In a debate between Biden and Sanders, coronavirus won

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden, participate in a Democratic preside...
Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

Joe Biden is still the frontrunner in the Democratic presidential primary; Sunday night’s debate didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to, really, barring something drastic. Biden didn’t commit any grievous gaffes, and he managed to hold off what seemed like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s last stand. The former vice president’s delegate lead at this point seems unsurmountable, and he leads dramatically in polls of the remaining states. The fundamentals of the race remained unchanged, even as the candidates sparred over their records, health care policy, and the best way for the government to respond to the growing coronavirus crisis.

The virus hung over the debate, much as it looms in the background of everything happening in America right now. “This is an unprecedented moment in American history,” Sanders said, as he and Biden enthusiastically encouraged the country to wash hands and practice social distancing. The danger and the drama of the moment overshadowed the policy disputes between the two men, which Biden intentionally framed as a mere difference of degrees. “We don’t disagree on the principle. We fundamentally disagree with this president on everything,” he said, adding, “This is much bigger than whether or not I’m the nominee or Bernie’s the nominee. We must defeat Donald Trump.”

Coronavirus created a helpful environment for Biden. People are scared, and they are looking for experience. At a moment when the potential death of hundreds of thousands and the obliteration of the economy hangs in the balance, it was impossible for Sanders to land the knockout blow he needed. That isn’t to say he didn’t land some punches — he effectively attacked Biden’s wishy-washy progressive bonafides, including Biden’s relatively recent support for the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment and his past efforts to cut Social Security.

At the end of the day, though, policy disputes that might normally move the needle for undecided voters aren’t going to carry the same weight in the face of a pandemic. Biden used that context to frame Sanders’s policy proposals as too radical for the moment. “We have problems we have to solve now — now,” he said. “What’s the revolution going to do? Disrupt everything in the meantime?"

Biden managed to project a tone of gaffe-free competence that, assuming he keeps it up, will almost certainly deliver him the Democratic nomination. This appears to be something Sanders recognizes. For him, the point of the debate seemed to be less about trying to destroy Biden at all costs, and rather to set up the role he will play if Biden manages to win the presidency: the voice of the left, standing up for progressive priorities against a president who’s all too comfortable with compromise. Sanders made sure to note that Biden is cozy with big corporations, asking, “Do we have the guts to take on the health care industry, some of which are funding the vice president’s campaign?”

Sanders will continue to prod Biden from the left, making sure that the former veep can’t make accommodations for big corporations without scrutiny from his own party’s progressive wing. If anyone’s prepared to take on that role, it’s Sanders, who’s been doing it for decades. And while coronavirus may have dwarfed the presidential debate stage Sunday night, it also highlighted what’s at stake in this election: America needs a leader who’s willing to stand up to the moment and take responsibility for the country’s health and stability. If Biden wants to be that person, he can’t wither under a little scrutiny from Sanders.