Time to Debate: How Bernie Could Destroy Biden in 120 Minutes Or Less

Former Vice President Joe Biden looks on as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Time to Debate: How Bernie Could Destroy Biden in 120 Minutes Or Less

Some serious advice for Sen. Sanders from somebody who is not a professional campaign strategist.

Dear Bernie,

Provided Michigan hasn't been a blow-out against you, the debate next Sunday will be your last and best chance to regain the upper hand. You can do this if you disavow your natural tendency to be kind to Joe Biden and his ilk, and remember what brought you to the movement in the first place, and exactly what kind of mortal threat Biden alone now poses to everything you hold dear. To go soft on Biden is to give a free pass to a segregationist, misogynist, anti-worker grandstander who embodies a lifetime of active collusion in the economy of war and exploitation that you abhor. If you don't overcome your ingrained repulsion toward personal conflict, your followers will feel betrayed for a lost opportunity to take down the establishment at its weakest.

"Despite Biden's orchestrated and meteoric resurrection from the dead, he is by far the most compromised of the establishment candidates. It's your job, and your job alone, to knock him over."

Opening Statement: "I'm going to make the case tonight that Joe is unelectable in a general election, that he's the weakest adversary we could put up against Trump. When you need a steady leader to fight the rise of intolerance and xenophobia in this country and around the world, the last thing you want is someone who put in place the policies that helped bring about the state of anxiety that caused people to jump on Trump's bandwagon in the first place. Being a leading supporter of disastrous trade policies like NAFTA and TPP, which my 2016 opponent in the primaries also supported just as vigorously, is the kind of thing that will cause us to lose the Midwest and other vulnerable parts of the country. If you thought that the Democratic party's firewall collapsed in 2016, wait till you have Joe at the helm; it may be gone for a generation. There's understandable fear and panic among Democrats about what four more years of Trump might mean, but I want to argue tonight that the least likely way to put Trump out of business is to nominate a candidate with as much personal and political baggage as Joe."

Because, despite Biden's orchestrated and meteoric resurrection from the dead, he is by far the most compromised of the establishment candidates. It's your job, and your job alone, to knock him over, the way Tulsi Gabbard annihilated Kamala Karris or Elizabeth Warren did the same to Michael Bloomberg. It will be the most scrutinized debate in ages, and the fate of your social justice movement hinges on bringing out the worst in Biden, as uncomfortable as that might make you feel. The ultimate aim is for you to reduce Biden to a dithering slob of an idiot by the time he knows what hit him, and to show no compassion to him during his real-time unraveling--which you certainly have the ability to trigger, if you check personal feelings at the door and keep in mind what brought you to your sixty-year political struggle.

The moderators will be your first obstacle, before you can even start on Biden's dismantling. They'll come at you right away, even more viciously and unfairly than in the South Carolina debate, asking why you lost the youth vote ("Maybe if we hadn't had seven-hour voting lines in Texas, more youth might have had their vote counted"), if Biden hasn't already proved he's more electable than you ("Joe's first presidential campaign was in 1987, and until this year he'd never placed better than fourth in any state, but let's talk about the limits of how far you can ride nostalgia in an age when Trump is the new reality"), why African Americans don't support you ("Oh yes they do, and they will even more when they hear about Joe's half-century record of helping to start the war on drugs and the mass incarceration epidemic and police militarization"), if you'll disavow the Bernie Bros and what Elizabeth Warren has labeled online hassling and bullying ("What Bernie Bros? Can you point to an example? My supporters are more diverse than anyone else's, this is just a myth"), and why you might be shaky in the Midwest ("If there's any place Joe's not suited to run in a general election, it's the industrial Midwest, because of the job-killing trade bills he spent his entire career legislating"), and any number of other silly, cooked-up "questions" to throw you off balance.

You've got to assert yourself immediately. The first time such a question is directed at you, I would advise you to speak over the moderators' heads and tell them that you won't answer gotcha questions and that you expect them to conduct themselves professionally in order to make sure that the first one-on-one debate between you two is informative to voters: "Joe has never been vetted at the presidential level, and people need to understand that Donald Trump will chew him up and spit him out. Voters deserve to know, without moderator interference, about Joe's liabilities that Trump will hammer at in the general election."

You should dispose of every moderator question directed at you in ten seconds or so, dismissively and laughingly if necessary, and turn every single question around to Biden's unelectability, based on his resume which Trump will exploit. So many of us have noticed how charming, soothing, and statesmanlike you appear in press conferences--both the post-Iowa and post-Super Tuesday press conferences stand out as exemplars. I suspect it's the blatant hostility of debate moderators, and their undisguised pandering to vulgar entertainment, that prompts you to enter your default stump mode and wave your arms around and indulge in abstractions. In more intimate settings, your striking presidential demeanor (which makes you much more electable) is very comforting. So pretend that Joe's been collared in your 1960s Vermont sugar shack, just him and you in your unheated kitchen, and over drinks you're calmly letting him know about a lifetime of disappointment in men like him who sold out early and never had second thoughts.

