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Opinion After this debate, what possible rationale does Bernie Sanders have for staying in the race?

Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) debated each other one-on-one for the first time on March 15. Here’s what you missed. (Video: The Washington Post)

The debate between former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was entirely unnecessary given that Sanders is all but eliminated as a serious contender. He continues to take money from donors and encourage others to congregate (for example, phone banking), which is neither reasonable nor responsible. The debate changed nothing and suggests Sanders should have exited the race.

Biden made real news committing to pick a woman as vice president. Biden also promised to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court. Sanders tried to argue about Biden’s past votes on the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding for poor women seeking abortions, but when pressed would only say “in all likelihood” he would pick a woman for vice president. The Sanders camp was caught flat-footed. The rest of the debate did not go any better for Sanders.

Biden’s first instinct is to express empathy. (“First of all, my heart goes out to those … who are suffering from the virus.”) Biden explained the stakes: “This is bigger than any one of us.” Sanders’s first instinct is to revert to his Medicare-for-all talking points.

Biden has a grasp of specifics, recommendations he can offer that demonstrate he has a deep understanding of the issue. He can refer to expertise in handling previous health pandemics. When Sanders tried again and again to make this a Medicare-for-all issue, Biden called him out. “With all due respect to Medicare-for-all, you have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden said. “It is not working in Italy right now.” He made a devastating case that Sanders’s fixation on Medicare-for-all is irrelevant if not uninformed. When Sanders persisted, he scolded Sanders that this was not the time for a political “back-and-forth.” He called for the military to help confront the pandemic.

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Biden was authoritative, decisive and focused on the crisis at hand. He gave Sanders no room to get to his left, advocating a “major” fiscal stimulus for individuals. Sanders instead delivered a lecture about inequality. Biden again went to the need for swift action on this pandemic. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” he said.

One in five children are struggling with hunger in S.C. Kia Jones, a North Charleston, S.C. bus driver, says she wants politicians to pay attention. (Video: The Washington Post)

After weeks of trying to paint Biden in mental decline, Sanders was the one who mixed up Ebola and coronavirus. We have perhaps passed the time when Democrats can credibly argue that Sanders is more on the ball than Biden.

On the 2008 bailout, Sanders defended voting against the bill. Biden reminded the audience that the bailout saved the economy and included the rescue of the auto industry, preserving thousands of jobs. Once again, Biden looked like the leader who can steer the ship of state; Sanders looked like an ideologue stuck on a single, unattainable issue (Medicare-for-all).

Biden was sharper than he has been. Pointing out he had no underlying health condition, Biden made a subtle dig at Sanders, who recently had a heart attack.

Sanders sounded like a broken record, repeating decades of talking points. After Sanders accused Biden of advocating cuts to Social Security, moderator Dana Bash sprung her trap, asking Sanders if he didn’t talk about changing Social Security. Sanders plainly was not prepared for that one. Trying to make Biden into an enemy of Social Security was bound to fail and downright silly.

Generally, it was a blessing to have a debate free from audience reaction. However, Biden certainly would have gotten a laugh when asked if he’d support Sanders should Sanders be the nominee. Biden wisecracked, “He’s making it hard for me right now. I’ve been trying to give him credit for things and he won’t even take the credit!” (Sanders actually laughed at that, to his credit.)

On immigration, Biden cornered Sanders for his 2007 vote against immigration reform, which Sanders bizarrely claimed included a provision that would in effect allow slavery. Biden told him then-Sen. Barack Obama and Ted Kennedy supported it. Did Sanders really think they’d vote for a bill about slavery? Sanders switched topics.

Sanders is such an ideologue that he told Biden reentering the Paris accord is no big deal. It was a remarkably flippant answer, a gaffe that would have sunk a viable candidate.

Biden dismantled Sanders by reeling off the list of dictators Sanders praised habitually. He twisted the knife by pointing out that Sanders also voted against sanctions imposed on Russia for interfering with our elections. Sanders, in a display of obliviousness, doubled down by praising China for lifting people out of poverty.

The moderators asked sharp, substantive questions. We are left with one more: What possible rationale does Sanders have for staying in the race?


LOSERS: Sanders, debates with live audiences

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