With COVID-19 spreading ever more rapidly throughout the country, co-hosts CNN and Univision first announced that the previously planned debate would have no audience, before moving the entire enterprise to one of its studios in Washington, D.C. — making this the first debate to do so since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. There, Biden and Sanders — the two remaining candidates of consequence to emerge out of an extraordinarily packed field — met in the unusually sterile environment to hash out the differences between their platforms. But the specter hanging over everything, and the inevitable focus of discussion, was the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways in which the United States is failing to combat it at a particularly crucial stage, and what each candidate would do differently given the chance. Both Biden and Sanders, 77 and 78 years-old respectively, are at a particularly high risk of contracting the illness, a fact both had to explicitly address tonight beyond the atypically wide physical proximity between them.
From a substantive point of view, watching Biden and Sanders go toe-to-toe on the politics that have divided them throughout the primary — particularly the increasingly relevant issue of health care — made for a more substantive night than the previously crowded Democratic debates could allow. The debate felt more like…well, a debate, with a more focused back-and-forth rather than the previous debates’ cacophony of one-upmanship. Despite their basic mutual agreement that President Trump is unprepared for this particular moment in time, the stark differences between Biden’s sales pitch of “the system largely works but could use some tweaks” versus Sanders’ viewpoint of “the system has been broken for years and needs a substantial overhaul” have never been clearer. That kind of clarity is exactly what primary debates are meant to bring, and though it was jarring to see such an uncluttered stage after months of dozens of jostling elbows, the relative simplicity was also an undeniable relief.
The fact that there were only two candidates, however, was not the only reason that this debate felt more informative than any other. The severity of the impending COVID-19 crisis stripped the night of the aggressive bells and whistles that CNN and other networks like MSNBC have been throwing at every political bump on the Democratic primary road. Given the physical distance between Sanders and Biden, the camera stayed largely trained straight on them in order to get them in the same frame rather than swooping all about their faces as previous debates, aping sports specials, have done. The lack of audience, while initially jarring, made even the testiest exchanges feel less like a boxing match where the most quotable burn wins. The moderators — CNN’s Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, and Univision’s Ilia Calderón — asked their questions and then largely got to stay out of the way as the candidates batted their opinions and policies back and forth. They even got enough notable fiery moments, for CNN’s endless pundit roundtables to dissect as per usual, particularly on Social Security (“go to the YouTube!”), the specifics of Sanders and Biden’s voting records, and Biden committing to picking a woman as his running mate while Sanders confirmed he will likely do the same while emphasizing the importance of having a progressive running mate. In fact, with the exception of a random video question from an undecided Arizona voter, tonight’s debate unfolded with shockingly few gimmicks or gambits on the network’s part — which, sadly, have come to be a regular feature for political television.
All that, combined with the unusual sobriety with which the cable network approached this debate, made it far easier to focus on the content of what the candidates were saying rather than their ability to cut through the overwhelming noise that cable news tends to bring to most every issue that crosses the anchors’ desks. The circumstances leading to this sparser debate are horrific, and yet, resulted in the kind of policy-driven conversation that should have been the spine of this primary all along. It might not have felt like the high-octane event that CNN is perpetually staging in order to grab viewers’ attention, but it was, at least, a far more material night that revealed actually helpful information about the candidates’ actual points of view than whether or not they’ve got a Twitter-ready zinger in their back pocket. CNN, and all the other cable networks who have made empty fireworks the backbone of their content, would do well to take more cues from this makeshift debate, a better example of what the medium can do than any other of this primary.