Read on for our experts’ insights.
Sanders ‘is a radical who cares more about being right than being president’
Since he began running for president in 2015, Sanders has defined “democratic socialism” as the fulfillment of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But his performance at Sunday night’s debate shows that he remains the stylistic disciple of his first political hero, Eugene V. Debs, who, unlike FDR, was so dedicated to socialism that he ran for president five times as the standard-bearer of the party that bore that name.
Like Debs, Sanders spoke passionately for policies that he has advocated for decades. Like Debs, he considered any compromise on such policies a betrayal of core principles of a truly decent, egalitarian society. Like Debs, he refused to abandon or apologize for statements—such as his praise for Cuba’s literacy program or his call for an immediate ban on fracking—that would make it more difficult for him to win key states in the presidential election.
Franklin Roosevelt was the most consequential president in the 20th century. But he would not have earned that honor if he had not been a masterful politician, willing to alter or abandon a position whenever he thought it necessary to win power for himself or his party. Sanders, like Debs, is a radical who cares more about being right than being president.
But unlike Debs, Sanders has done a great deal to transform the policies of a major party. By arguing consistently and fervently for major changes to how the government handles health care, the environment, taxation and labor, he has inspired millions of Americans, particularly young ones, and compelled Biden to take positions that are markedly more progressive than those he has espoused throughout his career.
Barring a remarkable shift in the dynamics of the race, Sanders will not be the nominee of the party with which he still declines to identify. Yet, if Democrats do take the White House this fall, they should thank him for nudging the party to stand for some big and necessary changes. Eugene Debs used to tell audiences, “It’s better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get that.” Perhaps Sanders will be able to say that he helped make the Democratic nominee someone Americans voted for because they truly wanted what he told them he wanted to accomplish.
Bernie’s last stand.
Michelle Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
For Bernie Sanders, the 11th Democratic primary debate was Custer’s Last Stand.
And Sanders was Custer.
It was the effective end of democratic socialism.
Like Custer, in the short term, many will romanticize Sanders’ loss. They will see him as their Robin Hood—the man who asked important questions about the “corporate elite;” villainized billionaires; advocated for Medicare for All, free college, the Green New Deal and “workplace democracy.” At first, maybe even for decades, some of his supporters may demand revenge for his defeat. Some may refuse to support Biden and the Democratic Party. Some may stay home on Election Day. Others may vote for Trump. Many will forever see him as a heroic man of the people, victimized by the “Democratic establishment.”
However, today, tomorrow, and possibly 100 years from now, the history books may see things quite differently than some of today’s Sanders supporters do.
Sanders was defeated in a debate that occurred at a time when everything the United States stands for and stands to lose is at stake. The nation is in the midst of a pandemic. Schools and businesses are shuttering their doors. Many Americans lack health insurance or are underinsured. Closures and shutdowns may be imminent. Jobs will be lost. Homes may be lost. Countless lives are at stake.
Add to this the changing demographics of the country; the gender gap; the thousands of women and people of color painfully aggrieved by the loss of Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang to two septuagenarian white men; and the extraordinary pragmatism of the members of the Democratic Party who can be relied upon to stand in line for as many hours as it takes to vote.
And add to this Biden’s unequivocal commitment to name a female running mate if nominated; his pragmatism; his understanding of what would have happened to America’s workforce if Wall Street had not been bailed out in 2008; his willingness to enlist the army in building 500-bed hospitals to confront the coronavirus; his willingness to reach out to the progressive left on issues like Sanders’ plan to make public colleges and universities free for certain families; and his place in our nation’s history as a white man who stood behind the nation’s first African American president through thick and thin. And Sanders no longer looks like a hero, but more like a man who was misguided by hubris and led his army to a resounding defeat.
‘At least they didn’t use rocking chairs’
Larry J. Sabato is the founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and is a contributing editor at POLITICO Magazine.
As it turned out, there was no reason to beware the Ides of March. It was arguably the best of the 11 debates. The one-on-one format encouraged an easy exchange of ideas and responses. Mercifully, there was no live audience, and the boos and cheers we didn’t hear were the sounds of silence. A salute to the moderators, too, since they decided the debate wasn’t all about them.
Everybody knows where this contest is headed. It would take an earthquake to change the Biden victory coming on Tuesday and in Milwaukee. Naturally, Sanders had hoped that the Biden who recently introduced his wife as his sister and his sister as his wife would show up. It was far from impossible that Biden could gaffe his way to a meltdown, leading to a Sanders revival. But it didn’t happen. There were some sidesteps and exaggerations from Biden, but in the age of Trump, everyone else’s misrepresentations seem so tiny by comparison.
This debate (and maybe the rest of the campaign) will be overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis. It’s as though the contest for the Democratic nomination was yesterday’s news, only a bit more relevant than the headlines from last month’s news about impeachment. We move on at supersonic speed these days.
