Critic's Notebook: Biden and Sanders Rise to the Occasion in Most Substantive Democratic Debate Yet

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The coronavirus crisis loomed over a debate that was striking in its seriousness and lack of pandering.

It's amazing how a little thing like a global pandemic can put a damper on things.

That much was apparent during the latest Democratic presidential debate, which could have been dubbed "The Coronavirus Edition." The differences from the last debate, held just a few weeks ago, were legion. There were only two candidates, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, since all of the others had dropped out of the race. Because of the ongoing health crisis, the event was held in a studio, with no audience present. Instead of shaking hands, the candidates dutifully bumped elbows. And thanks to the social isolation being imposed by the virus, the evening literally had a captive audience of viewers stuck at home. This was the closest thing to a sporting event they're likely to see for some time.

Other than the fact that millions of Americans are currently at risk of illness, it all made for a marked improvement. This was the most serious, substantial debate of the election cycle, free of wanton attacks, cheap laugh lines and shameless pandering. The same format should be employed for all presidential debates going forward. Let's leave the live audiences for game shows and late-night talk shows.

Considering the debacle that has been Trump's handling of the crisis thus far, the evening was comforting in its display of erudition and competence. What wasn't so comforting was Biden coughing while delivering his first response of the evening. Into his hand, no less. If he wins the nomination as expected, he should be wrapped in cellophane until Election Day. It didn't help matters that the candidates periodically referred to the virus as SARS or Ebola. But hey, an epidemic is an epidemic, right?

News was made this night. Biden firmly committed to picking a woman as his running mate. Bernie, um, not so much. "In all likelihood, I will," he stammered when asked if he would follow suit, adding that she would have to be a progressive. Care to guess which answer is going to make the headlines?

Biden went into the evening in a much stronger position. Basically, all he had to do was avoid making his trademark verbal gaffes. Which he largely did, although it was hard not to wince at his mention of "undocumented aliens." For Bernie, on the other hand, the debate was a Hail Mary pass, his last opportunity to make the case for his progressive agenda. He did have an advantage in that recent events have done much to buttress his arguments about economic inequality and the deficiencies of our health care system. But since both men basically promised that if they were president, no one would have to pay for testing or treatment for the virus, it was a wash.

They each also displayed a quality sorely lacking in the Oval Office right now, namely empathy. When they talked about the suffering caused by the health crisis, you could tell it was heartfelt. As opposed to Trump, who seems vaguely irritated by this pesky virus that's interfering with his re-election campaign. (Of course, if it goes on long enough it could be to his advantage, since he's likely to declare another national emergency and suspend the election altogether.)

Although there was no shortage of sharp exchanges, both men were remarkably civil and respectful to each other. Bernie kept attempting to hold Biden's feet to the fire for his past positions on numerous issues, but the harshest he got was saying, "I know your heart is in the right place." Not exactly the best line for an attack ad. Biden kept expressing his hope that Bernie's followers would support him should he win the nomination (even while many of them were defiantly tweeting that they never would). And they each promised to campaign for the other against Trump. You can expect all of the former candidates to do so as well. The upcoming Democratic Convention is going to look like an installment of The Avengers.

Bernie seemed to be struggling at times, especially when it came to his recent positive comments about Cuba. It didn't help that he inexplicably chose to double down by mentioning that while China may be an authoritarian regime, its people have done better financially in the last 50 years. Biden, not surprisingly, pounced on the unforced error, barking, "Words matter!"

At another point, during a back-and-forth about Social Security, Bernie attempted to attack Biden for his past votes by instructing those watching to "Go to the YouTube right now!" The debate probably lost millions of viewers when people attempted to do just that, only to get distracted watching cat videos.

On the other hand, the wide grin on Bernie's face was priceless as he listened to Biden attempt to explain his recent policy shifts on such things as bankruptcy reform and free college education for some students. If/when he pulls out of the race, Bernie will at least have the satisfaction of knowing he's pulled the party considerably to the left.

During the debate, Biden sounded presidential. It was almost strange to hear, and a stark reminder of what we've been missing for the last few years. Considering the dark days we're going to see in the coming months, one question very much came to mind: Can he start tomorrow?