Column: Biden won. He needs to quit letting Sanders pull him leftward

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders greet one another before Sunday night's Democratic debate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders greet one another before Sunday night’s Democratic debate.
(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

My advice for Joe Biden: Don’t do that again.

That might seem like somewhat counterintuitive advice given that Biden won Sunday night’s debate decisively. But Biden doesn’t need to debate any more. There’s supposed to be another round in April but there’s nothing stopping the Democratic Party from canceling that. Everything else is getting canceled, after all.

The conventional wisdom coming out of the previous 10 debates was that Biden benefited from getting so little time on a crowded stage because the time constraints limited opportunities for gaffes and Bidenisms. But it turned out that having more time to air one’s views worked against Sanders more than Biden.

What seemed like disciplined, surgical strikes in Sanders’ previous performances came across more like repetitive canned answers in a one-on-one matchup. Indeed, for the first 45 minutes, Sanders seemed more like an old man past his prime than Biden did.


But saying that Biden won doesn’t mean the debate was scintillating.

Senatorial arguments are always awful — “I called the question on the motion to recommit the amendment to the committee of jurisdiction long before you did!” And on Sunday, these two old senators brought the same kind of bickering to the debate stage. At times, their old man senatorial arguments sounded like a mix of Robert’s Rules of Order and a row over how much to leave as a tip on the early bird specials at the Boca Raton Ruby Tuesday’s.

But more to the point, Biden doesn’t need to engage with Sanders anymore. He’s history. When Biden destroyed Sanders on Super Tuesday, Sanders became what he’s always really been at heart: a single-issue candidate. It didn’t seem that way until now because it looked like he might win the nomination. But now that the possibility is foreclosed, Sanders is doing what issue candidates always try to do: force his priorities on the party.

That effort is one of the reasons Sanders lost. The message discipline that served him so well until now suddenly made him seem not only disconnected from the crisis at hand, but determined to exploit it for an agenda ill-suited to deal with it. “Let’s be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunction of our current healthcare system,” Sanders insisted.


It fell to Joe Biden to point out that the Italians have a single-payer system and that hasn’t prevented the calamity befalling them. That’s not to say that it necessarily made things worse, either. The reason Italy is in such a mess is that it didn’t take the threat seriously early enough in the beginning. Sound familiar?

Sanders also repeatedly attacked the “healthcare industry” — not just insurers, but the whole system — which seems rather tone deaf given that this very industry is on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. It was like denouncing the military during a war.

When asked how he’d deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, Sanders used it as an opportunity to replay his greatest hits on income inequality. That’s a message many Democrats may agree with, particularly when the economy is roaring. But when it is grinding to a halt because of a public health emergency, they probably want to hear more immediate and practical solutions, not ideological ax-grinding.

Biden didn’t seem to fully grasp this dynamic. He seemed to be under the impression that his top priority is to win over Sanders’ voters, even though his historic comeback is entirely attributable to the fact that voters see him as a viable alternative to Sanders. He’ll never get the socialist die-hards, and attempting to do so risks both losing the suburban moderates who came out for him in droves and giving Trump the very line of attack he desperately wants.


In the past, once nominees of either party locked up the nomination, they tacked to the center. Barack Obama and Donald Trump didn’t need to do that for reasons unique to them.

But Biden isn’t them. He’s running as vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream is the most popular flavor not because it’s everyone’s favorite, but because it’s the least objectionable flavor.

Letting Sanders pull him leftward, which he did somewhat on Sunday night on issues like immigration and fracking, would be a huge mistake. He should have used every opportunity to turn the question to the imperative of replacing President Trump, which is the unifying message for all of Biden’s potential voters.

The Sanders chapter is over. The general election has begun. The last thing we need is more debates about Democratic Party direction.