic and how to deal with it dominated the discussion, especially at the beginning, but there was a lot of discussion on topics that earlier debates had largely ignored, such as immigration reform and climate change. But the very fact that considerable time was given to these topics meant that other important topics did not get a hearing. I also thought that the lack of an audience in the room was a good thing and they should be dispensed with in future debates.
It quickly became clear what the main differences between the two candidates are. The first is that Sanders is deeply sincere about the views he holds and the policies he proposes. Apart from the fact that he has been fighting for them all his life, he speaks about them with such passion that you can be sure that his words are not the product of multiple testing on focus groups. Another distinguishing feature from Biden is that on every issue, Sanders spoke of the need to deal with the immediate issue but also looked at it structurally, about how the situation came about and what systemic changes needs to be made so as to prevent the situation recurring or be better able to deal with it if it does. Biden, on the other hand, tended to view things more superficially, focusing almost entirely on dealing with the immediate problem. Using a medical analogy, Biden was merely trying to alleviate the symptoms of a disease while Sanders was also trying to diagnose and cure the disease. Biden admitted as much when he said that Sanders wants a revolution while he wants incremental changes.
This became more clear towards the end when Sanders focused on the power structure in the US and that as a nation we need to seriously grapple with the question of how it came to be that we have this massive wealth and income inequality where greed and corruption at the top are so rampant. He said that the terrible US response to the coronavirus is just one example of the fact that the power structure in the US is dominated by billionaires and big corporations who control the media and the legislature and that prevents the country from creating institutions that would serve the mass of people and not just the elites. Sanders pointed out that Biden is funded by Super PACs that are funded by billionaires and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and that is an example of this structural problem. Biden’s response to the issue of the wide imbalance in power? He wants federal funding of elections, another example of his Band Aid approach.
The debate got pretty intense during the middle portion when each of them brought up the others’ votes. Sanders pointed out that being a leader meant being able to make the right judgment calls even when they are unpopular and that he was proud to have taken tough votes against measures that Congress, with Biden’s support, passed but that are now realized to be wrong. He said that he was proud of his votes against the bankruptcy bill (that Biden voted for but has now reversed himself at least partially) and the awful Defense of Marriage Act (that Biden voted for) among others. Another of Biden’s wrong votes he raised was his support of the law that authorized the Bush-Cheney administration to invade Iraq. Biden says that his mistake was in believing Bush when he said he would not go to war. Sanders replied that he and anyone else who was paying attention knew that Bush-Cheney were itching to go to war and that they would use it for just that purpose. Biden in turn brought up Sanders’s votes against gun control laws that Sanders has admitted were mistakes.
I was astonished that when asked by Sanders directly whether he had ever spoken on the senate floor in favor of cutting Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits, Biden flatly denied it. Sanders looked as if he could not believe his ears because there is ample evidence of Biden doing just that. I too was astonished because it was such a flat out lie. Others have quickly pointed out other false statements that he made.
Some time was wasted when one moderator brought up once again the absurd issue of Sanders speaking positively of the education and health progress that the Cubans under Fidel Castro made. The idea that you cannot point out the positive steps that authoritarian governments have made is ridiculous. This trivial issue had been given a lot of time in the last debate and there was really no reason to go over it again. But it gave an opportunity for Biden to grandstand about how saying any good thing about an authoritarian government was terrible, which is utterly absurd.
On the issue of climate change, which finally got a decent hearing, Sanders was again passionate, arguing that the planet faced an existential crisis that required a complete weaning away from fossil fuels and towards renewables like wind and solar and that we should immediately start that process by banning fracking. Biden meanwhile spoke about things like getting the US back into the Paris Accords and helping to stop the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. Sanders said that those things were good but nowhere near enough to deal with the scale and urgency of the problem. It was once again an example of the fundamental difference between Sanders, who said that we need structural change, and Biden who wants to address the surface issues while leaving the basic structure unchanged.
That structural approach of Sanders, raising the issue of who controls the power and decisions in the country, is of course why the Democratic party establishment, which is completely in the pockets of the dominant players in the current power structure, hates Sanders and his message. They, and the corporate media, do not want a discussion of the power structure in this country because he is attacking the very source of their power. But as Sanders pointed out, he may be behind in the delegate count but he thinks that his movement has won the ideological debate since many of the goals that he proposed that were dismissed as recently as four years ago as absurd have now become party orthodoxy, except that they are trying to find corporate-friendly approaches instead. Even his proposal for free college has just been accepted by Biden, except that Biden wants to put a ceiling of $125,000 family income for eligibility. Sanders also said that his movement has won the generational struggle since young people across the spectrum overwhelmingly support his ideas.
Biden made a splash by committing to name a woman as his running mate should he get the nomination, which will likely disappoint Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and other men who may have harbored hopes.
I thought that Sanders did extremely well. His passion and sincerity shone through and I felt that he clearly demonstrated why he is the better person to challenge Trump in the general election and be president.