It won't surprise you to learn that your supporters are verydisappointed by your repeated references to "my friend Joe," whom you say you like and respect. Most Americans fail to interpret this as an expression of formal civility, and tend to dismiss every policy criticism that follows such a preface. It's simply not necessary at this point, and if you say anything like that, your cause will be severely damaged. It doesn't set the right tone, which for this occasion should be unpredictable, lighthearted and witty, so don't do it anymore. Joe is the enemy of every value you hold, and has a 50-year record to prove it, so how is he a decent guy still?

Far from acclaiming his decency at every opportunity, the task for you in this debate is to create a taint of fatal association between Biden and Hillary's loss in 2016. Trump will do to him exactly what he did to Hillary because Biden comes from the same policy branch of the Democratic party, peddling the neoliberal trade agreements that killed jobs all over the country, and the mass incarceration and war on freedoms that the same wing of the party pursued exactly in parallel.

You should use well-timed humor--which you're so good at deploying in intimate surroundings free of cheap spectacle--to take down Biden notch by notch, but the best way to make him look unappealing is by dumping the entirety of your stump speech and humanizing every part of your policy agenda by way of personal stories. If at the same time you connect each of those stories with a particular policy that Biden personally promoted, both as senator and vice president, you'll have completed your task.

You tend to launch into your baseline rhetoric when triggered by hostile moderators, but every moment you spend talking about "millionaires and billionaires, the 1 percent, the fossil fuel industry and the drug companies and the insurance industry, and the 60 billionaire donors who support Biden" is a waste of precious time you'll never get back, because after this last pre-scheduled debate, they probably won't let you get near Biden again. You should ask, again and again, for free-flowing debates, for both of you to face each other on any network with minimal moderator intervention, and while he won't agree to the idea it's worth pressing him about it. What they'll probably do is make him pretty much disappear from the campaign trail until the convention, so you'd better realize that your conventional talking points have no place on the debate stage, and that you won't be persuading a single additional voter with the rhetorical indulgence.

Everyone invested in politics has heard your spiel by now, but what they haven't seen recently is the warm, human, lovable side of you, which is closely related to your crossover appeal to independents and Never Trumper Republicans, as evident in the 2016 primaries. For the next few weeks, and particularly on the debate platform, you need to forget about your vast campaign organization, and stop fretting about how what you say will offend anyone. You need not worry about that anyway if you convert each of your policy ideas--Medicare for All, student and medical debt cancellation, free public college, a living wage and the Green New Deal--to real-life stories you've personally experienced, such as Glyndanna Shevlin, the middle-aged worker at Disneyland, where you stood with workers in their campaign for a living wage. You've had many such experiences in the Trump years, joining strikes and direct action all over the country, leading to palpable successes such as concessions by Amazon.

Instead of railing at the abstract "billionaire class," you need to tell story after story of someone whose life was changed for the better because of the movement for economic and racial justice you and others like you have recently led, and how that change will be magnified billionfold with the power of the presidency.

I would also not harp on the "unprecedented voter turnout" which you keep saying is indispensable to beating Trump. Don't dwell on something that hasn't happened in the past, it only exacerbates anxiety and makes voters lean toward the one they feel is the known quantity, even if he promises nothing much. You can instead point to how, based on policy after policy, Biden will depress turnout, and have no chance to compete with the enthusiasm Trump will undoubtedly muster. Every election should be seen at the very least as a base election, and with Biden, there's not a chance that all of the base will show up: "Will suburban women vote for someone who treated Anita Hill as shabbily as Joe did, guaranteeing the installation of Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court? Not a chance. The Republicans will exploit this, just wait till the primary is over, you'll hear about all of the things I'm raising today. Will African Americans, once they hear the Republican advertising machine play tapes of Joe advocating locking up minority communities in jail, come out enthusiastically? Not a chance. Will young people, saddled with student debt, or older people, burdened with medical debt, come out enthusiastically to vote for 'the senator from MBNA'--not my words, Joe, but it's out there, and the Republicans will use it--who made it so much more difficult to discharge debt through bankruptcy? Not a chance. Will veterans be enthusiastic to support you when they are reminded by Trump again and again about your cheerleading for the Iraq War? Not a chance. Will devastated communities, especially in the Midwest, harmed by calamitous job loss and the opioid crisis, turn out for someone responsible for NAFTA and other disastrous trade bills, which cost us millions of jobs? Not a chance."

Your task is to swivel away from each of the attacks that come your way within a few seconds to make a related point about Biden's own unelectability:

Q. Senator Sanders, will you drop out of the race by the end of the month if Vice President Biden has an insurmountable delegate lead?

