Bruni: A debate for this moment of utterly warranted panic
“This is an unprecedented moment in American history,” Bernie Sanders said on Sunday night. It certainly produced an unprecedented debate, the singularity of which was captured in a superficially odd but profound bit of business near the start.
Both Sanders and Joe Biden volunteered proudly that they hadn’t shaken hands. Both sang the praises of soap. And both spoke of hand sanitizer as if it were holy water.
The pandemic caused by the coronavirus changed and governed everything about the evening, in ways overt and oblique. It determined the first question that the two candidates were asked. It informed the last. It was the focus of many of their remarks in between.
Above all, it was the terrifying context in which their inevitable policy disagreements, aspersions on each other’s characters and exhumations of each other’s records took on a wholly different cast. All that stuff was unquestionably important — and yet.
There was a life-threatening, nation-shuttering, wealth-decimating crisis at hand. Did Biden’s decades-old comments about Social Security or onetime support of the Hyde Amendment matter even an eighth as much? Did Sanders’ long-ago votes on gun control or kind words about Fidel Castro?
And wasn’t the most important takeaway that neither of the candidates dwells in the truth-free, information-barren, delusion-rich bubble surrounding our current president, whose irresponsibility is having epic consequences? The two Democrats’ criticisms of each other, which grew heated at times, seemed almost immaterial next to what needed to be said — and sometimes was — about the denier in chief, Donald Trump.
That dynamic favored Biden, for several reasons. He’s now the far-and-away front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, with a lead in delegates that Sanders probably can’t overcome, so any sense of urgency for the party to unite in common cause against Trump becomes a summons to send Biden into the general election in the strongest shape imaginable. I suspect many Democrats tuned into this debate, almost certainly the last of the Democratic primaries, not to see Biden tested but to will him onward unscathed.
Biden’s position in the race, coupled with his message of national healing, meant that he more than Sanders had an interest in floating above the details of issues and painting a larger, gauzier picture. That approach suited this moment of utterly warranted panic.
So practiced riffs that were somewhat pat before the pandemic were wholly pertinent, such as Biden’s recognition that while he and Sanders differ on how to improve health care or tackle other problems in America, “We don’t disagree on the principle. We fundamentally disagree with this president on everything.”
“So,” he added, “this is much bigger than whether or not I’m the nominee or Bernie’s the nominee. We must defeat Donald Trump.”
And Biden was able to portray Sanders’ grander plans for transforming the American economy as luxuries unaffordable in the face of a scourge, as distractions from the emergency upon us. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said.
Barring some remarkable, unforeseeable development, Sunday night was likely the valediction to Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination. That’s not because there was any particular, glaring deficiency in Sanders’ performance, a thorough and sometimes fierce grilling of Biden that correctly identified his evasions, inconsistencies and episodes of flawed judgment.