In a television studio in Washington, D.C. without an audience, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) finally went hard after former Vice President Joe Biden on March 15 in the first Democratic presidential primary debate held since the field was effectively reduced to the two candidates. And while Sanders scored some very strong points attacking Biden’s past voting record in the U.S. Senate, the Delawarean passed his biggest test of the evening simply by avoiding any of the horrific gaffes that have caused Americans to openly question his mental acuity in recent weeks. As the party continues to coalesce around him as the best option to defeat President Trump in November, avoiding the big mistake may have been all Biden needed to do to keep his firm grip on the nomination against a fading Sanders campaign.
The CNN-hosted debate began with a relatively safe and predictable conversation on the Coronavirus crisis. Sanders attempted to use the issue to push universal free health care for every health situation while Biden wisely narrowed his focus to fighting the pandemic and thus avoided putting himself in any situation that Sanders could use to his advantage.
After a full half hour of going around in circles on Coronavirus, the candidates were asked about government aid for industries that would be affected by the economic fallout from the disaster. In the course of his answer, Biden stoutly defended bailing out the big banks in the 2008 economic crisis, a topic that should have been manna from heaven for Sanders in a Dem debate. But the Vermont senator didn’t effectively ding him on an issue that is ready-made to whip up progressives’ fury. It seemed Sanders would still not personally confront Biden, even as his very viability as a candidate was hanging by a thread.
Sanders was being too abstract, talking about tax breaks for anonymous millionaires when he should have been going after Biden directly. He lashed out at pharmaceutical companies without resorting to his campaign-trail assertions that Biden has backed them for decades. He was restrained, courteous even.
But just as it looked like the senator would keep it tame, he suddenly pounced. Topics such as super PACs and Social Security presented him with an opening, and the self-proclaimed democratic socialist finally held nothing back.
“I want you to be straight with the American people,” Sanders challenged Biden. “I am saying that you have been on the floor of the Senate time and time again talking about the need to cut Social Security, Medicare and veterans programs. Is that true or is that not true?”
“No, it’s not true,” a defensive Biden declared.
“All that I would say to the American people, go to YouTube,” Sanders continued. “It’s all over the place. Joe said it many, many times. And I’m surprised. You can defend it or change your mind on it, but you can’t deny the reality.”
It was a very effective line of attack, and it highlighted what has been a Biden personal flaw for most of his decades-long political career: his extremely casual regard for easily provable truths. Sanders kept it up, roasting him for helping craft a 2005 bill that stripped bankruptcy protection from Americans on issues such as credit card and student loan debt. A flummoxed Biden again stammered his denials, but it was clear that Sanders had drawn blood.
Whipping Out the Woman Card
Unfortunately for the senator, the fruitful line of attack dried up when Biden threw a huge bouquet to identity politics-obsessed Dems. The prohibitive frontrunner pledged that he would tap a woman to be his vice president if he won the nomination and would put a black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court if he captured the White House. It was a moment of extreme pandering in a party that rewards such behavior. Sanders was widely seen as losing the point within blue social media circles for only replying that “in all likelihood” he would do the same.
Much more damaging to Sanders however was his butchering of an obvious booby trap of a question later hurled his way. When asked about his previous defense of communist Cuba’s domestic “achievements,” Sanders ham-fistedly chose to not only double down on an issue he should have quickly darted away from but to actually tack on praise for another despotic regime as well. “China is undoubtedly an authoritarian society, OK?” Sanders stated. “But would anybody deny, any economist deny, that extreme poverty in China today is much less that what it was 40 or 50 years ago? That’s a fact.” What is also a fact is that Sanders was never going to come off looking good pursuing such a discussion. That he still doesn’t realize this after already being seriously hurt on the subject is stunning. And it set Biden up for an easy scolding of the Vermonter.
In the end, Sanders supporters had to be encouraged to see their candidate finally show some of the fighting spirit he had so notably lacked throughout the primary process. Yet the senator did not deliver the devastating kind of blow that his sputtering campaign dearly needs at the moment. Biden came across as far more lucid and on point than he had in some time, and in a debate punctuated by loyalty decrees on linchpin progressive topics such as open borders, abortion and climate change, nothing happened in the CNN studio to overturn his argument that he is the more presentable candidate versus Trump in a general election. Sanders has yet to come up with a persuasive response to this powerful narrative that has propelled Biden to a dominant lead in the race for the Democrat nomination. He is fast running out of time to do so.
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