During their first ever one-on-one confrontation in Washington, DC, last night, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders clashed on issues ranging from Social Security to health-care policy to the coronavirus pandemic. In an ideal world, with a more coherent democratic process in place, it’s a debate that would have happened much sooner. But the evening saw Sanders more combative than usual, and Biden frequently on the defensive over his record as a result, inarguably representing the most intense scrutiny he’s had to face since the campaign began.
The details of current plans and past votes notwithstanding, the debate underscored the radically divergent narratives that are at stake right now in the Democratic presidential primaries, and their respective embodiment in two figures who are well liked by liberal voters but nevertheless couldn’t be further apart. In mainstream media lingo, it might be called a clash between moderation and revolution. More accurately, it was a clash between a vision of conservative restoration and one that sees the past as deeply complicit in the present.
At a moment when entire national economies are rapidly shuttering, states are implementing sweeping measures in response to the coronavirus and its ripple effects that are unprecedented in the modern era. The structural failures of the American model could not be more glaringly evident right now, yet Biden’s principal message amounted to a vague plea for a better tomorrow and a return of basic competence to government. Though the former vice president repeatedly invoked the language of urgency and decisive action, any deeper analysis of present social injustice or political dysfunction was entirely absent.
The contrast between him and Sanders was clear. “People want results, not a revolution,” Biden said — an echo of his comments last summer, when he told a room full of wealthy donors that, under a Biden presidency, “No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”
Yet as New York’s Eric Levitz observed, none of the “results” Biden spoke of are conceivable without sweeping changes to America’s political economy. “[The American people] want to deal with the results they need right now,” Biden declared. “And we can do that by making sure that we make everybody whole who has been so badly hurt,” he said, later elaborating, “We’re going to have to . . . let people know their mortgage is going to be paid. Their rents are going to be paid. They are going to have childcare. They are going to make sure that all their medical bills are cared for related to this.”
This is certainly a break from Biden’s past policy proposals. But absent was any hint as to why so many people find themselves so vulnerable in the first place. A similar logic of erasure characterized the former vice president’s account of his own record, something he repeatedly lied about last night with minimal media backlash. Thus, in a morbid irony, a man who has spent most of his career preaching a message of austerity now confusingly wants “results, not revolution” in the form of sweeping but entirely temporary state action during a crisis.
Sanders’s message, by contrast, repeatedly emphasized the systemic nature of the problems facing Americans and their deep roots, beyond the current crisis and the administration that is so badly mishandling it:
In addition to the coronavirus, it is time to ask how we get to where we are, not only our lack of preparation for the virus, but how we end up with an economy, with so many people hurting at a time of massive income and wealth inequality. It is time to ask the question of where the power is in America. Who owns the media? Who owns the economy? Who owns the legislative process? Why do we give tax breaks to billionaires and not raise the minimum wage? Why do we pump up the oil industry while a half a million people are homeless in America? This is the time to move aggressively . . . but it’s also a time to rethink America, and create a country where we care about each other, rather than a nation of greed and corruption, which is what is taking place among the corporate elite.
It’s a message the Democratic primary electorate urgently and desperately needs to hear. And, given the stakes at the present moment, it’s one Sanders must continue to give aggressively and without hesitation. Despite going in hard on Biden’s record and offering a strong contrast with his message, throughout the night, he at times seemed to be holding back — neglecting to bring up Biden’s recent comments about vetoing Medicare for All or his cavalier attitude toward the truth, even as Sanders grilled the former vice president on his political commitments and record.
In a world where most of the mainstream media took the democratic process seriously or applied equal scrutiny to every candidate, ideological criticisms might be enough. But in the real one, overwhelmingly slanted toward the corporatist center, Sanders must make his message even more direct and confrontational. It’s a two-person race, and there’s nothing to lose.