Sunday night’s Democratic debate was billed as the best chance for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to show he still has standing against former vice president Joe Biden. Instead, viewers were treated to something we have not seen throughout the year-long campaign: a truly masterful performance by Biden.
Biden’s debate performances to date had left a lot to be desired. He often gave rambling answers to simple questions. His energy noticeably faded the longer the debates went on. Combined with his many verbal slips on the campaign trail in recent weeks, this left many wondering if Biden had the acuity and stamina it would take to face Sanders alone.
He did, and then some. From the first minute to the last, Biden literally stood tall. While Sanders noticeably slouched, Biden stood ramrod-straight in a perfectly fitted suit. The body language alone sent a strong message that one candidate was vibrant while the other, though energetic, was elderly.
Biden’s verbal performance was better yet. He has a stutter, and there were a couple of instances when he had to force his way through. But those moments were rare and excusable. He otherwise gave the most articulate replies of his campaign. Again and again, Biden gave detailed answers in complete sentences and kept his train of thought throughout his reply.
Over the past year, there have been many times Biden looked like a fighter who had stayed in the ring too long. Sunday night, he looked like a champion at the peak of his game. In short, he looked, sounded and felt presidential.
Sanders didn’t do poorly himself. He controlled his energy well, avoiding moments from prior debates where he would manically wave his arms. He was aggressive at challenging Biden, displayed strong command of detail and looked confident. Sanders did not lose the debate because he was not up to the task.
He lost the debate for the same reason he’s losing the campaign: Democratic voters don’t want what he’s selling. Sanders has believed the United States needs a revolution all his life. His entire debate strategy consisted in showing how Biden doesn’t believe that and, as a result is not the right man to lead the country. Those who believe that likely came away convinced that Sanders is that man. But those people are a minority of Democrats.
The exit polls show this clearly. Only a minority of Democrats voting in the March 17 primaries said that the economy needed a “complete overhaul” or that the next president’s policies should be “more liberal than Obama’s.” Sanders won voters in these demographics but got wiped out among the majority of Democrats who disagreed.
His challenge Sunday night was to convince Democrats who don’t want a revolution that he should be their leader. Sanders didn’t even try to do that, giving Biden an easy win. Biden’s own magisterial performance, however, turned a win into a knockout.
It’s folly to project too far into the future, but the Biden who showed up Sunday night should terrify the Trump campaign. President Trump is normally undisciplined and impassioned when at his best and can be incoherent and angry at his worst. Scared people in a crisis normally want a leader who displays calm resoluteness, not someone whose primary political talent is liberating and channeling passion. If the coronavirus crisis is still with us in the fall, the contrast between the men will be stark and will dramatically favor Biden.
The past month has shown us how radically events can shift in politics. But the Democratic race is not going to dramatically shift again. It’s no longer Biden’s to lose. After the debate, he’s got the nomination all sewn up.