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Democrats’ choice is clearer than ever: Fight Trump or fight for revolution

A politician versus a prophet.

Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders at the Democratic debate Washington, DC on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

You rarely get as perfect an encapsulation of two presidential campaign messages as we did Sunday morning when two dueling opinion columns by former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared on CNN’s website. Biden’s headline said, “The virus lays bare the shortcomings of the Trump administration,” while Sanders’s said, “Coronavirus highlights the flaws in our health care and economic systems.”

At Sunday’s debate, this same disagreement echoed again and again.

Biden believes America is experiencing a crisis — a pandemic, but more broadly Donald Trump’s presidency — that requires a new and different leader. Sanders believes that the basic long-standing structure of America’s politics and economic system is a crisis.

Biden argued that Democrats need to unite and beat Trump in order “to restore this country’s soul.” Sanders said we need to talk more about “the power structure in America”, namely, “the billionaires who contribute money to political campaigns” thus allowing them to “control the legislative agenda.”

A Biden presidency can’t unilaterally sweep aside the ugly forces that Trump rode to the White House any more than a Sanders administration would singlehandedly break the power of wealthy interests in Congress.

But it is the theme they returned to again and again, offering voters the clearest contrast so far between the last two major Democratic candidates. And when it came to coronavirus — the biggest question of the night and the most pressing issue of the moment — the two men showed who they are. Sanders’s politics is fixed toward a North Star of systemic change; Biden’s North Star is asking what we can do tomorrow.

Coronavirus and health reform

The debate began with coronavirus.

For Sanders the point of coronavirus is that the American health care system is terrible. He argued that “the pandemic exposes the tremendous weakness and dysfunctionality of our health care system” and then he flagged some particularly dysfunctional aspects of it.

How is it, Sanders wanted to know, that America has fewer doctors per capita than European countries even when our health care spending is drastically higher? “How come people can’t afford to get the prescription drugs they need?”

This was a different frame of the same basic argument Sanders has advanced across two presidential campaigns now.

Biden didn’t really argue the point, but instead noted Italy has what’s mostly a single-payer system, and that didn’t stop them from being crushed by Covid-19. The public health crisis, in his view, is a freestanding crisis that requires crisis management. He references the Obama administration’s successful handling of an Ebola outbreak in 2014 several times; an argument that America is suffering from bad leadership rather than systemic failure.

“People are looking for results, not a revolution,” Biden said in the most memorable line of the debate.

Politics vs. prophecy

Biden is very much a politician’s politician (even Bernie Sanders likes him) and his restorationist, pro-system attitude reflects more than simple nostalgia.

The former vice president, after all, acknowledges that there are real problems with the status quo. His complaint with Medicare-for-all is the practical politician’s complaint — it’s a nonstarter. If you could read Sanders’s mind, I'm pretty sure he’d agree.

It’s not a coincidence that Sanders has never produced a detailed financing plan or theory of how his vision for single-payer should work. His team thinks organizing comes prior to wonkery, and the point is to lay down a principle: “Do we take on the health care industry and tell them their profits are not more important than health care for all? Do we take on the fossil fuel industry?”

Biden says he has a health care plan focused on an expansion with a public option that could really pass if Democrats win in 2020, thus helping people with their health care problems.

He never actually says his proposal represents some kind of moral ideal. Indeed, it’s not at all clear what Biden thinks an ideal health care system would look like. It’s simply not the kind of question that interests him.

Biden is doing politics. Bernie has been a politician a long time (and quietly knows how to do it pretty well) but fundamentally has the persona of a prophet. The debate’s early focus on coronavirus disadvantaged him by making him look like a bit of a shallow ideologue. But as the evening moved on into more conventional territory, his approach wore better — articulating a clear and appealing vision, while Biden often had to defend some awkward votes in the past.

The inside job

The appealing side of Biden’s approach came midway through an exchange on climate change, which was at risk of getting bogged down in purely aspirational goals.

“By the way,” Biden said, “on the Recovery Act, I was able to make sure we invested $90 billion in making sure we brought down the price of solar and wind so it is lower than the price of coal. That’s why not another new coal plant will be built.”

This is an overstatement, but it reflects something real.

Nobody’s climate plan was “hope the economy collapses in a way that requires a giant fiscal stimulus bill and then dedicate a slice of that bill to bringing down the long-term cost of renewable energy.” But the economy did collapse. It did require a giant fiscal stimulus bill. And the Obama administration, with Biden as a key player, opportunistically acted to advance important climate goals. That’s politics for you. That’s how you get things done.

A discussion of the 2005 bankruptcy bill that Biden championed over the objections of most Democrats showed the seamier side of this approach to politics.

“It was going to pass,” Biden said. “And I offered two amendments to make sure that people under $50,000 would not be affected and women and children would go to the front of the line on alimony and support payments. That’s what I did.”

These are all factual statements. Biden really did improve the bill in those ways. He also sided with Republicans to kill several other amendments offered by Democrats that could have further improved it. And, fundamentally, Biden did champion a bill that was a priority of the credit card industry and his state of Delaware at the time. It’s not a mortal sin for a senator to have a soft spot for a home state industry. (Sanders takes a strong stand against excessive regulation of Vermont’s cheesemakers.) But it shows a less appealing and high-minded side of Biden’s transactional approach to politics.

The forest and the trees

The age divide in the Democratic primary, with young voters overwhelmingly backing Sanders while the more numerous old voters back Biden, aligns perfectly with stereotypes of idealistic youth versus jaded oldsters.

Sanders’s pitch is that a better world is possible, and we both can and should transcend the particulars of the moment.

“Who owns the media? Who owns the economy?” he asked in his closing statement before calling on the voters to “rethink America and create a country where we care about each other rather than a nation of greed and corruption?”

Biden, by contrast, talked about the specifics of the coronavirus situation in his closing statement, running through the many difficult choices facing families and communities and arguing that we need more coherent national leadership to help people address those facts. Then, in an apparent ad-lib, he did turn to the subject of economic inequality to which he offered a simple solution: “get rid of Donald Trump”, whose policies, he correctly argued, have exacerbated inequality at every turn.

This is what rank-and-file Democratic voters have said from day one is their top priority. And while Sanders has a case to make about why he’d be the stronger contender to take Trump on, there's no denying that Biden targets this goal in a way that Sanders simply doesn’t.

Sanders is fighting a cosmic struggle and combating pandemic disease in the overall design of the social model. Biden is talking about winning the election and executing a better response to the current pandemic crisis. That’s what voters say they want, and with the two of them finally standing side by side, it’s clearer than ever that’s what they’re going to get.