The drama of the first one-on-one debate was also dimmed by the spectacle of two old white guys born during World War II arguing with one another like senior citizens on the porch of a nursing home. At least they didn’t use rocking chairs. In fact, they acquitted themselves pretty well. With Biden’s pledge to put a woman on his ticket, and Sanders agreeing that “in all likelihood” he would do the same, a touch of the modern emerged.
Sanders is well aware that the odds are fairly heavily against him. So why was he there? Perhaps for a final time before a nationwide audience, Bernie reminded everyone why he had been on the trail all these years. Maybe it was his way of saying what Ted Kennedy concluded in his famous concession speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention: “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
Biden ‘owes Sanders a huge debt of gratitude’
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
So much for the myth that Biden has lost his marbles. All night long Sanders poked and prodded, but Biden was by turns composed, jocular and (gasp!) coherent as he delivered what was indisputably his best performance of the debates. The debates have clearly toughened up Biden, and he owes Sanders a huge debt of gratitude. For one thing, Sanders inadvertently burnished Biden’s credentials as a moderate by constantly complaining about his moderation. For another, he all but delivered a formal concession speech by declaring “I’ll be there for you” should Biden win the nomination. Biden, in turn, did Sanders a solid by partially endorsing his plan for free public college tuition. For Donald Trump, who had been counting on a battle royale between Biden and Sanders to hobble the Democrats, the November election looks more than ever like a looming disaster.
Sanders ‘has the soul of a teacher’
Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist and the former campaign manager for John Kasich.
Sanders benefited from the reduced field that left him and Biden alone on the stage Sunday night. He has the soul of a teacher: consistent, measured, articulate and passionately committed to the facts as he sees them. With the absence of Elizabeth Warren, Sanders was able to discuss his progressive ideas in a deliberate and restrained way.
Biden also had a strong evening, combining common sense and passion—and exuding empathy for everyone in America who is anxious and suffering.
I don’t believe many people who were watching the debate Sunday night were undecided and hoping to learn something about the candidates in this forum. That time has passed.
That said, the progressive movement had an opportunity at this debate to calmly state its goals and its rationale, which will broaden the appeal of those messages. And despite occasional frustration over support for this bill or that vote, the respect and civility shown by both Biden and Sanders can begin to bring their supporters together, beginning to create the unity the Democrats will need to be successful this fall.
Sanders didn’t change his tone to match the moment, and it cost him.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, former resident fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy Institute of Politics and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
Sanders missed a tremendous opportunity: He failed to demonstrate empathy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and fell into his comfort zone of touting Medicare for All as the cure-all, Wall Street as the bad guys and President Trump as the “blabbering” guy.
By contrast, Biden exhibited a different tone, one of empathy and compassion in a time of crisis. He also outlined steps to address the coronavirus concerns.
In the new era of presidential campaigning without actual campaigning, candidates need to make the most of these opportunities to connect with voters. Sanders missed it at this debate; Biden seized it.
A pandemic isn’t the time to push Medicare for All.
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio host.
This debate was supposed to present a pivotal break or shift for Sanders. It did not. There was nothing there to suddenly enlighten future primary voters about a Bernie they didn’t see before.
What did present itself was, perhaps, an opportunity for Sanders to push Biden closer to the progressive left. It’s unclear if that happened. Both contenders were, as expected, aggressive and pointed. Each rattled the other, yet there was no moment where either found themselves uprooted.
Still, Biden had more of what voters (who watched) wanted: a leader for the current crisis. Biden presented actual coronavirus response planning while something seemingly more muddled was offered from Sanders, who was more intent on using the crisis to sell Medicare for All. That’s not the conversation most want right now. There was tone deafness there. Voters want stability. Most want to know if the current systems and institutions can handle a pandemic right now, and if there is a leader who can manage that.
‘Biden manufactures mini-gaffes the way Frito-Lay manufactures potato chips’
Alan Schroeder is a professor in the school of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston. Schroeder is the author of several books, including Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.
This debate helped Biden. It did not help Sanders. Biden came to the studio prepared: prepared to grab headlines, prepared to position himself as a leader, prepared to critique his opponent’s record. Sanders, by contrast, came off as someone going through the motions, a candidate who realizes that his window of opportunity has shut. Biden put it best: “People are looking for results, not a revolution.”
Which is not to suggest that Biden is as deft a debater as he ought to be. Biden manufactures mini-gaffes the way Frito-Lay manufactures potato chips. Two examples: Attempting to analogize the coronavirus response to mobilizing for war, Biden chose the unfortunate words “This is like we’re being attacked from abroad”—exactly the xenophobic message that Trump has been pushing. And a few seconds before saying he makes a practice of not touching his face, Biden rapped his forehead in a knock-on-wood gesture.
