Biden, Sanders bump elbows…and heads

During the Democratic presidential debate in Washington, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden explained how they’re keeping themselves safe from coronavirus amid a rising number of people infected.

CNN Opinion asked commentators to weigh in on the Democratic debate — and what it may mean for the primary ahead. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

Jennifer Psaki: Biden’s handling of a crisis sounded presidential

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders knew that the focus of tonight’s debate would be on the crisis that is dominating not just the United States, but the global community.

Both were significantly more clear, coherent and thoughtful than the current President of the United States. But their approaches were different.

Biden focused on his experience and ability to address this crisis right now.

Sanders focused more on how his ideology would help address what happens after coronavirus.

Both are important. I have no doubt Joe Biden knows exactly what to do during a crisis. He lived through eight years of them in the White House, including health crises.

And I have no doubt that Bernie Sanders would continue to be a voice for the millions of people who are worried about what happens when the crisis is over.

But at a time when families are worried about whether grandparents are safe, kids are asking hard questions to answer about why they can’t hug their friends, and President Trump continues to mislead and scare the public, Joe Biden’s focus on what he would do about the crisis right now was a smart reminder of what a real President sounds like.

Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki.

Julian Zelizer: The divide between parties has never been clearer

The contrast between parties was apparent right off the bat. Whereas President Trump has spent much of his time amid the coronavirus crisis speaking about how great things are, or spreading disinformation, both former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took a very different path. They expressed their empathy for those who have suffered from the virus, talked about real and immediate policy needs—such as widespread testing—and spoke about the economic fears of working Americans.

Although many issues divide these candidates, together they displayed a fundamental difference on where the parties stand in 2020. Democrats remain concerned with governance, value expertise, and focus their attention on how public policy can help the lives of Americans. Republicans are operating in a Trumpian world of disinformation where institutions are not taken seriously and the work of running a government is no longer a priority.

The severity of the crisis that the United States now faces has elevated—in ways we could not have imagined — the political value of a party that stands for these principles.

Biden’s commanding lead and his solid debate performance tonight in his first one-on-one debate will greatly benefit his larger campaign. The value of his experience in the White House has greatly increased in value since the last time the Democrats met on the debate stage.

The image of the party, as well as his leadership style, makes him stronger than at any point in this race. Americans are watching this debate as their cities and towns close down. Biden’s ability to simply govern and run a stable White House will now seem to move voters as much as the ideas that Sanders offers.

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer.

Sarah Isgur: Democrats are experiencing déjà vu

With the first half hour of the debate focused entirely on the public health crisis facing the country, Sanders’ traditional economic populism message never found a solid footing. Instead, in an unusually uneven performance, he struggled and stumbled to answer questions about how he would respond to the current crisis, including whether he would deploy the military and how he would respond to China’s initial suppression of information related to the coronavirus outbreak.

But 45 minutes in, Sanders hit his stride in one area — direct and sustained attacks on the frontrunner Joe Biden, challenging the Vice President on taking money from Super PACS, as well as voting for the bank bailout and the Iraq War.

For Democrats, this may feel like déjà vu all over again.

Following a string of disappointing primary results — and with more losses on the horizon in states like Florida and Arizona this Tuesday — Sanders is facing the reality that it is becoming a near mathematical impossibility for him to receive enough delegates to secure the nomination. This has caused many leaders in the Democratic Party to raise concerns that Sanders’ continued presence in the race could inflict lasting damage on Biden heading into the general election.

The concern isn’t a new one. In an interview after her 2016 loss, Hillary Clinton said Sanders’ continued attacks on her “caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.” That year, millions of voters for Barack Obama in 2012 either voted for Donald Trump or stayed home.

The Democratic Party’s first priority is to beat Trump in November. But Sanders’ attacks on Biden tonight may have been a little too reminiscent of 2016 for those who want to win back the White House.

Sarah Isgur is a CNN political analyst. She has worked on three Republican presidential campaigns and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Scott Jennings: The two didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory

I was surprised that the two candidates didn’t walk out and at least have some prepared show of collegiality or unity. No, this debate opened and unfolded like this: Joe Biden wanted to knock out Bernie Sanders once and for all, and Bernie Sanders was not having it and very much believed he was still alive and viable for the nomination.

I assumed Biden would just pretend he’s the nominee and largely ignore and/or pat Sanders on the head, but he did not, instead repeatedly denigrating Sanders’ signature health care plan: Medicare for All. By the end of the first hour, they were arguing about the size of their donations and how many Super PAC’s they dealt with, about which no American gives a flying flip as they prepare to face their new coronavirus realities.

Hard to know what to make of the first hour: Biden, prone to misspeaking and bungling lines, had a bizarre few seconds when he mixed up coronavirus and swine flu, then called the swine flu “N1H15,” and then apparently forgot the word “Ebola” by referring to “what happened in Africa,” a moment the Trump campaign was all too happy to amplify. Sanders then went off for a few seconds referring to coronavirus as “Ebola,” appearing hung up on the term.

I assume that because Biden is better at platitudes and pablum, he’ll be judged the winner, while Sanders will be judged to have failed to move beyond the issues that motivate his base — but not the broader Democratic electorate. Honestly, though, I am not sure either covered themselves in glory as this two-man debate kicked off. Sanders landed the toughest blows with his challenge about whether Biden had once talked about the need to cut Social Security and Medicare — an exchange I bet the Democratic National Committee wish hadn’t happened.

Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.