In the March 15 debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the immediate news was that Biden promised to pick a woman as a running mate. I already assumed he would do that. (Amy Klobuchar? Kamala Harris?) Biden also said he would appoint the first black woman to the US Supreme Court (Harris?), though the newsies didn’t focus on that.
To someone more interested in ideas, the memorable line of the evening was from Sanders: “We are winning the ideological struggle.”
Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.”
His statement hit me on several levels. First, the language. Joe Biden would never use a phrase like “ideological struggle.” Old-line Democrats don’t talk that way. Combine that with Sanders’ condemnation-in-advance of “profiteering,” his bewailing of America’s “unjust and unfair economic system,” and, in his closing statement, his call to “rethink America. Create a country where we care about each other rather than a country of greed and corruption.”
Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.” Here in Seattle we have a Trotskyist on the city council. In the council’s debate in 2018 about the employee head tax, when all the other council members talked about helping “the homeless,” our local Marxist talked about helping “the workers.” And that’s how Bernie talks.
At one point, Biden went after Sanders for his history of praising Cuba and the Soviet Union. Sanders’ reply was that he has always been against authoritarianism; he had never praised that, but the things he’d said about medical care in Cuba, for example, were accurate. So is the statement, “Extreme poverty in China today is much less than 40 to 50 year ago.” Should he not say that because China’s government is authoritarian? Biden replied by denouncing China as a dictatorship. He also dismissed the material progress in China as “marginal,” which is not true, but by red-baiting Sanders he had drawn blood. I wished he had done more: Sanders’ fellow-traveling to Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union (his honeymoon!), done years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, were the actions of an admirer. The white-haired “democratic socialist” has never disowned his youthful pinkhood. Back then, he was full of admiration for State Doctors for All; now he wants Medicare for All.
Biden didn’t pursue it.
On the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions.
On the political level Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle,” sounded like an admission that he wasn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. After the voting of the past two weeks, Sanders is toast, as long as Biden stays healthy and passably lucid.
On the literal level, Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle” hit me as true. Biden is against “Medicare for All” because it would cost trillions of dollars, making it too lumpy to jam through Congress. But Biden said, “We don’t disagree on the principle.” Biden assured the viewers of his plan, Obamacare 2.0, “I can get that passed. I can get that done.”
Indeed, on the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions. President Trump had just had a press conference announcing government money to pay much of the cost of the quarantines, and that all COVID-19 testing would be free. Biden promised to outdo Trump: everything would be free. “Nobody will pay for anything to do with the national crisis,” he promised. “We’re going to have a major, major, major bailout package.”
One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.”
Sanders’ reply was that Biden’s money blowout wouldn’t have changed the healthcare system. “We don’t have a system,” Sanders said. He wants a single-payer system. “You have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden retorted. “It doesn’t work there.” But nobody cared about Italy.
Earlier, Trump had come out in his press conference with a bevy of corporate leaders, some of them from retail chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, and others from medical-related companies. All these CEOs had pledged to cooperate in fighting the virus. One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.” Maybe Biden would, though I doubt it.
Biden had been in Democratic leadership in the Senate for decades, casting votes for tactical reasons, often in times when the Democrats played second fiddle to the Republicans. Sanders, a radical backbencher elected as an Independent, challenged Biden to justify some of these votes. In the George W. Bush years, Biden had voted for a bankruptcy bill that forbade the charge-off of student debt. He had repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions. In the Clinton years he had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage, and for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which increased competition from Canada and Mexico. Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq. “Everybody knew that when you voted for that, you were voting Bush and Cheney the authority to go to war,” Sanders said.
Biden had voted in 2008 to bail out the banks because, he said, the alternative was a depression. Sanders had voted no because, he said, the bankers were a bunch of crooks.
Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq.
Sanders said that on one occasion that Biden had talked with the Republicans about cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Biden protested that he had never voted to cut those benefits — he never would! — but he had to admit, under Sanders’ pressure, that he’d talked about it.
Responding to this list of political sins, Biden said that Sanders had voted to forbid the victims of gun violence, or their families, from suing the manufacturers of guns. Sanders let that go by without comment.
And so it went. Both of them were for saving the Earth with wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, and both would ban fracking. Biden repeated his fantastic claim that passenger trains “would take millions of automobiles off the road.” Biden promised to reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Sanders said, “Who cares? It’s not a big deal,” though of course he was for it. The Vermont Sandino promised to hold the oil-industry leaders “criminally accountable” for warming the planet and lying to the people about it.
The “criminally accountable” part was a difference between the two men. Sanders has a hard edge that Biden does not. The person watching the debate with me, who has not followed the campaigns, pointed to Biden and said, “He’s the slick one.” And then to Sanders, “He’s more honest.”
I suppose. And more openly threatening.