I watched, took notes and picked some of the bests and worsts of the night that was. My thoughts are below.
In short, you would think that he would have been a target-rich environment for both Sanders and Biden, right? After all, the first 30 minutes (at least) of the debate was dedicated to the coronavirus and how each man would fix it if they were president. And yet, with the exception of an occasional mention here and there, Trump was barely mentioned.
Much of the rest of the debate was Sanders savaging Biden’s voting record from more than three decades in the Senate — on everything from the bankruptcy law to Social Security cuts to the Defense of Marriage Act — that isn’t likely to change the trajectory of the Democratic race (Biden seems likely to win overwhelmingly in states set to vote Tuesday) but provides terrific lines of attack for Trump once Biden is the nominee.
* No live audience: The reason there was no live audience at this debate was because of concerns about crowds and coronavirus. While I wish a global pandemic wasn’t the motivator, I do think this debate was FAR better than recent ones in which the cheering, booing and “ooohing” from the audience was both distracting and wrongly influential for the TV audience. We need to accept that this is a TV event. The vast majority of the people who are watching are doing so from afar. Why let a few hundred people the campaigns (and Democratic National Committee) choose to invite influence the broader audience?
Also, it gave us these amazing quotes that you could NEVER have foreseen coming up in a presidential debate in 2020.
1) “I am using a lot of soap.” — Bernie Sanders
2) “I wash my hands god-knows-how-many-times with hot water and soap.” — Joe Biden
* “The You Tube”: With much of the country committed to staying at home to protect ourselves (and the broader society) from coronavirus, a massive video-sharing website probably doesn’t need any help. But it got some anyway when Sanders urged people to “go to the You Tube.”
* Bernie Sanders/Joe Biden: Both men had good moments. Both had bad moments. But overall, they spent two hours attacking each other’s voting records — often focusing on the sort of legislative minutiae (Hyde Amendment!) that the average voter simply tunes out. And in the process, handing the Trump campaign a whole lot of soundbites to be used in the general election. Both men looked small more often than they looked big. And with the country facing a threat unlike any it’s ever seen before, that felt like a major missed opportunity.
Let’s deal with Sanders first. The expectation going into the debate — judging from the tone of Sanders’ announcement last week that he was planning to stay in the race — was that the Vermont senator would use the one-on-one format with Biden to try to force the former VP to acquiesce to some of his policy proposals but generally avoid taking any big swings at the man who, according to the delegate math, is the near-certain Democratic nominee. Sanders badly missed the mark when he tried to turn the coronavirus conversation into a recitation of his Medicare for All program. His unwillingness to walk back his praise for Cuba under Fidel Castro was a major mistake. That said, if you are a Bernie backer, you likely loved him taking it to Biden on Social Security, the war in Iraq, the Defense of Marriage Act and a few other major pieces of legislation where the two men were on opposite sides.
Neither one came out of that debate looking great. And neither one’s supporters moved an inch closer to each other either. Biden summed things up nicely when asked what he would do, if he is the nominee, to bring Sanders into the fold: “He’s making it hard for me right now.”