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Six Feet Apart but Still Together: The Sanders vs. Biden Debate

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders met for a debate Sunday amidst the unfolding crisis of the coronavirus. While the debate got tense at times as the candidates bickered over policy and past votes, both candidates pledged to support each other and showed a unity in the face of a crisis.

Sybil Davis

March 16, 2020
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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The Sunday night Democratic Debate was defined to its core by the coronavirus and the resulting health and economic crisis that is sweeping the world. Rather than debate in front of an audience, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders met in-studio at CNN’s Washington headquarters and spoke directly to one another and the moderators — all while standing six feet apart and not shaking hands. The questions were largely focused on the coronavirus, with both candidates strongly criticizing Donald Trump’s response to the crisis and giving their arguments for how they would respond better. Biden presented himself as the hegemon of the Democratic Party, taking up aspects of Sanders and Warren’s program, promising a woman running mate, touting Obama’s legacy and attempting to prove that he represents the struggling working class. While at times the debate became hostile — especially during one section where Biden began to red-bait around Sanders, claiming that he supported Fidel Castro, China, and the former Soviet Union — the candidates were still united at their core. Both pledged to campaign for the other, and both agreed that defeating Trump was the primary concern. They argued about their policy differences but agreed that those differences came down to “details.” 

Biden: “Results Not A Revolution”

Joe Biden’s message for the debate on Sunday night can be summed up with his exasperated declaration that “people want results, not a revolution.” His position is that, with him, you will get concrete results, and with those results, stability. In this sense, Biden counterposed himself to Sanders, highlighting that he can “get things done,” primarily because he was part of the Obama administration. He also counterposed the Obama administration to the Trump administration, making a strong anti-Trump argument around the responses that both administrations had to different medical crisies. 

Donald Trump’s poor response to the coronavirus and the connected economic collapse has raised questions around his reelection campaign. This leaves the door open to another candidate coming in and being the hero of big capital. Joe Biden seems to be trying to step into this void as the candidate of stability. Repeating the constant mantra of his campaign, he asked the audience to remember the Obama years and how safe everyone felt — referencing at great length the way Obama responded to the Ebola and H1N1 health scares. “Vote for me,” Biden is saying, “and I will make you feel safe again.”

Biden also strongly defended the 2008 Wall Street bailouts, arguing that if the bailouts had not happened, then the “people Bernie claims to care about” would have suffered and “gone out of business.” This defense is yet another message to the capitalists that they will be taken care of under a Biden presidency. This defense is especially important given the current economic context of the election. Wall Street is crashing, and as the current crisis draws on, it is highly likely that the government will be asked to bailout certain industries. Joe Biden, by defending the 2008 bailouts, is tacitly agreeing to do them again if asked.

Biden began the night by strongly attacking Medicare For All — which is a very popular policy proposal — by pointing to Italy as an example of a universal healthcare system that was unable to deal with the coronavirus. This perspective is, of course, absolute nonsense, since the issues with Italy’s response have nothing to do with the fact that they have a public healthcare system. In fact, the problem is a product of neoliberal underfunding of that healthcare system. Indeed, one could very easily argue that Italy’s situation would be a great deal worse without a system where people could  go to the doctor without fearing the cost. 

Biden’s attack does show a cynical type of calculus. Rather than tacking to the left and reversing his position of wanting to veto Medicare For All, he used the crisis in Italy to discredit the theory of universal healthcare. While rhetorically giving lip service to the health emergency and promising that working class people would be taken care of, he offered no proposals that would actually make that possible. Rather, he buckled down on bailing out the banks rather than the working class. Whether or not this tactic will work is yet to be seen, but Joe Biden proved himself to be a solid friend to the health insurance industry. This is part of a larger strategy of appealing to moderate Republicans and (more importantly) big business. 

Not a “Unity Debate” But Still Unity

The debate was at times quite hostile, with both candidates raising their voices while disagreeing with one another. The disagreements were fiercely argued and often referenced past votes and statements. During one particularly tense exchange, Sanders encouraged the audience to go on YouTube and watch the speeches that Biden claimed he never made. Biden attacked Sanders on guns and immigration, Sanders attacked Biden on abortion and social security, and both tried to use Obama’s past record to justify their own votes. However, while there were fierce differences between the two candidates, it is important to highlight that the debate did show a great deal of unity between them as well.

