Joe Biden’s allies want Bernie Sanders to drop out of the Democratic primary. In fact, many Democratic Party higher-ups would like to pack it in and end the race early. And Biden himself signaled he doesn’t want to debate Sanders in April, saying he thinks there have been enough debates.
That’s because Biden is afraid to debate Bernie Sanders. And he should be.
Reality has endorsed Sanders, as The New Yorker’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote earlier this week. As COVID-19 leaves our healthcare system in tatters and millions of Americans out of work, the Vermont senator’s agenda has gained renewed appeal. Universal healthcare would come in handy right now, as would paid leave, free child care, and a $15 minimum wage. Sanders has spent his remote campaign fundraising for COVID-19 relief and fighting for unemployment protections which Senate Republicans looked to strip from the coronavirus relief bill. Sanders’ political goals are better equipped for this national crisis, and his response to it has dwarfed Biden’s in every conceivable way.
Biden, however, doesn’t want to give Sanders the opportunity to say all that. The former vice president’s public disappearance as COVID-19 ramped up left questions that would be easy for an opponent to feast on. So too would Biden’s apparent unwillingness to openly attack Donald Trump, even though the presidential administration’s slow response to the pandemic could leave hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. Biden fashions himself a fighter, the tough politician who will take the fight to Trump. But since the coronavirus crisis began he’s done no such thing.
The math here for Biden is simple. His delegate lead is all but insurmountable. And his advisors know he’s not capable of running a sustained campaign against Sanders, whether it’s remote or not. Some prominent Dems are calling for the Vermont senator to drop out, saying his presence in the race is putting American lives in danger—even though Biden’s campaign argued the opposite just two weeks ago.
Sanders staying in the race could ultimately help Biden with Sanders’ supporters down the line. A number of states still haven’t voted yet. If Sanders were superficially forced out in the name of party unity, it could turn off Bernie supporters who never got a chance to vote for him. But Biden’s campaign doesn’t seem interested in those voters at all. Even as the pandemic grows worse, Biden hasn’t softened his anti-single payer stance and doesn’t sound interested in capitulating any policy positions to his left.
There’s a world in which debating Sanders could actually help Biden, too. Showing some competence at a debate, like he did back on March 10, could make voters forget about his lackluster COVID-19 response. He’s also got legacy media on his side—the spin room will be phenomenally pro-Biden no matter how he performs on the debate stage. And just maybe the former vice president could show a bit of contrition, offer up a public appeal to progressive voters, and say that he’s keeping an open-mind to policies like universal healthcare. Even if it’s entirely performative, it couldn’t hurt.
But Biden and his handlers know it’s not worth the risk. The former vice president could slip up and make an ugly mistake. Moderators could ask him about former staffer Tara Reade’s renewed sexual assault allegations (highly unlikely, but possible). Sanders could also challenge Biden, leaving him flatfooted. Or perhaps the Vermont senator’s universal healthcare pitch will wind up sounding pretty good to voters tuning in during a global pandemic.
Ultimately, Biden’s reasons for ducking a debate won’t matter. He and his handlers are happy to run out the clock on Sanders, comfortable with their primary delegates and sympathetic media manufacturing consent in real time. But those will be cold comforts when it’s time for a one-on-one matchup with Trump.