A. My job is to make sure that never happens, because the campaign that Donald Trump will mount against Joe's past behavior is going to make our primary fight look like child's play.

Q. Senator Sanders, you haven't explained the cost of your Medicare for All bill, and anyway, do you think 160 million Americans are ready to give up their health insurance?

A. It's irresponsible when so-called professional journalists take up Republican talking points, so I'll just say that guaranteeing health care, which has majority support in all the states that voted on Super Tuesday, is not taking away health care. Instead, I'd like to ask Joe why he feels that the Affordable Care Act, which leaves out 28 million uninsured people, should be the best we can aspire to? And why they weren't able to get the public option through when he was vice president for eight years?

At that point Biden should butt in with gobbledygook about the $50 trillion cost, forcing people who're happy with their private insurance to give it up, improving the existing health care system rather than scrapping it, and needing to give up a pie-in-the-sky dream that will never happen. This would be the time to take a couple of minutes to explain what your M4A plan actually costs, and how you plan to finance it, particularly with taxes on extreme wealth. And say, "Joe might not be as sharp with numbers as he once might have been--he did accuse me of causing 150 million deaths the last time we met--but he's pulling figures out of thin air, and the cost of treatment and prescription drugs is already catastrophic, bankrupting not just individuals but the country."

Q. Senator Sanders, how will your democratic socialism play out around the country, didn't Super Tuesday prove voters have no taste for socialism, and didn't they go for Vice President Biden's doable, affordable, realistic changes?

A. All right, all right, don't call me a democratic socialist,call me an FDR Democrat, an LBJ Democrat! I'm a socialist only if you think a post office or public library or public school is socialist. But let's talk about socialism for the rich, which Joe has supported his whole life, including his Wall Street bailout, which left ordinary people with underwater mortgages without help, his support for tax breaks for the wealthy and letting the big banks cause so much misery and trade policy which benefits only the most powerful. Why don't you ask him about his socialism for the wealthy?

Q. Senator Sanders, Super Tuesday showed there's real hunger to defeat Trump and people are afraid that having you at the top of the ticket will cause down-ballot losses. Democrats won by appealing to suburban voters, centrists and pragmatists, in the 2018 House races; why can't they do the same again?

A. First of all, a midterm election is not the same as a general election; those races are more localized. If you have Joe at the top, with all the scandals [it's important to insinuate Hunter Biden and Burisma at key points] and misjudgments Trump will exploit, it will cause massive losses downticket. Joe is a risky choice. Joe, I'd like you to explain how you came into the vice presidency with the Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, and within a short period of time, despite the overwhelming mandate voters gave you, managed to lose both houses, and why it is that throughout the eight years you were in the White House the Democratic party suffered incomparable losses at every level of government? Joe, you don't connect with young and progressive voters, the expanded new base in states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and California, as the primary results have shown us. That's what will cause huge down-ballot losses, not fear of a socialism I do not advocate and never have. And, by the way, I've been working hard to elect progressive Democrats all over the country, from Nanette Diaz Barragan in California to Pramila Jayapal in Washington.

Q. [Immigration should come up because the debate is in Arizona, the cosponsor is Univision, and Jorge Ramos is a moderator.] Senator Sanders, how does your plan for immigration differ from Vice President Biden's?

A. My immigration plan is the most progressive since Lyndon Johnson's administration, as I seek to remove the fear in immigrant communities because of our criminalization of the very act of migration. I want to ask Joe if he wishes to apologize today for his administration's policy of deporting more than three million people, many of whom were long-term residents of this country? [As with Gabbard demolishing Harris, ask Joe directly a few times to apologize to the people he harmed, by name; it rattles him.]

While those of us of a more intellectual bent appreciate what the media mislabels as your anger, what the country desperately needs to see from you now is your calm, personal, warm, endearing style, which both press conferences I referenced, and your many one-on-one interviews, so amply demonstrate. We haven't had a glimpse of that in the debates, so most people simply don't know that beyond the alleged "anger" there's a person who's dedicated his life to helping people. Trump was elected because even with his vulgar, xenophobic, brutal style he spoke about the pain of real people. Your job in the debate is to expose Biden as the out-of-touch politician who sent thousands of Americans to die in wars of choice, who always chose the banks and Wall Street and giant corporations against the working person, and who cannot possibly relate to the afflictions of ordinary people. If, throughout the debate, you keep in mind the unbearable grief and suffering you've seen over nearly eighty years of your life, from Brooklyn to South L.A., from Detroit to Lubbock, and take the time to describe this anguish in personal stories and throw it back to Biden as a hugely responsible party, you will have started the process of making the country see you as the compassionate leader whom we need to take care of the most vulnerable among us.

