Democrats' "no malarkey" debate: Sanders must push Biden — to prepare him for Trump

Bernie knows he probably can't win — but in Sunday's debate he can toughen Biden for the epic battle ahead

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published March 15, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)
Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)

Bernie Sanders didn't drop out of the presidential race at his Burlington, Vermont, press conference last Wednesday, but he sure sounded like he sees the writing on the wall: He knows he will not be the Democratic nominee. 

After a string of strong finishes against a crowded field in the first few primary states, Sanders' revolution seems to have succumbed to the strength of former Vice President Joe Biden's coalition. Biden currently holds a delegate lead of around 150 after he won 15 states on Super Tuesday and last Tuesday.

Sanders has pledged unequivocally to support his opponent if he loses the nomination. But he isn't quitting the race just yet. He could do something really dramatic at Sunday's debate — the first head-to-head faceoff of the cycle, which will be held in a Washington studio with no audience — and endorse Biden. There is little chance of that, however: The Sanders campaign announced this week that it's opening a rash of new field offices in Pennsylvania, which votes at the end of April. Instead, Sanders is likely to use Sunday's debate as an opportunity to force policy concessions from Biden. 

At his speech on Wednesday, Sanders telegraphed as much when he laid out all of his criticisms of Biden ahead of the debate.

"Let me be very frank," Sanders said, "as to the questions I will be asking Joe." 

Claiming that he was winning the "ideological debate," Sanders cited strong support for his platform that includes progressive policies like Medicare for All, increasing the minimum wage to $15, making public college and trade schools tuition-free, and eliminating big money from politics. Entrance polls reveal that Democratic voters in all three of the first presidential contests of the 2020 race show strong support for the single-payer insurance option. Exit poll result in numerous states won by Biden — including Mississippi, where Sanders did not even meet the statewide threshold for delegates — showed a clear majority of Democratic primary voters supporting a Medicare for All-style government health insurance plan in lieu of private insurance. 

 "We are winning the generational debate," Sanders said on Wednesday in reference to his nearly 80% support with voters under the age of 40. 

"Today, I say to the Democratic establishment, in order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country," he continued. "And you must speak to the issues of concern to them."

This will probably be the most-watched debate of the campaign, since most Americans will be holed up inside with no sports to watch, on a weekend of maximum "social distancing" thanks to the coronavirus outbreak. There has perhaps never been a better time for Sanders' message of strengthening the social safety net. He plans to use the opportunity as an opening for negotiations. He will frame his responses in such a way that Biden must address those key issues in his answers.  

"Joe, what are you going to do?" Sanders asked.

Sanders is asking Biden to show at the debate on Sunday that he simply gets the message. At this point, absent a major plot twist that brings down the Biden campaign, it is clear that Sanders is staying in the race to give Biden an opportunity to court progressives, which is why he telegraphed all the questions he will ask of Biden at the debate. He wants Biden to give good answers while simultaneously shifting the Democratic platform left.

Sunday will be the first time the two frontrunners will stand toe-to-toe. If either one of them is to take on Trump in the fall, he must be vetted now. For all of the debates Democrats have held over the last year,  they haven't really pressed Biden on a number key issues that Trump will most definitely not ignore. Even on Sunday, it is unlikely Sanders will even ask Biden about his son's dealings in Ukraine or China, issues where know the Trump campaign will drag the former veep through the mud. Biden, with his "no malarkey" campaign, better at least have clear answers on policy. 

Vague platitudes about a return to normalcy may have been enough to lock Biden in place as the non-Trump candidate, but that won't be nearly enough to secure a win against the president's massive "Death Star" propaganda operation in November. In the debate on Sunday evening, voters will be able to judge who best can lead our country and who can take down Donald Trump.

"While our campaign has won the ideological debate, we are losing the debate over electability," Sanders admitted on Wednesday.

The voters who came out in 2016 will come out for any Democratic nominee in 2020 to vote against Trump. Exit polls make that clear. Democrats are united around a common cause. But whoever they nominate won't win the election without luring in some of the people who didn't show up in 2016. What this debate really benefits most of all is the democratic process.


By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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