The grumpy old white men who outlasted everyone else in the Democratic Party (except Tulsi, whom the DNC wants us all to forget about…) debated before an empty auditorium on Sunday, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (S-USSR) failed to strike a telling blow against the frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders had been banking on beating Biden on the debate stage to arrest the frontrunner’s momentum, but both men fumbled again and again, and both men appealed to their respective bases — which is bad news for Bernie and bad news for Democrats.
Bernie won’t be able to arrest Biden’s momentum, but Bernie’s voters won’t necessarily flock to Biden, either, when he (likely) wins the Democratic nomination. Sure, Sanders will endorse Biden, but “Bernie-or-Bust” is a real phenomenon. When Sanders didn’t drop out this past Tuesday after losing the pivotal swing state of Michigan, he showed his determination to stay in until the end of the race. He will divide the Democratic Party, whether he wants to or not.
Both Bernie and Biden took aim at one another while still focusing on badmouthing President Donald Trump. In a telling exchange, Sanders insisted he alone could drive turnout up enough to beat Trump while Biden referred to actual primary results.
Bernie noted that even a majority of Democrats in Mississippi — which heavily favored Biden — also support his plan for socialized medicine, “Medicare for All.” He insisted that Democrats will have to get young people to turn out to vote. “I have my doubts that Vice President Biden’s campaign can generate that kind of energy and that kind of turnout.”
The former vice president countered that his campaign saw a “70 percent turnout increase in Virginia. And I didn’t even have the money to compete with this man in these states.”
Indeed, Biden’s campaign had almost run out of money, but the former vice president won state after state on Super Tuesday and on Super Tuesday II. “Bernie outspent me four, five, six to one, and I still won!” Biden said. Former 2020 challengers Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) flocked to the former vice president, unifying the party behind him. Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg proved that money does not buy votes.
Yet the eleventh-hour endorsements and the strong turnout only showed that Democrats have a healthy fear of endorsing a candidate whose victory would mean the Soviets belatedly won the Cold War. Democrats flocked to Biden for two reasons: the former VP backed many of the same policies as Bernie, and he represented the most viable challenge to Sanders after the South Carolina primary. In fact, Sanders revealed the similarities between his policies and those of Joe Biden when he quipped (on immigration policy), “That’s kind of what I’ve been saying throughout the campaign.”
For these and other reasons, Biden’s primary victories do not prove that Obama’s vice president would drive turnout to the levels necessary to defeat President Trump in November.
Bernie entered the Sunday debate with one central goal: knocking Biden down a peg so as to forge a path to beating him in primary contests going forward.
Bernie’s own weaknesses prevented him from decisively prevailing over Biden on Sunday night. Both candidates are in their late seventies, and age showed on the debate stage.
Sanders encouraged his supporters to “go to the YouTube,” a line that started trending on Twitter as viewers mocked him.
— SalenaZito (@SalenaZito) March 16, 2020
He later referred to the current coronavirus crisis as “the Ebola crisis.”
— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) March 16, 2020
Naturally, Biden did not avoid his notorious gaffes, either. Early in the debate, he referred to the H1N1 “Swine flu” as “N1H1.”
— Matt Margolis 🇺🇸 (@mattmargolis) March 16, 2020
In addition to the gaffes, the Democrats had a great deal in common. Both vehemently opposed the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayers from unwillingly funding the killing of unborn babies, which many consider to be murder. Sanders bragged about never having voted for the Hyde Amendment, which he said “denies low-income women the right to get an abortion.” While Biden has voted for the amendment in the past, he now supports forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for what they consider to be murder.
Biden actually got in a few hits against Bernie. The former VP called out Sanders for a misleading ad claiming Biden had advocated for cutting Social Security for forty years — a claim PolitiFact rated “mostly false.” In fact, Sanders himself had once written that “As our population ages, it is clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits — as Congress has done in the past.” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid take up the lion’s share of the federal budget, and America’s fiscal sanity requires some cutting or readjustment. Sanders and Biden were right to support some changes, but now they’re fully in the tank on big government and high deficits.
Biden also hit Sanders for his single-payer health care system. While Bernie has claimed the coronavirus threat is an argument for Medicare for All, Biden rightly pointed out that Italy has a single-payer health care system, and Italy isn’t exactly doing well in the current crisis.
Joe Biden knocks Bernie for pushing Medicare for All in response to the coronavirus: With all due respect for Medicare for all, you have a single payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there. pic.twitter.com/qXlzYYSGk4
— Julio Rosas (@Julio_Rosas11) March 16, 2020
Joe Biden also made two concrete promises Bernie Sanders would not agree to: Biden said he would name a woman to be his running mate, and he pledged to nominate the first black woman to the Supreme Court. Both candidates promised that their cabinets and administrations would “look like America,” as in demographically representing the racial and sexual makeup of America. Both would put identity politics ahead of competency when it comes to staffing their administrations.
Biden is likely to remain the Democratic frontrunner after tonight, which means Bernie effectively lost the debate. Yet the frontrunner also did not knock out his opponent, which means the Democrats remain divided going into the third “Super Tuesday.”
President Donald Trump effectively won this debate, especially when it came to Biden’s response on drilling for oil. Indeed, the former vice president said he opposed the “ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period.” Biden’s position against drilling for oil would leave America’s energy industry vulnerable to Russia and the Middle East — at the very time when the shale oil revolution has enabled the U.S. to become self-sufficient in oil. Not only does this mean a loss of thousands of jobs, but it also means weakening America’s national security. Trump will hammer Biden on this in the general election.
In a very real sense, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden lost the debate on Sunday night, even when the moderators didn’t ask Biden about his coronavirus advisor — who encouraged the elderly not to take flu shots. Trump looks stronger than ever.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.