CNN  — 

Amid a gradual shuttering of American society due to the spread of coronavirus, the two leading Democratic candidates for president debated Sunday night – the first one-on-one debate of the election, between former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

I watched, took notes and picked some of the bests and worsts of the night that was. My thoughts are below.


* Elizabeth Warren/Kamala Harris/Stacey Abrams/Amy Klobuchar: Biden pledged unequivocally on Sunday night that he will pick a woman to be his vice president. That’s a BIG deal as it will mark – assuming Biden is the nominee – only the third time in the history of the Democratic Party that a woman will be on the national ticket. (The other two? 1984 and 2016.) That’s a BIG deal. And if you are Warren, Harris, Abrams or Klobuchar, you just had a surprisingly good Sunday night, politically speaking.

* Donald Trump: The President’s handling of the coronavirus – the ONLY issue anyone cares about right now – has been shaky to say the very least. He’s made a number of factually inaccurate statements about the threat posed by the virus. He continues to suggest everything is perfectly under control. He refuses to take any responsibility for any of the mistakes his administration has made to date.

In short, you would think that he would have been a target-rich environment for both Sanders and Biden, right? After all, the first 30 minutes (at least) of the debate was dedicated to the coronavirus and how each man would fix it if they were president. And yet, with the exception of an occasional mention here and there, Trump was barely mentioned.

Much of the rest of the debate was Sanders savaging Biden’s voting record from more than three decades in the Senate – on everything from the bankruptcy law to Social Security cuts to the Defense of Marriage Act – that isn’t likely to change the trajectory of the Democratic race (Biden seems likely to win overwhelmingly in states set to vote Tuesday) but provides terrific lines of attack for Trump once Biden is the nominee.

* No live audience: The reason there was no live audience at this debate was because of concerns about crowds and coronavirus. While I wish a global pandemic wasn’t the motivator, I do think this debate was FAR better than recent ones in which the cheering, booing and “ooohing” from the audience was both distracting and wrongly influential for the TV audience. We need to accept that this is a TV event. The vast majority of the people who are watching are doing so from afar. Why let a few hundred people the campaigns (and Democratic National Committee) choose to invite influence the broader audience?

* Elbow bump: Sure, it looked sort of weird when Sanders walked over to Biden and gave him an elbow bump rather than a handshake. It was also a) the right thing to do amid the coronavirus outbreak and b) a powerful symbol to the general public about how we all need to adjust our behavior accordingly.

Also, it gave us these amazing quotes that you could NEVER have foreseen coming up in a presidential debate in 2020.

1) “I am using a lot of soap.” – Bernie Sanders

2) “I wash my hands god-knows-how-many-times with hot water and soap.” – Joe Biden

* “The You Tube”: With much of the country committed to staying at home to protect ourselves (and the broader society) from coronavirus, a massive video-sharing website probably doesn’t need any help. But it got some anyway when Sanders urged people to “go to the You Tube.”


* Bernie Sanders/Joe Biden: Both men had good moments. Both had bad moments. But overall, they spent two hours attacking each other’s voting records – often focusing on the sort of legislative minutiae (Hyde Amendment!) that the average voter simply tunes out. And in the process, handing the Trump campaign a whole lot of soundbites to be used in the general election. Both men looked small more often than they looked big. And with the country facing a threat unlike any it’s ever seen before, that felt like a major missed opportunity.

Let’s deal with Sanders first. The expectation going into the debate – judging from the tone of Sanders’ announcement last week that he was planning to stay in the race – was that the Vermont senator would use the one-on-one format with Biden to try to force the former VP to acquiesce to some of his policy proposals but generally avoid taking any big swings at the man who, according to the delegate math, is the near-certain Democratic nominee. Sanders badly missed the mark when he tried to turn the coronavirus conversation into a recitation of his Medicare for All program. His unwillingness to walk back his praise for Cuba under Fidel Castro was a major mistake. That said, if you are a Bernie backer, you likely loved him taking it to Biden on Social Security, the war in Iraq, the Defense of Marriage Act and a few other major pieces of legislation where the two men were on opposite sides.

Now, Biden. He clearly benefited from a one-on-one format, making more sense and staying more relevant for the entirety of the debate. He was VERY smart to make news by announcing he would pick a female VP. His focus on the need for trusted leadership during the coronavirus crisis made Sanders look small. But his trademark verbal flubs – he seemingly mixed up coronavirus, SARS and H1N1 on several occasions – were there, and immediately picked up on by the Trump campaign. Biden’s answer on whether he put Social Security cuts on the board was not clear or good. He gave the Trump campaign clear openings for attack with his support for no deportations in the first 100 days and support for ending fracking.

Neither one came out of that debate looking great. And neither one’s supporters moved an inch closer to each other either. Biden summed things up nicely when asked what he would do, if he is the nominee, to bring Sanders into the fold: “He’s making it hard for me right now.”

* Ambitious male Democratic politicians: Sorry, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang. The best you guys are going to do is to make it into a Biden Cabinet (if it happens). Also, credit to Yang for the tweet of the night following Biden’s pledge to choose a female VP: “Wow Joe just committed to a woman as VP. I like it. Though he didn’t mention that to me when we spoke.”