Part of this is to make people afraid of Biden's hidden flaws. I know it might be a bridge too far to ask you to bring up Hunter Biden and Burisma, which goes to the essence of Biden's character for going on and on about his honor and decency without the least compunction to let his family members exploit his official position for financial gain, but it would be great to have advertising preceding the debate hint at this, because Trump surely will unfurl it as the centerpiece of his campaign. Hunter Biden will be to 2020 what Swift Boating was to 2004 and Hillary's emails to 2016, except in this case there will be a real basis to mobilize the same anti-globalist voters who were turned off by Hillary. If your campaign can compel, by persistent advertising, the moderators to bring this up for the first time in a debate, I wouldn't let Biden get off easily. I'd tie the scandal to his lifelong foreign policy misjudgments, choosing as he did to stay close to people who shouldn't be our friends and vice versa.

The biggest payoff from the debate would to be cause sheer mental fatigue and trigger a collapse, such as Carter did to Ford in 1976, while you, like Reagan in 1980, are able to reassure the country that you're not someone outside the mainstream, that you simply want to take the country back to where it was before life became so miserable for so many people, in large part of because of Clinton-Biden policies going back to the 1990s, particularly the enactment of NAFTA, the surrender to Wall Street, the end of manufacturing and steady jobs, the financialization of the economy, and the shredding of the safety net which Biden was in large part responsible for, as in consistently wanting to cut Social Security: "That alone will lose Joe Florida and Ohio and other states with an older Democratic base, they haven't heard it yet, but they will from Trump."

A moment or two of mental fragility is likely to occur, and you should exploit it to the fullest without appearing cruel, but just calmly and lightheartedly showing that you have the stamina and alertness to go toe-to-toe with Trump, whereas Biden doesn't. With your new calm demeanor, and hopefully Biden screaming, "I'm the only guy that..." you can ask the country to picture him on stage with Trump or you, and ask what will happen when Trump attacks him for his desire to cut Social Security or put African Americans in jail or send people to die in Iraq or cut trade deals that devastated the states Trump wants to win again.

Of course your changed debate style cannot occur in a vacuum. It has to be part of an immediately revamped campaign approach in Michigan and elsewhere: joyous, irreverent, unpredictable, and light on its feet. The big rallies, which force you into your podium rhetoric, have to go, replaced by small, retail, improvised events and happenings, town halls and street strolls, showing up where people live and work to generate lots of earned media, rather than more controlled events which bring out the less desirable parts of your rhetorical manner. Your stump speech no longer has any impact because the vocabulary has become too familiar. Worse than providing diminishing returns, the lectern vocabulary of billionaire donors, the Democratic establishment, the 1 percent, and the pharmaceutical and fossil fuel companies is now actively working against you.

Bring out the inner Abbie Hoffman in you, the struggling Vermont freelancer of the 1960s and 1970s, as you speak the language of intimacy and care, acknowledging the new forms of torment, through addiction or hopelessness or incarceration, that have come about in part because of the guy standing next to you and enabling rich Americans to play fast and loose with the rules and hurt us all.

It's really not difficult to do this. a) Don't let the moderators take charge, you should be the one in total control, especially with a senile Biden up there with you, struggling to put words together for two hours. b) Turn every single question toward Biden's record, hit him hard on point after point, bringing up details he might not remember or want to acknowledge. c) Don't think the debate is about your record or policies or vision, it's not that this time; it's your last and best opportunity to put away the only man standing between you and the better future you dreamed of when you were a child in Brooklyn and a poor young man in the 1960s. d) Speak mostly in personal retellings of individuals you have encountered in the last three years and how you'll do everything possible to help them, and don't use a word from the abstractions of your familiar stump speech.

If you leave Biden feeling like he's been mugged, like he can't wait to scream at his staff for leaving him unprepared for your onslaught, you'll walk away the winner, and so will the movement for which you've given your whole life. If Biden has a shred of good feeling remaining toward you at the end, you will have lost, and so will all of your followers. He's the only man standing between you and the dreams of millions of your followers, so you owe it to us to destroy his credibility and clear the path to victory.

Closing Statement: "Americans are looking for comfort, care, and reassurance today. I've spent my whole life reaching out to people who are lost, poor, vulnerable, homeless, jobless, imprisoned, worried, and scared. I understand the desire to go back to the familiar, but reality doesn't work that way. We can't escape into the past, even if for a moment there might be warm fuzzy feelings associated with it. Don't give in to the demagoguery about me, that I'll turn this country into a communist nightmare or something. Don't give in to fear, instead believe that we can attain a new America where no one is poor, sick or helpless without all of us coming together to help. I promise you I won't jeopardize the values that make this country unique. I ask for your vote so we can put this nightmare behind us and be the caring, loving and compassionate America we were meant to be."


Not a Campaign Strategist

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