By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – The eleventh and last Democratic presidential debate started badly for Bernie Sanders and went downhill from there.

Asked for comment on the coronavirus, Joe Biden appealed for unity, said if he were in charge he’d be looking to the experts, and talked about the need for readily available drive-through testing.

Bernie said job one was to “shut this president up right now.”

In past debates, Sanders’ political passion – compared with Biden’s establishment nostrums – would have drawn superior crowd reaction. But the CNN/Univision debate was a socially distant affair, held in a DC TV studio with no live audience.

Their absence appeared to deflate Sanders. His familiar attack points and applause lines seemed to land harmlessly without a whooping crowd to underscore the punches, draining a measure of his usual energy.

It was a mistake for the Sanders campaign to insist on standing at podiums instead of sitting at a table. That gave Biden a visible height edge, enhanced by his superior posture, that wasn’t so visible in previous debates. Biden’s on-camera tight shot looked sharper against a mostly blue background; Bernie’s closeup was more cluttered with distracting co-sponsor graphics on the backdrop.

And CNN’s relentless use of those tight angles in a split-screen didn’t help Sanders, who looked increasingly flustered as Biden won round after round.

After Sanders delivered an effective monologue about flaws in the US healthcare system exposed by the pandemic, Biden noted that virus-ravaged Italy has Sanders’ beloved single-payer system “and it is not working right now.” When Bernie tried to press his point, Joe blew him off with a line that seemed to ridicule the very notion of the virus as a debating point: “This is a national crisis, I don’t want to get into a back and forth here.”

And Bernie was stuck on the ropes during a lengthy pummeling by Biden over his kind words for Castro’s Cuba and other unsavory regimes, one of the key reasons why Sanders’ tenure as frontrunner barely lasted a week. At one point, Sanders blurted that “extreme poverty in China today is much less than it was forty years ago, that’s a fact!” Great timing for some China tire-pumping!

Biden moved in for the kill: “The praising of the Sandinistas, the praising of Cuba, the praising just now of China…the idea that he praised the Soviet Union…this man voted against sanctioning Russia for its interference in our election!…I don’t get it…. It’s absolutely contrary to any message we want to send the rest of the world.”

There was more bloodletting before the merciful end. By the time he finally got to deliver his counter to Biden’s electability trump card, Sanders was on the defensive. His undisputed claim to be the preferred choice of younger voters came out awkwardly and apologetically: “Young people are not great voters.”

Biden promised to name a female running mate and appoint the first black female Supreme Court justice. Sanders hedged on both counts.

And Sanders had no reply when Biden noted “the energy and excitement that’s taken place so far has been for me…and I didn’t even have the money to compete with this man….”

Sanders has had an amazing run over the past few years, seeming at times to approach dominance of a party he doesn’t even belong to. But it’s over.

And it may be a long time before we again see a major candidate – describing a Donald Trump coronavirus briefing – use the word “blabbering.”

Jon Keller


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