Monday, March 16, 2020

BTRTN Debate Analysis: Bernie Gives His Valedictory, and Biden Takes Command

The truth is that by the time last night’s debate began, the race was all over save for the shouting. And now the shouting is over. It is time for Democrats to get behind Joe Biden and take on the real enemy.  

Ok, Bernie, you got your chance to deliver your valedictory address. Now it’s time for you to move over and for all of us to move on. 

We’ll give you this much, Bernie. You are an excellent debater, and impassioned orator, and an epic contrarian. 

Who else would be unapologetic while taking heat for complimenting selective achievements of the authoritarian Castro regime in Cuba, and then proceed to defend that position by complimenting selective achievements of the authoritarian rule in China? You are welcome to double down, Bernie, but just don’t take my party with you. Who else would answer a question about the immediate urgent steps he would take to address the coronavirus pandemic by raising the need for a comprehensive overhaul of the healthcare system and advocating for strategies to address societal income inequality? Bernie Sanders is truly one of kind, all right, but "one of a kind" also sounds a lot like a losing hand in poker.

Last night’s Democratic debate was not pretty. Too often, the two septuagenarian candidates seemed to be engaged in one of those games they use at retirement homes to help sharpen the memory. “Joe, are you saying that you do not recall your support for the blah blah blah bill in 1987?”Oh, yeah? Well,  Bernie, you voted for the such and such act of 1993!” Bickering about legislation that was important -- but that ordinary voters are likely unfamiliar with -- made for dull, pedantic sniping. Bernie and Joe carried on like two guys at their 50th Reunion arguing over which one scored the winning touchdown against Princeton.

It did not help when both elderly candidates casually referenced the wrong pandemic that is currently terrifying the nation. When discussing the coronavirus, Biden referred to SARS and Bernie repeatedly spoke of the ebola crisis. And it sure looked like Bingo night at the home when Bernie Sanders urged the audience to fact-check Biden by “going on the youtube.”

We said in our debate preview yesterday that all Joe Biden had to do was play this one to a draw, escape with few minds changed, and let the voters on Tuesday escort Bernie to the exit. 

Biden did more than that. Sure, Bernie supporters will say Bernie won, Biden supporters will say Joe came out on top. The bottom line is that Bernie would had to have had an overwhelming debate win to change the trajectory of the race, and he did not.

Bernie is going to get clobbered on Tuesday, and the only question is whether he has the good sense to drop out immediately.  And by that measure, Joe Biden def won the debate.

Let’s be clear: if this were indeed a debating contest, Bernie could well have graded out more highly on the majority of judging cards. He appeared more in command of specifics, he was more often setting the tone and controlling the flow of the discussion, and his rhetorical devices – turning and directly address Biden, challenging him, taking credit for having changed Biden’s mind – were impressive. There were more than a few moments when Bernie had Biden on his heels in an overtly defensive posture. Arcane academics teaching debating technique would have lauded Sanders for his disciplined tactics.

Who cares? It was not a debating contest. It was a debate, and it was being measured not by professional polemicists, but by everyday Americans who have only one criteria: who do I think can beat Donald Trump? The issue is not whether one man or the other was more eloquent in advocating for their healthcare solution, it was that Democrats are terrified that an avowed “Democratic Socialist” advocating polarizing revolutionary change on issues from healthcare to economic fairness to education to climate change is a risky horse to ride in the most important election of our lifetimes.

Very often, the opening segment of a debate establishes the narrative. This was very much the case last evening, in which the CNN moderators lingered on issues related to the Coronavirus for the first 45 minutes of the debate.

Throughout this period, Joe Biden had the opportunity to indulge in his greatest campaign tactic, which is to reflect on his experience working side by side for eight years with Barack Obama. He spoke of the urgent need to tackle a crisis with meetings every day in the situation room, calling on the greatest minds and most knowledgeable experts to explore the possible consequences of every option. It enabled Biden to remind everyone that only one guy on the stage has been in the room where it happens. Biden was articulate, confident, demonstrated a command of a wide array of facts, options, and best practices, and signaled urgency and resolve. 

In contrast, Bernie made the tactical error of attempting to pivot the discussion of the coronavirus into a case-in-point to argue the merits of a single-payer healthcare system. It was an unusually tone-deaf strategy for Sanders, as it appeared to position him as a dispassionate, abstract theoretical social scientist in contrast to Biden’s hands-on, practical, Def-Con One man of action. It wasn’t that Joe Biden was all that brilliant in this segment. It was that Bernie was so eager to get to his bread-and-butter issue that he appeared less focused on the immediate implications of the single most urgent issue of our time. 

