To be sure there are real differences between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and we saw a lot of that Sunday night. Their political histories are different, their base of support is different, their trajectory in the campaign has been different. At times in this satisfactorily substantive debate, we saw those fissures challenged and parried by both men. At these moments, on the TV split-screen, the debate felt almost normal.
But of course, the backdrop to these two men, septuagenarians separated by six feet in a studio without an audience, is far from normal. The country is absorbing news of a severity rarely seen in our history. We face an existential threat that renders a tit-for-tat around who said what about Simpson-Bowles incongruous to the point of insignificance. I say that not to suggest the merits of the discussion are unimportant. But when seen through the lens of the times, against a President whom many of the Democratic voters see as adrift on a sea of incompetence, mendacity, and small-mindedness, a normal political debate can feel anachronistic.
I sensed both men felt it as well. They pledged to support each other in the general election, and I think the commitment is sincere. I know there is a lot of worry in Democratic circles (although I believe the worry is greater among the punditry) of whether the party can unite. It’s a legitimate concern, but I would suggest that the prospects of a Donald Trump reelection will prove to be a significant motivator.
Do I think the trajectory of the race will be changed by today? The short answer is no, to the degree that Biden remains the prohibitive favorite. But yes to some degree in that I expect him to move more to some of Sanders’ positions, particularly on climate change. The threat of the coronavirus is a test for the climate crisis. It is a threat that necessitates world action and punishes delay and denial. I felt Sanders was particularly strong in his advocacy for dramatic action in this arena, and if Biden is an astute politician, he will embrace a bolder stance on the environment. With the economy struggling with the coronavirus, a major invigoration should be green.
Perhaps the other big news was that Biden pledged to choose a woman as his running mate. I wasn’t surprised but there it was, said clearly for the record.
I felt, in the end, both men had many moments of strength and some of weakness. It will be interesting to hear some of the fact-checking in the aftermath. In the end, this whole process will boil down to a one-on-one with President Trump, and I think for Democrats across the country that can’t come soon enough.