I get that the news out of the debate is that Joe Biden committed to picking a woman vice president. That’s a big deal. But there were a couple non-news things that were important too.
The first one is that Biden is not senile, does not have dementia, had no trouble in this debate uttering six or even seven sentences in a row that make sense, and handled himself fine. I suspect that any chance Bernie Sanders had to turn the tables in the way he was hoping ended in the first five minutes, by which time it was pretty clear that Biden was fully compos mentis and wasn’t going to start quoting Jack Benny routines to drive home his point.
This was really different from those early debates when he was ambushed from all sides. Then, he was verbally drowning half the time. Tonight, he was totally calm. He did maybe miss an opportunity to try to reach out to Sanders voters, but overall, he was in control of himself. It ought to make people feel more comfortable picturing him on a stage opposite Donald Trump.
But he was also just personable. You know how people like me are always parsing the details, like hey, didn’t he use a slightly different figure on that issue in a previous debate? Well, that kind of thing is way too wonky-weedsy. It wouldn’t surprise me if Biden’s most memorable tonight was that bit about 35 minutes in when Dana Bash asked about what they’re doing personally to protect against the coronavirus, and Bernie Sanders talked about official, campaign-y things, but Biden made it personal and said “I’m taking all the precautions everyone else should be taking. I wash my hands God knows how many times a day. I carry with me, in my bag outside here, hand sanitizer. I don’t know how many times a day I use that. I make sure I don’t touch my face and so on. I’m taking all the precautions we’re telling everybody else to take.” He was just being a guy there, a person, a regular, um, Joe, in a way Sanders chooses never to do.
So that was the first thing. The second was more substantive, and it was that Biden more or less managed to defend his much spottier record against Sanders’ attacks.
The three big issues here were Social Security, an old bankruptcy bill, and same-sex marriage. And I guess the Iraq war, that’s always in there.
On all these issues, Biden has real vulnerabilities. He did used to talk about certain small cuts to Social Security benefits (although a Politifact analysis rated Sanders’ attacks on Biden as “mostly false”). On bankruptcy, well, he was a senator from Delaware. And Sanders was right that Biden did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act (a Clinton-era measure that said marriage was between a man and a woman) while he, Sanders, opposed it.
But here’s the thing about all that. Well, a) it’s the past, and in our new state, it seems a little less relevant than before. Nobody thinks today’s Joe Biden is going to cut Social Security. But the main thing is this:
Biden and Sanders show us two models of senator-hood that are as opposite as they could be. Biden, from early on in his career, was a super-duper inside player. He got his fingers into all kinds of pies. He did stuff. Plus, he was elected from a state where he obviously had to accommodate himself to certain interests. If he didn’t, those interests would have seen to getting rid of him after one term.
Sanders has spent 30 years in Washington not really trying to do much of anything, reveling in his stance as the outsider. And he was elected from a state where he never faced any pressure to compromise on anything (he used to face one form of pressure, on guns, and he actually buckled on that until he was secure in his incumbency). Indeed, the vast majority of the pressure he faced, if it can even be called pressure, was to vote the orthodox lefty line on every issue (I don’t doubt his votes were sincere). Whereas the vast majority of Democratic senators faced pressure to support the Iraq war, Vermonters might have thrown Sanders out if he’d voted for it.
This enables him to sound pure today, and sounding pure is of great advantage in primary contests. It has helped him a great deal thus far. But it didn’t work so well in this debate. He kept trying to press the point that his record was more consistent, but he was doing so in such a way that you could tell he was straining to convince viewers that it was important.
Biden had OK answers on most of these things, and more than OK on same-sex marriage, when he said “I was the only major player” who backed same-sex marriage, which is basically true—remember how he endorsed it before the 2016 reelection, before Barack Obama did or wanted to. Biden could have put it more effectively: “Bernie, yes, you cast a good vote from your seat in the bleachers. But I did more than anybody to make same-sex marriage reality.”
They were very different kinds of senators. One kept his hands clean and assembled a faultless (from a left point of view) voting record. The other got his hands dirty. Democratic voters are making it very clear which model they prefer, and tonight seems not to have done anything to change that.