Two gentlemen considered at ‘high risk’ of contracting COVID-19 met tonight in the Washington DC studio of CNN, to pitch themselves to an on-edge nation as the best alternative to Donald Trump.
The Sunday night face-off between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders was initially supposed to be in Phoenix, Arizona, as the state votes on Tuesday. But that was in The Before Time.
Even the CNN panel was socially distanced before the debate, with panelists spaced six feet apart across two studios, as opposed to the usual eight people crammed behind the desk like a pack of hot dogs. This memo clearly didn’t get sent down the hall to where the debate was being held, as Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Univision’s Ilia Calderón sat unhealthily close together.
Eschewing the handshake, Sanders and Biden shuffled onto the stage and greeted each other with a friendly elbow-smash.
Biden decided to put the nation at ease by coughing twice throughout his first answer about the coronavirus. He then kept coughing throughout Tapper’s first question to Bernie on the same topic. Sleepy Joe got his blunders in early, referring to having previously dealt with ‘coronavirus’, before correcting himself to ‘N1H1’ and ‘in Africa’. Bernie meanwhile lambasted the ‘weakness and dysfunctionality’ of the current American healthcare system, before blowing a line himself by inadvertently referring to Ebola. Maybe such slips are contagious?
Biden took the fight to Bernie by pointing out that Italy has a single-payer healthcare system. ‘What the experts tell is that one of the reasons that we are unprepared…is that we don’t have a system,’ Bernie retorted. When Bernie then hit Biden for taking money from the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. ‘I don’t want to get into a back and forth,’ said Biden…despite initiating the conflict.
Both candidates had laid out their approaches to the crisis in articles for CNN on Sunday morning. Biden immediately attempted to pivot to the general, saying:
‘Unfortunately, this virus has laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current administration. Public fears are being compounded by a pervasive lack of trust in this president, fueled by his adversarial relationship with the truth.’
Bernie meanwhile stressed how, ‘once again’, the outbreak proved his long-held policy positions to be correct:
‘As we struggle with this crisis, we must remember how we arrived at this moment of peril, and then we must take long-term steps to make sure we are far better prepared for similar emergencies in the future.‘
The senator continued on this theme tonight, explaining to the pharmaceutical industry that ‘this is not a time for profiteering’.
One aspect of Democratic debating improved by the coronavirus: no studio audience. Previous rooms have been packed with whooping activists from groups like MoveOn and Planned Parenthood, which led to a dissonant impression of popularity for previous candidates who those groups favored (remember Kamala Harris?)
One aspect that should be canned now we’re down to two candidates: time limits! CNN needn’t have put us through watching Joe Biden judder to a halt like a fairground ride that needs another nickel as he hit the 45-second limit.
The empty room gave us wonderful Beckettian pauses in between the old chaps’ answers and gave a dramatic edge to the mid-section of the debate, when Bernie and Biden argued about their records and whether Biden had discussed cutting Social Security on the Senate floor. They turned to face each other, their elevated voices echoing around the studio as they gesticulated and yelled about history. It resembled a row that could be taking place in the dining room of any nursing home in America, if most of them weren’t on lockdown. And, given Biden’s repeated attempts to misrepresent his record, it was a part of the broadcast which would have benefited from some slightly more aggressive moderating. Did Tapper not fancy fact-checking him in real-time?
A clumsy interlude where the two old dudes discussed women’s issues was jolted to life by Biden’s on-air commitment to picking a woman as his running mate. So Mayor Pete fell on his sword for…UN ambassador? Secretary of state? Sanders said that ‘in all likelihood’ he would do the same, but that he would pick a ‘progressive woman’. What a shame that Ilhan Omar isn’t eligible.
The debate took a turn for the worse as the moderators decided to rehash Bernie Sanders’s comments about Castro and Cuba. Bernie could have made it easier for himself by setting aside his decidedly non-absolutist approaches to brutal communist regimes in the interest of political expediency. Yet throughout two campaigns, he’s learned nothing about what not to say. It’s like Sanders never intended to win.
At the night’s conclusion, Biden approached the three moderators for a very not-socially-distanced chat. Eleven debates down, one to go. Presumably the final showdown will be conducted from fallout shelters in Delaware and Vermont over Zoom. Hopefully there will be some grandchildren present to help them work the laptops.