The final Democratic presidential debate of 2020 was a dispiriting affair for reasons that went far beyond the politics of it. The specter of COVID-19 lent a stark gloominess to the occasion, as did the seeming emptiness of the room itself: three CNN moderators, two men and the cameras. I never thought I’d miss a debate audience, but the energy was gone from that room, and the brightly lit set could not make up for it.
And then there’s this: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that events of 50 people or more not be held for about two months,” Bloomberg News reported on Sunday. “For the next eight weeks, organizers should cancel or postpone in-person events of that size throughout the U.S.”
Primaries are scheduled to be held on Tuesday in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois and Florida. These contests were set to be decisive before the CDC’s recommendation — if Joe Biden wins them all, his delegate lead over Bernie Sanders would become all but insurmountable — and may be all the more so now. These four primaries could be the last of the season. Georgia has postponed its primary, which was slated for next Tuesday, and Louisiana’s April 4 primary has likewise been delayed.
It’s quite simple: If we are listening to the CDC’s recommendations, the remaining primaries will probably be put on hold at some point, either until this thing burns itself out, or altogether depending on the circumstances. The primaries this Tuesday may happen, or they may not, but no one should be surprised if they are the last ones for a long while.
“Election dates are very, very important. We don’t want to be getting into the habit of messing around with them,” Sanders told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in a post-debate interview. “I would hope that governors listen to the public health experts, and what they are saying is … ‘We don’t want gatherings of more than 50 people.’ I’m thinking about some of the elderly people sitting behind the desks registering people to enroll, that stuff. Does that make a lot of sense? I’m not sure that it does.”
A cancelled primary election season would be the worst of all possible outcomes, and not just because Joe Biden would basically become the Democratic nominee by default. We do elections in this country, because if we don’t, we have lost all semblance of democracy. That all-important sentiment falls to ashes in the face of the coronavirus, which has the potential to lay waste to the nation’s older and immunocompromised population if not contained.
Authorities not named Donald Trump have been warning us this situation would bring sweeping changes to our lives, and they haven’t been wrong. A shortened 2020 Democratic nomination process may soon become part of that change, so the ability of either candidate to increase their nomination chances felt blunted by the same circumstances that led them to debate each other in that bright, empty room.
Sanders was strong throughout, opening the evening with a broadside against Wall Street and the wealthy, who were taken care of by the Federal Reserve in fine style on Friday. The Fed conjured $1.5 trillion in magic money and dumped it into the banking system so businesses can still borrow without breaking themselves financially. By the end of the weekend, the interest rate had been cut to basically zero.
“Bottom line from an economic point of view,” said Sanders, “what we have got to say to the American people, if you lose your job, you will be made whole. You’re not going to lose income. If Trump can put, or the fed can put a trillion and a half into the banking system, we can protect the wages of every worker in America.”
Biden, for his part, came into the evening looking to survive without damaging himself too badly. In this, he had help from an unlikely source: his opponent. While Sanders repeatedly sought to hold Biden’s feet to the fire on various aspects of the former vice president’s voting record, it became clear early on that Sanders was not out for blood.
“I know your heart is in the right place,” Sanders said to Biden on more than one occasion, a rhetorical fig leaf intended to convey the sense that Trump is the main enemy, and these two presidential candidates share many areas of common ground. “We talk about the Green New Deal and all of these things in general terms,” said Sanders toward the end of the first hour, “but details make a difference.”
Joe Biden is fortunate that Bernie Sanders was feeling conciliatory under the circumstances, and more fortunate the CNN moderators appeared unwilling to do their jobs, because Biden lied, lied and lied again throughout the evening. When tasked to defend his serially gruesome legislative record, Biden sailed off into the land of self-serving fantasy so often that #LyinBiden and #LyingJoe were top trends on Twitter all night long.
Biden has been lying about his stance on Social Security for months now, but found a whole new gear last night. He lied straight into the camera about statements he has made and votes he has cast, as if he’d forgotten that the internet exists and such brazen bullshit artistry doesn’t fly so well anymore.
Biden was similarly slippery on his support of the bankruptcy bill, on the Hyde Amendment and reproductive rights, on his vote for the Iraq War, on the Defense of Marriage Act, and on any and all areas where his record fails to meet the standard Sanders set simply by being in the room. One of the two candidates last night spent the last 30 years being right on the signal issues of the day, and it showed.
“The fact is that the idea that I in fact supported the things that you suggested is not accurate,” was a typical Biden response to Sanders throughout the evening. The CNN moderators didn’t bother trying to call Biden on his loose relationship with the truth, but Sanders persistently did so.
Biden’s most newsworthy moment of the evening came when he flatly declared that he would select a woman to serve as his vice president. “I commit that I’ll pick a woman to be vice president,” said Biden. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow, I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”
This was, among other things, Joe Biden paying a debt to Rep. Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement before the South Carolina primary resurrected Biden’s moribund campaign. Clyburn has made it clear that he wants Biden to select a woman for a running mate, and preferably a Black woman. Biden’s announcement last night was a “Yes, sir” telegraphed to the House majority whip via live television broadcast.
For Sanders, this debate was perhaps his last, best opportunity to make the case for his vision for the presidency as clearly as possible. As usual, he did not disappoint:
In this moment of economic uncertainty, in addition to the coronavirus, it is time to ask how we get to where we are, not only our lack of preparation for the virus, but how we end up with an economy, with so many about people are hurting at a time of massive income and wealth inequality. It is time to ask the question of where the power is in America. Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process? Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires and not raise the minimum wage?
Why do we pump up the oil industry while a half a million people are homeless in America? This is the time to move aggressively, dealing with the coronavirus crisis, to deal with the economic fallout, but it’s also a 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.
“A time to rethink America,” indeed. A great many sacred cows — most especially capitalism and its deleterious effect on health care — are on their way to the coronavirus slaughterhouse. Whether or not we proceed with the remaining primaries, we will be other than what we are as a nation when we come out the far side of this. Bernie Sanders told us as much last night, just as he has for the full term of his public life. If and how we heed him, finally, will be up to us in the end.