In ten debates this cycle, Joe Biden has not been an effective counter-puncher, as that sweet science requires razor-sharp reflexes and a confident command of minutia. But when Bernie attempted to turn the coronavirus into the definitive argument for Medicare for All, Biden clobbered him, pointing out that countries with the type of national healthcare program that Bernie so yearns for are hardly the model for dealing with coronavirus:
Biden: “With all due respect for Medicare for All, you have a single-payer system in Italy. It doesn’t work there. It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That would not solve the problem at all.”

At that moment, Bernie was darn lucky there was no studio audience, because they would have laughed out loud. 

The debate then devolved into an excruciating game of “Gotcha!”, which is sort of an awkward hybrid of Jeopardy and the ice bucket challenge. Contestants in "Gotcha!" challenge each other to remember why they voted for amendments to thirty-year-old legislation on the hope that the opponent is either caught lying or fesses up to having once made an “error,” thereby dumping cold water on his candidacy. People sitting at home wondering about whether they are about to get furloughed while waiting for a global pandemic to unfold don’t give much of a crap about 1989, and the debate seemed stuck in the mud for a good half an hour, as Sanders and Biden slogged through their votes on social security, the Hyde Amendment, election finance law, bankruptcy legislation, the Iraq war, and gun legislation. 

Here is just a representative sliver of the type of world class dialog that typified this section of the debate. I challenge the reader to guess whether the subject was accuracy in political advertising or the Yankees top brass debating a free-agent signing:

BIDEN:  Are they wrong on that, Bernie?  Are they wrong on that, Bernie?
SANDERS:  Joe.. 
BIDEN:  Bernie, did you...
SANDERS:  Did -- Joe, wait a minute.  I'll answer your question.  You answer mine.
BIDEN:  I answered yours.
SANDERS:  No, you didn't.
BIDEN:  All right.
SANDERS:  One more time. 

The intent here is not to trivialize what was actually reasonably substantive dialog on important issues. But the problem was that the heavy use of acronyms (NARAL, PNTR) and obtuse names of legislation and amendments made these exchanges so cryptic that the audience might struggle to infer the very accusations that were being made. The squabbling about who voted for what, why it may have made sense at the time, and why someone may or may not have changed their mind over a 30 year period seemed to render everyone on the stage – candidates and moderators – detached from the urgent issues that face the nation and the world today.

This dry discussion was interrupted when Biden made two announcements that provided the only real news of the evening. First, Biden mentioned – rather casually – that he would chose a woman as his running mate. So offhand was this announcement that CNN’s Dana Bash felt a need to pause the debate and make sure that we all had heard Biden correctly. Biden also said that he would appoint an African-American woman to the Supreme Court. 

Bash, sensing a moment to draw a stark contrast, turned the question on Bernie Sanders. Would he commit to naming a woman as his running mate? Once again, in an out-of-character moment, Bernie Sanders fumbled, and took too long to arrive at a bad answer. “In all likelihood,” Sanders began, thereby signaling just enough equivocation to convey that he hadn’t given the question enough thought. 

As the debate drew to an end, Joe Biden chose the perfect time to offer one of his moments of deep emotional eloquence as he described a woman who had could not visit her mother in a nursing home because of the coronavirus. Biden described how the woman went to her mother’s window and used sign language to communicate. It was a riveting visual image of the emotional carnage and uncertainty caused by this terrifying pandemic. By the time the story was over, the narrative for the evening was complete.

At the most basic level, Joe Biden is declared the victor for the evening simply because Bernie Sanders was not. Given the state of the race, Bernie would have had to score an overwhelming debate win to change the course of this race, and he did not.

But it was not just that Bernie did not win. Joe Biden won the debate by virtue of succeeding on the only measure that matters: who do Democrats believe can beat Donald Trump? Biden held off tough attacks from Bernie without losing his cool and risking alienating Bernie’s supporters. He looked strong and conveyed the mantle of the Presidency. He conveyed command and yet connected emotionally. 

Saying that it was Biden’s best debate doesn’t really say that much. 

But last night, it said just enough.

Say goodnight, Bernie.

Godspeed, Joe Biden.

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