Trivial errors notwithstanding, Biden came off as a voice of stability and reassurance, just at a moment when those qualities are in short supply. A Sanders-style revolution, however appealing in the abstract, feels especially inadequate to what is happening in the world right now. That, as much as anything, helped Biden win the debate.
‘What Sanders truly got out of this debate … was nothing’
David Polyansky was a senior political and communications adviser for Ted Cruz for President.
Holding the debate gave Democrats a large platform to lob criticism toward what they perceive as a lacking response to the coronavirus crisis by the current administration. But to Sanders’ surprise, it also became an occasion for Biden to make major news by announcing he would choose a female running mate. The reality of what Sanders truly got out of this debate from a positive electoral standpoint was nothing. Since he no longer has a viable path to his party’s nomination, it was more an exercise in vanity and a reminder of his inability to capture enough of the Democratic primary voters and caucus participants to date.
Despite Sanders forcing this Hail Mary debate, it was Biden who delivered the calm and capable performance. It was Biden who carried precisely the right tone, while Sanders came across as desperate, frustrated and incapable of changing his narrative as the world and the race around him dramatically shifted. Sanders stuck to his same static message and talking points that have failed to capture the imagination of his party during the closing stretch of the primary battle.
Sanders did manage to muddy the waters for Biden on critical general election issues like Social Security, immigration and fracking, which plays straight into President Trump’s hands. For the Democratic primary battle, this felt like a knockout punch by Biden, but I suppose Sanders will have to endure at least one more rough night this coming Tuesday before finally leaving the race.
‘Finally, the last Democratic primary debate of 2020’
Sophia A. Nelson is an American author, political strategist, opinion writer and former House Republican Committee counsel.
I think it is safe to say that we witnessed, finally, the last Democratic primary debate of the 2020 campaign. This debate was always going to be an uphill climb for Sanders. He just did not connect. America is in the middle of a global health crisis, an upended way of life the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetimes, and many Americans are feeling unsafe and insecure with Donald Trump at the helm during such a storm. This created the perfect climate for Biden to showcase his calm, commanding and compassionate leadership style. Sanders nipped at Biden’s heels, but it will not be enough to convince voters that Biden is not up for the job. This is over. Biden sealed the deal by announcing that he will commit to having a woman as his running mate in 2020. Sanders hedged, making him look unsure, out of touch and unwilling to grasp the importance of winning women voters in November.
‘Biden showed he was more than sharp enough for the job’
John Neffinger is a speaker coach, lecturer on political communication at Georgetown University and Columbia Business School, former communications director of the Democratic National Committee and coauthor of Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential.
It was easy to miss, but a few important things happened at this sometimes testy but ultimately respectful debate.
First, Biden showed he was more than sharp enough for the job. He sparred gamely with Sanders, calling him on saying things like the Paris Accord was no big deal, making good arguments, and playing effective defense and offense as suited each topic. There have been times in these crazy, game-show, multi-candidate debates where Biden has been rushed and has stumbled to the point where his fans would watch him answer in a state of high anxiety. Not Sunday night. He handled himself well throughout.
Second, Sanders made his case, consistent as always, but he kept his hits on Biden pretty clearly on policy, not character. At one point he even said to Biden, “I know your heart is in the right place.” This was notably not Sanders’ tone in 2016 regarding Hillary Clinton, who sported a considerably more liberal voting record than Biden does. It wouldn’t be surprising if that’s just because Sanders, like most people, genuinely likes Biden. But it may also signal a different tone for the road ahead, shifting back towards Sanders’ traditional role as the conscience of the party and internal agitator rather than win-at-all-costs presidential contender.
Third, Biden forcefully argued the case that his intentions and his agenda are progressive. He didn’t apologize for the times his record has been less than progressive, and he didn’t offer much explanation either—instead taking exception to the suggestion that he’d been trying to do anything but the right thing, and criticizing Sanders for being unrealistic.
Democrats should feel better about this race coming out of Sunday night than they did going in. It now seems possible Biden will become the nominee without facing either a contested convention or a wounding, bitter slog through the later primary states.
‘Sanders is making Biden a better candidate’
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
It was a good night for Biden, but an even better night for the Democratic Party. Biden put to bed the notion that he couldn’t perform well in a one-on-one debate. While he at times came off as smug, Biden also showed empathy and an understanding of how government works. Thankfully, the debate was almost all substantive and rarely turned personal.
Biden did, however, miss multiple opportunities to bridge the divide between progressives and moderates. His adoption of some of Elizabeth Warren’s policies should help in that area, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Still, Sanders has been able to pull Biden to the left and forced him to adopt a more progressive posture. That should help the former vice president win over a section of Sanders supporters.
