Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden debated each other one-on-one for the first, and possibly last, time last night. Despite the claims of the Sanders campaign, Biden more or less came out on top from this viewer’s point of view.
In US politics, general appearances count for nearly everything, and in contrast to all previous debates, Biden looked and sounded good. Whereas Sanders tends to stand hunched over, Biden stood erect. He even spoke with confidence. He stood patiently while Sanders spoke, whereas Sanders grimaced and swayed back and forth while Biden spoke. Such images count for a lot in the general impression that US voters go away with.
As for what was said:
Covid-19 and Medicare for All
The first part of the discussion was, naturally enough, about coronavirus. Jake Tapper pointed out that the main problem in Italy was insufficient hospital beds. He asked Sanders how Medicare for All would solve that problem. That is the question of the hour as far as Medicare for All and it really put Sanders on the ropes. He responded as a typical politician. “First of all, I would make it clear to the pharmaceutical companies that this is not the time to be profiteering,” he said. (This sort of condemnation of corporate profiteering is a ritual among politicians. But little is ever done about it.) He talked about how Ebola “exposes the dysfunctionality of our health care system.” He talked about wealth inequality. Everything but the lack of hospital beds in the US (2.8 per thousand people vs. 8 per thousand in Germany).
Since Tapper also wanted to steer clear of the real issue – the need for socialized medicine – he didn’t really press home the issue. Therefore, it’s possible that many viewers didn’t fully see what was happening, but in any case, Sanders came off as vague.
Biden, who also evades this central question, homed in. “People are looking for results, not a revolution,” he said. “What do we do right now?” he continued. We need to respond “to the immediate needs and then respond to the long term issues…. First things first.” He then proposed several specific and concrete steps. What Biden was doing was appealing to the pragmatism of the US people. The fact that these steps are inadequate is irrelevant, as is the fact that you need a long term plan to determine what the immediate steps are. Also irrelevant is the fact that for a long term plan, you need a clear understanding of the long term problem. But Sanders couldn’t take advantage of this because his explanation of the long term problem (privatized health care system) is woefully inadequate, just as is his “solution”.
There was also an extensive discussion about global warming. Sanders attacked Biden’s proposals as being inadequate. He is right. But to simply say that the issue is an “existential threat” is not enough. A real, graphic description of what is coming is necessary, just as is a clear explanation of what is needed: A democratically planned economy based on the needs of society and of the planet, rather than the chaos of the for-profit market. But since Sanders doesn’t support that, he can’t explain it.
A related issue that really needs to be discussed is how capitalist society relates to nature in general. The coronavirus crisis is an environmental crisis that flows from how capitalism sees the natural world as just one more resource to be plundered. It’s the same as far as global climate disaster. But again, to raise this means to challenge the entire basis of capitalist production, not nibble around the edges as does Sanders or outright defend it as does Biden.
Sanders attacked Biden’s record, starting with the bank bailout under the Obama administration (2008). Again, Biden was prepared. “Just imagine what would have happened if the banks had gone under,” he said. He described the economic devastation that would have resulted – not for the bankers, but for workers. Again, Sanders had no answer because the solution was one he’s unwilling to propose: Expropriate the banks.
Sanders attacked Biden’s overall record. He raised Biden’s having supported cutting social security and medicare. He raised Biden’s support of the bill that changed bankruptcy laws in such a way as to make it impossible for bankrupt individuals to wipe out their debts. Biden squirmed and wiggled and outright misrepresented his record. Score one for Sanders, but with a qualification: In this hour of crisis, most people are still going to be asking “what are you going to do right now?” they are likely to take the view that, sure the past record counts for something, but the present matters more.
Sanders compared his record to that of Biden. He opposed the US invasion of Iraq. Biden voted for it. Sanders opposed the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortions. Biden supported it. Sanders supported same sex marriage when Biden opposed it. “It’s a question of leadership,” Sanders said. Yes, he was right, and that part of the debate went to him.
A truly disgraceful moment came when Sanders comments on Cuba’s educational system was raised. Sanders responded by saying that he doesn’t support authoritarian regimes but that facts are facts. He also mentioned how mass poverty in China has been lessened. Biden was totally dishonest and demagogic in his response. He whooped and hollered and made it appear as if Sanders was supporting dictatorships. It was reminiscent of the old red baiting of the Cold War years and it revealed the complete dishonesty to which Biden is willing to sink. Sanders should have called him out on that, rather than simply defend and explain his own comments.
Too little too late
Overall, while Sanders went after Biden for the first time, it was too little too late. It was the first time he really went after Biden, but for such attacks to really sink in, they have to be made over a longer period of time. There are probably a number of reasons why Sanders hadn’t been doing this all along. One is that Biden didn’t seem to be a real threat until recently. Another is that according to all reports the two have had a warm relationship for years. When Sanders first entered the Senate, Biden reportedly welcomed him and a friendly relationship developed from there. But that, in itself, speaks to the deeper issue: A true workers representative, a real socialist, would understand things from a class perspective. They would understand that the representatives of both capitalist parties are the enemy. Based on that, they would see that while some of them are hostile and cold, others will try to seduce a true workers representative with smiles and kind words. It’s not necessary to respond with overt, personal hostility, but keeping a distance is necessary. Since Sanders never based himself on a clear class understanding of the Democratic Party, he could not take that position. And since his program regarding health care is woefully inadequate, he had to respond last night as a typical capitalist politician – by evading the main issues. Sure the capitalist media is on Biden’s side, just as is the leadership of the Democratic Party. But what do we expect? The fact is that Sanders was unable to crack Biden’s pragmatic approach because his – Sanders’s – approach is not adequate.
Where to from here?
Within hours of the end of the debate, the Sanders campaign sent out an email saying he was the clear winner. That is not true. In fact, it could have been his swan song. The question is where the tens of thousands of Sanders enthusiasts go from here. Democratic Socialists of America is the poster child for this question. As Oaklandsocialist has been pointing out, the central, nearly obsessive call for the Sanders campaign – and therefore for DSA – has been Medicare for All. As we have explained, especially in our article on Coronavirus, “M4A” and socialized medicine the statistics for an adequate number of hospital beds clearly show that “M4A” is not the solution. Just imagine if DSA had been campaigning for socialized medicine in recent years. It might have seemed a bit like a voice in the wilderness… until now. Now, that call would have exploded onto the scene. While it is late in the game, DSA should still start to raise that call. However, tied as it is to the union bureaucracy, it will require a struggle from below for this turn to be made. Just as a similar struggle is required in the unions, which is where the real power lies.