Indeed, Biden took up several aspects of Sanders’ program during the debate. He came out in favor of the Green New Deal and agreed that healthcare for the coronavirus should be free. This shows that, at least in rhetoric, Sanders has been successful in changing the Democratic Party. It is important that establishment-favorite Joe Biden is arguing for some healthcare to be free at point of use. The way the Democratic Party talks about issues has changed because of Sanders. However, it is also important to remember that Biden’s time in the Obama administration reveals that he is perfectly willing and capable of using progressive rhetoric to get elected and then abandon it all in order to pursue a neoliberal program. Biden is a liar — he even lied about his record several times during the debate! — and cannot be trusted. He will use “coverage for all” and other vaguely progressive promises to gain support from the Sanders wing and then betray them all once elected. 

One of the narratives of Sanders’ supporters on the left is that Sanders is an existential disruptor to the Democratic Party head-on. While this is certainly true in some ways, what the Sunday night debate revealed is that, in the end, Sanders will come in line. After being prompted by Biden’s commitment to not just support but campaign for Sanders if he were to win, Sanders made the same pledge. Self-described socialist Bernie Sanders committed to campaigning for lifelong capitalist Joe Biden, not as a hypothetical but as an actuality. It seems fairly clear that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee: FiveThirtyEight gives him a 99% chance of winning the nomination. Sanders isn’t committing to campaigning for the Democrat; he’s committing to campaigning for Joe Biden. And that is the bottom line. Indeed, this conclusion was proved once again when Sanders and Biden agreed that their main differences were on “details”— which Sanders claims are important details, but details nonetheless. For all of their differences, at the end of the day, Biden and Sanders are on the same side.

The Crisis Is Now

What both candidates miss is that, for all of their plans and proposals, they are only focusing on what they would do as president. This means that, essentially, they are arguing that we should wait until January and then do X, Y, or Z. But, by January, either the crisis will be resolved or the death toll will have risen to truly monstrous proportions. We can’t wait until January for a new president, we can’t wait till November to vote, we need action now and immediate change.

This is especially egregious coming from Sanders, whose mantra for the campaign has been “not me, us.” He claims to be building a movement, but now, in a time of crisis, he is not calling for drastic action. In fact, he got endorsement from key unions. Why not call for those unions to strike for paid sick leave, as has been happening in Italy? Why not speak to his broad working class base about the need to organize a mass sickout — a general strike — for paid sick leave, for a moratorium on firings during the crisis, and for a moratorium on paying rent, student loans and medical bills? Why not make the bold proposals that this moment demands and mobilize the unions and non-profits who supported him to make those proposals a reality? He didn’t make these demands and instead returned again to his age-old strategy: elect me and I will pass these reforms. But we don’t need those reforms in January; we need them now.  Hypotheticals about what someone would do “as president” aren’t helpful, and we should instead look at what they are doing now.

This is revealing of the limits of Sanders’ strategy: gaining reforms through electoral means, not through class struggle. Sanders claims to have built a movement, but that movement is nowhere to be seen in this time of crisis.  

Additionally, the reforms that Sanders is proposing are categorically insufficient for dealing with the current crisis. If there was Medicare for All and a greater social safety net, then the situation in the United States would be more similar to the situation in Europe. As Biden pointed out, the situation in mainland Europe is indeed catastrophic. This is not because those countries have public healthcare programs — as Biden suggests — but, rather, because those healthcare programs, rocked by decades of neoliberal austerity, are not enough to address the actual crisis. Capitalism is the actual crisis.

The Crisis is Capitalism 

There is no way to conceive of or structure capitalism in a way that doesn’t result in routine capitalist crisis. This is not to say, of course, that under socialism there would be a utopia without disease or natural disasters. Of course, there will always be things that are outside of our control. However, under a socialist system — with a planned economy — the response to this crisis would be very, very different. Workers could easily and quickly stay home without having to worry about the economic impacts on them and their families. Production could be shifted so that the medical necessities are produced in higher numbers and so there is no risk of running out of beds. There would be internationalist collaboration rather than competition, so different areas of the world would be sharing their research and learnings about the virus instead of the current hyper-concern for intellectual property and drug patents. The goal wouldn’t be to develop a vaccine so that one company could profit. We could have accurate numbers on how many people were infected because there would be no danger of lost work or concern about costs associated with going to the doctor to get tested. But this isn’t achievable under capitalism. 

We’ve been shown once again how deeply and inherently broken the capitalist system is. The solution to that is not small scale reforms and funding packages for Wall Street. The solution isn’t, in-and-of-itself, Medicare for All (though that would certainly help combat the current crisis), and it certainly isn’t voting for Joe Biden and his neoliberal dreams of stimulating big business. The solution doesn’t lie in the Democratic Party and their life-long commitment to capitalist development and bourgeois protection. The solution lies in rejecting the false binary that Biden tried to lay out in the debate: it isn’t results or revolution; it is results through revolution.   

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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