In the same manner that Hillary Clinton made Barack Obama a better candidate, Sanders is making Biden a better candidate. Biden’s practice at responding to attacks on a debate stage will serve Democrats well in the fall. Only Sanders knows how much longer he will stay in the race, but what cannot be denied is the fact that he has cemented himself as an ideological lion within the Democratic Party. Sanders will be remembered for the way he mainstreamed issues like Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage.
A pretty good showing by Sanders that won’t mean much.
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst, campaign consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton and, more recently, Mike Bloomberg.
Sanders delivered a relatively strong performance. He made succinct attacks on Biden, especially calling out Biden’s record in the Senate leaving Social Security, Medicare, Veterans’ Affairs and other government programs on the table in negotiations over deficit reduction, as well as Biden’s votes for the Defense of Marriage Act and the Iraq War.
Biden was able to blunt the force of Sanders’ attacks by supporting Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy bill, reversing his earlier position and also by coming out for free college tuition for families making less than $125,000, which is one of the main pillars in Sanders’ agenda.
Given the ongoing coronavirus crisis however, it is unlikely that Sanders’ debate performance will have a meaningful impact on the primary race.
Sanders didn’t seem to be trying to win, and he didn’t.
Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, and campaigns and elections.
Sanders surely recognizes that the numbers just aren’t there for him to become the Democratic presidential nominee. His task for this debate was to try to secure some progressive policy commitments from Biden, who is on a solid path to the nomination. But Sanders also seemed to want to lay out his world view and show how it was distinct from Biden’s. Much of the first half of the debate was Biden saying that the coronavirus crisis shows how rotten the Trump administration is and Sanders saying it shows how rotten the entire American health care system is.
Biden described the virus outbreak as a massive crisis requiring a massive response. Sanders tried to get Biden to describe other public policy problems the same way, from climate change to campaign finance to the economy. Biden largely didn’t bite.
Despite some conciliatory remarks suggesting a winding-down of the campaign, Sanders went pretty hard on Biden’s record. And yes, Sanders has been pretty consistent over three decades in Congress, and Biden’s views have evolved somewhat along with the Democratic Party’s during his long career. Both paths could be criticized or defended, but Sanders seemed to be trying to expose a flaw in Biden’s armor. It is likely too late.
Results 1. Revolution 0.
Jennifer Lawless is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia whose research focuses on political ambition, campaigns and elections, and media and politics.
Sunday night’s debate will likely go down as the event that ended Sanders’ presidential campaign. On the heels of two disappointing Super Tuesdays, a stunning turnaround by Biden, and a global health crisis second to none, Sanders had to do two things to stay alive: First, calm and soothe the nation, and second, lay out a path for ensuring that he can defeat Donald Trump in November. He failed to deliver on both counts. To make matters worse for Sanders, Biden’s debate performance was nothing short of excellent.
One of the president’s most important roles is consoler-in-chief. In times of natural disasters, mass shootings, terrorist attacks, etc., Americans expect their president to instill confidence and make them think that everything will be okay. It’s what they got from Bill Clinton following the Oklahoma City bombing, George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, and Barack Obama after Sandy Hook. The coronavirus outbreak demands the same.
From the debate stage, Biden exhibited the sense of empathy and calm required to lead the nation. He extended heartfelt condolences, identified the problem, laid out short- and medium-term steps to address it, and reassured the American people that they wouldn’t need to worry about medical bills, lost wages or late payments.
Sanders, on the other hand, opted to focus on the broken health care system and an economy that’s ill-equipped to deal with the crisis. He might be right, but when people are scared about whether they and their families will live or die, they don’t want to hear about Medicare for All or income inequality. They want to know that they’ll get the treatment they need and be able to feed their kids.
Biden’s leadership advantage over Sanders extended beyond coronavirus, though. His performance demonstrated an ability to build bridges and form the coalition necessary to win the general election. Biden promised not only to support but also to campaign for Sanders should he be the nominee. Sanders was far less magnanimous. Biden admitted that his positions have evolved and, in an attempt to bring progressive voters into the fold, adopted some of the proposals articulated by progressives like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders questioned Biden’s sincerity and made no attempt to appeal to more moderate Democrats. Biden enthusiastically pledged to diversify his administration because the Democratic base deserves descriptive representation. Sanders ultimately made a similar offer, albeit somewhat grudgingly.
All told, Biden’s debate performance reminded voters that the way to defeat Trump is to unify the party and the nation. He offered a recipe for his electability. Sanders’ performance simply reminded voters that Trump must be defeated. He didn’t quell concerns that he’s not well-situated to do it.
No one debate decides an election. Just as no one crisis defines a candidate or a president. But at a time of political uncertainty, economic fragility and a global health pandemic, citizens want to know they can count on the government to understand their needs and respond to them. To paraphrase Biden, they want results, not a revolution.