Last night’s Democratic Party presidential debate was held only nineteen days after the previous one, but under circumstances so different that the February 25 debate in South Carolina might as well have happened long ago on a planet far, far away. Seven candidates appeared on stage last month; now Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are the last men standing. And because of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, last night’s debate didn’t take place in front of an audience in Phoenix as originally planned, but in a near-empty TV studio in Washington, DC.
The pandemic also completely changed the context in which last night’s debate would be perceived by most of those watching. Biden performed better than he has done so far, with minimal sputtering and senior moments, while Sanders clearly was at a disadvantage without a supportive audience roused by his cheer lines. But, more importantly, with the economy cratering and much of the world in quarantine, Biden’s maturity and long government experience, which counted against him when voters were intrigued by fresh and exciting candidates, have now become huge advantages.
Biden played up his experience in previous public health crises, and drew a sharp contrast with President Trump in relating how the Obama administration’s level-headed Situation Room leadership, international cooperation, and reliance on expertise overcame the threats of H1N1 and Ebola. Sanders seemed unable to adjust his approach, bringing questions about the pandemic back to his stock invocation of Medicare for All. His usual inveighing against the crooks on Wall Street and in the pharmaceutical industry rang hollow given the new reality of a tanking stock market and the desperate need for all players in the biomedical field to come up with a Covid-19 vaccine.
In this new context, Sanders’ caviling about Biden’s Senate votes and long-ago positions seemed both off-target and irrelevant. At a moment when American life is undergoing the greatest disruption we’ve experienced in decades, Biden’s promise of competence and a return to stability is bound to be more appealing to voters than Sanders’ call for radical change. As Biden accurately noted, “People are looking for results, not a revolution.”
Biden’s announcement that he would choose a woman as his vice-presidential running mate offered a bit of excitement for those who care most about the political horse-race, while Sanders’ inability to draw Biden into a major misstep likely spells the end of the democratic socialist’s candidacy. But the greater significance of last night’s debate was Biden’s success in projecting decency, responsibility, and competence, which is precisely what’s lacking in the current White House. If the pandemic goes from bad to worse, as seems likely, Biden’s debate performance is likely to catapult him not just over Sanders but over Trump as well.